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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Los Angeles Versus Boston Preview

NBA Finals

Los Angeles (57-25) vs. Boston (50-32)

Season series: Tied, 1-1

Boston can win if…Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis are able to bully Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom the way that Boston's bigs manhandled the Lakers' bigs in the 2008 Finals. The Celtics will quite understandably do their best to not let Kobe Bryant singlehandedly beat them, so if the Lakers' bigs are soft and/or inefficient then Bryant will see the familiar "wall" of Boston defenders who impeded his path in the 2008 Finals; actually, Bryant will see that "wall" no matter what, so if Gasol, Bynum and Odom cut to the hoop aggressively and finish with power then Bryant will destroy the "wall" by passing over, through and around it--but his passing skills will be rendered meaningless if the recipients of those passes fail to convert.

Rajon Rondo will have to be the best player on the court--or at least very close--as he was throughout the Boston-Cleveland series and in significant portions of the Boston-Orlando series; Rondo must break down the Lakers' defense, force at least one Laker big out of position to contest his drives and then feed whichever player is open after the Lakers rotate. The Lakers will likely also force Rondo to prove that he is comfortable taking--and capable of making--outside jump shots.

Los Angeles will win because…Kobe Bryant is at the top of his game; after surviving a season in which injuries had a noticeable effect on his play for significant stretches of time, Bryant has regained his status as the best player in the league. He is just four wins away from avenging one of the most bitter defeats of his career, the Celtics' 4-2 triumph over the Lakers in the 2008 Finals, and it seems likely that Bryant will do whatever it takes to push the Lakers over the top this time around. As is usually the case with the Lakers, their success will in no small part hinge on Bryant's ability to score around 26-28 ppg (if not more) while shooting at least .450 from the field; the Celtics kept Bryant off of both of those benchmarks in the 2008 Finals by relentlessly swarming him because they knew that the other Lakers were too soft and/or inefficient to be effective.

It is easy to forget that even though many people picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics in the 2008 Finals the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage in that series; homecourt advantage in the 2-3-2 Finals format is important because it is very difficult to win the middle three games, meaning that the team that does not have homecourt advantage probably has to win two road games to win the series. Thanks to the Celtics knocking off Cleveland and Orlando, the Lakers have homecourt advantage in the 2010 Finals. If the Lakers "hold serve" in the first two games--which will not be easy but is certainly doable--then the Celtics will have to win three straight home games to have any realistic chance to take the series.

It is almost inconceivable that Bryant will have a 50 point game against the Celtics--and unlikely, though not impossible--that he will even cross the 40 point barrier. The Celtics will force the Lakers' supporting cast to provide at least 60 ppg in order for the Lakers to score 90-plus ppg as a team and that means that Gasol simply has to play better than he did in the 2008 NBA Finals; I think that he will be up to the task--even if he is not able to match the Celtics' physicality and aggressiveness in every game, I expect that Gasol will do enough that the Celtics will not be able to just shove him out of the way, disregard him and focus all of their attention on Bryant. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action will be a very important set during this series. In the 2008 Finals, Gasol set soft screens and seemed to be afraid to roll to the hoop, so the Celtics just sent both defenders at Bryant and the Lakers' offense died. Gasol must set a solid enough screen to force the Celtics back on their heels, thus giving Bryant the opportunity to create an open shot for himself or a teammate.

Other things to consider: There are several interesting matchups to watch. When these teams faced each other in the 2008 Finals, the Lakers' rotation was different in several critical ways. Bynum did not play at all due to injury and the since-traded Vladimir Radmanovic started all six games at small forward, with Luke Walton serving as his backup and Bryant also logging minutes at that spot when the Lakers went small in the backcourt with Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic. This time around, Bynum will be expected to battle with Perkins in the post for at least 20 mpg, enabling Gasol to play power forward during those minutes.

Of course, the biggest change for the Lakers is that Ron Artest starts at small forward and will be assigned the task of guarding Paul Pierce one on one. The Lakers acquired Artest to deal with the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Pierce. The Lakers did not have to face Anthony's Nuggets or James' Cavs but Artest did excellent defensive work versus Oklahoma City, Utah and Phoenix. Now he faces his biggest challenge of the postseason and it is not an exaggeration to say that most of the verdict about the de facto Artest-Trevor Ariza swap will hinge on the outcome of the Pierce-Artest matchup. Expect Artest to play "bump and run" defense to the full extent of the NBA law, resulting in marked declines in Pierce's scoring average and shooting percentage; much of Pierce's game is based on his ability to use his size to overpower other small forwards but he cannot overpower Artest.

Artest's presence means that Bryant will not likely have to guard Pierce much, if at all, a marked contrast from the 2008 Finals when Bryant had to play "firefighter" and put out whichever "blaze" was causing the most damage: Pierce or Ray Allen. Although it is widely assumed that Bryant will match up most of the time now with Rondo--who has emerged as Boston's best player--I think that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson will at least try to get away with matching up traditionally at the start of the game, putting Derek Fisher on Rondo and Bryant on Ray Allen. Then, if necessary, Jackson can switch Bryant on Rondo for key stretches. Although the Lakers enjoyed great success after putting Bryant on Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook in the first round, I am not convinced that the Lakers really want to wear Bryant down by having him chase Rondo for 40 mpg throughout the course of the series.

Bryant's supporting cast often receives a lot of praise--particularly from people who do not want to give Bryant his due--but after Gasol (a skilled, talented player who has well documented issues when he has to deal with forceful, physical players) there is a significant talent drop off. What can you say about Odom and Artest? Coach Jackson asked Odom--who was Artest's AAU teammate way back in the day--to be a "guardian" for Artest but Jackson conceded that this is an instance of "not the blind leading the blind, but probably the deaf leading the blind." The good thing for the Lakers is that Odom and Artest each have one definable skill--Odom is an excellent rebounder, while Artest is a tenacious defender; the bad thing is that on offense both Odom and Artest vacillate between trying to do too much and then inexplicably becoming so passive that they hardly do anything.

Fisher is a heady, gutsy, tough player who has proven that he has the nerve to take and make big shots--but the Lakers have had to overcome a matchup disadvantage at the point guard position in every single series so far and that will once again be the case in the NBA Finals.

The Lakers' bench has been overrated for years; that group was decent--not great, but decent--back in 2008 (the "Bench Mob" days) but since that time it has regressed disastrously; there are good reasons that Jackson has said that he wants to vomit when he watches his reserves play and that Bryant has said that if the carnage becomes too bad when he is out of the game then he will just check himself back in to restore order. Odom is the most effective reserve but because Bynum has been constantly injured throughout his career Odom is a de facto starter in terms of his minutes/role. As for the other guys, anyone who is honest realizes that Shannon Brown (the 13th man on the 2007 Cleveland team that made it to the Finals and is widely derided as a weak squad that was carried by LeBron James), Farmar and Vujacic (who provided a great six point play--for the Phoenix Suns--in game six of the Western Conference Finals with his shaky defense and stupid flagrant foul) would not even be in the rotation for many of the other teams that reached the NBA's "Final Four" in recent seasons.

This series could ultimately become a war of attrition: the Celtics are an aging team and several of their players are nursing various injuries, while the Lakers lack depth and they also have several banged up players. Another X factor is that Perkins is just one technical foul away from receiving an automatic one game suspension; it will be interesting to see how that situation affects his aggressiveness and his general demeanor. The team that wins this series will have to display a lot of mental and physical toughness.

Look for the Lakers to win in six hard fought games, with Bryant earning his second straight Finals MVP after averaging about 27 ppg while shooting in the neighborhood of .450 from the field.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 PM

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Kobe Bryant Adds to his Glittering Playoff Resume, Carries Lakers to Third Straight NBA Finals Appearance

"Was that Kobe or was that Michael?"--Phoenix Suns Coach Alvin Gentry

"Kobe's so good he he makes incredible normal for us."--Lamar Odom

Kobe Bryant capped off perhaps the best playoff series of his career (33.7 ppg, 8.3 apg, 7.2 rpg, .521 FG%, .432 3Pt FG%, .881 FT%) by pouring in 37 points on 12-25 field goal shooting as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 111-103 to win the Western Conference Finals four games to two. Bryant scored nine points in the final two minutes after the Suns had cut an 18 point Lakers lead to just three. The Suns did their best to encourage Lakers not named Bryant to shoot and most of them fired blanks, with a notable exception being Ron Artest, who poured in a season-high (regular season and playoffs) 25 points on 10-16 field goal shooting. Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum chipped in 11 and 10 points respectively, while Pau Gasol had a forgettable nine points on 2-9 field goal shooting; memo to the "stat gurus," Spanish fans and others who keep insisting that Gasol is the Lakers' best player: Stop the madness! Gasol is a very skilled big man who generally thrives in a secondary role to Bryant but he is not a "franchise player" unless one expands the definition of that phrase to the extent that it has no real meaning. This is not a knock against Gasol, for there are very, very few true "franchise players." Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 27 points but he shot just 7-20 from the field, grabbed only four rebounds and he had no assists for the fourth straight game--a truly staggering statistic. Steve Nash scored an efficient 21 points on 8-11 field goal shooting and he had nine assists and five rebounds while committing just two turnovers.

Bryant literally limped through the first few games of this postseason but he has been a different player since having his balky right knee drained late in the Oklahoma City series--or, rather, that procedure enabled him to resume being the best player in the game. Bryant has scored at least 30 points in 10 of his last 11 playoff games--and the one time he failed to reach that mark he had a playoff career-high 13 assists in the Lakers' 124-112 game two victory over Phoenix. Bryant has set a host of personal and/or league records:
  1. He has tallied at least one 40 point game in five straight postseasons; the only other player who accomplished this feat is Michael Jordan, who had at least one 40 point game in eight straight postseasons (1985-92).
  2. Bryant is tied with Hakeem Olajuwon for sixth on the all-time NBA list for 40 point playoff games (11); Michael Jordan leads the way with 38 and Jerry West ranks a distant second with 20 but the next three players are well within Bryant's reach: Shaquille O'Neal (12), Wilt Chamberlain (13) and Elgin Baylor (14).
  3. Bryant's game six performance versus Phoenix marks the eighth straight time that he has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, extending a league record that he already held (Baylor ranks second with six such games).
  4. During one stretch Bryant scored at least 30 points in six straight playoff wins, matching the NBA record held by Olajuwon and O'Neal (that streak was snapped when Bryant had 21 points and 13 assists in the aforementioned game two victory over Phoenix).
  5. Bryant now has scored at least 30 points in 75 career playoff games, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second on the all-time list behind Jordan (109). West (74) ranks fourth, while Baylor (60) is fifth.
  6. Bryant recently moved into fourth all-time on the NBA-ABA playoff career scoring list, trailing only Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal. If Bryant continues to score at or near his current pace and the Lakers have deep playoff runs the next two years then Bryant could pass Jordan during the 2012 playoffs.
  7. Twice during this postseason Bryant has come within one rebound or one assist of notching his first career playoff triple double. His near triple double effort in game five versus Phoenix (30 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists plus four blocked shots) was his 33rd career 30-5-5 playoff game, moving him past Larry Bird for third on the all-time list. Jordan is the all-time leader in that department (51), with West ranking second (35).
Bryant hit six game-winning shots during the regular season but I still insist that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots. So much is said about who makes the most last second shots and who has the best shooting percentage in those situations--but such statistics are a bit deceptive if they are not placed in the proper context. Just looking at a player's field goal percentage on last second shots fails to take into account the time remaining when those shots were taken or the distance involved: does making or missing a half court heave really tell us anything meaningful about a player's ability to rise to the occasion in the clutch? It is much more significant to make a succession of winning plays in crunch time the way that Bryant did to close out the Western Conference Finals. For example, consider Bryant's missed game-winning field goal attempt at the end of game five versus Phoenix: the Suns double-teamed Bryant because he is so deadly and that extra defensive attention helped enable Artest to sneak in for the game-winning putback; statistically, that counts as a missed game-winning shot by Bryant and a made game-winning shot by Artest but the play was created by the effect that Bryant had on the opposing defense. Pau Gasol benefited similarly when Bryant missed a potential game-winning shot in game six of the Oklahoma City series.

Bryant's presence on the court and the completeness of his skill set distorts the defense and makes the game easier for his teammates; I have been saying this for years and we are seeing this repeatedly throughout the playoffs: the whole reason that the Suns played a zone defense in the latter stages of the series was to try to corral Bryant, a point that Coach Gentry made explicit when he declared that he would stop using his "girlie zone" if the Lakers stopped passing the ball to Bryant. Gentry did not mention Gasol, because elite teams do not focus their game plans on dealing with Gasol; you can bet that in the upcoming NBA Finals the Boston Celtics will concentrate on trying to contain Bryant and making other people hit shots.

The much discussed Lakers' frontcourt length is certainly an advantage but the Lakers' first and foremost advantage is Bryant's all-around skill set; just watch how many times an action starts with Bryant being trapped and ends with Gasol, Andrew Bynum or another Laker getting an easy shot.

LeBron James earned the regular season MVP with his outstanding performances over the 82 game grind but for the second year in a row Bryant is reasserting himself as the game's best player in the games that matter the most.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 AM

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