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Monday, April 20, 2009

Alternating Between Dominant and Lackluster, Lakers Silence Jazz

The L.A. Lakers built a 62-40 halftime lead en route to a 113-100 game one victory over the Utah Jazz but L.A. Coach Phil Jackson was not impressed by his team's performance. According to Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times, "15? Not like that" is what Jackson wrote on the whiteboard in the locker room after the game, referring to the number of additional wins the team needs to capture the NBA title. Utah's 46-38 rebounding advantage--including a 20-7 margin on the offensive glass--and the fact that the Jazz pulled within 72-63 less than nine minutes into the third quarter were the two main reasons for Jackson's displeasure.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points on 9-17 field goal shooting and he also had a team-high eight assists, showing off the full range of his playmaking skills--Bryant found open teammates in transition, he accepted double teams in the post before firing pinpoint crosscourt passes, he made great reads when the Lakers ran screen/roll actions and he drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and kicked the ball to spot up shooters. The Jazz understandably focused their defense on the two-time scoring champion/2008 MVP and this provided opportunities for other players to shoot uncontested shots, either as a direct result of Bryant's passes or as the culmination of good ball movement after the defense converged on Bryant. Trevor Ariza scored a playoff career-high 21 points on 8-10 shooting, Pau Gasol added 20 points on 7-11 shooting, Lamar Odom contributed 13 points on 5-8 shooting and Shannon Brown had nine points on 3-4 shooting.

During the ABC telecast, Jeff Van Gundy said that Gasol should receive serious consideration for the All-NBA First Team this season. Gasol is a two-time All-Star but he has never made the All-NBA First, Second or Third Teams; I think that he deserves a Second Team nod this season (behind forwards LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki) but I agree with Van Gundy's larger point, namely that Gasol's game has improved markedly since he made the shift from being the best player in Memphis to being the second best player on the Lakers. Gasol deserves credit for having a versatile skill set and for doing the necessary work to hone those skills but it also must be said that he has benefited greatly from all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives. Gasol no longer regularly has to battle against double teams; instead, he receives passes at the rim for dunks and short hook shots or passes on the perimeter for wide open jump shots. Gasol shot .587 from the field as a Laker last season (compared to .501 while playing for Memphis) and he shot a career high .567 from the field this season, ranking fifth in the NBA.

Ariza is another player whose game has benefited from playing alongside Bryant; he shot a career high .319 from three point range this season, draining 61 treys after only making nine three pointers in the first four seasons of his career. Again, Ariza deserves credit for working on his shooting touch but the reason that he gets so many wide open shots is that opposing teams have to constantly double team Bryant.

Shannon Brown was acquired with Adam Morrison in the midseason deal that sent Vladimiar Radmanovic to Charlotte. The Lakers made that trade primarily made to get rid of Radmanovic's salary. Former lottery pick Morrison has yet to play as many as 10 minutes in a game as a Laker but late in the season Brown emerged as a regular member of the rotation, usurping Jordan Farmar's role to some extent. In just his second career playoff game, Brown--who has made just 30 three pointers in his regular season career--made all three of his three point shots. After the game, Bryant said of Brown, "He works extremely hard as all our players do. He's in the gym early, he's working on his shot. When I see that it makes it even easier for me to trust him in a game situation." That quote is very significant; people focus so much on whether or not Bryant trusts his teammates enough but they rarely talk about the flip side of that equation: have his teammates always put in enough work to merit being trusted? The change with the Lakers in the past couple seasons is not that Bryant suddenly had an epiphany about how to pass and how to play winning basketball; after all, he was the leading playmaker on their three championship teams from 2000-02. No, what has changed is that now the Lakers have a supporting cast of players who take their cues from Bryant in terms of work ethic and preparation, so Bryant knows that when he passes them the ball they will get the job done.

Bryant did not score in the first 10 minutes of the game because he was focusing on getting his teammates involved, racking up four assists. He did not assert himself as a scorer until the final four minutes of the second quarter, when he exploded for nine points to help the Lakers amass that huge halftime lead. After the Jazz trimmed the lead to 98-89 in the fourth quarter, Bryant hit back to back jumpers to stem the tide. After the second of those shots, Van Gundy commented, "Everyone talks about his athleticism but that is well honed balance. That doesn't just happen. He's coming off going to his left, going up in the air straight up, straight down. This is textbook stuff that requires repetition in the gym. Everyone wants to play in the game. Who wants to prepare to win the game before the game is played? That is Kobe Bryant." The impact of being around Kobe Bryant and observing how he prepares is very evident both in the way that so many of his Team USA teammates have performed this season for their NBA squads and also in the way that so many Laker players have refined their games since joining the team, as noted above.

Although Bryant and the Lakers performed at a very high level offensively for most of the game, their defense was much less consistent; although they held Utah to a low shooting percentage (.391), they committed too many fouls and this enabled the Jazz to score a lot of points from the free throw line with the clock stopped (the Jazz also committed too many fouls). The Lakers had no answer for Carlos Boozer, who had a game-high 27 points on 11-16 shooting, nor did they do a good job of containing Deron Williams, who scored 16 points and dished off a playoff career-high 17 assists; Williams only shot 4-14 from the field but several of his misses were "unforced errors" (to use tennis vernacular) as opposed to being the result of great defense. It is highly unlikely that the Jazz will win this series and entirely possible that they will get swept but the way that the Lakers got pounded on the boards and surrendered a large portion of their lead was eerily reminiscent of the way that they folded at crucial moments during last year's NBA Finals. The Lakers vowed to be tougher and more focused this season but even though they played well enough to win 65 games that success had more to do with their efficient offense--and Bryant's individual brilliance bailing them out in some games that could have gone either way--than with them becoming better defensively or tougher in general. Bryant understands this as well as anyone and he recently lamented that the team does not have enough guys who are mean and angry, saying that he and veteran point guard Derek Fisher constantly have to set the tone in that regard. Van Gundy joked that Bryant has enough anger for the whole team but the reality is that we will not really know if that is the case unless/until the Lakers get back to the Finals and prove that they can beat a tough, defensive minded team like Cleveland.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:54 AM



At Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt Phil was all that happy about Game 2, either. After that great start, the Lakers seemed to put it on cruise control and let the Jazz hang around. As usual, Kobe hit a big shot or two when needed, but the Lakers have to step up the defense and maintain the intensity.

I felt that the Lakers would take the series in 5, and I still do, but if they step it up in Game 3, they could pull off the sweep.



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