Yesterday's game between the Lakers and Rockets, aside from being an enjoyable romp of a borderline playoff team, represented an interesting confluence of narratives that we have not seen so far this season. It was a paean to an aging but still effective superstar in Kobe Bryant, yet also a demonstration from Andrew Bynum why he clearly is at least the second best center in the league and a virtual lock to be starting for the West in Orlando should he continue this level of play. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol slid nicely into a supporting role, and the rest of the Lakers' role players filled in the gaps. Of course, we can poke plenty of holes into that tidy picture, which otherwise describes a championship contending team, and indicate where the Lakers need to go to get to that juncture.
Yours truly was fortunate enough to attend the game, and bereft of my usual game-watching complements -- the invaluable Yahoo! Sports or ESPN box score, my Twitter timeline full of basketball peeps, television replay for things other than a Laker scoring, and of course, the SS&R game thread -- it was certainly a different, albeit still gratifying experience. Armed only then with my senses, a few cups of beer, and my very basketball savvy uncle, whose commentary and feedback made breaking down every play a joy, I present my impressions after the jump, as well as how the team can move forward:
Above was my view of the game, which was generally great and makes me regretful that I left my camera in Princeton, or else I would have a photo library for this game. Next time I suppose. In any case, taking a leaf from wondah's book -- and reflecting how disorganized these thoughts are -- the following will be presented as bullet points:
- Kobe Bryant's play was simultaneously baffling and amazing. It is a testament to the ridiculous things he has done in his career that we give a player this much leeway, but in the first half, it looked almost like another iteration of the Denver fiasco. He was hitting a few more of the jumpers that didn't go down in Denver, but his refusal to feed the post reached almost comic levels at a certain point. Bynum was trying hard to get post position, and in Brown's offense, rewarding Drew for dragging his 280 pound frame across the floor and getting in deep post position before the defense is set means you have to give him the ball. There was one particularly egregious instance where Bynum did the aforementioned and Kobe took a full four seconds dribbling on the wing before he entered the ball into the post, by which time Bynum had lost his rhythm and missed the short hook in the lane.
- It's good then that he went off as he did in the second half or we would be lofting much of the same criticisms at him as we did last game. After Courtney Lee went out with an injury, Houston defended Kobe with a combination of Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry, and Terrence Williams, and Kobe went to town from the high and mid-post areas, sinking fadeaway after fadeaway. Compared to the long jumpers he was clanking against Denver, these are the shots we want him to take, especially against a team without a standout wing defender with length (cough) Shane Battier (cough).
- The lack of movement on his clearouts still bugs the heck out of me though. Set a back pick, have someone cut down the lane, do something to put pressure on the defense off the ball. This obviously isn't a new problem, but the ball watching looks especially bad in person. Hero ball is fun, but we've seen how it can kill a team far too much. This certainly isn't to say that Kobe shouldn't take advantage of wing defenders who can't handle him, as he did ably in the second half, but anything you can do to cause the defense headaches is a good thing.
- As for Bynum, he really needs to be more decisive when he catches the ball. He expends a huge amount of effort to run down the floor, seal his man, and get in position to receive the ball, but takes an inordinate amount of time to get into his moves. It works since he's huge -- and this is only emphasized in person; dude is big. Samuel Dalembert is listed at 6'11''. Drew looked a full head taller than him. Jordan Hill looked positively Lilliputian next to him -- and can simply overpower his man to clear space for an easy hook shot in the lane, but it would save him a lot of trouble to catch and go into a jump hook or drop step going baseline. It's different of course when he catches the ball right under the rim with three defenders around him and is feeling the defense, but even there, he's so strong that when he goes up, he's going to draw fouls a lot of the time.
- In the fourth quarter though, Drew was gassed. This certainly isn't a long-term problem, as his conditioning will come around, but he was much less assertive in getting position and looking for rebounds. If Matt Barnes hadn't given him an easy outlet for his final bucket, I don't think he could have gotten that 20/20. Once Drew gets up to speed, this is going to be hell of an offense. Trying to guard him without a set defense as he runs the floor and sets up shop in the deep post is really hard to stop, especially considering that you can count the players who can single cover him on one hand.
- Oh, Pau Gasol. The memories of your beautiful left baby hook going baseline make this especially sad, but you probably should make the move to the high post a permanent one when Drew is on the floor. His jumper is money from 15-17 feet and there are very few fours who can offer a good contest at that spot, let alone be comfortable defending him there. Really, his jumper should be the foundation from which the rest of his offensive game should flow from the spot. There was a beautiful sequence in which he made a shot fake, Luis Scola bit on it and jumped, and Pau took it down the lane to the rim. Even when he faces up on the baseline or on the block, he's so long -- and like Drew, this is another thing you don't appreciate until you see him in person. Scola looked short besides him and his release is pretty high -- that his jumper is always a threat, and if the defender bites on that, try a running hook in the lane. Go with what works.
- To be fair to Pau, I didn't see a lot of the cross screens out of Ettore Messina's playbook in which guards set picks to get bigs into good position. We had quite a few of them in previous games this season, so I either didn't notice them, or they simply weren't being used a whole lot here. We said before the season that this was one thing that could help Pau a lot since he wouldn't have to fight for post position, and it was weird to see it not being utilized.
- On another matter, what happened to the heavy pick-and-roll usage? There was an inordinate amount of pounding the ball this game by all parties when we have a whole stable of bigs who are either capable roll men or can shoot the midrange jumper off it. In particular, it is a way to involve Kobe, Drew, and Pau through either a Kobe/Pau pick-and-roll in which Pau gets open for the 17 footer, Drew tries to claim post position, and Kobe has the option of either giving it to Pau for the jumper, throwing it down to Drew in the post, or shooting the open shot off the pick. Same thing with a Kobe/Drew pick-and-roll in which Drew can roll to the basket and Pau fills the space near the free throw line for the jumper. For a part of the San Antonio offense that was a big part of their identity, it was bizarre to see it not being used extensively.
- Steve Blake continues his redemption campaign from last year, looking much, much more assertive on offense and actually providing real pressure against defenses off the dribble (!). Defenders actually laid off him quite a bit during the game, giving him open jumpers off the dribble, and if they ever do play him closer, all he has to do is call for a pick and get the offense humming. He might not get the starting job since Fisher is probably assured that until kingdom come, but he almost certainly will get the lion's share of the minutes, especially in crunch time, if he continues his current play. Besides Drew, we got quite a bit about Steve working on his game in the offseason and it shows. Well done.
- On the other hand, Troy Murphy needs to be more assertive. His shot is rather flat, but it's accurate and he tends to be open quite a bit because of the attention paid to other options on the floor. This might be part of the Blake-syndrome from last year of a guy trying to fit in with his new teammates, but he really should take those open midrange jumpers when they get open since that's his role on offense. He also tries to fight for post position strangely given that he's not a threat there and should be setting picks for cutters and filling up the open spaces on the floor for his midrange game as Pau has gotten increasingly good at doing this year. On defense, he's about as bad as advertised and ball watches a lot for a guy with such a good history of rebounding, but Brown is at least getting good effort from him, which is all we can ask.
- Jason Kapono, never, ever pass the ball again. Between his brain dead pass to Blake in the second quarter that led to a turnover and his inability to throw a good entry pass -- can we please, pretty please get a backup two guard who can do so? -- he is the quintessential shooting specialist. Either shoot it if you're open or give it up. He did have one instance in which he nailed an open jumper using the space he got off a pick, so that might be one possibility of expanding his role a little, as his jumper is truly picture-perfect.
- Just as Pau and Drew look taller in person, Metta World Peace is broad. If anything, this is one aspect of his post success, as he occupies a lot of space on the block, and his defender simply can't get around his bulk to contest his shot. Moreover, he's decisive and knows what he's doing when he gets the ball in deep post position, often for hook shots or running layups in the lane. Against backup wings, he's a pretty overwhelming force in that spot. He also seems to be more in tune with the offense than I have ever seen him in a Laker uniform. His crisp pass to Blake in the corner off the dribble to close out the half was just solid court vision. Many thought, yours truly included, that the notion that MWP would be a leader and focal point of the bench unit was pretty far out, but this is another good move by Mike Brown. Kudos.
- And the crowd loves it too. Any call from Lawrence Tanter of "Metta...World...Peace" was met with jubilation, which is saying something, considering that the only other times the crowd got into the game were for: 1) Kobe's dissection of Houston's wing defenders in the fourth; 2) Bynum securing his first 20/20 game on a dunk; 3) the taco chants, and Kevin McHale clearly was trying to troll the crowd by attempting to get over the century mark.
- Darius Morris finally dressed for a game due to Josh McRoberts' injury but saw no floor time. Indeed, Brown went with a nine man rotation, and Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock, and Morris were all nailed to the bench. Given how well Blake was playing -- and Fisher was playing respectably well by his standards -- it's understandable, but for a guy who is playing with rotations to see what works, you would think Brown would have given Morris some token PT to get his feet wet, especially since it was his birthday. That in particular earned a nice embarrassed reaction from Morris when he was displayed on the board for the crowd. Moreover, Morris might be the first person in a Laker uniform whom I am actually older than. Yay!
- As for the defense, it was harder to get a read on since my spot didn't give me a good sense of the depth on the floor, which is obviously easier to see on a television screen, but it seemed again that the help defense was not as strong as it was in previous games and the pick-and-roll coverage was off in many cases, such as bigs hedging to the wrong side and similar. Kobe also continues his maddening inability to stay close to his man, giving Chase Budinger ample space to nail a number of jumpers from the corner. It's just inexplicable. Kobe isn't Dwyane Wade at this point in his career and doesn't have the athleticism to cover enough space to recover. Just stay next to the shooter, deny him the ball, and you don't have to expend that much energy on defense while also not hurting your team in the process. Sheesh.
- I've vacillated one way and another on what to do with the Lamar Odom TPE -- and by the way, Odom's PER: 1.84. I'm still upset we couldn't him for something tangible, and thought that he was going to decline from his career year last year, but damn, didn't think he would turn into a twelfth man -- and there are basically two lines of thought I've focused on that became visible during the game. One is converting it into the best talent available such as Anderson Varejao, who is a stud defensive big, knows Brown's system, and would provide a rock solid big man rotation. This also makes Josh McRoberts expendable, and if Indy was nearly able to turn McBobs into O.J. Mayo, that opens up an interesting set of possibilities. I think the defense will definitely get better as the year goes on, but Varejao would really make it rock solid, Dwight Howard or no. On the flip side, you can try for a guard who can handle the ball, as Kapono's limitations in that regard have been more or less exposed. If you can get say Kirk Hinrich, who is an able wing defender, can shoot and run the pick-and-roll, that's another solidifying of the rotation.
- Altogether though, the Lakers have looked pretty good so far this year, kinks on both sides of the floor aside. Brown simply has to figure out what works and turn this group into a more cohesive unit on both ends and that will come as the season progresses, they gain more familiarity with his system and everyone learns what their spots and roles are. That noted, it's easier to see the rationale for the Chris Paul trade after a game like this, as a game manager of Paul's caliber puts people in positions to succeed, and the synergy he would have developed with Drew would have been something to see. Certainly, the team doesn't need a Chris Paul to figure things out, but he would have sped up that process, aside from him and Kobe figuring out how to share the same backcourt. As we have constantly harped on, another perimeter creator would be a nice finishing touch on what appears to be a solid squad, but for the moment, this Laker team definitely has the potential to go a long way.