February 09, 2009
(Losing your starting center for a couple of months may have stung, but I still think the Lakers had a week for the ages. I'm glad they spent it with us.)
The thing you'd expect us to point to, as a result of a 30-point second half from the Cavaliers, was Los Angeles' unrelenting defense. And we'll get to that, though we should point out, it's hardly a surprise. The Lakers have been playing this way all year. Just because Tim Legler called them soft in December, it doesn't mean they were anywhere near that. No shocker there.
During the same second half run, it was pretty easy to get on Cleveland's defense, which seemed several steps slow. Post-game, however, 101 points given up to the Lakers seems a little passable, especially when the Lakers enter averaging about 109 per. The sheer amount of interior buckets that Los Angeles kept tossing in made the offensive barrage seem a lot worse than it was. Don't excuse the Cavs, just come down to earth.
The Laker offense? That's not entering our atmosphere any time soon.
We've already come clean regarding the idea that no defense, no matter how strong, will probably be able to do anything with this Laker offense. No, Los Angeles' offensive mark of 114.5 points scored per every 100 possessions isn't as good as the best of the SSOL-era Suns (116 per 100 in 2006-07), but I don't think anyone who has watched the Lakers this season consistently would tell you that these guys are going at it full bore on that end.
That's not an excuse for falling short, or a made-up reason for my admiration for this team's work on that side of the ball. The Lakers really haven't had to put the pedal to the metal much this season, and unlike those Suns teams, they still seem to be really saving it for spring, even as the team has won 41 of its first 50 games.
I'm telling you, this team's offense is special. Truly frightening, in basketball terms. This team is so long and so potent and so quick and so efficient in so many areas that they were able to safely top a top gear Cavs team, in Cleveland, even with Kobe Bryant struggling to keep up with Zydrunas Ilgauskas all day.
Kobe was shot, a bout of the flu and the tail end of one of the more remarkable road trips we can remember in years will do that to a man, and yet he was still able to hold his own. But in the second half, he wasn't much of a factor. It was that Laker bench, and Pau Gasol, that put things away.
The L.A. defense was damn good, we'll get into that in a bit, but the ball movement and concentration that Los Angeles showcased against a killer defensive team in the Cavaliers (second in the NBA, entering Sunday) was what kept the Cavs at arm's length. Sometimes good defense starts on offense. The Cavs, a team that had to take it out of the nets more often than they would have liked, never seemed to get in an offensive groove due to Los Angeles' offensive groove. The Laker defense slammed the whole "groove" idea shut after a while, but it started offensively for L.A.
It's what allowed the Lakers to add to their lead in the fourth quarter with Kobe on the bench, where he was likely imploring the arena to kindly stop spinning, and Andrew Bynum in civvies a few seats down, desperately trying to avoid being breathed on.
And I'm looking straight at Pau, ‘ere. Yes, Lamar Odom dominated for a stretch, but he should have dominated with J.J. Hickson trying to guard four Lakers at once, and Wally Szczerbiak whiffing on box out after box out. Major props to LO, 28 and 17 is always where it's at, but he Pau Gasol was the best Laker on the floor.
18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, zero turnovers, and a block for Pau. 6-15 shooting, worse than Lamar, fewer points and fewer rebounds and as many blocks ... but this guy makes that offense hum, even if he doesn't register an assist. And defensively, he came through with another winner.
It started on Monday, against the Knicks, where Pau managed what was probably the best defensive game I've seen him play since the 2005-06 season, if ever. He was fantastic, and matched it with a hot offensive output. Same goes for the win in Boston, where he was probably Los Angeles' best player, and on Sunday. Pau's starting to change shots. He's starting to change shots against some of the best. Scary.
Which leads us to LeBron James' putrid 5-20 shooting. We know why he shot that way, the Lakers loaded up the strong side, double or triple teamed him every time he put it on the floor, collapsed on the paint, and nudged LeBron into either passing (12 assists to one turnovers, but the Lakers will take it, as teammate after teammate missed off of James' passes) or shooting over a double team in the paint.
So, not James' fault, right?
Hardly. He never adapted to a game that saw the refereeing crew swallow their whistles for both teams. Just 35 combined free throws for both teams on Sunday, a number Kobe and LeBron combined to top at the line against the Knicks this week. And James never realized it. He kept driving into the teeth, getting bumped (slightly, or not foul-worthy at all), or nearly getting bumped, not getting a call, and watching as the Lakers raced the other way.
James never modified his game. Never tried a runner from 14 feet, just inside the charity stripe. Never tried a hard-dribble and pull up from the same spot, even though it was there for him to shoot for most of the game. He kept trying to go glass from five feet away, over six arms, or do his damage from behind the arc. And 5-20 resulted.
Now, we know that James' teammates can be pretty lousy offensively, and in spite of the team's hot start offensively (third in the NBA entering the game, first for a good chunk of the season) this season, the Cavs haven't had to ply their newfound offensive trade when the going gets tough a whole lot this year. And it stinks to have to shoot over and around double and triple teams.
Doesn't matter. Improvise. Hit the pull-up. Make your free throws. At some point, and I know that James is only 24, but he's just going to have to stop making these sorts of on-court excuses.
Overall, just as Dan Wetzel noted ("noted," how polite of me ... let's go with "nailed it," next time), you have to give it up for the guy, and Kobe. Yes, Sunday's contest could have been a bit more pleasing to the eye, but in the grand, week-long scheme ... what a week these two have given us. Thanks for that.
A fun game, it was interesting to watch how two of the league's best coaches and two of the league's worst defenses (21st for Portland, 22nd for New York) attempted to work the pace of the contest.
The Knicks run, and the Trail Blazers don't. No team averages fewer possessions per game than the Trail Blazers, it's been that way since the start of the season, and it was nearly that way last year (Portland was 29th out of 30 teams). The Knicks aren't tops in possessions per game anymore, but they're close (second to Golden State), and would prefer it if your tongues would drag by halftime.
Portland managed to keep things nice and civil in that first half, running all sorts of cutters and keeping the ball moving without letting things get out of hand. And though Portland threw up 59 points and had a nine-point lead at halftime, this was strictly a half-court performance.
The Knicks, in the second half, ran like mad. And they tempted the Blazers into doing the same, with disastrous results for Nate McMillan's crew. Worse, the Blazers defense was pathetic. Truly poor, save for the least likely (LaMarcus Aldridge) candidate to buck the trend. I really liked Aldridge's movement off the ball, even if he only had two defensive rebounds (seven overall, in 36 minutes) and one block. Maybe I was seeing his game in relative terms. I don't think you can blame me for that.
Tim Thomas really had the stroke going in the third for New York, he hit 5-7 from long range on the game, and the Knicks were one Wilson Chandler miss away from hitting half of their 28 three-point attempts on the game. A game in which they shot 29 three-pointers. See, I didn't include the Chandler miss. Everyone deserves a mulligan. I thought Semi-Pro was going to be, if not good, at least entertaining.
I also think that Travis Outlaw might be the most dependable scorer this league has in crunch time, and the stats tend to back me up in that regard. This guy, as he often is, was unconscious as the game neared the end, nailing shot after shot after shot. Though Brandon Roy hit the eventual game-winner and grabbed all the headlines, Outlaw (23 points in 31 minutes) won this game for Portland.
Dwight Howard (30 points, 16 points, just two turnovers, three steals and two blocks in 35 minutes) took over early in this one, pushing Orlando to an early double-digit lead that New Jersey never overcame.
With Vince Carter out, the Magic overloaded on Devin Harris on screen and roll plays, and though Devin finished with 28 points, 12 assists and five rebounds, he shot 9-25 from the floor, and had to watch as his teammates failed to pick up the slack offensively.
I was planning another drooling missive on why this is easily the finest rookie class I can remember, but Michael Beasley's four-point, two-rebound turn in 13 minutes almost prevented me. Almost.
We're awash in rockin' youngsters, D.J. Augustin had five second-half three-pointers, 27 points and six assists (to only two turnovers) in the game, and fellow rookie Mario Chalmers truly ran things with 16 points and 13 assists. Dwyane Wade (22 points) had to handle the rock and make a few passes in the win, but he mostly got to play a true shooting guard most of the time. Fun to see.
And that was about it. Larry Brown vs. a Pat Riley disciple? Not exactly a recipe for entertaining basketball.
Eight turnovers for the Heat, against a pretty good (8th) defense from Charlotte. The Bobcats are the fifth-best at causing turnovers per possession, so that's a pretty impressive night out. And incredibly dull.
Caron Butler? Geez, dude. Save some for the rest of us. Sorry for calling you "dude," but damn. Geez. Damn and geez.
Butler scored Washington's last 15 points, not missing over the end chunk of the fourth quarter, and looked as if he could have tossed in 15 more if this game needed go on an extra 10 minutes.
The guy's touch from the perimeter was ridiculous, he wasn't just tossing up rain-grabbing chucks from 25 feet, rather, C-But was crossing over and pulling up and squaring his way toward a spot-on series of Jordan-esque line drives. Lots of "wow" in that final quarter. Butler hasn't looked this good in a year.
12-24 shooting for Caronimo, he finished with 35 points and 13 rebounds, absolutely carrying the Wizards to this win. I'm not sure any defender in this league could have stopped Butler during his run.
Danny Granger, mind you, wasn't far behind. A couple of would-be game-winners for Granger in the final minute, and though he was crossed over by Butler in the final seconds, refer to the last line in the above paragraph for my take on the final play.
29 points on only 15 shots for Granger, and T.J. Ford (23
points on 11 shots) also had his fair share of stunners in the lane.
Nothing stunning about Antawn Jamison, as Antawnamo Bay (34 points) was almost a one-man gang for Washington in that first half.
Further bad news for the Pacers: Mike Dunleavy's goofy right knee started bothering him in the first quarter, and he was in street clothes by the second half. In solidarity, I changed into a makeshift Dun. Jr. jersey in time for the third quarter.
LeBron might be the league's greatest offensive force, Dwyane Wade may have led the league in scoring for most of the year, and Kobe Bryant's always a bad room service experience away from dropping 57 on you, but I'd be awfully surprised if Kevin Durant didn't lead the league in scoring in 2010-11.
I wouldn't even mind putting money on him to lead the NBA in points per game next season. No weirdness or exaggeration. Just watch. At this rate, the kid is going to be right there.
39 jaw-dropping points for Durant on Sunday (OK, the four free throws he hit didn't make my face go all funny, but the other 35 were crazy-hep), and it's safe to note that this guy absolutely has it. I don't care that it came against Sacramento, the league's worst defense. Not interested. Durant is just as pure as they come. The next 17 years are going to be fun as hell.
Seven boards, four assists, two turnovers, and a couple of blocks for the second-year forward in the win, Sacramento made a game in it during the second half, but Durant's touch helped keep the Kings at bay.
Actually, the Kings may have had a chance had they not turned the ball over and over again in that first half. Once the turnovers sealed up over the final 24, things evened out (Sacto actually out-scored the Thunder by 10 during the third and fourth quarters), but the first half hole was too deep to overcome. Or, dig out of. Whatever.
And though Oklahoma City's defense has improved under Scott Brooks, and as the season has moved along (let's be honest, it would have improved under P.J. Carlesimo as well, young teams can't help but get better), the turnover issues were almost entirely Sacramento's fault. Heaps of bad decisions, and when you throw in a rebounding disadvantage (-7), a 12-18 mark from three-point land matters little.
Also, why Kevin Martin has become an afterthought in an offense that should revolve (several thousand revolutions) around him, I've no idea.
A pitiful performance for the Timberwolves, who couldn't overcome Chris Paul's absence and David West's second quarter ejection (and possible suspension, he whacked Mike Miller for no reason), and ended up losing to a Hornets team they far, far outclassed.
The worst part? Al Jefferson went down with a right knee injury in the game's final minute, and things do not look good.
Things look awfully dim, in fact. As in, gone-‘til-November dim. The best the Wolves should be hoping for, on appearance alone, would be an Andrew Bynum-type MCL tear that would leave ... you know, I'm stopping here. I've been a huge Jefferson fan since his first month in this league, and after the All-Star snub, this is just too frustrating to finish. Even an MCL tear keeps him out for the rest of the year.
No Paul, nine points and two boards from West, and Peja Stojakovic missed nine of 11 shots. Miserable hole to have to dig out of, but the Hornets pulled the win by getting to the line (32-39, 82 percent) and making the extra pass. Caught Minnesota sleeping defensively time and time again, and Sean Marks (18 points on Sunday) had another knockout performance in Minnesota's face.
Marks was averaging 2.4 points and 2.8 rebounds entering the game, but the lanky forward is averaging 14 points and six rebounds against the Timberwolves so far this year.
"So far this year." They could meet in the Western Conference finals, y'know.
Story of the year for the Pistons. The team's defense is porous in all the wrong places, and the offense is pretty darn inefficient. 21st in offense entering Sunday's game, and I don't think a 42 percent shooting night against a bad defensive squad from Phoenix -- only putting up 97 points despite the elevated pace -- really helped things.
The effort was there, Allen Iverson (25 points, seven assists, one incredibly good bounce pass on the break in the third quarter) tried to stay in front of Steve Nash, he tried to make up for it on the other end, but the Pistons just don't have the offense anymore. You can blame it on Chauncey Billups' absence to an extent, but anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Flip Saunders' playbook could have seen this coming.
Point to all the roster upheaval you want to, but there was a reason the Pistons were fourth, sixth, and sixth under Saunders after working in the low teens in offensive efficiency under Larry Brown. And sixth to 21st can't all be blamed on Billups, especially with Rodney Stuckey's ascension.
Nash was fantastic. Afforded the chance to stay a step ahead of his defender for what had to feel like the first time in years (even if it was only weeks), he utilized that live dribble and one-handed strength to pump 21 assists his teammates way, even if a couple of those (even with the Detroit crew scoring things) seemed like a reach.
Changing gears, I have to say that it is nights like this (one rebound in 37 minutes) that make me cringe when pundits deliver the typical breakdown of Tayshaun Prince: "he defends, he rebounds, and he's a team leader ..."
Just because he's long, and just because defensive know-how often teams with blue collar play, and "blue collar play" often seems to mean "big boards," it doesn't mean Prince is a good or (before this year) even average rebounder.
He averaged 4.7 rebounds a game entering this season, and is at 6.6 caroms on the year. That might be a career-high, but wouldn't someone who "rebounds" be doing a bit better on an undersized frontline full of players six or seven years older than he is, on a team that is mediocre on the defensive glass, and below-average on the offensive glass?
This turned into a criticism of Prince, and I feel bad for that, but we have to be a bit more nuanced in our evaluations. I heard it for so long about Bruce Bowen (one of the finest defenders of the last 25 years, but also one of the worst rebounders), and I can't believe it's carrying over to Prince. It can't be enough that he destroys All-Stars defensively, and changes game on that end? We have to credit him with more that what he's doing?
And don't even get me started on his "blocks shots for you ..." nonsense, when the guy averages .6 per game on his career.
No defense at all for the Jazz in the second half, I understand that missing Andrei Kirilenko hurts, but there's no reason to play this poorly on that end this far into a season where you should be used to playing without important parts.
Golden State just moved the ball and attacked the rim incessantly, you could tell it was a real strategy from the outset (don't smirk at this, when you know Golden State finds nightly excuses to stay outside of 25 feet for 48 minutes), and even though it didn't start paying off until the third quarter, the push to play like a tough team offensively was worth it.
If it sounds simple, it is. But teams get caught up in their own stereotype so much, and someone like Don Nelson is such a passive/aggressive jock-type ("I won't tell you you're shooting too much from out there, I'll just ignore it and sit you"), that it really stands out when the attack is on. And Utah, a team that has to struggle to hit the top 10 defensively even when everyone is on board, just wasn't up to the task.
A balanced attack for Golden State, while we're at it. Seven of the eight prominent rotation players (Anthony Morrow went scoreless in 158 seconds of play) scored in double figures, with only two (Corey Maggette and Stephen Jackson) in the 20s despite 116 total points.
On Utah, Deron Williams' sustained bout of recent brilliance (31 points and 10 assists, with seven rebounds) has been fun to watch, but his six turnovers added to the 17 in total for the Jazz, a number that more than doubled Golden State's mark of eight miscues. Maths.
The only way to plow through this is with the mea culpa.
Faced with a series of Sunday games that start at three in the afternoon and end around one in the morning on Monday, my time, I've long passed on watching the first ABC game in real time, instead deciding to either stay up and watch the early morning ESPN replay of it, or wake up Monday morning and go through it while preparing BtB.
Today, flushed some downright horrible vanilla biscotti coffee that I really never should have bought my girlfriend, I stayed up to take in Spurs/Celtics, only to find out that ESPN decided to replay its own game (on ESPN2, the Suns/Pistons contest), with Cavs/Lakers going out again on ESPN. So, I more or less blew that one.
And it's not like some random Pacer game was blacked out from my view. These are the defending champs and owners of the East's second-best record going up against a team that could be a groin pull away from winning the West, and I've no idea what happened beyond highlights, gamers, and the box score.
With no game to watch, as it's kind of the point of the column, I cannot go behind the box score.
At this stage, the best I can do is direct you to CelticsBlog, or Pounding the Rock, and follow the various links from there (I can't possibly begin to try and detail all the great C's blogs, so you'll just have to use the magic of the hyperlinking system in action). Also, SB Nation seems to want to ruin my computer as of late, so you've been warned. But give it a try.