You'd be wrong in pointing to Los Angeles' offense as the reason why the Lakers lost at home to the Boston Celtics on Sunday. Doc Rivers' crew shot an astounding 60 percent from the field and tallied 34 assists with Rajon Rondo(notes) having a particularly dominant second half on his way to a 16-assist afternoon. It was the defense that killed these Lakers. Or, more specifically, Boston's terrific offense.
And you'd be wrong if you figured Los Angeles as a lacking offensive club on the whole in that loss. The Lakers put up 110 points per 100 possessions, a remarkable achievement against a Celtics team that allows just 100 per 100 overall, and the 110 per 100 mark isn't far removed from Los Angeles' league-leading average of over 112 points per 100 possessions.
The typical reaction, to observers commenting both during the game and after, had to do with Los Angeles' Kobe Bryant(notes)-centric offense. How he dominated the ball too much, going at the Celtics in a one-on-five fashion and looking off his teammates on his way to a 29-shot, zero-assist outing. And in a game where Boston shot 60 percent and possibly came through with its finest offensive achievement of the season, these reactions are ... correct.
Because we've seen Los Angeles get its defense in gear. Long arms, 7-footers to spare. Even with Derek Fisher(notes) and Steve Blake(notes) lagging two steps behind. The offense? That's a trickier bit.
The same goes for the Miami Heat, who shrugged off an embarrassing Thursday night loss to the New York Knicks to rebound somewhat against an Oklahoma City team that appears to have forsaken its initial roots as a defense-first outfit. Even if the switch (12th overall to eighth offensively; down from ninth defensively to 17th) has the Thunder on pace to top last season's win total by three victories without a major personnel upgrade to speak of.
The Heat, apologies for straying, are fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, regularly coming through with the sort of 100-points-per-100-possessions mark that the Lakers tossed out on Sunday. And yet, they worry. And yet, the Lakers worry. Because offense, in a modern NBA full of scouting, willing defenders and the possibility for four seven-game series' played out over two months, is a tough thing to keep up when you take shortcuts.
And the Lakers and Heat take shortcuts.
There's no way around it. The Lakers often abandon their triple-post offense in favor of a Kobe-styled attack that has the Laker guard taking on opposing defenses by his lonesome, and no amount of retellings of the Michael Jordan story (which supposedly had him tolerating Phil Jackson's offense for three quarters before taking over) can help endorse this way of thinking. As a result, for two straight games in the malaise of the midpoint of the season, Los Angeles has lost at home with Bryant's teammates looking disinterested and looked-over on both ends of the court.
Is it Bryant's teammates' job to stay steady and ready no matter how disappointing the team game might be? Of course. They're at fault here.
But is it also Bryant's job, as the smartest guy in the room, to engage these lesser types throughout the contest? To have the faith to give up the ball early in a possession and possibly not see it again? No doubt. Sorry for going this route, but for all the revisionist history with Michael Jordan, that's what M.J. would have done. Even if he was just feeding the martyr in him.
As it stands, Bryant has taken 22 shots (making seven) in his last two fourth quarters as the Lakers let two winnable games get away. He's sat just a total of 92 seconds over the last two second halves of the home losses to Sacramento and Boston, and the Laker offense is in full-on penny-wise/pound-foolish mode. The numbers are there, sure, but when it comes time to get a needed bucket or easy look, the predictability of the "give-it-to-Kobe-and-get-the-hell-out-of-the-way" offense is leading to contested misses when the Lakers need a bucket the most. Crunch time.
And Miami? They've got some pamphlets to hand you, when it comes to predictability.
The Thursday loss was the absolute pits, in that regard. The Heat were without Chris Bosh(notes), whose presence means the world in terms of spacing and screening, but too often Miami's crunch-time offense devolved into a miserable series of isolation sets featuring LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes). Those two wouldn't even bother to engage a play until the 14-second mark of the shot clock, and even calling these things "plays" seems fanciful at best and degrading to the notion of a drawn "play" at worst.
Because for every dribble LeBron and D-Wade took, a basketball angel lost its wings. Sure, there was always the chance that a half-step or guess to the wrong side would result in James or Wade diving to the rim for a thunderous slam, but more often than not Knicks fans were left giddy at the prospect of James and Wade pounding the ball into the ground. And for all the calls of "Erik Spoelstra needs to call a timeout, to fix this mess" from the TNT crew, did they not see the Heat coach at midcourt, calling for the same flattened isolation set several times down the stretch?
The problem here is that this is what both of these teams are relying on. And while the Lakers won their second straight title last June, and the Heat made nice work of the Thunder down the stretch on Sunday, both teams' initial instinct to go isolation-first is worrying.
For the Lakers, it's not a "who-would-you-pass-the-ball-to-because-[insert teammate here]-stunk" situation. When Kobe's teammates shoot 37 percent from the floor in the game and Kobe gives up five shots to that teammate, it doesn't mean that teammate will hit just two of those five looks at absolute best. It's not a given that this sustains.
There has to be an element that allows for surprise. And the only way the defenses loading up against the Lakers can be surprised is for the Lakers themselves to be surprised. And the way toward that ideal lies in good spacing, quick decisions and ball movement. The Laker offense has always been at its best when the Lakers themselves don't know who will be taking the eventual shot. And, not sure if you saw on Sunday, but we all knew who was taking that shot for Los Angeles. Boston knew, too. Which is why Boston won.
Miami doesn't go into its isolation offense thinking Wade and/or James will be putting up 29 shots without a single assist, as James and Wade are happy to make that extra pass (James' dish to Eddie House(notes) for an open three helped seal the win on Sunday). But, as with Kobe's two assists in the fourth quarter of the Kings loss, that's not the point. Stephon Marbury(notes) got assists, too. The point is a multi-faceted, five-man attack that utilizes the offensive strengths of all the participants, like Boston came through with in its win (Rajon Rondo had 16 dimes, but he wasn't the focus, was he?). The point is not to have every score (be it a bucket or an assist) go through a single superstar.
Any defense can steel itself to defend that. Any defense worth its salt (and the Thunder have clearly not been worth their salt on that end this season) can load up on the main ball-handler and prep for the obvious pass should his initial scoring option be taken away. The trick is to create an offense that is bigger than the sum of its parts, and though Boston (just 11th in the NBA in offensive efficiency) is clearly lacking in overall offense compared to Los Angeles and Miami, the Celtics' instincts (utilizing options and ball movement as opposed to a star-driven turn) seem better suited for May and June than the way the Lakers and Heat are playing right now.
Los Angeles got its act together last May and last June. The ball movement was there, the wins piled up and the team won a ring. Bring this post up in four months, and it may seem like it was written four decades ago. The Lakers have proven they can make midseason malaises like this seem like ancient history in quick order. And though the defense stunk on Sunday, that'll get better. It always does.
Miami's proven absolutely nothing. They deserve no such benefit of the doubt.
And this is why this league is so intriguing. Because these teams have another few months to figure it all out. All on public record.