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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tale of Two Halves: Lakers Shine, Then Fade Versus the Defending Champs

In the first half on Wednesday versus the San Antonio Spurs, the L.A. Lakers looked like a potential championship team; in the second half, the Lakers looked like a non-playoff team. Add those two halves together and you get a 103-91 Spurs win, the first time that San Antonio has beaten a team with a winning record in over a month. Tim Duncan led the way with 28 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and a game-high +18 plus/minus rating. Ime Udoka provided 18 points and good defense off of the bench, while Sixth Man Award candidate Manu Ginobili had one of the more bizarre stat lines that you will ever see: 12 points on 3-16 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, eight steals and a +7 plus/minus rating. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich shifted Ginobili to the starting lineup to open the third quarter and Ginobili's high energy play definitely sparked the team even though he struggled to make a shot from the field. Tony Parker added 16 points, four assists and zero turnovers in a quietly efficient performance. Kobe Bryant had an up and down game, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and nine turnovers. Lamar Odom did good work on the glass (12 rebounds) but provided little on offense (11 points, two assists). The Lakers' second leading scorer was Ronny Turiaf, who scored 14 points in less than 24 minutes off of the bench, doing most of his damage in the first half.

The media story du jour about Bryant for quite some time has been that he is a selfish gunner but that is a tough sell in a season during which his shot attempts are down and the Lakers are contending for the best record in the Western Conference. Now the new story du jour is that there are multiple Bryants--one who shoots too much and one who trusts his teammates enough to pass them the ball. There might have been something to that idea when Bryant was fresh out of high school and trying to show everyone how much he really belonged in the NBA but Bryant is a veteran who was the leading playmaker on three championship teams. He understands better than just about anybody when to shoot and when to pass; I have asked him about this issue numerous times and his answer is always the same: he reads what the defense is doing and reacts accordingly, shooting when he is open and passing the ball when a teammate has a better shot. If you watched this game, Bryant conveyed exactly that message to Ric Bucher during a halftime interview. The funny thing is that last season, before the Lakers were beset with injuries and forced to rely on Bryant scoring 40-plus points, he supposedly had "transformed" himself from gunner to team player; I guess this will be a "new" story every season because most members of the media don't know or refuse to report what Bryant's role was during the Lakers' championship seasons. During Phil Jackson's pregame standup in Cleveland last season, someone asked him about Bryant's alleged transformation into a willing passer and Jackson correctly noted, "He has shown the ability to do that and the willingness to do that. You know, he did that (in his fourth year) on the (2000) championship team when he had (Robert) Horry and (Derek) Fisher and guys who were really shooting the ball well and Shaq could finish." In other words, Bryant has been an accomplished passer for quite some time but the onus is on his teammates to get open and then make shots.

In the first half, the Spurs aggressively double-teamed Bryant and he consistently made excellent passes that led to scores or free throw attempts. He scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting and had six rebounds and four assists and the Lakers led 54-45. In one early sequence, Bryant displayed the full range of his offensive skills: he scored in the post when Bruce Bowen tried to guard him one on one with no double-team; when double-teamed he delivered a great bounce pass to Kwame Brown that resulted in a foul and two made free throws; stationed on the left wing, he fed Brown in the post and received an assist after Brown made a jump hook over Duncan; he drove to the hoop from the right wing, drew multiple defenders and slipped a wraparound pass to Brown for an easy dunk. Add that up and you have one well executed post move against one of the league's top defenders and three different kinds of passes made from different angles that all led directly to scores. Brown is a below average offensive player but playing alongside Bryant he actually looked like a legit low post threat--at least for a few minutes (he did not score for the rest of the game). The injured Andrew Bynum is obviously a more talented offensive player than Brown but he also benefits greatly from Bryant's presence and from his passing ability. Bynum has developed some low post moves but he still gets a lot of his points as a result of Bryant attracting double-teams that free Bynum up to catch lob passes, either from Bryant or someone else. That is why I maintain that, although the Lakers clearly miss Bynum's presence on both ends of the court, they can get by for now with Brown and Turiaf manning the middle. The problem for the Lakers last season was when every center on the roster was either injured or incapable of catching and converting simple passes. Brown will never have great hands but at least he can now catch most of the passes that are thrown right to him. The Lakers face a daunting task on their upcoming nine game road trip but I don't foresee this team dropping precipitously in the standings the way that many people seem to expect; the trip starts with a tough back to back in Detroit and Toronto but there are also games in Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota. If the Lakers beat those three teams and even go just 2-4 in the other games then they will be just fine and if they don't sustain any more injuries they are certainly capable of doing that.

It would be silly to think that just because the Lakers had a nine point halftime lead that they would cruise to victory, particularly on the road. A championship team like San Antonio is going to make a run and the Lakers needed to be ready to respond to it with a run of their own. Instead, they began the third quarter by missing shots, turning the ball over and committing fouls. The Lakers did not score until Fisher's layup at the 5:29 mark made the score 59-56 Spurs--in other words, they went more than half a quarter without scoring a single point. Bryant took the Lakers' first three shots of the quarter, prompting ESPN analyst Jon Barry to assert that Bryant was forcing the action and playing differently than he had in the first half. That is a bogus statement. Bryant's first shot attempt was a pullup jumper against single coverage; Michael Finley dropped his hands, giving Bryant an opening. That is a normal shot for Bryant. His next shot was a turnaround jumper in the paint. I would call it a "quasi force"--Bryant drove into the lane and had no one to pass to, so before he got called for three seconds or the shot clock expired he manufactured the best shot that he could. It was tougher than his first shot but a shot that Bryant can make. After missing two jumpers, the next time Bryant got the ball he made a hard drive all the way to the hoop, where he was met by Duncan. Bryant twisted backward and attempted a layup, but Bruce Bowen made a great block. There is no denying that it is not a good thing to miss three shots but it is wrong to confuse lack of execution with improper decision making. Just because Barry played in the NBA does not mean that he correctly diagnosed what happened on those plays. I watched the same game that he did but saw things differently--and it is worth noting that two outstanding basketball minds weighed in on the loss and neither one blamed Bryant. Jackson said, "No one seemed to want to step up, and they kept dropping it off in Kobe's hands to try and let him do one-on-one stuff. I'm not going to fault Kobe at all. You have the turnovers, they are credited to him, but it was other things that went on there."

Here is what Triangle Offense architect Tex Winter told the L.A. Times : "The ball has to move, the players have to move. And when they don't, they start standing and watching Kobe. Kobe might get 50, but we still ain't going to win, or we'll have a tough time of it. It's a team concept. It's based on ball and player movement with a purpose. It's predicated on that, and if we don't have that, then we're not a very good team. Lamar (Odom) and Luke (Walton) really might be the key to this. They're going to have to hit the open shots. They're going to have to hit a good percentage of their shots, which they're not doing right now. They'll get better and more open shots if we play a team concept and move the basketball and go through with our cuts." Uninformed people try to make this a simple cut and dried matter of whether or not Bryant shoots too much but this is a multifaceted situation: it is Bryant's responsibility to read the defense and make good decisions, but the other four players must make good cuts, be ready to catch the ball and then make open shots. As Jackson said after the recent Seattle game when Bryant attempted 44 shots (and scored 48 points in a Lakers' win), if the other players are unwilling or unable to get open and make shots then Bryant will sense that void and attempt to fill it.

Despite the sluggish start to the third quarter, the Lakers regained the lead when Fisher's three pointer at the 3:33 mark made the score 64-61. What killed the Lakers is how the quarter ended. After Fisher's trey, the Spurs went on a 9-0 run that was broken by a Bryant drive that made the score 70-66 Spurs. Brent Barry then hit a three pointer with six seconds left, stole Odom's careless inbounds pass and made another three pointer to put the Spurs up 10. The Lakers almost played the Spurs to a draw in the final period but could not overcome that ghastly sequence that gave San Antonio a nice working margin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM



At Thursday, January 24, 2008 12:13:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

Great article as usual, David. I had the same thoughts about Jon Barry's commentary early in the 2nd half last night, as he started pushing the "Kobe's forcing it" nonsense right after Kobe's first shot. Jon Barry is a former teammate of Kobe's from years ago and he's been a guy who as a commentator has long been very negative on him, so I can't help but wonder if Kobe possibly rubbed him the wrong way when Kobe was still a teenager or something.

I did want to say one thing about how the Lakers will fare without Bynum and whether Brown and Turiaf can fill in for him. It's true that Bynum does get a large percentage of his points off of lob passes and only recently had started to get some consistently off of good post play, but one thing the Lakers really are going to miss with him out is his offensive rebounds for putbacks. Bynum's length and height allowed him to grab so many misses and either put it back up or give the Lakers another offensive set, and that is something that Turiaf and Brown especially are just not that good at. Turiaf's energy is great in that area, but his size prevents him from getting anywhere near the amount of opportunities there that Bynum was getting. The lob passes shouldn't be discounted too much either, because even though they were a rather simple or unskilled way for Bynum to get points, the Lakers were seemingly able to work that repeatedly despite whatever efforts the defense was making. Once again, Bynum's length and his impressive hands were the keys to that, in that the Lakers could often just throw it up there real high and Bynum would be the only guy (offense or defense) who could get it.

If the Lakers can play just .500 ball in Bynum's absence they'll be fine though, since they'll still be somewhere around 11-15 games over .500 when he returns, and they should still be right in the middle of the playoff race.

At Thursday, January 24, 2008 5:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wild Yams:

The funny thing is that Barry also said that Kobe is his choice for MVP this season and at one point he sounded almost apologetic for criticizing Kobe. I just think that it has become so reflexive for almost everyone in the media to say that Kobe is either (A) gunning or (B) "transforming" himself into a passer that he almost said those things without even thinking.

I got some insight into Kobe's thought process earlier this season after the Lakers lost in Cleveland. Kobe took a three at the end of regulation instead of driving. TV commentators speculated about why Kobe took the shot--his groin injury, wanting to go for the win on the road, etc.--but I asked him point blank what his thought process was in that situation. He told me that LeBron had put his hands down and that "he knows better than that." Kobe said that if a defender puts his hands down and gives him a clean look that he is going to let it fly. Kobe has the skill set and has put in the necessary hours of practice that he has confidence that he will not hesitate to take a clean, open look. Even a half hour after the game, he still had a sense of disbelief that he had not made that shot. If you look at the first shot of the second half that he took versus Finley, it was exactly the same deal (except that it was a long two instead of a three). In the NBA, it is very difficult to get open shots, so if a defender sags off Kobe for whatever reason (to play the drive, to prevent him from passing to cutters like he did in the first half) then that jumper is a good shot and not a force. Just because Kobe missed the shot does not mean it was a bad shot.

I don't mean to sound like I am disparaging Bynum's value or minimizing his importance; I am just trying to put those things in proper perspective. Berri and his cohorts at Wages of Wins proposed that Bynum is actually more valuable than Kobe and others have suggested that Bynum's absence means that the team is in big trouble. Obviously, it's not good to lose your starting center, let alone a promising young big man who is seemingly improving week by week. My point is that, so far, Bynum is not a center who is dominating purely on his own merits, like Shaq used to do or like guys like Hakeem and Moses Malone have done. Bynum does have the best hands of the Lakers' bigs but we saw in the first half on Wednesday that Kobe is willing and able to deliver feeds that Kwame and Turiaf can convert. The team just collectively did not seem to understand the level of energy and intensity necessary to beat the Spurs; those energy fluctuations were a bigger problem earlier in the season but the Lakers had largely straightened that out recently.

At Thursday, January 24, 2008 6:14:00 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

I tend to agree with everything you're saying here. From watching Kobe as much as I have over the years I know that Kobe rarely gets an open look without having to create space on his own, and that's true even out to a few feet beyond the 3-pt line. I also know that he's very deadly when he is open, even if he is a few feet behind the line. Because of this, really any open look Kobe gets is essentially a good shot for him to take. There are exceptions to this sometimes, where he either goes into a "desperation mode" too early (throwing up long threes early in the shot clock on successive possessions when the Lakers are down and there's 4 or 5 minutes left), or maybe when he does a heat check just a little too fast, like trying to bury a quick three just cause he hit a long one the previous trip down. But for the most part, I think Kobe very rarely "forces" shots, and generally will only truly "force" a shot or go outside of the offense if the Lakers are struggling and the team really just needs a basket, and IMO that's just good basketball.

I think that anyone who truly believes that Bynum is more valuable to the Lakers right now than Kobe is either doesn't watch the games at all and only looks at some bizarre stats or they have hated Kobe for so long that they want to attribute the Lakers' recent success to anyone other than him. Bynum is clearly very important to the success of the Lakers, and even Kobe said with him the Lakers are a championship-level team, but Bynum's early stage of his development would be badly exposed right now if Kobe wasn't there to help command double teams and pass him the ball. Bynum does have a developing low-post game, but it's not polished enough for the team to just come down court, throw him the ball and expect him to consistently set the table for the rest of the offense. Bynum does have some incredible assets in his height, length, hands and coordination, and could possibly develop into a premiere center (or even the premiere center in the league), but he's not there yet. I do think that with a healthy Bynum and Kobe and with the supporting cast the Lakers have right now, they probably will be one of the favorites to win the title in 2009, maybe even the favorite. But I think this year, even if everyone's healthy, they're just too inexperienced outside of Kobe and Fisher to expect to win a series against someone like San Antonio, Detroit or Boston.


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