So, who had the Lakers 0-2 to start this thing?
After their embarrassing performance against Dallas in the season opener, a sure bet would have been for this veteran Laker squad to go into Portland against a Blazers team that will contend for a lottery pick and assert their dominance, essentially admitting that they didn't take the Mavs seriously and that their opening day loss was an aberration.
Instead, despite an improved offensive effort, the Lakers somehow managed to play worse defensively and compounded their poor defensive effort by turning the ball over at an absurd rate. As they did against the Mavericks, Los Angeles allowed the Blazers to stay in the game early, and once a team starts to thinking "hey, we can beat these guys," they start playing loose and with a ton of confidence. Meanwhile, with every J.J. Hickson jumper and errant pass, the Lakers get tighter and tighter and start to lose all of their rhythm on the offensive end.
The Mavericks and the Blazers both hit some really tough shots against the Lakers, which may make their offensive numbers seem like a fluke, but those kind of baskets are a byproduct of Los Angeles allowing them to get comfortable and to start playing freely. It's the opposite story for the Lakers, who have yet to get into a comfort zone this season and, as a result, just about the only player that has been getting good looks in their rhythm is Pau Gasol, and that's largely because defenses are choosing the lesser of several evils by letting Pau have the mid-range jumper.
Los Angeles' defense, specifically on pick-and-roll, has been the biggest factor in their 0-2 start. It's also not a coincidence that LA's defense is the part of the game most impacted by Dwight Howard not being back to his normal self. You can expect things to greatly improve once a fully mobile Howard is ready for actions, but what is concerning is that the Lakers don't seem to know how they want to guard the pick-and-roll. It'd be one thing if Howard was being beaten to the rim on every play because his timing is off, but the Lakers' failures on defense are also scheme related. Mike Brown is supposedly a defensive coach, so his inability to make pick-and-roll adjustments, which we saw all of last season, too, makes you scratch your head.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, of the 16 teams that have defended at least 10 pick-and-roll plays finished by the ball handler this season, the Lakers have given up the third most points per possession in basketball. The only two teams behind them are the Heat and the Celtics and that's because they both went bananas offensively on opening night. The Lakers have had 32 pick-and-roll plays finished by the ball handler against them this season and those ball handlers (mostly Darren Collison and Damian Lillard) have scored on 50% of those possessions. Also of concern is that the Lakers have only forced turnovers on 9.4% of those possessions, which is another trend we saw last season.
Despite playing an out of control game, Lillard was crucial in Portland's victory. The majority of their offense came through Lillard pick-and-rolls, and Lillard produced by getting into the paint, drawing fouls, hitting some crazy fadeaway shots and, most damning of all, finding wide open shooters (he had 11 assists).
The Lakers have no answers for quick guards once they turn the corner, especially with Dwight not at 100%, which compromises their defense, and the Blazers made the Lakers pay for their step slow rotations with good three-point shooting. It also seemed like whenever the Lakers were about to get a key stop, J.J. Hickson would slip into the paint behind Dwight and Pau and grab an offensive rebound. LA's defense was out of whack in every way last night and that was against a team with only one perimeter playmaker. Needless to say, if they keep this up, they'll never reach their potential.
What was amazing about last night is that the Lakers essentially matched the Blazers in field goal percentage (50% shooting to Portland's 51%), three-point shooting (44% to 45%) and free throw shooting (81% to 82%). The difference was Los Angeles' 24 turnovers (Portland had 12) and the easy baskets that those turnovers created for the Blazers got the Rose Garden bouncing and the players going. And the crowd certainly was a factor during the second half. Once Sasha Pavlovic went on his his personal 7-0 run during the third quarter to increase a five point lead to 12 in less than 40 seconds of gametime, the crowd went nuts and the Lakers started to force things (right after Pavlovic hit that three, Dwight was called for an offensive foul, swinging the momentum even more).
The positive takeaway from this game is how Kobe and Dwight played offensively. They combined to score 63 points (Howard had 33 and Bryant had 30) and found a good mix in terms of touches. Bryant was a turnover machine (he coughed the ball up seven times) but I still like the shots he got and he seems to have an improved deep stroke. Howard had an awesome offensively, grabbing six offensive rebounds (14 total) and dishing out five assists in addition to his 33 points. He finished off 15 plays in the post last night, shooting 6-of-10 from the block while drawing five fouls and only committing one turnover. Howard also found his rhythm at the line, converting 15 of his 19 free throws last night.
The injury to Steve Nash is obviously concerning, as it seemed like he was a bit more aggressive in this game before he got hurt, and I'm sure he would have made a big difference in the second half if he had played. It didn't look serious and let's hope that it isn't, but if he needs time to let his leg heal, I'd have no problem letting him rest on Friday night (he is currently hopeful that he will play).
This was a better effort by the Lakers, at least offensively, but they have yet to put together a complete game (or play a single bit of defense). This team does deserve your patience, but nobody's blaming you if you're infuriated by the way they have started the season.