Ball Don't Lie - NBA

One of the simpler but less-referenced precepts of the triangle offense is the idea that, if you keep everyone's hands happy in the first three quarters of a game, they'll be more than ready to contribute when called upon in a pinch late in the contest. Even if you have a, say, Michael Jordan or even Kobe Bryant(notes) dominating things late.

And the logical extension of that runs along the lines of, if the hands are happy, then the happy hands will be more willing to set screens and help a Jordan or Bryant late. And not just because they'll be in a good mood, although that helps. No, it'll be because the teammates will be in the flow. Up to the speed of the game. Not bystanders.

It's a sometimes penny-foolish and pound-wise ideal, but it's worked to the tune of 10 NBA titles since 1991, and I think it something worth banking on. I think it's worth teaching the teammates to fish rather than handing them a delicious bass with a hand in its face.

Kobe Bryant, and to a lesser extent Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher(notes), clearly don't agree with me.

They'll forget more about basketball than I'll ever know (on both ends, that's become quite clear recently), but they'll have a hard time arguing away the team's 10th-ranked offense, considering (even despite Fisher, Kobe's many injuries and a crummy bench) the team boasts Bryant, Pau Gasol(notes) (easily this league's most versatile and potent high- and low-post presence), Lamar Odom(notes), Andrew Bynum(notes) and the best offensive season we've seen from Ron Artest(notes) in years.

You might think me full of mess, but the results don't lie. There is no reason this team should be the 10th-best offensive team in the NBA (down from third in 2008-09), and the reason behind that downturn lies in the way this team has gone away from the triangle offense. It mostly has to do with what I started warning the Lakers and Kobe about back in Behind the Box Scores from early December: Kobe, you're taking too much on.

It's not about too many shots (though he takes too many shots). It's about developing a five-man rhythm rather than looking to play fourth-quarter hero through the first three quarters. Hell, the main reason Kobe has had to play fourth-quarter hero so many times this year (and it bears repeating - nobody has played fourth-quarter hero this well since Jordan's prime) is because of the pound-foolish ways they've played. Kobe dominates the ball too much. Simple as that. It's the reason they're not pulling away from teams in the second and third quarters.

The amount of shots he takes? That's not the problem. He could get 30 shots a game while touching the ball for three seconds in every possession. It's not about shots. It's about ball movement and keeping the defense on its heels. And the Lakers haven't kept anyone on their heels this year. All they've had is a Kobe-centric offense that teams know is coming, but are sometimes powerless to stop.

Some of the time.

The other times? It leaves them needlessly 10th in offense and with 21 losses already. With too many close wins and a post All-Star break swoon that has seen their play on both ends of the court rank among some of the more mediocre teams in this league.

This team had 70-win potential and has done just enough to win on most nights. But on 21 nights, that hasn't been enough. Should the Lakers still be the favorites heading into the postseason? I think so. The team's play, at its best, is still probably better than that of the Cavaliers or Magic at their best.

But that doesn't mean the Lakers don't need a major attitude adjustment.

And with the defense falling off the way it has (second in the NBA a few weeks ago, below average in the weeks since), they better get the offense together quickly. Very quickly.

And it starts with the smartest guy in the room. Kobe Bryant.

***



The Celtics are less of a concern. Mainly because they're not as good. I don't house the same enmity for their mistakes that I do with the Lakers, mostly because they're not letting us down as much.

This team is clearly a step behind the Lakers, Cavaliers and Magic. That's just how it is. And though they can still come through with a jaw-dropping performance here and there, the thing that sets the championship contenders apart is their ability to consistently perform at the highest level. And there's nothing consistent about Boston's greatness.

It's there, to be sure. But parsed out over a seven-game series? With playoff competition, you need to bring four times in seven games, four series in a row. Unless something changes, drastically, Boston won't be able to pull that off.

Why? Because the offense is average.

Because they turn it over too much. Because when you factor in an all-around game (rebounding for his position, passing, scoring more than 16.3 points per 36 minutes, defense), Ray Allen(notes) is an average player right now. Because the bench has been pretty bad. Because K.G., while still at times dominating defensively, can't turn around and then change a team's defensive approach with his offensive play. Because Paul Pierce(notes) is forced to go one-on-one too much, and at age 32, that's just not going to work.

That doesn't mean I count the Celtics out of the championship hunt. No way. Not with that defense.

But should anyone be surprised at a first-round ouster? No way. Not with that offense.

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