In 2008-09, the Lakers won the NBA Championship (you know ... in case you hadn't heard). Along the way, they won 65 games. Throughout all this, their longest winning streak was 7 games. They had more than one such streak.
During the regular season, they often struggled to maintain focus and intensity. Their ceiling was very high, and they had the fortunate ability to play at nearly full potential when needed — but not consistently, and not when the competition was less than top notch. They often gave too much ground to bad teams, and though they were solid against Denver in the Conference Finals, and handled Orlando quite quickly en route to a 4-1 Finals victory, they weren't nearly as good as they should have been in the first two rounds, against lesser competition.
Many of these things appear to be changing, and last night's game is just the latest piece in a nine-game string of of games that punctuate that statement. With Pau Gasol still getting into shape, Ron Artest still learning the offense, and the schedule tougher than the pundits would have you believe, the Lakers' win over Phoenix last night has them riding a winning streak of nine games — already two better than anything they did last year.
With the stage now set, let's take a closer look at last night's blowout of the Suns at Staples Center...
Okay, I just can't help myself. Two more fun facts about this streak that I just have to point to:
- On this nine-game winning streak, the Lakers have broken 100 points nine times. They have held their opponents below 100 points eight times.
- Their average margin of victory over these nine games is 15.3 points per game. Basically, they're on a dominant nine-game winning streak, averaging a blowout.
Okay, on to last night's game. We'll do this with bullets.
- The Suns have the NBA's best offense. Even after last night, they still rank nearly a full point per 100 possessions better than second-ranked Denver in that category. The Lakers, meanwhile, have one of the NBA's best defenses — 3rd by Offensive Efficiency rating, but first in defensive FG%, eFG%, and TS%. When the two clashed, the Lakers' defense easily won out.
- The Lakers held the Suns under 100 points; only two other teams have managed that all year. They also held the Suns under 90 points; no other team has managed that all year.
- They also held the Suns to under 100 points per 100 possessions (or, as we like to say around these parts, under 1.00 point per possession). By Hollinger's measure, they managed an efficiency rating of only 95.8 points per 100 possessions (0.96 PPP); by Dex's more accurate count (Hollinger uses a formula; Dex actually tallies it all up, possession by possession, superhero that he is), they were up to 0.98 PPP (98.0 points per 100 possessions). Either way, considering these two facts: (a) the Suns average 112.1 points per 100 possessions (1.12 PPP), and (b) a defensive efficiency rating of 95.8 points per 100, by Hollinger's rating, would be good enough for best defense in the League.
- The Suns are 3-point shooting maniacs. They average 22.7 three-point attempts per game, and they convert at a mind-numbing rate of 43.4% from that range. Last night, the Lakers defended the arc very well, holding the Suns to a mere 13 attempts, of which they made only four. For the mathematically challenged, that's 30.8% shooting from distance. For some perspective, note that if they shot that poorly from three all season, it would rank them 23rd in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, instead of where they currently rank — first.
- They also rank 3rd overall in total field goal percentage, at 49.3%. The Lakers held them to 44.6% on the night. Solid.
- Phoenix didn't break 30 points in any quarter. They were held to 22 or less in three out of four.
- Some subjective observations: Ron Artest was awesome as ever on D. Five steals, very disruptive overall, and never gave up on a single play. I was also very pleased with our bigs' defense. Taking a page from Toronto's playbook (I can't believe I just typed that; Toronto is ranked dead last in defense), LA switched on screen-rolls with Nash, sending Gasol or Bynum out to challenge the floppy-haired Canadian. I was impressed with both big men, who were very active defensively, moving their feet and generally preventing Nash from getting by them and into the paint. Great effort there, and great result overall. They didn't shut him down, but they kept him pretty quiet, at 12 points and 10 assists.
- Final thought on last night's defense, back to offensive/defensive ratings: Tallying a defensive rating that, if maintained over the course of the season, would rank the Lakers first in the league, against the best offense in the league? Yeah, I'd say that's pretty damn good defense.
- The Lakemen are slowly climbing their way up the ranks in Offensive Efficiency. They're still ranked only 13th overall, but the offense has actually been quite good of late, and their rating is slowly increasing. Last night, they scored 121.0 points per 100 by Hollinger's formulaic rating — a number matched identically, in this case, by Dex's more accurate exact count, which yielded 1.21 PPP. For perspective: Phoenix boasts the best offensive rating in the League, a point better than 2nd-ranked Denver, at 112.1 points per 100 (1.12 PPP); last night, the Lakers were 9 points per 100 better than that.
- 21 three-point attempts, 10 makes, which is a conversion rate of 47.6% from distance. Yeah, they stole the Suns playbook on that one. Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, and Jordan Farmar — all hit at least 50% of their three-point attempts.
- 26 free throws earned, a very solid rate of 0.32 FTA/FGA, and converted at a very high rate of 84.6%. Ron Artest didn't miss a single freebie.
- The Suns doubled heavily in the paint, since the Lakers destroyed them down there last time. The Lake Show simply responded by hitting jumpers, knocking down threes, and passing out of the double team down low. On a couple occasions, I was very pleased to see Bynum take a page from Gasol's playbook, drawing the double with his back to the basket and then dumping the ball off to his low post-mate.
- Good ball control. A temporary lapse in the second quarter, where they committed six turnovers, but only 11 overall — and only one in each of the first and third quarters.
- Six guys in double figures, including two off the bench. (I'm telling you, the more I see the Farmar/Brown lineup, the more I love it.)
- I've decided to refer to the reserve lineup that Phil Jackson plays when it still matters — typically, in the 2nd and early 4th quarters, and sometimes in the 3rd — as the Bench Unit. This is the lineup that features Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and Lamar Odom (or at least two of those three), but NOT Sasha Vujabric, Adam Morrison, Josh Powell, or DJ Mbenga. The lineup featuring Vujabric/Morrison/Powell/Mbenga, usually accompanied by either Farmar or Brown, is what I will refer to as the GarbageTime Unit. It's nothing revolutionary, just calling a spade a spade, since the GTU guys simply do not play when it still matters.
- The Bench Unit was very good last night. They were part of a 2nd-quarter 8-0 run, and a 3rd-quarter 15-1 run (that's where the game was decided, going from a still-in-question 9-point game at 72-63 to an insurmountable 23-point lead at 87-64). They also managed to play even in the first half of the fourth quarter, responding to a mini-run by Phoenix which cut the lead to 13 thanks mainly to a pair of threes by Shannon Brown, which pushed the lead back to the 20-point margin the Lakers ended the game with.
- The Lakers won every quarter but the fourth, and they only lost the fourth by 1 point.
- The GarbageTime Unit didn't lose a single inch. The Bench Unit lost only 1 point to Phoenix in the first part of the fourth quarter, but held a 20-point lead when the GTU replaced them. The GTU held its own and ended the game with that same 20-point lead.
- Kobe Bryant. Awesome as usual. 26 points on only 16 FGAs. 9-16 from the field, 50% on threes, 7 rebounds, only one turnover, 8 trips to the line, in a pretty average 36 minutes.
- Ron Artest. As I already mentioned, 5 steals, very disruptive overall, never gave up on defense. Lights out from three (3-5), hit all his free throws. 15 points on 11 FGAs, along with 5 assists. Solid.
- Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. 5-9 shooting for Bynum, 6-10 for Gasol. 13 points for Bynum, 14 for Gasol. Between them, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and only one free throw miss and one turnover. Played very well together offensively, and both were excellent on defense. Bynum even attempted a 3-point attempt (didn't have much choice), which almost bounced in (factoring out that desperation attempt, he was 5-8 from the field).
- Lamar Odom with the little things. 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal.
- The Point Guards. All three of them. Good three point shooting, good defense, good energy.
It's worth noting that Phoenix was once again playing on the second half of a back to back, in Los Angeles. Not ideal circumstances. On the other hand, the Suns are a good team, and good teams pose a serious threat even on the second half of a back to back, on the road. Yes, it was a bit of an advantage for the Lakers, but don't undervalue the effort they gave or the credit they deserve for this win. They controlled this game in every way, and it wasn't because Phoenix didn't come to play.
Speaking of controlling the game: The Suns play at a pace of 98 possessions per game. The Lakers play at a similar pace of 97.8 possessions per game. Nonetheless, because of the Suns' ability to run with Nash and to take high percentage threes in transition, as well as the Lakers ability to dominate in the post, and in the half-court set in general, I think it's safe to say that in this particular matchup, a slower game is a good idea for the Lakers. With that in mind, the pace of the game was yet another thing the Lakemen controlled very well, as the game went 89.5 possessions (89 for LA, 90 for for Phoenix).
Bottom line: Another game, another blowout.