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Lakers 118, Bucks 107: The results do not compute

I don't remember exactly where I read it earlier today, but some idiot was talking about how tonight's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks was going to be different than most of the contests the Lakers have seen so far this season.  Different, because unlike most of the opponents the Lakers have faced so far, Milwaukee is a superior defensive team (ranked #1 coming in) and a terrible offensive team (ranked #29 coming in), so the Lakers might struggle to score a bit more than usual, but should come through with some decent defense.

I guess it all sounds kind of logical, but that moron couldn't have been more wrong.  Instead, we saw another shootout eerily similar to all the other Laker contests this season.  Tonight, once again riding the hot hand of Shannon Brown and the rest of the bench, the Lakers were the victors, but only because they topped the 1.16 points per possession (PPP) the previously woeful Bucks put up with an obscene 1.28 PPP for the purple and gold.  Nice job putting points on the board Lakers, but you really need to figure out how to put the clamps down.

What's that, you say?  You say that idiot wrote the piece for Silver Screen and Roll?  *Checks website*  Oh, right, that moron was me.  And as it turns out, I was absolutely right in some respects, no matter what the numbers tell you.  The numbers paint a dire defensive picture.  That 1.16 PPP given up to the Bucks (averaging less than 1.0 PPP on the season) sounds pretty terrible.  The 1.26 PPP and 62% eFG given up before halftime sounds even worse.  As halftime approached, you couldn't help but think "WOW, the Lakers just gave up 59 points to the Bucks in one half?  Way to pick up the defensive slack there, guys."  But the numbers didn't sit right with me, so I did a quick re-watch of the Lakers defense in the 1st half, and my eyes confirmed my suspicions, allowing me to reach a rather dubious conclusion:  The Lakers played pretty solid defense in the 1st half.

Defense isn't about results.  It can't be.  Unless you are capable of blocking every shot, or forcing a turnover on every possession, there is literally no way for you to actually prevent the other team from putting the ball in the basket all the time.  Instead, defense is about probabilities.  Good defense forces an opposing team into a shot with a low probability of success, but there comes a point where you just have to hope the other guy doesn't make a play.  It is impossible to take away all of a team's options, no matter how good your defense, and no matter how bad their offense, so you do your best to take away the team's best options and leave them to pick out a shot from the proverbial junk pile.

And I don't care how many points the Bucks put up, that's exactly what the Lakers did on a fairly consistent basis in the 1st half.  I re-watched to make sure, and qualified each Bucks possession into one of 4 categories:  Good D with score, Good D without score, bad D with score, bad D without score.  Good D was loosely defined as either a heavily contested shot, a turnover, or else a long range shot from a player who isn't normally a threat from long range.  I don't care how open he is, a 20 foot jumper from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a good defensive possession.  Even if there isn't a Laker within 10 feet, a 3 pointer from Drew Gooden qualifies as a job well done.  There's no getting around the fact that my re-watching a defensive possession and labeling it as good or bad is about as subjective as it is simplistic, but what I saw was a solid defensive effort from the Lakers, forcing the Bucks into shots that they were willing to give up.  The only element missing from the equation was the Bucks actually missing those shots.

By my count, out of the 47 first half possessions, the Lakers forced favorable shots (or turnovers) on 31 of those possessions, just about 2 out of 3 times down the court.  Having never done this exercise, I have no idea how this actually stacks up to a normal Lakers performance, or how it compares with a good defensive team like the Boston Celtics.  But, on the surface, forcing a shot you can live with 2 out of 3 times sounds pretty good to me.  It should come as no surprise that the Bucks scored on a vast majority of the "bad" defensive possessions (13 out of the 16, to be exact, with 4 of those possessions occurring in transition).  But the Bucks also managed to score on more than half of the "good" possessions, hitting the type of shots that force you to tip your hat and acknowledge a job well done. 

Shots like the two Drew Gooden three pointers (including one that got an insane shooter's bounce) or Gooden's step back 20 footer with Lamar Odom contesting.  Or John Salmons hitting a step back three with LO in his face as the shot clock expired.  Or Brandon Jennings hitting an 18 footer off glass over Pau Gasol's outstretched arms.  Jennings hit a bunch of threes (some were contested, some weren't). Time and time again, the Lakers forced a tough shot out of Milwaukee, and more often than not, the tough shot fell.  Even if it didn't fall, there was a decent chance the ball found its way into Milwaukee's hands for an easy bucket (I counted 4 bounces I considered to be "lucky" for Milwaukee).  Having re-watched it all, having seen every play that led to the Bucks throwing down 59 points on 47 possessions in the 1st half, I actually came away mildly impressed with the Lakers defensive effort.

That's not to say the D was without flaw.  Jennings abused Derek Fisher pretty handily, and got to the rim too easily on a few occasions.  And, in the as yet undiscussed 4th quarter, the Lakers were absolutely abused on the offensive glass, allowing Milwaukee to grab 61% of their missed shots for 2nd (and 3rd and 4th) opportunities.  But the main difference for me between the 1st half (1.28 PPP for the Bucks) and the 3rd quarter (0.88 PPP) is that the Bucks started performing more in line with the expectations considering the types of shots they were generating.  Same with the 4th quarter, where the Bucks only shot an eFG of 39%, and only their obscene offensive rebounding kept this game from being a real blowout down the stretch.

A real blowout, because the Lakers offense continues to be insanely dominant.  1.28 PPP for the game against a team allowing less than 1.0 PPP coming in, and unlike the Bucks offensive performance, it's hard for me to spot any real outlier in what the Lakers did.  Yes, the 3pt shooting was once again red hot, and we can't expect the Lakers to shoot over 40% from three for the whole season (much less over 60%, as they did in going 10-16 tonight), but at the same time, when does the Lakers' hot shooting get the outlier tag removed from it?  We're a full 10 games in, and it's starting to seem like a 4-5 night from beyond the arc is well within Shannon Brown's reach.

Shannon Brown ... I admit I did not see this coming.  I've been hard on Brown over the last season plus, because I thought he showed a lot of potential that was wasting away, but nothing I've seen could have prepared me for the types of performances that he is making a habit.  With 21 points on 10 possessions (including free throws), he was the leader of another game winning performance by the Lakers' suddenly fierce bench.  Kobe (31 points and 7 boards) and Pau (18 points and 10 boards) both did their thing, but Shannon was clearly the player of this game.

So the Lakers returned to their winning ways by taking another shootout, using a tremendous offensive performance to overcome what, on paper at least, appears to be another poor defensive showing.  But tonight was the perfect example of how defensive performance and defensive results are two entirely different things.  The Lakers just gave up 107 points to one of the worst offenses in the NBA, and outside of a porous defensive rebounding effort in the final quarter, I'm here to tell you that I'll take that performance all day every day.  Do not be fooled by those silly results.











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