Tonight the Lakers played the Philadelphia 76ers, the team with the 4th best record in the association. Neither team was playing on the second night of a back-to-back, something that is a rarity in this compressed season. In a hostile environment against a very good team with fresh legs, this was a measuring stick game. A chance to see how the Lakers would stack up should the playoffs begin now. The answer: not very well. All the strengths and weaknesses of this Lakers team was on full display tonight. Unfortunately for the Lakers, their weaknesses are simply too many to overcome against a playoff caliber opponent.
The Lakers biggest strength is their big three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. The trio of stars is as good as any in the league, even the team from South Beach. Tonight the big three showed just what they can do. Kobe played superb (at least during the first 44 minutes, more on that to come) as he lit up Philadelphia for 24 points in the first half on 8 of 14 shooting. In the second half, the 76ers sent constant double teams at him, forcing the ball out of his hands and asking him to put faith in his teammates. To Kobe's credit, he did not force the action but took what the defense gave him and typically made the right plays.
Andrew Bynum showed why he is the second best center in the league as he had his second 20-20 game of the season. He scored his 20 points on a very efficient 8 of 13 shooting. He demonstrated the foot work and finishing ability that makes him one of the better offensive centers in the league. He also finished with a three assists, two of which were Gasol-esque in ability. In addition to being an offensive load down low, he was the anchor of the defense, finishing with three blocks and holding the 76ers to lower than 50% shooting inside the key.
Pau Gasol managed to score 16 points and pull down 11 rebounds as the Lakers third option, but he struggled to do so efficiently, making only 5 of 16 attempts. Therein lies the first weakness of the Lakers, the need their big three to play great in order to win.
The Lakers simply don't have the offensive firepower on the roster to be able to win games without a great effort from the Lakers three stars. Mike Brown, or in tonight's case John Kuester, appears to have found something in Andrew Goudelock, who continues to impress with his ability to knock down threes while mixing in the occasional runner when the defense closes out too hard. Even Troy Murphy, the former double-double machine, is beginning to find his shooting touch and provide some respectable offensive production. But beyond that, it begins to look very grim.
Most teams have a rotation that can go at least 8 deep with some semblance of quality production. The Lakers only have two bench players worthy enough to be called that. When you consider that the Lakers essentially start two players, Metta World Peace and Derek Fisher, who aren't providing much production either, it quickly becomes evident why the Lakers have struggled to score. They have a big three, two respectable bench players, and not much else. The Lakers will win games when all three stars play great without any bench contributions (see the game against the Timberwolves). They will even win games when two of the three play well so long as someone steps up from the bench. But should two of the Lakers stars struggle, the Lakers will almost certainly lose as the bench won't be able to make up the difference.
Tonight's game very much fit this mold. Through the first 44 minutes, the Lakers had two stars playing great, Bryant and Bynum. They also received some meaningful contributions from Goudelock and Murphy. As a result, they possessed a 7 point lead with just under 5 minutes to play. But then the wheels fell off as the Lakers scored only four points the rest of the way. Kobe was the prime culprit as he made only 1 of 7 field goals during the stretch and took what was a solid performance and turned it into an inefficient night and a Lakers loss. The loss can't be squarely placed on Kobe's shoulders though.
The major problem for the Lakers is their shooting. Even with the emergence of Goudelock (41.3% on threes) and rediscovery of Murphy (44.8% on threes), the Lakers are still one of the worst three point shooting teams in the league. Kobe Bryant has taken 127 three's this season and made only 30% of them. The next highest volume shooter is Metta World Peace who has taken 52 attempts and made only 9. Then there is the injured Steve Blake with 48 attempts at a respectable 35.4%, followed by Fisher who has made only 11 of his 40 attempts. To have three of the top four shooters by volume all making fewer than 30% will not lead to success.
The next major issue is the turnover battle. The Lakers have never been great at forcing turnovers, but the level with which they have fallen is astounding. In today's preview, Dex set the over/under for 76ers turnovers at 6, roughly 40% of the league average. Apparently he overestimated the Lakers abilities as they forced only 4 turnovers all game. Turnovers are the second biggest factor (behind shooting) for whether or not games are won or loss. Every night the Lakers step on the floor they essentially spot the opposition at least a half dozen extra shots via the turnover battle. Tonight that translated into a 20 to 6 advantage for the 76ers in points off turnovers. Game over. Thanks for playing.
Late game execution continues hurt this Lakers team. Some nights Kobe tries to take over to the detriment of the team. Other nights he looks to facilitate and no one steps up. Tonight he got very good looks and simply failed to convert. Whatever the reasons, the Lakers seem to fall apart in close games, especially on offense. Against a playoff caliber opponent, blowouts are hard to come by. A team has to be able to win close grind-it-out games in the playoffs to win a title. The Lakers haven't shown any ability to do that this season.
The other aspects of the game however are still quite good for the Lakers. They have a strong free-throw advantage and when focused usually dominate the boards. Tonight they got to the free throw line more often than the 76ers and owned the boards to the tune of 55 to 30. Yet they still managed to lose.
The current Lakers margin for victory is too thin. They need all three stars to play great (or a significant contribution form the bench), they must have a free throw and rebound advantage to offset the turnovers, and they must make threes at a rate of 30% or better. The Lakers need all of the above to happen for a win. If one fails, the result is usually a loss. Tonight these weaknesses were on full display for all to see. The Lakers looked dominant when the big three played well, but it quickly fell apart when one of them began to stumble. They may be able to get away with these games against the bottom feeders of the league, but not the playoff bound teams. Tonight was a measuring stick game. The Miami Heat just came into the same arena three nights earlier and put a 20 point beat down on this same Philadelphia team, showing just how much of a gap there is between the Lakers and the true title contenders.