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Friday, February 11, 2011

Lakers Edge Celtics, Spoil Allen's Record-Setting Night

Ray Allen scored 12 first quarter points--including two three pointers to move past Reggie Miller into sole possession of first place on the career list for three pointers made--as the Boston Celtics cruised to a 27-20 first quarter lead over the L.A. Lakers. The Celtics eventually pushed that margin to 15 points but then Kobe Bryant erupted for 20 second half points and the Lakers emerged with a 92-86 win, their first victory of the season against a legitimate championship contender. "Statement game" is a somewhat overused phrase but, whatever you call it, at some point before the playoffs began the Lakers needed to prove that they could summon up the necessary concentration and effort to beat a top level squad.

Bryant finished with a game-high 23 points on 9-17 field goal shooting, plus five rebounds and four assists; he played 38 minutes, which is roughly four more than his season average and an indication of just how important this game was to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, because there have been times this season when Jackson has left Bryant fiddling on the bench even as the Laker reserves were burning down Rome on the court. It is reasonable to expect that in the playoffs Bryant's minutes will receive a similar boost if necessary but during the regular season Jackson is following a version of Rick Mears' classic Indy 500 mantra that to win the race you first must have a working car at the end of the race; if Jackson runs Bryant into the ground during the regular season then the team's three-peat hopes will surely vanish but if the Lakers are smart enough and steady enough to finish with one of the top four records in the league (second in the West only to the streaking San Antonio Spurs) then they will be well positioned to claim a third straight championship.

Pau Gasol contributed 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. He looked soft and tentative early in the game--bobbling the ball every time Kendrick Perkins touched him and settling for some fadeaway shots--but eventually Gasol provided some much needed paint presence. Miller (who was one member of TNT's three man announcing crew) even called Gasol "Iron Man" (surely the first time that appellation has ever been applied to Gasol)--not in response to Gasol's solid play but rather because a freak collision between Gasol and Lamar Odom left Gasol unmarked while opening a gash on Odom's head that required several stitches to close. Odom shot just 4-12 from the field for 10 points but he snared a game-high 12 rebounds (though several of those boards were his own misses). Andrew Bynum tallied 16 points and nine rebounds.

Allen led the Celtics with 20 points but he was largely silent after his sparkling first quarter. The Celtics will make no excuses about this loss but they were undermanned due to the absences of Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West, three players who figure to be significant postseason contributors. Foul trouble further wrecked Boston's rotation, resulting in Rajon Rondo playing 44 minutes and requiring the seldom-used Von Wafer to play 20 minutes.

In the first half, Bryant worked hard to get his big men involved while he scored just three points on 1-3 field goal shooting but even though Gasol and Bynum each scored 12 points the Lakers trailed 53-45. TNT's Charles Barkley has repeatedly said that Kobe Bryant has "slowed down a lot" and at halftime Barkley added that he knows from personal experience what Bryant is going through: Barkley recalled that during his prime he could go wherever he wanted to on the court and score but that later in his career he had to keep pump faking to get off a shot, a change that Barkley noted in Bryant's game now. Barkley's observation is valid to some degree--and I don't think that this is the first season in which Bryant has been relying more frequently on pump fakes as opposed to explosiveness--but Bryant is hardly as broken down as Barkley was during his late career run in Houston. Bryant has already played as many career minutes as Michael Jordan had logged by the time he was a 39 year old Wizard but I think that Bryant's current explosiveness is roughly equivalent to Jordan's circa 1997 or 1998; Bryant can still blow by people and dunk and he is not noticeably hobbling the way that Jordan did as a Wizard (or the way that Bryant did last season when he was limited not by age but by a knee injury that ultimately required surgical repair). Bryant has indeed slowed down to some extent but unless he suffers an acute injury (as opposed to the chronic wear and tear that he clearly knows how to manage) there is little reason to think that his numbers--or, more importantly, his overall effectiveness--will be diminished at playoff time; over the past three playoff runs resulting in three trips to the NBA Finals and two championships, Kobe Bryant's playoff numbers have been remarkably similar to the numbers that Jordan posted during the Bulls' second three-peat and I expect that Bryant's 2011 playoff numbers will not decline from that level.

The Lakers took command in the second half as Bryant poured in 20 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. The Lakers' bench did a solid job of maintaining a slender lead while Bryant rested during the first part of the fourth quarter and then Bryant returned to action with guns blazing, bagging three straight buckets in less than two minutes (and eight points in the final 4:49 overall, plus a great dish to Gasol for an easy layup after the Celtics triple-teamed Bryant) to hold off a late charge by the Celtics. It is obviously true that the Lakers enjoy a size advantage against many teams but it is befuddling that many people do not recognize that a major reason that the Lakers can so effectively exploit this advantage is that it is very difficult to double team the Lakers' bigs because of how much Bryant threatens the defense. Gasol and Bynum receive much more single coverage than they would if they played without Bryant. It is also worth remembering that the Lakers' big man-focused offense in the first half resulted in an eight point deficit; however, the advantage of getting the big men the ball early is two-fold: it keeps them mentally involved in the game at both ends of the court and, as long as the score is reasonably close, it preserves Bryant's energy so that he can close out the game at the end (whether or not Bryant's heroics fit the definition of "clutch" prescribed by various "stat gurus"). Coach Jackson has often mentioned that he would like the Lakers to keep the game competitive enough in the first three quarters so that Bryant can take over in the fourth quarter and I recall an oft-played video clip from Jackson's Bulls days when he implored his team, "Don't leave Michael (Jordan) yet. It's not time."

Allen's three point milestone is a significant accomplishment; his 2562 career three pointers are not only two more than Miller's old record but they are more than 800 ahead of Jason Kidd's third place total. The 35 year old Allen is in excellent condition and is shooting a career-high .459 from long range this season, so he probably will ultimately obliterate Miller's standard. However, amidst the quite deserved appreciation that is being shown for Allen (and for Miller) it would be nice if some recognition were given to the league that popularized the three point shot and to the player who held the career three point field goal record even longer than Miller did. The ABA adopted the three point shot (which had previously been used in the short-lived ABL) but despite the ABA's reputation its players were not nearly as three point happy as current NBA players are; as I wrote in The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, "The ABA is thought of as a run and gun league that featured guards launching three pointers from all angles, but ABA teams actually did not shoot that many three pointers--at least compared to NBA teams since the 1988-89 season." Louie Dampier--who spent most of his career with the Kentucky Colonels and helped the Hubie Brown-coached Colonels to win the 1975 ABA title--held the career NBA/ABA record for three point field goals made (794) until the 1992-93 season. Dampier deserves mention as one of the sport's great long range bombers; in 1968-69 he drained 199 threes for the Colonels and the next season he buried 198 shots behind the arc: not only did those individual single season records stand until 1994-95--when John Starks took advantage of the temporarily shortened NBA three point arc to make 217 threes--but no NBA team made more three pointers than Dampier's 199 until the 1986-87 Dallas Mavericks connected 241 times from long distance in the eighth season after the NBA began using the three point shot. Dampier currently ranks just 103rd on the career list for three pointers made but his career three point shooting percentage was a very respectable .358, just ahead of Kevin Durant's current career three point shooting percentage (though of course Durant's number could go up--or down--as his career progresses)--and Dampier made more career three pointers than Larry Bird, who finished with 649 (Dominique Wilkins--hardly a pure shooter--made 711 three pointers, a good example of how much more prevalent three point shooting became in the 1990s than it was during Bird's prime in the 1980s). It would not have taken anything away from Allen if TNT had shown a highlight montage depicting the evolution of the three point record from Dampier to Dale Ellis (who Miller mentioned briefly during the telecast) to Miller to Allen.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 AM

14 comments

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14 Comments:

At Friday, February 11, 2011 10:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lakers, Celtics, and the Spurs all are giving low minutes to their older players. From what you have seen this season, how much stronger will these 3 teams be once they start playing playoff minutes? How far do you think these 3 teams are from their "ceiling"?

How would you compare these current teams with the teams they had in the past 3 years? The Lakers record is not as good this year as last year, but now Bynum is healthy, and Brown has improved. Do you think the current team is stronger than the championship team last year?

 
At Friday, February 11, 2011 1:50:00 PM, Anonymous Paolo said...

I like the analysis David.
Silver screen and roll linked to your post:
http://www.silverscreenandroll.com/2011/2/11/1988285/the-credits-analyze-that

 
At Friday, February 11, 2011 3:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Those are good questions and there are not simple answers to them. It is clear that the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs will all be better during the playoffs because the extra time between games will enable them to extend the minutes of their older stars--and, in contrast, it is not clear that the Heat (the one other legit championship contender this season) will be better during the playoffs: their stars are already logging heavy minutes and their team's playing style (focused on scoring in the open court) may not work as well in the postseason when the game generally slows down. It is not clear "how much stronger" the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs will be but I still expect that the Lakers and Celtics will meet in the NBA Finals.

The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs each have the potential to be better than they have been at any time in the past three years. All three teams have added some depth either by acquiring new players and/or by developing players who were already on their rosters. Health could prove to be the decisive factor.

Specifically regarding the Lakers (your last question), the Lakers are potentially stronger than they were last season but only if Barnes returns to health, Bynum stays (relatively) healthy and Artest returns to form as a defensive stopper. That is a lot of "ifs" but Coach Jackson has a knack for making sure that his teams peak in the postseason.

 
At Friday, February 11, 2011 3:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Paolo:

Thank you.

 
At Friday, February 11, 2011 4:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

Enjoy your site very much. Would like your thoughts on these 2 questions. You noted that Gasol became more aggressive as the game progressed. His intensity/softness has been a big question for me this year - especially since he took the summer off and knew key players would start the season injured. He's played better since Bynum's return and played less minutes. Does the Boston game suggest Gasol is turning a corner or he's just picking his spots until the playoffs arrive? And what's up with Artest? I've seen more airballs than I can remember, but he had a solid preseason. And his defense is still spotty. Is it age? Distractions/Disinterest?

 
At Friday, February 11, 2011 6:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insights.

The Mavs are also playing very well and they might get Caron Butler back in time for the playoffs. They are 5-0 v.s the Lakers, Celtics and Heat. They beat the Spurs and their 2 losses to them was without Dirk. They have also defeated Orlando and their loss to them was again without Dirk. They have had a lot of disappointments for sure, but isn't that how you build "mental toughness"? They are also an old team that benefits from from the playoff scheduling. I think they have a better chance of knocking off the Lakers and Spurs than the Heat does of beating Boston.

Is the Lakers' margin for error less than last year or have the additions of Barnes, Blake, a healthy Bynum, and a constantly improving Shannon Brown made the talent gap wider than ever?

 
At Friday, February 11, 2011 6:52:00 PM, Blogger ChowNoir said...

I like Brown but his improvement from last year is minor at best. He was shooting great at the beginning of the year and also making solid decisions. But after those first 15 or so games, I feel he's regressed. His shot has returned to career average and the decision making isn't better than last year. Neither one of those things were great before. Hopefully he can continue to improve but so far I'd be hard pressed to say he's improved enough from past years to hope he can give more than what he gave last year.

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

boston banged up right now. but they never are really healthy and they got so many guys 30 and up injuries are bound to happen. the lakers are back on track. bill simmons brought up a good point. kobe paul pierce ray allen steve nash dirk. are all playin as good right now as they was three years ago. stastically speakin. kobe is playin better this year than he did at latter last year and in playoffs wen he was clearly hurt same with pierce. crazy players today age better than in years past for show.

miami is young team so there players logging alot of minutes is irrelevant. spurs lakers celts are older there players need the rest now so they could be more fresh in playoffs. i like miami believe have a great chance to come out east they play d great they can play in transition and half court they smalll is a problem vs lakers and celts but so is the matchup of wade and lebron for both of those teams, plus lakers dont love physicality and celts to me seem a little slower and d is not as good this year. look how many layups kobe made and uncontested jumpshots it was never that easy the previous three seasons he was a jump shooter mostly.

i dont believe in dallas wen it comes down to it they never proven they were mentally tough enough nor has there leader dirk. san antonio has legit chance cause they got 4 rings they no what it takes and can deliver wen it counts.

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Even if Butler returns for the playoffs he will not be in peak form and the team will probably have to go through an adjustment period while changing the rotation. I just don't see the Mavs as a legit contender this season and I disagree that they have a better chance of beating the Lakers or Spurs than the Heat have of beating the Celtics.

I am not sure about the Lakers' "margin of error" or even how to quantify such a thing in a meaningful way. The most significant changes affecting the championship race are the facts that Boston, Miami and San Antonio all upgraded their talent/depth, while the Lakers are showing some signs of age (Artest and Fisher seem to be slowing down, while the necessary mpg restrictions for Kobe could end up costing the Lakers home court advantage in one or two playoff series). If all of the contending teams stay reasonably healthy (i.e., no season-ending injuries to key guys) I expect to see a Lakers-Celtics Finals with the Lakers enjoying home court advantage (after beating the Spurs in game five in San Antonio and closing out the Western Conference Finals in six games in L.A.).

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chow Noir:

Shannon Brown is a role player and it fascinates me how fans sometimes become so enamored with their team's role players. Brown never even cracked the rotation back when the Cavs were posting the best record in the NBA and were legitimately 10 players deep. Brown's three point and free throw shooting have improved as a Laker but on a per minute basis he is essentially the same player now that he was in Cleveland. Naturally, like anyone else his numbers can go up and down during 10-15 game stretches but overall he is a role player and if the Lakers truly were as deep as some people think then he would get less playing time than he does (as was the case when he played for the Cavs).

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Jerry West has repeatedly said that Boston is the one team he would not want to face this year in a seven game series. He is a wise man; the Celtics are deep, tough, big and physical.

My point about the Heat's players logging a lot of minutes is not that they will get fatigued but rather that the Heat's regular season record will likely be somewhat inflated compared to the records of the other contenders; the Lakers and Celtics in particular have to manage the minutes of their older players, so the Heat could end up with more wins than either team without actually being the league's best squad. I predicted before the season that the Heat would win 60 games but not make it to the Finals.

Dirk Nowitzki is mentally tough enough and he has been a great playoff performer throughout his career but the Mavs simply are not quite as good as the Lakers or Spurs in terms of matching up over a seven game series.

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous (the one who asked about Gasol's toughness):

I don't think that Gasol has substantially changed as a player since joining the Lakers. Statistically, his only improvements are FG% and offensive rebounding, both of which are linked to how defenses are tilted to Kobe Bryant (i.e., the extra attention Kobe draws enables Gasol to get easier shots and also to get more offensive rebounds). Gasol is a very skilled player, but his default mode is to rely on skill more than aggression/physicality. He will never completely change in that regard but Kobe and Coach Jackson are continually prodding Gasol to be more aggressive and more physical. This is similar to how Coach Jackson prodded Toni Kukoc years ago (though Gasol is a better player than Kukoc).

I would say that the Boston game was a microcosm of Gasol's career more than any kind of big turning point.

Artest is a mystery, possibly even to himself, but I suspect that when the playoffs roll around he will play better--particularly on defense.

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 4:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

i respect jerry west opion it might be true at end of season i dont think so of wat i seen lately. there d is not as good to me, and i think miami is getting better. plus haslem will come back and miller is playin well for them now.

we dont know who the best squad is till june. so who go in as the fav in playoffs mean nuthin. cleveland was last two years lakers won the chip tho.

dirk been great player in reg season a guy who could get u to finals but not quite enough to put u over top. thats undisputed been proven in crunch time in playoofs in paticular 06 finals and 07 first round.

 
At Saturday, February 12, 2011 6:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

The Celtics have an imposing frontline of good bigs, multiple future HoFers with complementary skill sets (James and Wade are great but their skill sets overlap) and a proven defensive game plan that is very effective in the playoffs (and the regular season, for that matter).

Haslem suffered a very tough injury and it is far from certain that he will be back and even less certain that he will be in any kind of condition to play meaningful minutes. Miller is a quality role player now (he used to be a well above average player). Whatever happens with Miami, James cannot use his supporting cast as an excuse, because he has a top five player, a perennial All-Star and several solid role players; the Heat lack size but if James and Wade are both as great as the "stat gurus" have been insisting for years then that won't matter, right?

Dirk gets a bum rap for the 2006 Finals; he was not guarding Wade. Dirk's career playoff averages are 25.6 ppg and 10.9 rpg, significantly better than his regular season production in both categories and just as good or better than the career playoff averages of the other perennial All-NBA big men of recent years: Shaquille O'Neal (24.5/11.7), Tim Duncan (23.0/12.4), Kevin Garnett (20.0/11.2), Dwight Howard (19.0/14.2), Pau Gasol (18.5/9.8).

 

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