WIth the Lakers defeating the Jazz last night for the fourth time in five games, their first round series is finished, and they are left to wait on their second round opponent — yet to be determined by the first round series between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.
While we wait, it's time to evaluate the Lakers in the first round. We'll look at how they performed as a team, how each individual player performed, and hand out some Round 1 grades.
To whet your appetite, here is DexterFishmore's Tempo-Free Boxscore Breakdown (explanation here) for the entire series. Aside from the rebounding, most of it looks pretty good:
- Average possessions per game: 95
- Turnover rate: Jazz – 15%, Lakers – 16%
- FTA/FGA: Jazz – 0.37, Lakers – 0.37
- Effective field goal percentage: Jazz – 46%, Lakers – 55%
- True shooting percentage: Jazz – 52%, Lakers – 59%
- Offensive rebounding percentage: Jazz – 32%, Lakers – 27%
- Defensive rebounding percentage: Jazz – 73%, Lakers – 68%
- Points per possession: Jazz – 1.03, Lakers – 1.12
The Lakers as a Team
First, let's have a look at the Lakers as a team. In this series, they have impressed at times, disappointed at others. By the standards of most teams, the first round was a smashing success, as the Lakers dispatched of a tough Utah team with relative ease. But as Laker fans evaluating a team with very high standards, there is much that needs improvement. Let's review.
Offensively, there were no big surprises. These are your Lakers, one of the best and most efficient offensive teams in the league. Aside from a Game 3 hiccup, their offense was generally at full strength, and the Jazz were simply unable to do much about it.
That's not to say that there haven't been lessons along the way, some of which the Lakers seem to have learned, and others which remain issues to be addressed during the down time.
Kobe Bryant — One such area of improvement was something that few of us would have pointed to as a problem prior to Game 4. But Kobe Bryant's aggressiveness in that game, and the way it inspired his teammates, had the effect of showing us what we had been missing. As a scorer who has at times, in the past, struggled to trust his teammates (in fairness to Bryant, his teammates sucked in the past), Kobe's pass-first mentality and desire to get his teammates going before he looked for his own offense were highly commendable. That said, in Kobe Bryant the Lakers have the greatest offensive weapon in the entire NBA, bar none. To refrain from using it simply doesn't make much sense.
Bryant's growth in leadership ability in the last couple of years has been astounding. There is, however, one area in which he has always been a true and effective leader, and that is in his ability to lead by example. In focusing on other aspects of leadership, it's possible that Bryant neglected to lead by example on the offensive end of the court, thinking it better to pass first and give his teammates opportunities to step up.
In Game 4, Kobe looked for his shot early and often. He was indefensible, single-handedly carrying his team at times. (He scored 13 of the first 15 Lakers points to start the first half, and 10 of their first 12 to start the second.) This was not the first time that he had felt the need to take over offensively. During their six-game road trip that ended in Boston and Cleveland, Andrew Bynum went down with another long-term knee injury. The very next game, Kobe Bryant stepped up and scored 61 points in Madison Square Garden, leading his team to a win over the Knicks and breaking all scoring records in the Garden. The Lakers would go on to sweep their six-game road trip, including the two final games against their two toughest opponents.
Kobe's teammates and the coaching staff all credited him with inspiring them and helping them obtain the mindset necessary to win all of the remaining games on that trip. As Justin N. said:
Kobe’s 61 points saved the season for the Lakers as they came on a night right after our title hopes took a huge blow. Kobe reminded his team that they still got the best player in the NBA and Bynum or no Bynum, we’re winning a title.
This is what Kobe provides by being agressive on the offensive end of the court. That is not to say that he should start jacking up shots, but his aggressiveness creates opportunities for his teammates, and it inspires them to play at a higher level. His mentality is contagious.
Kobe Bryant: A
Having a dialed in Kobe Bryant helps the offense.
Andrew Bynum — Another lesson we learned in this series was that Bynum is not yet ready for a starting role, and Phil Jackson adjusted accordingly. He claimed that his decision was primarily motivated by Utah's smaller, quicker lineups, and/or the presence of Jazz center/perimeter shooter Mehmet Okur, but I'm not convinced. I think primary reasoning behind the move was two-fold:
- First, Bynum is just coming back from injury. His timing is off and he's not yet in game shape, and it can be a struggle at times for him to get back to his former level of play. In addition to all this, Bynum is a playoff rookie, making his debut against a very physicaly team. All of these factors combined seemed to really frustrate Bynum, and he wasn't able to have much success. I think PJ realized that trying to bring Bynum back now would only frustrate him, rather than allow him to make forward progress.
- Second, when Bynum was on the court it seemed that he was more interested in getting himself going offensively than he was in doing what the team needed. Frankly, what was needed most from Bynum was defense and rebounding. Intead, Bynum focused on his own personal offensive production, often forcing bad shots when his teammates were wide open for much better ones. Defensively, he did not give the effort we needed from him, and offensively, his presence seemed to clog the middle, hurting the Lakers' floor spacing and stalling all ball movement.
As a result, I believe Phil Jackson made the proper adjustment, realizing that the series against Utah was not going to be a productive opportunity for Bynum to bring himself back into game shape. It's possible that he was also teaching Bynum a lesson, letting him know that if he was going to force his own offense rather than focusing on defense and rebounding, as he was asked, then he would find himself riding the pine. Overall, this is a setback for Andrew Bynum, and therefore a concern for Laker fans, but Phil Jackson dealt with it properly by making the correct adjustment.
Andrew Bynum: B-
Low scores for Bynum, but credit to Jackson for handling him appropriately.
Playing Soccer — Consider this a new term in the SS&R vocabulary. When I was young, I lived in Europe and West Africa, and my dad and I really got into European soccer. Right off the bat, one of my dad's pet peeves was that when one team scored a goal and took the lead, they started playing defense, rather than continuing to attack. The goal seemed simply to defend their one-goal lead, rather than to increase it to two or three and put the game out of reach.
Sound familiar? This is what the Lakers do on a regular basis. In all four of their wins, they have built large second half leads, only to become complacent and let the Jazz make a comeback, forcing LA to win a close game in the final minutes. They stop attacking, running the offense, and playing defense, and before they know it, their opponents are within single digits, getting as close as six or even three points before the Lakers finally push the lead back to double digits and secure the game.
Worth noting is that this has consistently happened at the start of the third quarter, while the "bench mob" is in. Thus, the blame for this rests with the bench players for playing like the game is already won; and with Phil Jackson for consistently depending upon rotations that have consistently given up large leads, in situations where the game is not yet safe.
This is an area in which the Lakers have not yet made the necessary adjustment. This is something they need to focus on during the down time. The bench needs a couple of lectures, and if they don't start delivering, Jackson needs to shorten his rotations even further, and keep more of the starters on the court to start the fourth, only resting them when the game truly is decided. He also needs to keep the bench mob on a much shorter leash. If he plays them in a game, and they start giving up the lead, they have but a minute or two to turn it around. If they don't, he yanks them and puts the starters back in. If nothing else, the threat of little to no playing time will motivate them.
Closing Out Games: D-
The only reason it's not lower is because it hasn't resulted in a loss yet (the only loss was due to a littany of other factors, as well).
Overall Offense: B+
Despite a couple weak points, the offense looks pretty good, and probably always will. But getting Bynum in line and stopping the 4th-quarter bleeding is what it will take to bump this up to an A+ overall.
Motivation — While the Lakers showed flashes of good defense over the last five games, they haven't played consistent defense in a single game yet in this postseason. Their first half leads were often built with the help of strong (but short) defensive stands, and in particular, the middle two quarters of Game 5 were quite solid.
While offense is often a matter of execution, defense is much more a product of effort. That is why players often talk about the fact that offense can come and go, but don't say the same about defense — and thus the philosophy that defense wins championships, since a team that puts in the effort to play defense can always hold its own when the shots aren't falling.
So far, the Lakers simply haven't put forth a consistent effort on defense. Is this something to worry about? Perhaps. But again, nothing that I see on the court says to me that they are incapable of playing defense. In fact, their defensive flashes show them to be a very good defensive team, when they put their minds to it. Given the choice, I'd much rather be a team that isn't always motivated to put forth the effort, rather than one that doesn't have the ability in the first place.
As a former athlete, I can understand playing down to your opponents' level. While we'd prefer to see the Lakers play their best regardless of who their opponent is, and in an ideal world they would, the reality is that I have a hard time blaming them for not putting forth an absolute maximum effort when it simply isn't necessary. At the same time, we've seen what this team does when it is motivated, and we know what it takes to motivate them — better opponents. When they face such an opponent, I have no doubt that the effort will be there. Since that seems to be the missing ingredient, i'm reserving judgment for the time being.
Overall Defense: B-
There's nothing good about slacking off on defense, but this grade would be lower if I thought the Lakers were incapable of, or unlikely to, play solid defense when the situation demands it.
Kobe Bryant — This is one that we've already talked about. He carried the team when they needed it, figured out that he needs to be more aggressive offensively, and consistently found his teammates for wide open shots, after first drawing a crowd to enable them to get open. His 5-24 Game 3, in which he hardly attacked the basket at all, was the only negative. Grade: A-
Lamar Odom — Lamar had a fantastic series against the Jazz. He was confident, grabbed tons of rebounds, took a balanced approach between attacking and facilitating, and ran the offense. Defensively, he was at his best — and when that's the case, he poses problems for just about anyone he is guarding, big or small. In the Game 3 loss, Odom was the only one to play well. Against the Jazz, he was the player we've always wanted him to be. Grade: A+
Pau Gasol — Gasol struggled for most of the series. He was pushed around and beat to rebounds by smaller Jazz players, didn't box out well, and shrank from physical play. At times, he hesitated to shoot on the pick and pop, and he frequently got himself in trouble when going one-on-one, both in facing up and in the post up game. In addition, he missed six of 10 free throws in Game 3. Gasol needs to get upset at his soft performance in this series, toughen up, and become the player with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove that he was at the start of the season. Grade: C-
Trevor Ariza — By and large, Ariza was everything we've come to love about him in this series. With every passing game, he's becoming more confident and more consitent with his outside shot, to the point that sooner or later, teams are going to have to start respecting it. He played with energy on both ends of the court, had a knack for making big plays, and was often right in the middle of big Laker runs. He struggled in Utah, likely daunted by the deafening crowd, but was sublime in LA. Grade: B+
Derek Fisher — Defensively, Derek has really lost quite a bit. Why he was the primary defender on Williams at the end of Game 3, I'll never know. His shot could still improve, and is not yet back to where it was earlier in the year, but his 3-point percentage against Utah (.313) was much better than it was in April (.125). That said, he generally did what was asked of him, made some big shots as usual, and took a couple of signature charges. Grade: B
Shannon "UPS" Brown — UPS was one of the only players on the team that played with consistent energy and effort. He played solid defense against Williams, hit some big threes, made some athletic plays at the rim and in transition, and didn't make many stupid mistakes. At the point guard position, he was the Lakers' best player, and he's all but erased the worries about Jordan Farmar from Laker fans' minds. Grade: A
Sasha Vujacic — Vujacic is a player that the Lakers need to play well, but he's one that has really been frustrating of late. His shot isn't falling this year like it did last year; it seemed to be returning in April (.524 from distance), but has fallen again in the playoffs (.333). Meanwhile, his "pesky but effective" defense that was an added bonus from him last year has now become a quick string of fouls, often putting the Lakers in early foul trouble. In addition, his shot selection has suffered; while it's good to see that his confidence remains (the only way a shooter can break out of a slump is to keep shooting), he's taking some bad shots, either too quick or too contested, that hurt the offense. In addition, he's often on the court when the other team makes their late game runs. Grade: C+
Luke Walton — Contrary to popular belief, Walton was starting to really play well in the second half of the regular season. His move to the bench was invaluable, and his defense, while not impressive, wasn't as terrible as it had been in the past. Unfortunately, he seemed to regress in the first round. His usual passing ability didn't work out so well, often resulting in turnovers on high risk pass attempts. The little short-range floaters and fade-away jumpers that make you cringe but have a knack for going in refused to go down. And defensively, he also was often on the court when the opponents made their runs. Grade: C-
Jordan Farmar — Not much to say about Jordan. He played very little, and when he did, he had little to show for it. The only reason he didn't get a lower grade was probably because he played so little, and thus, his negative effect on the series was very minimal. D+
Josh Powell — Though he saw limited minutes due to a shorter rotation and few actual blowouts, Powell dutifully answered when called upon. His mid-range jumpshot, as always, is a thing of beauty, and he is an absolute rebounding machine. He typically plays like a player who knows he won't get many minutes, whichi made him useful in the few minutes he got.
Overall First Round Performance
In all, the first round left a lot to be desired from the Lakers. By most team's standards, the series would be considered an absolute success, as the Lakers won in four games, with an average margin of +12 in their wins. Their only loss came on a Deron Williams virtual buzzer beater, by only two points.
Nonetheless, this is a team with championship aspirations, and in that context, there is much improvement to be expected if they are to achieve their goals. The defense will need to get better, and more consistent, that this "playing soccer" has got to stop. Gasol and Bynum need to get their acts in gear, and our bench needs to get its mojo back.
All told, it's hard to be disappointed witih a quck series that was rarely ever contested, but that doesn't mean that we applaud everything about how the Lakers played. Some bonus points for the overall result, and for closing the series out when they had the opportunity, but plenty of room remains for improvement.
Overall Grade: B
Credit for the win, and for the ability to rebuff most of Utah's late game runs — but the Lakers should be better than to allow those runs to happen in the first place, and they didn't play anywhere close to their potential