Even in a loss, there were a lot of things that went positively for the Lakers last night that should encourage all Laker fans about the future of this team, and I'll get to those in a second. But sometimes, even if a team plays well, ending up with a close loss in a game they should have won always makes everything else feel moot. And the Lakers played really well last night, especially defensively, against the top team in the Western Conference. But the final 30 seconds of that game just keep replaying in my head over and over again.
At this point, even if he's going to get blown by, you have to put Kobe Bryant on the primary ball-handler in crunchtime. Bryant is notoriously more active when he is guarding a ball-handler and we have years worth of evidence that suggests he is one of the worst off ball defensive players in the NBA. After the game Tony Parker hinted that Gregg Popovich drew up that play for Danny Green specifically because he knew Bryant was going to ball watch on that possession and be a step slow getting around Tim Duncan's down screen. In fact, Duncan didn't even have to make contact with Bryant for his screen to be effective. Kobe simply ran into Dwight Howard on his way out to Green (as evidenced here with full snark).
You know how that turned out: Bryant was a second late running at Green, a deadeye shooter, and Green promptly buried the three to give the Spurs a two point lead with nine seconds left and it held as the game winning shot in San Antonio's 84-82 victory.. For Pop to run that play with the game on the line (when he didn't even need a three and with the shot clock off), particularly with Tony Parker already having produced some heroics this season, showed just how must trust he has in his team to execute under pressure.
It's been a while since you could say that about the Lakers, and you could see the stark differences between these two teams on the very next play when the Lakers ran a play to post-up Kobe and literally had no second option when he was denied an entry pass. That's not a knock on Bernie Bickerstaff play design/call, it's just concurrent with trends we've seen from these two teams for several years now.
Things would have been much different had Steve Nash been healthy, so this loss is certainly nothing to fret about, but that was still a tough game to lose. They outplayed the Spurs for the entire game up until the last two possessions, but just a second's worth of laziness on defense ruined what was the Lakers' best defensive effort of the season. Kobe's late closeout wasn't the only mistake Los Angeles made on defense in the fourth quarter, though. With Nash and Steve Blake out, Bickerstaff went to a point guard-less line-up to closeout the game, which resulted in Metta World Peace guarding Tony Parker.
If there was anybody left out there that still believed Metta could guard somebody, they had their minds changed last night. Parker abused him in those final four minutes, which made it even more surprising that Pop went away from the pick-and-roll with Parker that was working so well. Given Metta's horrible offensive game, there was really no reason for him to be on the floor in crunchtime, other than Bickerstaff not trusting Morris. But I think Morris would have competed better than MWP did on defense and at least he's shown capable of hitting spot-up shots on offense. I do like that Antawn Jamison was playing the three in crunchtime last night and I hope that continues under D'Antoni, because Metta just doesn't provide anything to be on the court in big moments.
The good news is that this was a regular season game on November 13th when the Lakers were missing their first and second string point guards and their head coach, so you can pretty much wipe away the result of this one. What we don't have to wipe out was Dwight Howard's pick-and-roll defense, which was good as we have seen it last night, and the scary thing is that he can get even better. His ability to cover so much ground when hedging and recovering is truly special and it really put a damper on San Antonio's historic offense. Holding the Spurs to just 94.4 points per 100 possessions is an accomplishment for this team to hang it's hat on, even if it came in a loss.
Los Angeles' defensive performance last night continued a small trend about the Spurs that has been forming since the Western Conference Finals last season. What I've been noticing is that teams with point guards capable of pestering Parker and delaying his dribble drives just a bit that also have mobile centers that can cover a lot of ground against pick-and-rolls as well as anchor the defense can really slow down the Spurs. In the WCF, the Thunder put Thabo Sefolosha on Parker and had Ibaka protecting the paint (OKC held the Spurs to 92.5 offensive efficiency in their season opener). Earlier this season the Clippers put Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe on Parker while a much improved DeAndre Jordan roamed the paint and talked like your wife while you are trying to watch a game. And last night Morris and Howard combined to do a solid job containing Parker until MWP switched onto him.
If you can slow San Antonio's pick-and-roll attack, they are forced to give the ball to Tim Duncan on the block and that is a win for the defense. Going down to the post slows up the Spurs' offense, which thrives on ball movement and dribble penetration, and Duncan only shot 39% on post-ups last season (per Synergy Sports Technology) and you could see last night that he had serious trouble getting shots off over Dwight.
On the flip side, the Spurs' pick-and-roll defense was pretty solid last night as they really limited Dwight's looks on the roll. This is something that San Antonio was able to do effectively against the Clippers in the playoffs last season. Luckily, Nash has seen every pick-and-roll trick Popovich has in his book and has been able to counter it every time. And just in case he needs some help solving the schemes, pick-and-roll savant Mike D'Antoni is his coach.
It was troubling to see the Lakers get little off their pick-and-roll action, which forced methodical post-ups for most of the night and some tough Kobe Bryant shots that he hit because he's Kobe, but that shouldn't be an issue once Nash and D'Antoni are ready to go again. That said, based solely on how this game played out, it looks like the Spurs are going to make Gasol beat them if they played in the post-season.
Despite losing his man on that final defensive possession, Bryant played a hell of a game, milking the 2/4 pick-and-roll to death even though he wasn't getting any more than a foot of space out of it. But one foot of space was enough for Bryant last night as he put in 28 points on incredibly efficient 12-of-19 shooting. He just seems to own the Spurs, which I'm sure makes that defensive mishap of his hurt even worse.
- It's kind of funny how differently these two teams view their benches. San Antonio is disappointed that they got 20 second unit points yesterday while the Lakers are thrilled their bench got 18 points.
- Kobe shot 5-for-6 from 16-23 feet last night according to Hoopdata. Bryant has greatly reduced his attempts from that range this season (down from eight a game last season to three a game this season), which is good, and he's now 15-of-24 63% from that distance through eight games.
- Morris was bad offensively, missing all five of his field goal attempts and three of his four free throws, but his defense on Parker should have earned him some crunchtime minutes over MWP.
- Poor Jodie Meeks.
- How great of a fit would Boris Diaw be for this team with D'Antoni coming? Come on Boris! Eat your way out of San Antonio!
This was a hard loss to swallow against the only true Western Conference rival that the Lakers have, but I'll taken an 84-82 loss to the best team in the conference without Nash, particularly when the team shows the kind of effort they did last night.