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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thoughts on the Lakers-Thunder Series and the Difference Between Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade

It may seem like ancient history to some people but little more than a week ago Magic Johnson, among others, stated that Mike Brown was being outcoached by George Karl in the first round prior to the L.A. Lakers' game seven win over Karl's Denver Nuggets. I assume that Johnson (and others) must now be willing to state that Brown outcoached Karl in that game seven and that Brown has also done an excellent job so far in the second round as the Lakers face a younger, faster, more talented and deeper Oklahoma City team. The Thunder blitzed the Lakers in game one--hardly a surprising development to anyone who has watched both teams play this season--but in the next two games Brown's excellent defensive game plan and underrated offensive game plan have slowed the pace of the game and turned a series that on paper looks very one-sided into one that could be surprisingly competitive if the Lakers win game four at home tonight.

The critics cannot have it both ways: if it is primarily Brown's fault when the Lakers lose then Brown must also deserve at least some credit when the Lakers win, particularly when the Lakers eliminate an underrated Nuggets team and then battle toe to toe with a clearly superior Thunder team. Brown is one of the best coaches in the NBA but he never played in the league, he does not crack many jokes and he does not have Phil Jackson's championship ring collection so media members find it easier to take shots at Brown than to actually analyze his coaching and his team's performance.

While Brown is saddled with two talented but inconsistent big men, a mess at the point guard position and a non-existent bench, he does have one big trump card: Kobe Bryant, who is no longer the best player in the league on a nightly basis but who is still quite capable of doing some remarkable things on the basketball court. After the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals three years in a row and won back to back titles, I placed Bryant's career in historical context. Here is an important passage from that article:

Here are Jordan's playoff averages from 1996-98 when the Bulls won three championships:

1996: 30.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, .459 FG%, .403 3FG%, .818 FT%
1997: 31.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, .456 FG%, .194 3FG%, .831 FT%
1998: 32.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .462 FG%, .302 3FG%, .812 FT%

Here are Bryant's playoff averages from 2008-10 when the Lakers made three straight trips to the Finals and won two championships:

2008: 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%
2009: 30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 3FG%, .883 FT%
2010: 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%


The Lakers' championship level play during those years depended on Bryant consistently scoring around 30 ppg while shooting better than .450 from the field. Kobe Bryant's overall career statistics and overall accomplishments (particularly in terms of MVPs and scoring titles) do not match Michael Jordan's but Bryant does not get enough credit for the fact that his 2008-10 postseason numbers match or even exceed Jordan's 1996-98 playoff productivity and efficiency. Bryant has aged remarkably well, evolving from young Slam Dunk Contest champion into a master of the midrange game much like Jordan did.

Everyone knows that the Lakers' bench is terrible now but the Lakers did not have much of a bench to support Bryant even during the 2008-10 period, particularly in comparison to championship teams of the previous two decades. Keep in mind that Lamar Odom was a de facto starter in terms of his minutes because Andrew Bynum was injured so frequently; other Laker reserves subsequently ended up out of the league (Sasha Vujacic) or had minimal impact upon joining other teams (Jordan Farmar became a reserve for a non-playoff team in New Jersey, Trevor Ariza's field goal percentage and per minute numbers declined after he left L.A. and Vladimir Radmanovic went from part-time starter in L.A. to a journeyman who has bounced around the league without accomplishing much). I have consistently maintained that when Bryant is no longer able to score 25-30 ppg while shooting better than .450 from the field in the playoffs the Lakers will have difficulty beating elite teams because neither Andrew Bynum nor Pau Gasol can replace Bryant as a legit first option scorer on a championship caliber squad.

On Friday night, the Lakers handed the Thunder their first loss of the 2012 playoffs. Bryant scored a game-high 36 points, balancing out his subpar 9-25 field goal shooting by making all 18 of his free throws. I don't know what the NBA record is for free throws attempted in a playoff game by a 33 year old shooting guard--let alone by a shooting guard who already has logged more than 50,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes--but Bryant's ability to draw fouls and then convert the pressure free throws enables him to still be a productive and efficient scorer even though he has clearly lost some of his athleticism; Bryant is getting his shot blocked or having the ball stripped more often during this series than I can ever recall happening before but it is important to understand that he is being guarded at various times by four different young, quick, long-armed defenders (Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook). Bryant is trying to evade those defenders with guile, footwork and his deft midrange shooting touch because it is obvious that Bryant cannot simply rise up and shoot over any of those players on a consistent basis.

The Lakers needed every point that Bryant provided because their bench mustered just 14 points--seven fewer than Sixth Man of the Year Harden scored--while Bynum stumbled and fumbled his way to 15 points on 2-13 field goal shooting, a stunningly bad percentage for a player who attempts most of his shots in the paint. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy astutely noted that a major problem for Bynum is that he almost always takes one or two dribbles to "balance up," giving defenders time to crowd him. If Bynum's low post footwork were as good as some people say that it is then Bynum would be able to catch the ball (either off of a pass or a rebound) and immediately go up strong. Bynum is not an explosive leaper like Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin so it is vitally important that Bynum's footwork is efficient and that he take as few dribbles as possible. Pau Gasol matched Bynum's strong board work with 11 rebounds and added six assists (tying Bryant for team-high honors) but Gasol is content to drift around the perimeter on offense and thus he finished with just 12 points on 4-8 field goal shooting. At no time against the Thunder have either Bynum or Gasol played like first option scoring threats.

Certain people place a lot of undue emphasis on Bryant's shooting percentage during an arbitrarily defined "clutch" time frame but the reality is that the ability to control a game down the stretch is more significant than simply making buzzer beating shots. Think about the oft-discussed number of shots that Bryant has attempted in "clutch" time during his playoff career; Bryant has played in 218 playoff games and he has controlled enough of those games down the stretch to win five championships and two Finals MVPs but we are supposed to believe that his effectiveness and efficiency are best defined by his shooting percentage on a category of shots that occurred roughly once every eight games (i.e., less than one time in a full seven game series)--and that small sample size is further compromised by the fact that it does not distinguish between shots attempted in an organized play run out of a timeout, desperation heaves with the clock about to expire and shots attempted out of broken plays. That small sample size also does not distinguish between open shots and well-defended shots that still had to be attempted because there was not enough time to pass the ball to someone else. NBA defenses are very good, particularly in the playoffs, so when one team is trailing and has to attempt a game-tying or game-winning shot with the clock winding down that shot is an inherently low percentage play. That is why it is more important to be able to control a game down the stretch--and hopefully not need a last second shot--than it is to be able to make a low percentage shot against a set defense. Instead of focusing on Bryant's supposed "clutch" time field goal percentage it would be more interesting to know how many times he dominated the fourth quarter of a playoff game and thus rendered "clutch" time an irrelevant consideration.

"Stat gurus" often say that Dwayne Wade is better than Kobe Bryant; that has never been the case but now there is a stark contrast between Bryant's game and Wade's game. I don't know if Wade has suddenly gotten older--something that often happens to players who rely primarily on explosiveness, such as NFL cornerbacks--or if he is letting himself be mentally affected by the kind of nagging injuries that did not slow Bryant down at a similar age when Bryant led the Lakers to championships but it is stunning how ineffective Wade is at both ends of the court when he cannot simply jump over everyone and/or explode around people. Wade has an inconsistent midrange game, no three point game and a limited arsenal of footwork/fakes to get open or at least draw fouls; during Miami's series against Indiana, Wade has been reduced to delivering cheap shots, fussing at his coach and bricking shots from all angles. Wade may be turning into the George McGinnis of shooting guards right before our eyes: as a 28 year old, McGinnis was a 22.6 ppg All-Star but the next season his scoring average plummeted by more than 7 ppg and two years later his career was over. As soon as McGinnis' athleticism declined, he rapidly descended from All-Star status to bench warmer. I am not predicting quite as steep or fast of a slide for Wade but Wade looks like the kind of player whose effectiveness will dramatically decrease with even a marginal loss of athleticism simply because Wade relies so much on explosiveness. If LeBron James does not add some more tools to his game then within the next three-four years his effectiveness will also decrease as his athleticism wanes, though James will always have the advantage of his height and strength. It will be very interesting in a few years to compare Wade at 33 and then James at 33 with the 2012 season that Bryant had as a 33 year old.

Bryant is leading all playoff performers this season in MPG and PPG. He is averaging just over seven free throw attempts per game, nearly matching his career playoff average and refuting the notion that Bryant does nothing at this stage of his career except fire shots from the perimeter. If Bryant can continue to be this productive and durable--and either increase his field goal percentage or else make up for it by sinking nearly all of his free throws--then the Lakers indeed have a puncher's chance to upset the Thunder. However, I picked the Thunder to win this series not just because the Thunder are clearly the better team but also because I don't think that at this stage of his career Bryant is capable of coming back on no rest to drop 35-40 points on the Thunder and then following that up with yet another performance of that caliber on the road. It took a lot for Bryant to push, pull and drag the Lakers past the Nuggets in the first round and then the unforgiving compressed playoff schedule required the Lakers and Thunder to play four games in a six day span. It is unrealistic to expect 2006 Kobe Bryant (or even 2008-10 Kobe Bryant) to show up and save the day for the Lakers. If Andrew Bynum is truly a franchise center, game four tonight would be a good time for him to prove it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:22 AM

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Early Observations About the Miami-Indiana Series

Even before Chris Bosh suffered the injury that may prevent him from playing in the remainder of Miami's second round series versus Indiana, I predicted that the Pacers could take two games from Miami and I noted that the Pacers have the necessary ingredients on their roster to give the Heat some trouble. Now that the Pacers grabbed home court advantage with a 78-75 game two win in Miami, this series should be considered a toss-up, with Indiana having a great opportunity to take command if the Pacers win their next two games at home (which will not be easy to do).

It is too soon to definitively say that the Pacers will win this series but the Pacers clearly have a great opportunity to eliminate the team that the "stat gurus" thought could win 70-plus games in a normal length regular season and could capture multiple championships. Regardless of what happens, it is very important to remember what the "stat gurus" and many media members have repeatedly asserted regarding James and Wade: they have given James all of the credit for the Cavaliers' success during James' years in Cleveland, they have suggested that James and Wade are so talented that they could win a championship with little to no help from anyone else and they have scoffed at the notion of Miami's "Big Three" by deriding Chris Bosh as "half a man." So let it be emphatically stated here and now: if Miami loses this series, no one who previously made the assertions listed above can provide excuses for James and/or Wade by citing Bosh's absence and/or the alleged inferiority of Miami's roster. After repeatedly saying that those things do not matter it would be hypocritical for someone to sing a different tune now.

Here are some thoughts and observations about the first two games of the Miami-Indiana series:
  1. Danny Granger and David West are basketball tough guys. They are not fake tough guys who act tough but won't do anything nor are they cheap shot artists (there is nothing tough about delivering cheap shots); they play hard-nosed basketball at both ends of the court and they won't back down from anyone regardless of a player's physical gifts or reputation. It is a great sign for Indiana that West's reaction to the game two win is that there is nothing for the Pacers to celebrate because their goal is to win the series, not to win one game or just be competitive.
  2. Dwyane Wade has a petulant, cheap shot streak in his personality. When he became annoyed by a non-call in the 2012 All-Star Game, he retaliated with a cheap shot that broke Kobe Bryant's nose; when he became annoyed by a non-call in game two, he retaliated with a cheap shot against the much smaller Darren Collison and was called for a flagrant foul. One of these days, Wade is going to take a shot at the wrong guy on the wrong team and find himself on the wrong end of similar treatment. A guy who drives recklessly to the hoop the way that Wade does should be more than a bit reticent about handing out random cheap shots.
  3. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade engaged in so many on-court histrionics that Chicago's Joakim Noah called them "Hollywood as hell" during last year's playoffs. James and Wade do assorted dance routines, handshakes and other celebrations after big plays and after victories, so it is hilarious to hear Wade complain about Indiana's relatively tame exuberance after winning game two. Wade is not playing particularly well in the playoffs, so he should focus more on improving his own performance and less on critiquing Indiana's conduct--particularly when Wade has engaged in even more outlandish conduct in the past when he enjoyed success.
  4. LeBron James averaged a career-low 2.4 three point field goal attempts per game during the 2011-12 regular season but in his first seven games of the 2012 postseason James has attempted 27 three pointers (3.9 per game) while shooting just .259 from behind the arc. James improved his post game and his shot selection during the regular season but during postseason play he has reverted to lingering passively on the perimeter. TNT's Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal had a lengthy discussion about James' performance in the closing moments of game two and they both made valid points; Barkley is correct that James is clearly the best player on the team and thus deserves to have plays designed for him down the stretch and O'Neal is correct that James should be more assertive both in the huddle and on the court (keep in mind that O'Neal has firsthand experience with James as his teammate during the 2009-10 season when James quit against Boston in the playoffs). As O'Neal said, regardless of who the play is designed for, James can still take the ball, drive to the hoop and make a play. When James first passes the ball in the corner to Shane Battier and then meekly gives the ball up to Wade instead of attacking the hoop James is not being unselfish like Magic Johnson or reprising Michael Jordan passing to John Paxson and Steve Kerr; James is abdicating his responsibility as the best player on the court (and in the entire league). James may call himself "King" and "Chosen One" but his late game actions show that even he does not believe his own hype.
  5. Like James, Dwyane Wade also vastly reduced his regular season three point field attempts (from 2.7 per game in 2010-11 to 1.1 per game in 2011-12) but in the playoffs Wade has marginally increased his attempts (up to 1.6 per game) despite his consistently poor three point shooting percentage (.268 in the 2012 regular season, .182 in the 2012 playoffs). 
  6. When the game slows down, Miami still runs the "clown car offense" that I criticized last season. The Pacers are not an offensive juggernaut capable of blowing out the Heat so all of the games in this series will likely be close but if the Pacers can limit their turnovers (particularly the open court turnovers that are easily converted into fast break points) then the Pacers can slow the game down and pound the Heat to death in the half court. Roy Hibbert is not the kind of player who likely will erupt for 25-30 points and the Pacers should not force feed him the ball at the expense of exploring other options but the sets that they run involving West cutting into the paint are very difficult for the Heat to defend against. 
  7. No Indiana player averaged more than 18 ppg in the first two games of this series and only two of the top eight players in Indiana's rotation are shooting better than .440 from the field (Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison) but the Pacers seized home court advantage by being tough, poised and resilient and by not being intimidated by Miami's talent. The Heat are the only NBA team that has three perennial All-Stars in their primes and even with Bosh out of the lineup they still have a lot of talent but there is a recipe to beat Miami and so far the Pacers are following that recipe.
  8. I disagree with Denver Coach George Karl's assertion that there are several West teams that could beat Miami in a playoff series but I am sure that neither the Spurs nor the Thunder are afraid of the Heat--whether or not Chris Bosh returns to action, those teams are well-equipped to beat the Heat.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:56 PM

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Monday, May 14, 2012

LeBron James Joins Elite Three MVP Club

LeBron James just won the 2012 NBA regular season MVP, his third such honor in the past four seasons--and he really deserved the 2011 award as well, so he easily could have become the first player in professional basketball history to win four straight MVPs. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Larry Bird are the only players who won three consecutive MVPs. The NBA has recognized an MVP each season since 1955-56; Erving achieved his MVP three-peat from 1974-76 (sharing the 1975 honor with George McGinnis) in the ABA--which existed from 1968-76 but is wrongly ignored in most discussions of pro basketball records/accomplishments--and then he added an NBA MVP in 1981.

Pro basketball's three MVP club is an elite group that includes just nine players, each of whom--except for James--won at least one championship; in fact, the members of that club are better known for their playoff heroics than for their regular season productivity and they are instantly recognizable to all serious basketball fans by shorthand descriptions of their postseason greatness:
  1. Bill Russell: 11 rings, 10 fingers
  2. Wilt Chamberlain: Dominant player on two of the NBA's greatest single season teams
  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Captain of the Showtime Lakers also led the expansion Milwaukee Bucks to the franchise's first (and only) title
  4. Julius Erving: Led one of the youngest championship teams in pro basketball history (1974 Nets), authored arguably the greatest championship series performance in pro basketball history and was an All-NBA First Team performer for the 1983 Sixers team that went a then-record 12-1 in the playoffs
  5. Moses Malone: Fo', fo', fo'
  6. Larry Bird: Led Boston to three titles in six years during the 1980s
  7. Magic Johnson: Five championships, three Finals MVPs, several indelible performances on the sport's biggest stage--including 42-15-7 in the series clincher as a rookie and the "junior, junior skyhook" in game four of the 1987 Finals
  8. Michael Jordan: Teamed with Scottie Pippen to lead the Bulls to a pair of three-peats.
LeBron James has without question established himself as the best regular season NBA player of the past several seasons; he supplanted Kobe Bryant in that regard late in the 2008-09 season (Bryant held the title from 2006-08, though the media only selected him for one of the three MVPs that he should have won): James minimized the skill set weaknesses that previously kept him behind Bryant, while a succession of injuries and the accumulation of heavy mileage prevented Bryant from consistently dominating an entire regular season the way that he used to and the way that James now does. However, during that same time span Bryant consistently raised his game in the postseason, leading the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and earning two Finals MVPs as the Lakers won back to back titles.

James has also had many fine playoff moments but he has disappeared in key situations against elite teams several times and his glaring lack of any championship hardware separates him from the other triple MVP winners. James deserves each of his regular season MVPs but when a multiple MVP winner annually plays for a championship caliber team it is reasonable to expect for him to lead his team to at least one championship. If James fails to do so then his glittering Hall of Fame resume will contain a significant, indelible smudge--or, depending on which analogy you prefer, a prominent empty space; even the greatest players don't win a championship every year and some of the greatest players of all-time only won one championship but if James does not win a title then he will fall short of the standard set by every other triple MVP who came before him.

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Further Reading:

Pro Basketball's Most Decorated Players

The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

San Antonio Versus L.A. Clippers Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 San Antonio (50-16) vs. #5 L.A. Clippers (40-26)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

L.A. can win if…the Clippers consistently play good defense, focusing on limiting Tony Parker's dribble penetration while also monitoring the Spurs' deadly three point shooters (the Spurs ranked second in the league in three point field goals made and first in three point field goal percentage). The Clippers would like to force turnovers and get into the open court because their half court offense is often ineffective.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are a talented, deep and well rounded team whose only possible weakness--a relative lack of size in the frontcourt other than Tim Duncan--is not something that the Clippers are equipped to exploit.

Other things to consider: This series will feature some intriguing individual matchups, including a battle of two point guards who each finished in the top five in MVP voting (Chris Paul versus Tony Parker) and a showdown between arguably the greatest power forward of all-time (Tim Duncan) and rising star (literally and figuratively) Blake Griffin. Paul and Parker are both speed demons, while Duncan is a cerebral, crafty veteran who knows all the angles, an interesting contrast with the high-flying Griffin, who is still learning the subtler aspects of the game.

The Clippers survived a tough, physical series against the Memphis Grizzlies. That series was very peculiar, featuring improbable comebacks and teams winning games despite an extremely poor turnover differential (Memphis, game two) or absurdly bad free throw shooting (L.A., game three). Memphis blew a huge game one lead, fell behind 3-1, rallied to force a game seven at home and then simply could not make a shot in the friendly confines of the "Grindhouse," connecting at just a .325 rate while losing the series clincher 82-72. The Grizzlies held the lead for an overwhelming percentage of the time during the series but, much like the race car driver who leads most of the laps only to crash before reaching the finish line, the Grizzlies did not lead when it mattered most and the Clippers somehow advanced. Suffice it to say that the Clippers do not look like a team built for an extended playoff run.

The Spurs are no longer the defensive powerhouse that they were when they won four championships between 1999 and 2007 but they are still a solid defensive team and they have evolved to become a very dynamic offensive team both in the half court and in transition. The two biggest myths about this team are that they are old and that they are boring. While Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are 36 and 34 years old respectively (and reserve swingman Stephen Jackson is 34), the other members of San Antonio's deep rotation are all between 20 and 29 years old. Tony Parker is a 12 year veteran who will celebrate his 30th birthday early in this series but he has never averaged more than 35 mpg during a season and thus has not accumulated excessive mileage on his odometer. It is bizarre that an uptempo team featuring Parker, the explosive Manu Ginobili and several three point marksmen is consistently stereotyped as boring. What is boring about pushing the ball up the court and either shooting threes or converting dunks? Are the Spurs boring simply because they actually pay some attention to the defensive end of the court, unlike some other recent uptempo teams that acted as if "defense" was what separated their yard from their neighbor's yard?

The Spurs are very similar to the 1981-82 Lakers. The Spurs are peaking at the end of the season (they won their final 10 regular season games and 21 of their final 23 regular season games) and they are seeking to avenge their first round loss last season to the Grizzlies; those Lakers bounced back from an embarrassing first round loss to Houston in the 1981 Western Conference playoffs to storm to the 1982 title, peaking at the end of the season (winning 15 of their last 19 regular season games) and then sweeping their way through the Western Conference playoffs (which then consisted of two seven game series) before defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2 in the NBA Finals. The Sixers' game two victory handed the Lakers their first loss in nearly seven weeks and it has been more than a month since the Spurs have lost a game. The Lakers had an older former MVP pivot player who was still quite effective; Tim Duncan plays the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar role for the Spurs. A young former Finals MVP guard set the pace for the Lakers; Tony Parker plays the Magic Johnson role for the Spurs (though Parker's body type and skill set are obviously much different than Johnson's). The Lakers were comfortable playing at either a fast or slow pace, something that is also definitely true of the Spurs. No historical analogy or comparison is perfect but I expect the Spurs to win the 2012 NBA championship and ultimately remain an underrated and unappreciated squad, much like the 1982 Lakers are mysteriously left out of the discussion of top notch all-time teams despite their great closing push at the end of the regular season and their dominant 12-2 playoff record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 PM

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Oklahoma City Versus L.A. Lakers Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Oklahoma City (47-19) vs. #3 L.A. Lakers (41-25)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 2-1

L.A. can win if…Kobe Bryant produces his usual playoff averages of 28-30 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol consistently play with energy and focus and Metta World Peace holds Kevin Durant well below his normal scoring average and field goal percentage. Even if all those things happen, the Lakers have to figure out some way to at least contain the explosive Russell Westbrook and they also must deal with James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year who will be a nightmare matchup for a Lakers team that has one of the weakest benches among this year's playoff squads.

Oklahoma City will win because…Did you read the above litany of items on the Lakers' to-do list? Bryant is the most dependable Laker but he did not play well versus the Thunder this season; Bryant will likely have a very good series anyway and he may draw the assignment of guarding Westbrook down the stretch of close games (if there are any close games) but it is doubtful that the Lakers will have much success in the other areas mentioned above. Perhaps Peace's bump and run defense will bother Durant a bit but the Thunder's power forwards and centers are bigger, stronger and savvier than the Denver power forwards and centers who gave Bynum and Gasol fits in the first round. The Thunder's transition game will be very difficult for the Lakers to stop.

Other things to consider: The Thunder are one of three teams remaining in the playoffs that have a legit chance to win a championship (San Antonio and Miami are the other two); the Lakers struggled against a Denver team that is essentially Thunder-lite in the first round: the Nuggets have a quick point guard, energetic bigs and they thrive in transition; the Thunder have a much better (and bigger) quick point guard, veteran bigs who are energetic and they are even more dynamic in transition than the Nuggets.

This series could get ugly in a hurry considering the quick turnaround for the Lakers after their draining seven game battle against Denver and the scheduling quirk that forces the Lakers to play their first two home games on back to back nights after likely dropping the first two games of the series in Oklahoma City. The Thunder's long rest may make them rusty in game one but that will last for a half at the most and then they will run past the Lakers like the Lakers are stuck in quicksand. The talent and depth differential between these teams is really stunning. At this stage of their respective careers, Kevin Durant is at least as good if not even slightly better than Kobe Bryant (this is the first season that I placed Durant ahead of Bryant in my MVP rankings), while Russell Westbrook should be an All-NBA First Team guard (though, based on the media's MVP votes, he may not even be voted to the All-NBA Third Team) and James Harden is an All-Star caliber player as well. The Thunder's eight man rotation includes a nice mixture of speed, size, shooting, defense and passing, while several members of the Lakers' eight man rotation can be missing in action on any given night; the team's second and third best players--Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol--sleepwalked through game five and game six against Denver before becoming productive just in the nick of time to stave off elimination in game seven.

The Lakers' 96-87 game seven win over Denver provided a good illustration of how statistics can sometimes be deceptive. Kobe Bryant produced 17 points and eight assists, yet he had a huge impact on the game--far greater than the impact that LeBron James had during last year's NBA Finals in some games when his numbers were similar to Bryant's game seven numbers. The key difference between Bryant and James is that Bryant was an active participant while James was extremely passive; Bryant drew double teams by aggressively seeking position in his offensive "sweet spots" and then he made crisp passes when the double teams arrived: Bryant created the open shots that Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake made, even on the plays that Bryant did not make the assist pass. In contrast, James quit during the 2011 NBA Finals, spending much of the series--particularly the crucial fourth quarters of several games--camping out in the corner with Jason Terry guarding him; James did not threaten the Dallas defense when he did this and thus did not create opportunities for his teammates.

When a reporter asked Bryant if it was difficult to play in such a "restrained" fashion, Bryant simply replied "five championships": Bryant has "trusted his teammates" and "made his teammates better" (or whatever cliche you want to mention) for most of his career, so no one should be surprised by how deftly he handled Denver's traps. Bynum and Gasol will receive a lot of credit for finally showing up in game seven but being productive in the paint against smaller, less experienced players while Bryant is being double teamed (and the Lakers are thus playing four on three) should be something that is expected and demanded not just once in the last three games of the series but rather on a consistent basis. As L.A. Coach Mike Brown said after game seven, Bynum and Gasol do not necessarily have to post huge numbers every game but they should bring high energy every game.

One of my chief barometers for the Lakers during the past several postseasons is that Bryant must score 28-30 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field in order for the Lakers to be successful. Bryant averaged a team-high 29.1 ppg on .448 field goal shooting versus Denver while also leading the Lakers in assists (5.0 apg). Despite that productivity and efficiency--comparable to the playoff numbers posted by Michael Jordan at a similar age during the Bull's second three-peat--the Lakers struggled to eliminate an inexperienced team that does not have a single current All-Star.

Even with the statistical boost provided by his monster game seven (23 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots), Gasol averaged just 12.9 ppg on .427 field goal shooting versus Denver, while Bynum's superficially solid numbers (16.7 ppg, .512 field goal shooting) belie his inconsistent effort at both ends of the court; Bynum admitted that he was not ready to play in game three and the same was clearly true in game six as well. The problem for the Lakers is that even if Bryant hits the scoring and shooting levels mentioned above he is unlikely to receive enough help to topple the talented and deep Thunder.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 AM

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