Embracing Uncertainty, Post-Cleveland

Some losses are easy to shrug off. You drop the odd game to Charlotte - hey, it happens. You lose in Utah - fine. Tough place to play. There's another game in a day or two, and the defeat fades quickly into the past. It becomes inert. The loss column in the standings says it happened, but it doesn't haunt you.

A game like last night's... that's tougher to shake. It was the Cavaliers, a possible and even likely Finals opponent. They'd already shoved a fork into our necks once. This was our chance to hit back. The only chance the schedule guarantees us. It's not like losing to the Suns, whom the Lakers get to play every three weeks.

This one left burn marks. And it's plunged every thinking Laker fan into a search for meaning.

Twelve hours after the game ended, I still don't know what that meaning is. I don't know whether the Lakers' dereliction last night was systemic or a one-off. I don't know whether in June we'll look back on the events of January 21st and realize they were the canary in the coalmine.

There was one obviously flukish dimension to last night's game, in the form of the Lakers' poor free-throw shooting. On the one hand, that shouldn't trouble us overmuch. It sucks that nine FTAs bonked out, and the two that Pau Gasol missed with 24 seconds left won't soon be forgotten. But the Lakers are a good free-throw shooting team. Rare will be the night when they miss 37% of their attempts, and if that's what the Cavaliers need to beat L.A., they're in trouble. The house isn't going to bust that often.

On the other hand, this shouldn't really console Laker fans either, because the Cavs didn't need all those misses last night. Had the Lakers shot their season average and made 78% of their attempts, that would've been good for four more points. They lost by six. On the night the Lakers scored 1.01 points per possession, and four additional points brings that number up to only 1.06. Better, but still not good. (For the season the Lakers' offense averages about 1.09 PPP.)

So let's not get bent over the free throws. Likewise, I don't know that any interpretive clarity is found in the topic of health. If you're a Cavs partisan, you might say, "We won despite missing Mo Williams. Just wait until we're healthy!" If you're a Lakers fan, you counter with "Kobe Bryant is still playing with an injured shooting hand, and Pau's getting up to speed from his strained hammy. Just wait until we're healthy!"

Both angles are equally valid. Both are ultimately spurious. That's because full health is the exception in the NBA rather than the rule. There's no guarantee that either team will be at full strength when the playoffs begin, when and if they meet in the Finals, or ever. It's pretty unlikely, in fact. These particular injuries will heal, but others will take their place. Imagining how these teams match up in their Platonically ideal states isn't predictive.

What to me is of lasting concern is how the Laker offense isn't generating enough high-percentage looks. Check out their and Cavs' distribution of field-goal attempts last night. This table shows what percentage of each team's shots came from various spots on the floor.

Distance From Hoop

Lakers

Cavs

At the Rim

19%

42%

<10 Feet

10%

6%

10-15 Feet

20%

4%

16-23 Feet

23%

23%

Three-Point Range

28%

25%

Needless to say, you want your "At the Rim" figure to be as high as possible. The Cavs' number on that line is more than twice as high as the Lakers'. Meanwhile, the Lakers settled for far more midrange jumpers, which are deeply inefficient. For the game Cleveland dropped in 53% of its two-point shots, whereas L.A. made a harrowing 40%. (Thanks to HoopData for the stats.)

This reflects structural worries on both offense and defense. All season long the Laker offense has been too susceptible to abandoning the Triangle. It looks like the Triangle, but the passes and cuts aren't made with purpose. There's the entry pass, then a kickout, then maybe a repost. Somewhere in the sequence, the ball just stops. Either Kobe is left to create one-on-one, or Pau or Andrew Bynum try for a post move. All three of those guys are skilled enough individually that this can work against middling teams. The Cavs are too good, though.

You can't fake it against them.

On defense there needs to be a better strategy for LeBron James. Some of his shots, you just can't do anything about. The storm is coming, and all you can do is seek shelter. What shouldn't happen, though, are the half-assed double teams that allow open cuts through the lane without disrupting his vision or passing lanes. Double-team LeBron or single-team him, just don't get stuck in the middle.

So, yeah... there's been a shock to the Laker system. It's the biggest crisis of confidence since Game Six in Boston. The front office needs to be thinking hard about the adequacy of the current roster.

And yet, for everything that went wrong last night, the Lakers just barely lost. So many things went wrong and they still had a shot at the end. A few things would've had to go differently. But only a few.

This is the fog of war, NBA style. If I knew how it would end I wouldn't be watching, let alone writing. I'm just glad there's another game tonight, even if it's not against the Cavs.

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