Lakers 75, Magic 89

After winning back-to-back games against the Celtics and Knicks, and after winning the first four games of their annual Grammy’s Road Trip, the Lakers faced a stiff test at Orlando on Sunday afternoon. The Magic have a dominant big man that has the ability to give the Lakers front court fits, as well as the perimeter shooting to send the Lakers away in a bad mood. Before the game started, I tweeted that the Lakers’ keys to victory were:

  1. Make Dwight Howard earn his points and rebounds
  2. Defend the deep ball
  3. Play team basketball

After 48 minutes of action, the Lakers failed to accomplish any of those goals, and left Amway Center a 75-89 loser. Here are some observations that I made from the day’s game… Continue reading

By the Numbers: Lakers 113, Knicks 96

On the heels of three consecutive road victories, the Los Angeles Lakers entered Madison Square Garden looking to continue its winning ways on the tough end of a back-to-back against a team desperate to right its own ship. After a fast start out of the gate by Kobe Bryant, it was clear that the Lakers, led by their superstar, were going to leave New York with another impressive road win. Here is a look at the game by the numbers…

19 – The number of points scored by Kobe Bryant in the first quarter on Friday night.

Black Mamba started the game off with two turnovers on plays where he tried to set up his teammates. That, coupled with the Knicks’ fast start (they led 11 to 3 after four minutes of play), inspired Kobe to take over before things got any more out of hand. And that he did.

Bryant hit three consecutive 3-pointers and several long jumpers over different defenders, including a 19-foot jumper at the buzzer, to salvage a 30-28 first quarter lead for his squad. After each bucket, the fans at MSG–to no surprise–went crazy, showing their appreciation for his talent. The quick 19 points led many viewers to believe he was headed toward another huge night. But after a prolonged rest to start the second quarter, and after the Lakers defense suffocated the Knicks offense to build a comfortable lead, it was clear Kobe was going to coast the rest of the way.

10 – The number of rebounds by Kobe.
17 – The number of shots taken by Kobe.

Perhaps more impressive than Kobe’s 19 first-quarter points and 33 total points were his performance on the glass and his offensive efficiency. Kobe led the team in rebounds, and he proved again that he is committed to affecting the game in other ways besides scoring.

As for efficiency, I thought his shot selection was very solid. In the first quarter, he was clearly on fire, so most shots at that point would have been good shots. What pleased me about last night was that he kept the shots under twenty (nearly 1.5 points per shot attempt) and that he hit shots beyond the arc (4-of-7), thereby stretching his game and the defense.

Amare Stoudemire:  24 pts (9-20 FG), 10 reb, 6 turnovers

Look at Amare’s line from Friday night. Not only did he score below his season average of 26.2 points per game, but he did so very inefficiently; he only scored 1.2 points per shot attempt and shot less than 50% from the field, both poor marks. Furthermore, he turned the ball over six times, which was the most committed by any player on either team last night and one-third of the Knicks’ team total.

But why did Amare have such a bad game? Based on my observations, it was mainly caused by the Lakers’ length down low, which again proves my point that the Lakers cannot trade Bynum. The Lakers threw both Bynum and Pau at Stoudemire last night, and both guys, but mainly Bynum, forced Amare to take tough shots. Bynum has very good footwork for a guy his size, and he was able to stay with Amare and make Amare change the trajectory of his attempts. You really had to have watched the game to see he difference; a simple glance at Amare’s 24 points and 10 rebounds might lead you to believe that he had another one of his great performances, but that was not the case. Bynum played great defense on the Knicks’ star player.

And for the record, Bynum was matched up on Amare mainly as a result of Bynum drawing two quick personal fouls on Timofey Mosgov, the Knicks’ starting center, early in the first quarter. Bynum used his offensive power/skill to bully Mosgov in the post and force him to the bench, which pushed Amare to the center spot.

44 – The number of points scored by the Lakers bench (compared to the 29 that the Knicks bench scored).

LA got a huge boost from its second string guys. Odom was his usual self – he provided 14 points (5-10 FG), 3 rebounds, and 3 assists). But Shannon Brown played another solid game, logging 12 points and 3 boards, including multiple highlights as seen below. Also, Luke Walton and Steve Blake added 8 points each, and Joe Smith even saw some time and added a bucket.

Last night marked the second consecutive game in which Brown chipped in double-digit points and twenty-plus minutes. His shot selection has improved (slightly) and he is playing with better control, although at times it still seems like he is too fast for his own good.

Walton had a great game. He played 18 minutes, which is more minutes than he has played in the past five games combined (15 total minutes in those contests). And he had a nice all-around performance that included 4 assists and 3 rebounds. At one point, the fans at MSG were even chanting “LUUUUKKKEEE.”

And finally, if Steve Blake could put together more consistent performances, I bet he would supplant Fisher in the starting lineup. Fisher had absolutely zero impact on Friday night – he scored zero points in 25 minutes and had only 1 assist. Furthermore, he was consistently beat off the dribble by the Knicks’ Raymond Felton. Blake put together a nice 8-point, 7-assist night, but he still can’t seem to string those types of games together. It’s like nobody wants the spot.s

Knicks:  41.2 FG%, 25.0 3FG%, 18 TO, 20 points in each 2nd and 3rd quarters

After the Lakers surrendered just 33 points in the second half against the Celtics, many thought the Lakers defense was back. And while the Knicks put up 96 points on Friday night, there were points in the game, specifically in the second and third quarters, when the Lakers played championship-level defense again, which has been a staple of this current road trip.

Ultimately, it is all a work in progress and, so long as the Lakers continue to improve and peak during the playoffs, their mid-season struggles will be quickly forgotten. The Lakers renewed commitment to defense will be tested on Sunday afternoon when they travel to Orlando to face a very potent offense with threats on all areas of the court.

Lakers 92, Celtics 86

Many thought tonight’s game against the Boston Celtics would be the toughest for the Los Angeles Lakers on their current seven-game road trip. For one, the Celtics are the Lakers’ most hated rival and always prove to be a tough opponent. Second, the Lakers have struggled all season to step up in similar big-game situations/opportunities. And finally, many felt that the continuing whirlwind surrounding a possible Andrew Bynum-for-Carmelo Anthony trade would distract the Lakers, a team that has lacked focus, determination, and intensity for many stretches of the year. But the Lakers answered all of their critics in an emphatic fashion on Thursday night by downing the Celtics 92-86. The victory in Boston is the strongest statement that we have seen thus far by the defending champs, and assures us, at least to some degree, that the team will have a part to play in this year’s NBA championship race. Here are some keys observations from tonight’s big win:

Size Matters

I wrote earlier this week that, if it were up to me, I would not give Bynum up for Melo. Tonight Bynum and the Lakers proved my point. Specifically, the Lakers beat Boston in the paint. Los Angeles outscored their nemesis 50 to 32 on the inside, led by Gasol (20) and Bynum (23). The Lakers’ length, which is their unique advantage that nobody else in the league possesses, gave the Celtics fits all night, and proved to be the difference in the end. There was a point in time when the Lakers settled for jump shots, and that’s when Boston pulled away in the first half. But, after some half time adjustments by the Zen Master, the Lakers went back to their bread and butter and pounded the rock inside (and to Kobe, too).

Size also matters on the glass, too. Besides recording a scoring advantage down low, the Lakers out-rebounded the Celtics 47 to 36. The Lakers’ rebounding advantage was no more evident than looking at the contrast between stretches of time when Bynum was on the floor versus those periods during which he was off the court. There were instances when Bynum just left the court and on the very next play Kendrick Perkins collected offensive rebounds against Pau or Odom. Combined, Pau, Bynum, and L.O. collected 31 boards.

Black Mamba Time

In the first half, Kobe only took three shots (made one of them). Through two quarters, he had 3 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists, a clear message to viewers and his teammates that he wanted to get others involved first. And that he did–both Gasol and Bynum dumped 12 points apiece in the first half. But the second half belonged to Kobe, and the plan could not have worked out any better.

Kobe scored 12 points in the third quarter and another 8 points in the fourth quarter to help seal the Lakers’ victory. He looked unstoppable for those two quarters, something his opponents are all too familiar with. But not only did he dominate the second half on the offensive end, but he chipped in on the defensive end, too. He had a huge block on one of Rondo’s layup attempts, and his roving defense (aka Rondo-can’t-shoot-so-I-will-help-others-defense) caused numerous turnovers. In fact, after the game, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “Kobe won the game today with his D…he was absolutely phenomenal.”

Shannon Brown

Although Brown has had games where he’s scored more points and recorded more rebounds and assists, his performance tonight was crucial because the Lakers were desperate for a boost off the bench from somebody other than Odom. In fact, the Lakers needed quality production/minutes from anyone not named Pau, Kobe, Andrew, or Lamar. Truth is, Artest is playing terrible. Fisher is barely even recognizable out there. And Blake has no impact on the game. Add to that Luke Walton’s irrelevance and Matt Barnes’ injury and suddenly you have a really, really sad supporting cast.

But Shannon stepped up tonight in a huge way. Not only did he score 12 points on a very efficient 4-of-6 shooting night, but he played with good control and provided the spark off the bench that we are accustomed to seeing. His steal and breakaway double-clutch dunk gave the Lakers some swagger/energy that I think they have been missing for quite some time. It was Shannon’s first double-digit scoring game since January 28 and only his second since January 14. It was great to see him have impact a game outcome once again.

Conclusion

This was the best victory of the season so far. But it shouldn’t stop there. The Lakers have a tough game on a quick turn around against the Knicks tomorrow night…at Madison Square Garden. I expect that game to be incredible. Kobe loves MSG. MSG loves Kobe and the Lakers. The Knicks are relevant again and their games are an absolute delight to watch. I can’t wait.

Why the Lakers Should Nix a Carmelo-for-Bynum Deal

WIth the recent report that the Lakers and Nuggets have entered preliminary discussions over a blockbuster deal involving Andrew Bynum and Carmelo Anthony, the question is not whether Buss, Kupchak & Co. will pull the trigger (they have a flair for the dramatic), but whether the Lakers organization should make the deal.

My answer?

No.

The Lakers should not trade Bynum unless they get an above average big man in return. Thus, a Melo-for-Bynum “straight up” scenario does not suffice. Let me explain…

Aside from Kobe Bryant, the thing that makes the LA Lakers so special and so dangerous is their unique blend of size and talent in the paint. Nobody in the NBA can match the combined length and skills of Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. When healthy, Bynum has shown his ability to dominate down low on both the offensive and defensive ends. Gasol is arguably the most skilled big man in the league. And Odom’s versatility gives the Lakers a luxury that no other team can even imagine. But if you deal Bynum, you cut that front court trio by one third and instantly become just another team in the paint. You lose the sole advantage that you had over every other team in the game; the same advantage that led to back-to-back championships.

Don’t get me wrong, Melo is a great player. Without hesitating, I would rank him in the top fifteen players in the game right now. And then if I thought harder, I’d move him into the top ten. But combining Melo, Kobe, and Pau looks a lot to me like the Miami Heat combining LeBron, D-Wade, and Bosh. In fact, I even think that the potential Lakers trio would be worse than the Heat threesome.

For one, Pau is virtually the same player as Bosh. They are both true power forwards that play softer than you would like. So far in their careers, Pau and Bosh have very comparable numbers–Pau has averaged 18.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, whereas Bosh has averaged 20 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Defensively, neither poses a huge shot-blocking presence, and neither is considered a defensive stalwart. Both have silky smooth jumpers and are best when they face up their opponents in the post.

Second, I would take Wade/James on a team way before I would take Kobe/Melo for the simple fact that, of the four players, LeBron is the only one who can truly adapt his game to another superstar and commit to being a facilitator/playmaker rather than a scorer. Just by looking at his averages this season, you can tell he has focused on affecting games in ways other than scoring (he currently averages over 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game, while his scoring his down about 3 points per game from last season). But I doubt that Kobe or Melo is capable of such an adjustment; both of those guys are scorers at heart.

Finally, what have critics of the Miami Heat contended all season long? Furthermore, what teams have given the Miami Heat trouble so far this year? Teams with size! Think Celtics, Magic, Mavericks, Bulls, etc. Those teams utilized their advantage in the paint to pound the undersized Heat. Well, if the Lakers deal Bynum and leave themselves with a front line of Pau, Odom, Theo Ratliff, and Joe Smith, don’t you think those other teams will attack LA in the same way? I certainly would.

Amidst the Lakers struggles this season, a lot of fans have remained calm and chosen to focus on the big picture. I have heard many people say that when all is said and done the Lakers will be in the Finals playing for a coveted three-peat against their rival Celtics. This past offseason, the Celtics, after being pummeled in the paint by the Lakers last Finals, shored up their front line by acquiring Jermaine O’Neal, Shaq, Semih Erden, and Luke Harangody. Add those bodies to Kendrick Perkins, KG, and Glen Davis, and suddenly you have seven bigs that can bruise opponents down low. The Celtics depth is a major concern for the Lakers as it stands now. Just imagine what that depth of size would do against a Bynum-less Lakers front court. It wouldn’t be pretty.

If the Lakers get rid of Bynum and do not get a big man in return, I don’t think they will win the championship this season. It’s as simple as that. I personally think they should focus their efforts elsewhere, like picking up a solid point guard or even moving Ron Artest for more athletic forwards. Only time will tell.

Spurs 89, Lakers 88

While the Lakers have been getting tons of heat recently for getting blown out at home, they have not lost too many nail biters like the one that took place tonight against the Spurs. It was a back-and-forth game that ended with an Antonio McDyess tip-in at the buzzer, which gave San Antonio an 89-88 victory. There really isn’t much to say about this game other than the fact that it was a hard-fought contest that could have gone either way. Unfortunately, that way wasn’t ours. Here are some observations from the tough loss…

Mano-A-Mano

The now-7.5 games that separate these two teams in the standings does not adequately describe how evenly the two teams matched up and played tonight. Each team won two quarters of the game; the Spurs took the first and third quarters, and the Lakers took the second and fourth. Take a look at some of the other similarities from the box score:

Field Goals Made:  Lakers 34, Spurs 35
Rebounds:  Lakers 44, Spurs 38
Assists:  Lakers 24, Spurs 20
Steals:  Lakers 6, Spurs 5
Blocks:  Lakers 5, Spurs 5
Turnovers:  Lakers 10, Spurs 10

As you can see from the above stats, it was a ridiculously even game. But these types of games often come down to minor details. The little things. Forgotten possessions. And on this night, the Spurs edged out the Lakers in those difference makers, such as hustle plays, fortunate bounces, etc. Take the final play as an example. Manu Ginobili had an incredible look from beyond the arc and bricked it, yet the Spurs got a nice bounce and offensive rebound. Then, Tony Parker got one of his trademark runners in the lane which went in-and-out of the basket, and yet the Lakers couldn’t corral the rebound, so the Spurs got the ball with 4.6 seconds remaining. Finally, Duncan’s shot bricks, but somehow McDyess managed to seal Odom off and tip the ball in with literally a millisecond to spare. Things just went San Antonio’s way. But you can’t hate on them for that.

Tony Parker

Before the game, I tweeted (@lakerstrojans) that if the Lakers hope to win tonight they must do two things. First, I said, the Lakers must prevent Parker from getting into the lane and causing havoc by draining runners or kicking to open shooters. Well, in the first half, the Lakers looked like they had committed to that game plan. Parker scored only 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting through the first two quarters. Furthermore, he only had 2 assists, which signaled that his passes weren’t necessarily leading to buckets for his teammates. However, as I watched the tape I realized that the Lakers didn’t really shut him down with good defense; Parker was just off.

All of that changed after the break. Parker exploded for 14 of his 21 points in the third quarter on a dizzying array of jumpers, runners, floaters, and layups. He blew by Fisher multiple times en route to an unguarded basket; he whizzed around screens to spots on the floor where he could throw up uncontested jumpers; and he weaved his way through the defense for easy layups. Parker’s ability to get into the key proved to be the difference in the game. Check out the tale of his two halves:

1st Half:  4 points (2-7 FG), 2 assists
2nd Half:  17 points (7-10 FG), 0 assists

The Lakers have had trouble with penetrating guards all season, and tonight was no different.

Team First

A good sign for Lakers fans is that the team has seemed to adopt a team-first mentality. Against the Rockets, Kobe made a concerted effort to get Pau involved. Tonight, Kobe continued that effort and racked up 10 assists in the process. Kobe established his role as facilitator early in the game; he didn’t score a single point in the second quarter. In fact, Kobe was so focused on other aspects of the game that he nearly recorded a triple double (one rebound shy). Sure, Kobe was having an off night from the field (5-of-18), so maybe that had a bit to do with it, but it was still nice to see him droppin’ dimes.

Other Random Notes

  • In lieu of the Ron Artest trade saga, I felt weird watching Ron play and he looked kind of awkward out there. He forced a lot of shots/passes very early in the game before settling into somewhat of a groove; he finished the night with 13 points on 6-for-11 from the field and added 5 rebounds. He was decent on defense but it was clear that he was acquired to stop the Paul Pierce’s and Carmelo Anthony’s of the world, and not the Manu Ginobili’s of the world (in other words, slower/bigger guys as opposed to smaller/shiftier/quicker ones).
  • Odom continued to be rock solid for the Lakers. He was very efficient tonight, scoring 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting and adding 6 rebounds and 3 assists. The Spurs are pretty slow in the front court, so Odom’s unique blend of size and speed really caused them fits.
  • Interestingly, the Lakers three bench players that saw action–Odom, Blake, and Brown–combined for a plus/minus rating of plus-25 tonight, whereas the five starters combined for a plus/minus rating of minus-30. I know there are some flaws in plus/minus as a bullet-proof statistic, but I think it’s always great to look at.
  • We don’t need to trade Artest, we need to solve the point guard deficiency. Blake cannot put together any sort of consistency, and Derek Fisher is simply non-existent out there. He scored 2 points (1-5 FG) and added 2 assists tonight. But his defense was what killed me; Parker embarrassed him on the perimeter with his speed.

Conclusion

Tough night. The champs showed fight and proved that they belong at the top of the West (if there was ever any doubt). But a loss is a loss. And now the Lakers embark on a brutal road trip. We can only hope for the best. Next game is at New Orleans on Sunday where they will have to deal with another devastating point guard–CP3.

Lakers 114, Rockets 106 (OT)

After they dropped their past two games, the Lakers entered Tuesday night’s contest against the Rockets needing a win to carry some positive momentum into Thursday’s highly anticipated match against the San Antonio Spurs. As we saw last week, the Lakers could not have afforded to take these Rockets for granted; Houston is a scrappy bunch who is dangerous enough to upset a good team on any given night. Although it took four quarters and some extra time, the Lakers managed to oust the Rockets 114-106; those 50-plus minutes of basketball gave us plenty to talk about, so let’s jump right in!

The Two Sides of Efficiency: Kobe Bryant vs. Kevin Martin

The basketball world was thrown into a frenzy this past week after TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott released this article that attempted to debunk the “myth” that Kobe is the NBA’s best clutch performer. Part of Abbott’s argument is the idea of offensive efficiency, a statistic that has gained tons of steam in recent years in the basketball community. On Tuesday night, we witnessed players on opposite ends of the efficiency spectrum; Kobe on the poor end and Martin on the strong end.

The two guards both poured in 30 points or more (Bryant 32, Martin 30). However, how they scored those points must be noted. Kobe took 25 total shots, whereas Martin took only 15 shots; this means that Kobe scored 1.28 points per shot, whereas Martin scored a whopping 2 points per shot. Not only did Martin shoot a higher percentage from the field (53% to Kobe’s 52%), but he also took advantage of the three-point shot (4 to Kobe’s zero) and made four more trips to the free throw line (11 to Kobe’s 7). I’m not saying Martin is better than Kobe; I’m just saying that he makes better use of his shots and his points come at less expense. It’s food for thought.

The Two Sides of Kobe

The game within the game was noticing how Kobe would respond to his 41-point, 0-assist performance in the team’s loss to the Celtics. A lot of people gave Kobe crap for taking too many shots and not recording a single assist. And rightfully so; the Lakers stunk that night and recorded a pathetic 10 team assists.

Well, it was clear from the get-go that Kobe wanted to get others involved and move the ball around. Through the first nine minutes of the game, Kobe was the only starter that had not scored. Furthermore, Kobe recorded 7 assists before he scored his first point. I remember there was one play in which Kobe shook his defender and had an easy layup, but instead he chose to whip a pass over his shoulder to Pau so that the Spaniard could get a not-as-easy bucket. It was a clear statement that Kobe was intent on getting others, most notably Gasol, the rock.

Remember how I mentioned that the Lakers recorded only 10 assists versus the Celtics? The Lakers erased that memory very quickly tonight–the team tallied the same amount of assists (10) in tonight’s first quarter alone! And while Kobe’s shot attempts were a bit high for my liking, it was nice to see him drop 11 dimes in the process.

On the flip side, there were times tonight when Kobe reverted back to old habits and played too much isolation basketball. I don’t mind Kobe “taking over.” But I do mind when he plays one-on-one and no other Lakers touch the ball on a given possession. Most notably, in the fourth quarter with under 45 seconds to go in the game, Kobe took TWO shots outside of the regular Triangle offense. Both plays were pure isolation. The first was a missed jumper in the post; Odom grabbed the offensive rebound only to have KObe jack up a base line fade away over two defenders. The Rockets responded with a brilliant offensive play to tie the game, and suddenly the Lakers faced overtime. It was a clear dichotomy in styles with one team drawing up a play for an open guy and the other team opting to give the ball to its superstar and watch him make a play.

No Bynum, No Problem

With the big man sidelined because of a bone bruise, the workload was placed on the shoulders of Odom and Gasol. Fortunately, the Rockets front court is a little bit undersized, and length would not be an issue. Hustle/effort, on the other hand, was the key to winning the battle down low. While at times Houston’s big men Chuck Hayes and Luis Scola outworked the Lakers bigs, I was very impressed by the way Odom and Pau stepped up to the challenge.

Check out the stat line from the two front courts:

Odom/Gasol:  46 points (18-38 FG), 36 rebounds, 4 blocks
Hayes/Scola:  32 points (16-27 FG), 23 rebounds, 1 block

Furthermore, the Lakers outscored the Rockets in the paint 58 to 40. So on a night when the Lakers front court lost its biggest (literally) piece, and two nights after they got pushed around by Boston’s bigs, the team responded in an emphatic way.

Other Random Notes

  • The Lakers outscored the Rockets 17 to 4 in fast break points, which surprised me for a team that is “old” and “slow.”
  • Kevin Martin was the only Houston Rockets player to attempt a free throw.
  • The Rockets bench outscored the Lakers bench 33 to 16.
  • The Rockets made 10 three-point shots; the Lakers made 6.

Conclusion

At times it was not pretty, but overall I enjoyed the game and thought it was a nice victory for the champs for several reasons. First, I saw Kobe trust his teammates again, at least in the first quarter. Second, I saw Pau play more aggressively, blocking several shots and throwing down a hard dunk. And third, and most importantly, the Lakers were involved in a dog fight and did not back down. Instead, the Lakers rose to the challenge. Sure, it was against the Rockets–not exactly a contender. Nonetheless, the Lakers could have easily folded just as they have in similar situations this season. But they didn’t. And that makes me feel good about the team’s state of mind. Now let’s see if they can bring that same fight on Thursday against a Spurs team that is coming off a loss to Portland.

Two Former Trojans Fight (On) for One Super Bowl

Cardinal Purple & Gold illustration

One week from now, on February 7, two former USC star defensive players will face off on football’s biggest stage in Super Bowl XLV. In one corner stands Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers game-changing safety, and in the other corner stands Clay Matthews, the tenacious Green Bay Packers linebacker. If you have not had the opportunity to watch Polamalu and Matthews since they left the confines of the LA Coliseum, you have missed out on two of the game’s most exciting players. Continue reading