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Monday, May 12, 2008

Balky Back Slows Bryant as Jazz Beat Lakers in Overtime

Deron Williams had 29 points and 14 assists as his Utah Jazz beat the L.A. Lakers 123-115 in overtime to even their second round series at 2-2. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur got off to slow starts, combining to score just five points on 2-12 field goal shooting in the first half, but they finished with 14 and 18 points respectively. Andrei Kirilenko added 15 points and he played strong defense, particularly late in the game when he blocked two shots by Kobe Bryant, who finished with 33 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Lamar Odom had an excellent game (26 points, 13 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Pau Gasol bounced back from his subpar game three to post 23 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Derek Fisher scored 15 points and shot 4-5 from three point range.

Prior to the game, Hubie Brown talked about how exceptionally well Bryant is playing during the postseason. Brown said that in addition to the great numbers Bryant is putting up, his decision making is off the charts; Brown broke down 48 possessions from game three in which Bryant was the primary ball handler and determined that Bryant made only three questionable decisions. Bryant is just the fourth Laker to start a playoff series with four straight 30 point games; Jerry West (twice), Shaquille O'Neal (twice) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the others. Bryant, a member of the elite "25-5-5" Club, is now the only player to ever have at least 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in five straight playoff games; Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson each did this in four straight playoff games, though both of their streaks spanned two separate playoff seasons.

Unfortunately, we did not get to see Bryant's game in full flower because he injured his back early in game four and his condition got progressively worse, robbing him of his usual quickness and explosiveness; he made 11 of his first 20 shots before connecting on just 2 of his last 13 attempts. If you like Bryant then you will say that he gamely tried to take over down the stretch despite being hurt; if you don't like Bryant then you will say that he selfishly forced the action. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who certainly has not minced words in the past when he felt that Bryant should play differently, offered an interesting take on what happened in the overtime: "I was angry at his teammates for dropping the ball off in his lap when he was in the situation he was at (with his back injury). When he was making plays and we had things going at the end of the fourth quarter that was what we wanted to see him doing. I felt guys just bailed out on him." In other words, Gasol, Odom and the rest of Bryant's supporting cast have to step up and carry some of the weight, too--particularly when Bryant is clearly not 100%--instead of relying on him to do everything by himself.

Before delving fully into how the game ended, let's take things in order and examine what happened in the first three quarters. Just like in game three, Fisher picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out for most of the first quarter. Fisher cannot stop Williams but they were teammates last year and the crafty, physical Fisher is at least able to make things difficult for Williams. Without Fisher on the court, Williams is able to completely abuse Jordan Farmar, whose -19 plus/minus number in just 18:43 of playing time was nine points worse than any other player in this game. The Lakers' bench has been highly praised this season but Utah's reserves outscored them 39-16 in game four; this is another example of how regular season statistics can be misleading without the proper context. I am not really interested in how many points the Lakers' reserves racked up at the end of blowout victories against weak teams, but most statistical ranking systems don't account for when and how a player gets his numbers; I evaluate players based on their skill sets and their strengths and weaknesses. The Lakers have some solid bench players but this group is not as awesome as some people would lead you to believe and that becomes very evident when Utah brings in guys like Matt Harpring, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver; the first two are tough-minded, physical players who push the Lakers around, while Korver is a deadeye marksman.

With Williams running wild, the Jazz raced to a 31-21 lead by the end of the first quarter. During the little interview segments between quarters, Jackson summarized his team's problems succinctly: "We have to get some production out of our bench." I don't mean to say "I told you so"--well, actually maybe I do--but I've been saying all season that the Lakers' bench is not as good as it is cracked up to be. The Lakers' Western Conference-leading record is a product of, in order, Kobe Bryant's brilliance, Pau Gasol's versatility, Lamar Odom fitting in as the third option much better than he did as the second option and Derek Fisher shoring up the point guard position. Also, Andrew Bynum made a solid contribution during the first 35 games of the season. Sasha Vujacic has had some good moments, Farmar has improved since last year and the bench was bolstered when Luke Walton was moved from the starting lineup to a reserve role, but the Lakers' reserves have benefited from playing while ahead in most games and they also often have either Bryant or Gasol on the court with them. Head to head against the reserve units from other elite teams they will consistently have problems.

Of course, one factor in game four is that reserve players tend to perform worse on the road than at home and a second factor is that the Lakers' bench took a hit when Ronny Turiaf--the primary big player on the bench and a player who provides a lot of energy--was ejected because of a flagrant two foul at the 10:07 mark of the second quarter. Ronnie Price drove to the hoop and Turiaf aggressively went for the shot block; the resulting contact sent Price tumbling hard to the court, where he banged his head with such force that he needed four stitches to close the gash above his left eye. Flagrant fouls are supposed to be determined by windup, impact and follow through, with contact above the neck area a definite no-no--but Turiaf's foul was a blow delivered directly to Price's arms in the area where Price was holding the ball; the tremendous size difference between the players is what caused Price to fall so fast and hit his head. There was no real windup or follow through and Turiaf neither hit Price in the head nor did he undercut him in midair. I could see this being called a flagrant one based on the impact but this play was definitely not worse than DeShawn Stevenson's blow to LeBron James' head or James Posey's clothesline of James on Sunday, both of which were determined to be flagrant one fouls.

Although Williams had a monster first half (19 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, five assists), the score was tied at 55 after Bryant caught a long inbounds pass from Walton right before the halftime buzzer and did his version of the famous Christian Laettner shot. Bryant had 17 first half points on 7-14 field goal shooting. Gasol (13 points, 6-9 shooting) and Odom (11 points, 4-6 shooting) were also in double figures. The Lakers seemed to be in prime position to take this game and assume a commanding 3-1 advantage in the series.

Bryant's back clearly got stiffer as the game progressed and Hubie Brown observed that Bryant started operating mainly in the low post area on offense as opposed to playing on the perimeter where he would have to move around more. When Bryant was on the perimeter he used his footwork and various fakes in order to get his defender off balance in order to create an opening to shoot the jumper. On one play, Bryant jab stepped to get Ronnie Brewer off balance and then drilled a jumper right in his eye. Brown commented, "That's difficult on the defender. Ronnie Brewer just shook his head. He (Bryant) stared you down and gave you that jab step move. If you do not move and he has space he will elevate and now he's feeling it." Bryant scored eight points in the quarter but the Lakers had trouble getting defensive stops and the Jazz led most of the way. Near the end of the quarter, Bryant drew the defense to him and passed to a wide open Gasol but Gasol stepped on the baseline. Bryant was visibly frustrated by this lapse in concentration and Brown said, "Gasol never created a passing lane. It's your job when I get double teamed to create the pass." That is an example of why Brown is such a great analyst; instead of giving some nonsense diatribe about Bryant's reaction Brown explained the technical reason why Bryant--the game's most fundamentally sound player--was upset: Bryant did his job by attracting the defense to him and if Gasol had been more alert then he would have had an easy dunk. When you are trying to beat a good team on the road you simply have to convert those kinds of opportunities. Although Gasol's field goal percentage has been good in this series, at times he has been soft with the ball, enabling Utah players to get deflections and steals. Gasol has spent a lot of time whining about these plays and Jackson has publicly said that this has affected Gasol's concentration. Gasol's skills and versatility are secondary considerations down the stretch of competitive playoff games if he is not going to have a tough enough mindset to complete plays. It is pretty easy to see both why Gasol has been able to put up good numbers during his career and why he had never won a single playoff game until teaming up with Bryant on the Lakers.

The key moment in the game took place with :48 left in the third quarter. The Lakers trailed 76-73 and Jackson took Bryant out of the game so that Bryant would get the extra rest during the timeout between quarters; this is a normal move but the difference this time is that Bryant was clearly laboring with a stiff back. I think that Jackson should have considered leaving Bryant in the rest of the way. Sure, there is a chance that Bryant could have fatigued down the stretch but it was nearly certain that after five or 10 minutes (in real time) on the bench that his back would tighten up more than it would if he kept playing. The worst case scenario for the Lakers took place: the bench, even with Odom on the court as an anchor, let the Utah lead balloon to 90-80 and Jackson had to put Bryant back in at the 9:04 mark of the fourth quarter. Kyle Korver scored eight points in less than four minutes with Vujacic guarding him; the gimpy Bryant held him scoreless the rest of the way until Korver made some free throws to ice the game near the end of the overtime.

Not only did the deficit quickly climb with Bryant out of the game but when Bryant came back he obviously had become much stiffer and less mobile. Brown almost immediately said, "You can see there's no quickness in Kobe's game." Bryant adjusted to his limitations by taking on the role of facilitator. With the Lakers trailing 92-84, he snared a defensive rebound and fired a long outlet pass to a wide open Walton but Walton went up softly, enabling Price to do a Tayshaun Prince imitation and swat his shot. The Lakers retained possession but Odom missed a jumper and the Jazz scored to go back up by 10. In the first three games, Bryant relentlessly drove to the hoop and either scored or drew fouls but after he came back in the game in the fourth quarter he had great difficulty getting all the way to the rim--but he managed to be just active enough with his dribble to draw double teams and then pass to the open man, racking up six assists in the fourth quarter as the Lakers rallied from a 12 point deficit to eventually force an extra session. Bryant assisted on three Fisher three point shots during a 1:17 stretch and he assisted on an Odom three pointer that tied the score at 106 with :54 remaining. After two Boozer free throws made the score 108-106, Odom missed a three pointer but Gasol got the rebound and the Lakers called timeout. Odom inbounded to Bryant, who got to the rim but did not have his normal elevation; his layup attempt rolled out, but Boozer had stepped over to contest the shot, which gave Odom room to slip through and tip in the miss. On Utah's last possession during regulation, Fisher correctly anticipated Williams' step back move and blocked his jumper as time expired.

Bryant missed his first four shots in overtime; two of them were three pointers and two of them were drives during which he had no lift and on both occasions Kirilenko swatted the ball as soon as Bryant released it. The Lakers did not score in overtime until Bryant converted a left handed drive at the 1:21 mark. They only trailed 112-110 at that point and they got a stop on the next possession but could not secure the defensive rebound. Kirilenko's three point play at :35 put Utah up five. Jackson drew up a nice inbounds play to free Bryant, who caught the ball and drove all the way to the hoop only to miss the layup. The Jazz shot 8-8 from the free throw line in the last :28 to seal the win.

Obviously, the primary concern for the Lakers heading into Wednesday's game five is the status of Bryant's back injury. However, the Lakers also have to address some matchup concerns that have cropped up in the past two games: Williams has gotten loose whenever Fisher is not in the game and Utah's frontcourt has been more physical and more aggressive than the Lakers' frontcourt in the second halves. The home team has won the first four games but these contests have been close in the fourth quarter so the Lakers better not just complacently assume that they will win game five simply because it is a home game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM



At Monday, May 12, 2008 1:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific analysis, as always.

I thought Jackson's comments were right on the mark vis a vis the over time.

Gasol is way too soft, and will need some serious weight room work in the off-season if he wants to develop to his full potential. The biggest difference in his game 4 performance compared to game 3 was the movement of his teammates, IMO. Yes, he had a terrible game 3, largely because he hung onto the ball way too long, but whenever he did have it in the post, the other 4 guys on the floor just stood there like statues - like they were clearing space for Kobe, or something.

It seemed to me like an odd strategy to have your underpowered big with excellent passing skills do nothing but run isos in the post all game long, so I was glad to see that change.

I also thought Fisher made a critical error early in game 4 that no one has talked about: His decision to take the foul rather than give up a layup at that stage of the game was foolish, IMO - particularly in the wake of his game 3 experience, where two early fouls probably cost the Lakers the game. Those were my thoughts when he committed the foul, and sure enough, a second foul made it almost a re-run of game two.

That Flagrant 2 was a joke. The worst call I have ever seen. Seems to me like the NBA is far too easy on their refs.

At Tuesday, May 13, 2008 8:53:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

when i guy is in midair and gets knocked to the floor like that the refs will almost always call a flagrant 2. i didnt agree with it (especially since its the playoffs) but thats todays nba.


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