Keep the train rolling and get these next couple of wins before the big run of games comes up and the Lakers will be in great shape for the All-Star break.
Lakers vs. Grizzlies & Hornets (Games 33 & 34 1/9 & 1/10/2008)
Who Needs Home Cookin?!
When road trips big or small go as smoothly and according to plan as this little mini trip went, suddenly home court advantage holds no weight. What does hold weight, water and an impressive record with a tougher schedule than last year at this point are the Lakers.
The same Lakers that have since shored up a lot of problems that were keeping them from being this competitive last year and any year in the P.S. (Post-Shaq) era. The main thing that has changed (and sure there’s a ton from last year, but..) is the Lakers coming into these last two road games looking to take it the Grizzlies and Hornets out of the gate.
How many times last year did every Laker fan sit wondering why they came into games softly, looking for other team to establish pace before the Lakers found one of their own? It was too many times. But in these last two contests from the first tip the Lakers were the aggressor on both ends. One consistently great thing they did on defense on this road trip was not letting shooters have their way.
Starting Memphis, the Lakers turned Mike Miller, a normally dead-eye shooter, into a distributing guard. The ball was forced into his hands taking it up the court and once the ball circulated back to him, the Lakers immediately looked to crowd him into passing it off or taking an off-balance shot. When the Lakers slipped on this, you saw Miller being to pick up the pace. But, differently from years past, the L:akers sealed it back up again. Though there’s been plenty of times this season when the Lakers have let shooters have their way, it looked as if they learned their lesson.
It looked that way not only from the Grizzlies game, but also from the Hornets game where Stojakovic was all but sealed off from his comfort zone. Whether it was Walton, Kobe or Ariza, there was no room to operate off of screens or move along the baseline to pop out up top of the arc on a drive and kick at any point. The Lakers did a great job of once again, neutralizing a player that has and still can burn them. That was a big step forward for this trip. There are plenty of games left to be sure, but it’s a fantastic sign when you see the Lakers come into games with a defensive focus as strong as their offensive one.
Another giant step forward, points off turnovers. It’s been a problem for this Laker team to take advantage of the mistakes they create, but with these two games under their belt, hopefully that’s a thing of the past. Not only were the Lakers making the shots they needed to in transition off of turnovers, they were pushing the issue as well. There was no slow walk into the front court, it was a steal, or turnover, turned into a 3 man push into the paint or a clear drive and kick. There was no hesitation in doing what they knew they had to do.
Part three of the good changes made in these two games was the energy the Lakers came into the 3rd quarter with. In the most important quarter of the game, the Lakers have now begun to realize that setting the pace as strongly and willfully as they have in the 1st quarter plays a big factor in the outcome of the game. Despite losing momentum in both of the games due to a lack of defensive effort, the Lakers have cleaned up their act as quickly as they lost the grip on the large lead. Mostly, it has been a re-focusing of defensive efforts and game plans that put their lead back into order.
Yet another good thing to see being used on this trip was the perfect use of defensive attention on Kobe. It’s a two-fold element of the game, with Kobe looking to pass out of the double team, rather than force action and the other guys getting into clear passing angles to put sight lines where they need to be. When that double team was used to the advantage of the team (that is now producing off of the passes that have been there for a while) both the Grizzlies and the Hornets were thrown into a scrambling defense, more than the set man to man or zone schemes they threw at the Lakers. In other words, motion off the ball / the use of the offense as it’s been designed for this year’s team, has paid off in the form of 2 convincing wins on a back to back roadie.
It’s apparent that Luke’s ankle is rounding into shape. The off ball movement and constant use of low line screens has returned. The faltering motion in and out of the posts and key has disappeared, replaced by more confident use of the skills that have made Luke an interesting piece to the Laker success. It would still be good to see Luke use the post as more of a tool to set up passes rather than trying to take into the trees of Chandler, West or any other big man in the area.
Suddenly, the game of basketball has become more freewheeling and easy for Kobe too. How many times did you catch yourself remembering that, oh yeah, the Lakers still have the best player in the game to go to as well as everyone else. It’s been a long time since Kobe hasn’t had to carry the team in the second half of a game, let alone the entire thing. The game has become even easier for Kobe. With everyone staying at home more often on defense, it’s prevented the scrambling Kobe’s had to defensively before. With everyone pushing the ball into the front court without always having to follow Kobe’s lead, it’s allowed a more purposeful easier tempo for Kobe’s game to be either on or off. The having to be on all the time Kobe of the past couple years seems to be fading – and I’m sure Kobe is more than happy about it.
Better yet, with the Laker bench and other starters playing up to the levels they can play at, Kobe’s minutes have gone down. Not only is a smaller amount of shots good for the team’s health and confidence, so is being able to limit Kobe’s time on the court. This more casual substituting of Kobe will pay big dividends in the post-season. A well rested, confident in his teammates and healthy Kobe in the playoffs, coupled with the motivated and heady play of everyone else could lead to good things.
Lamar, settling into the 3rd option groove did a fantastic job of being the sweeper. In both of these games Lamar has been roving underneath on the offensive end, cleaning up missed shots with a board or an aggressive put-back. Keeping Lamar on the high post, able to go from weak to strong or otherwise and able to move in and out of the low post allows more room for Bynum to operate and more room for Lamar to do what he does best. Defensively, it was good to see Lamar physically push Ely, Gasol, West, Chandler, Gay, Milicic and Gasol out of the post. He was playing good body up defense in the thick of things down low. It looked to be a use of the energy he once expended on offense trying to be a 20 per game guy, channeled into a real good roving role in low block. Overall, I think Lamar limiting his three point shots even more will continue to force the action inside and open up the arc for more assured long distance shooters.
Ariza’s been playing really well too. He runs the offensive and defensive sets with smooth precision. His length along the arc on defense is becoming a real threat. Along with that good use of length, his anticipation of passes and of player positioning was uncanny in these two games.
Andrew was integral, once again. In the Hornets game particularly the arsenal of shots Andrew suddenly threw out there (the hook, the left handed hook off the glass, quick turnaround decisions) was more than impressive. He was falling asleep a bit on the high post, letting Chandler and others sneak past him without much motion to get back to them down low. He has to continue to track his assignment from the high to low post. If guys like Chandler are looking to run from high to low, than he has to get in front of them, allow a couple steps of space and make sure he seals off the sides of the paint. Andrew has also got to be quicker boxing out the off big man. Lastly, he’s got to be careful of not working himself underneath the hoop too deep. A couple times in the Grizzlies game he was caught one step too far underneath and got buried by a collapsing defense. Not so much in the Hornets game, but it did happen twice there as well.
Otherwise, Andrew was more than good this trip. His rebounding skills are becoming just nasty. Once he tracks a board, he doesn’t let it go. One, two, three guys, it hasn’t mattered, if Andrew extends and uses his strength of hand, there was barely a board within his reach he didn’t get. The passing was a great thing to see. Particularly, the game between him and Luke in New Orleans was great to watch. As long as defensive attention gets paid to him (much like Kobe) he has got to continue to look for dives and cuts from the open man. Andrew did that and so much more, the least of which was continue to make other team realize that guarding the low post of the Lakers isn’t something to be ignored any more.
Derek’s dead-eye shooting was more than impressive too. The running under screens penchant was there in full force in New Orleans. Sometimes he’d even go underneath a screen far before it was even pushed up on him. That defensive (and permanent) hitch aside, Derek was invaluable on this trip. More than anything else it was Derek’s constant pushing of the ball into the teeth of defenses, making them fall back off of the mid range game that was huge. His decision making was spot on this road trip too.
Kwame played these two games in half speed it seemed. Though he was defensively effective in both games, there’s too much sauntering in the post right now. He’s got to play with the same zip in his step that he flashed on offense here and there this time out.
The defensive front of Kwame and Ronny on this trip went a long way to solidifying one of the NBA’s strongest benches.
Farmar played really well too. In the Grizzlies game he followed suit with pushing the ball into the Grizzlies faces. The jab dribble he showed on the court that whole game was opening up space all over the mid-range game. Just like Fisher, it was great to see a point guard core come into a game looking to push the pace and take control of the tempo. Jordan’s shooting continues to improve as well. Defensively he had a hard time (as is to be expected) against Paul, but for the most part Jordan did a good job keeping his focus on where his assignments were in both games.
I could go on forever right now. I have a ton more notes, but I’ve rambled on long enough as it is. Suffice to say that the Hornets win was impressive and the Grizzlies win was gratifying. The Lakers are taking care of the team they should be taking care of and taking good team steps forward in the process.
Smart positioning has led to smart passing and more open shots for everyone. The transition defense has got to be quicker though. Everyone has got to come back at all times. When the Lakers have come back as a unit they slowed down the fast break opportunities of the Grizzlies and Hornets.
The big problem that needs to be shored up now is finishing quarters as strong as you start them. It’s not the be all end all of things that need to be cleaned up, but there’s no use in building quick strong leads if you’re going to let teams get a breath at the end of quarters.
Alright, so now it’s back home to take revenge on Milwaukee and continue this streak of confident, team, winning play.
"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." - Winston Churchill