June 05, 2009
Los Angeles Lakers 100, Orlando 75 (Los Angeles leads series, 1-0)
Call me daft, but I'm still walking away from Los Angeles' blowout win thinking that we haven't really learned a ton about these two teams, even after a decisive, one-sided affair.
You mean to tell me that, if the Lakers play smart offense, the best defense they've played all year, while the Magic run away from their offense just as many times (if not twice as many times) as Kobe Bryant(notes) hits a jaw-dropping shot, that the Lakers will win in a rout? Seriously? Sarcasm? Still? At the Finals?
It's how I function. It's how I cope.
The Magic couldn't cope. They had no answer for a Laker defense that seemed to surprise them with its quick decisions, quicker traps, anticipation, and length. And, yes; will and determination and the eye of the tiger and all that.
The Laker offense earns most of the discussion, but what was more out of place, the Magic scoring just 86 points per 100 possessions, or the Lakers scoring 115 per 100 (up about three points from its regular season tally)? Defense was the story. Laker defense, if you can believe it.
On the other end, Los Angeles' spacing in the second and third quarters was so near-perfect, only a slow start and heaps of garbage time kept them from tossing in an all-world amount of points. And Kobe? Brilliant. On both ends, too.
Phil Jackson mentioned Kobe's "drive" after the game, and I'm sure a lot of observers took it to mean his will, or his steely-eyed gaze, or the way he "wants it more."
In the context of what Jackson was discussing at the time, and what we saw in Game 1, it's clear that this would be missing the point. Kobe's "drive" had nothing to do with that nebulous stuff, and it didn't have anything to do with him driving the middle. As it usually is, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Kobe's "drive" had to do with his insistence on penetrating the Magic defense quickly and without hesitation, all while not making too obvious a move.
No dribble-dribble-dribble nonsense from Bryant, just immediate decisions that put the league's best defense on its heels, and allowed for spacing and execution from the Laker prime time players that improved considerably as the game went on.
That isn't to say Bryant wasn't focused like you wouldn't believe. But understand how this focus reveals itself, when he makes the right decisions.
It's not about scowls and redemption and legacy to Bryant. He knows better, at this point. It's about quickly calling for a high screen and roll out of the sideline Triangle in order to take the Magic defense out of its comfort zone. It's about things that have to do with basketball, not sports talk radio fodder.
And that spacing was so good; the rest of the team just knew where to go. Even when Kobe wasn't directly initiating things, the spacing was so solid that the Lakers could do no wrong at times. You could point out offensive rebounds, even, that were direct byproducts of putting the Magic on its heels early in a possession, then watching the dominos fall to a point where the Lakers got a great shot -- even after missing its first shot.
Of course, all the spacing and Kobe in the world doesn't matter if the defense isn't there. And even with the defense added into the package, you don't beat a Finals participant by 25 points unless the other team helps a bit. Jackson reminded us after the game that "things turn on a trifle" in this league, and Orlando more than helped aid in their own embarrassing loss.
Missed shots, mainly. Good shots that didn't go down in the first half, semi-tough shots in the second half that didn't go down after so-so execution, 30 percent shooting overall.
And I don't want to hear about "jitters," because the Magic came out and topped the Lakers by two points in the initial quarter.
As the blowout moved on, I wondered about the sheer shock of what it meant to turn around to face an all-world offense from Los Angeles after six games facing an all-LeBron offense from Cleveland. How muscle memory is affected by the gulf between facing a middling, predictable offense, to trying to stay in front of a potent offense that never seems to stop moving.
But if that were the case, why did the Lakers only score 22 first quarter points? I still think there's some validity to the argument, but I liked the Magic defense in the first quarter. And the game-long defense, even with Kobe going off, still left the Lakers scoring just about as many points as they did per-possession in the regular season.
Of course, doing that against the Magic defense is an accomplishment in and of itself, but it wasn't as if the Magic were caught gawking.
Really, it was pretty simple. The Magic could not make shots.
The Jameer Nelson(notes) saga? Some tried to spin it, after the game, talking about how Rafer Alston(notes) missed the entire second quarter, and how that somehow turned off the Orlando offense. Really? I just saw a lot of missed, open-to-easy, shots. I saw Rashard Lewis(notes) miss a ton. I saw Dwight Howard(notes) miss some chippies. I saw Mickael Pietrus(notes) miss a few. Courtney Lee(notes), as well. Marcin Gortat(notes), near the basket. And that's all in the second quarter!
That's not on Nelson. He set these guys up, and the guys set themselves up. Rafer Alston on the bench has nothing to do with Rashard Lewis missing an eight-footer on a post-up, on a play where Nelson didn't even make the entry pass. Or Lee missing an open three-pointer.
And the second biggest thing, to me? Dwight Howard was horrible. Absolutely horrible, on either end.
There was plenty of talk about Howard missing one of six shots. Only taking six shots. Only making one. Having no real impact in the scoring column. We love to talk about offense.
But it was his defense that was the absolute worst. He was a step slow on his help, all game. With or without foul trouble, and usually without any chance at picking up an actual foul. Late in contesting shots, and late in getting to rebounds on both ends.
But didn't he have 15 rebounds? Five offensive? Isn't that good?
In a vacuum, yes. But watching the game a couple of times, seeing him slow in reaction? Even without that aspect -- just seeing the sheer amount of missed shots that were available to be pulled in during his 35 minutes of play?
Stan Van Gundy wasn't immune, either. He couldn't get his guys on track. Alston should have returned for the final three minutes of the second quarter, when it appeared that Nelson was dragging. And while we appreciated Pietrus' effort on Kobe (just as it was with LeBron James(notes), Pietrus put in the work, and the stud just hit the shots), Courtney Lee deserved more minutes in the face of Bryant's 3-9 shooting in the first quarter.
As it was, though, 40 points on 16-34 shooting for Kobe. Eight rebounds, eight assists. Two steals, two blocks, and (how is this possible?) only two turnovers in 38 minutes of active, active play. Only two miscues is so, so huge for his team.
11 points and 14 rebounds off the bench for Lamar Odom(notes), Bynum had nine points and nine boards in 22 minutes. Pau Gasol(notes)? All-around. 16 points on 12 shots, eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks. All while Bryant stared them down. Just scowled, all night long.
All those scowls? Makes complete sense. Bryant remains the master of putting on an act, but not bullshooting, at the same time.
Understand what I'm getting at? The tough guy act, the bared teeth, the snippy answers for the media? That's an act, obviously, but he's telling the truth. It's predetermined, but there's substance there. It's just the way it seems so calculated that annoys people and turns people off. But understand that this guy, when it comes to basketball, is almost always right.
It's just up to Kobe to follow through on what his basketball conscience tells him to do. We got a lot of follow-through on Thursday night. Lots of follow-through. It was quite the sight to see.