LA’s Disappointing Debut

The Lakers opened their promising 2012-13 season up on a pretty underwhelming note: with a loss to a Dallas Mavericks squad without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant played through some foot pain, Dwight Howard played after having back surgery this summer and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were both perfectly healthy. So what went wrong? And how worried should Laker fans be about such a disappointing and downright bad first game at home?

To sum it up quickly, not very worried at all. Yes, it’s true the Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason. And yes, there were a lot of evident problems on the floor that Dallas was able to take advantage of. But there wasn’t anything that can’t be fixed by the time April rolls around. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s walk through why the Lakers looked so terrible tonight.

  1. Coaching – I’ve defended Mike Brown in the past for his focus on defense, but his implementation of the Princeton offense for a team with Steve Nash is just plain stupid. Nash is a point guard who needs to get out and run on the fast break. The pace of the offense needs to be up. The Lakers should be shooting with 10-12 seconds on the shot clock and dominate the tempo with fast plays. The Princeton offense is slow and dull. Slowing down the speed of the game completely negates Nash’s impact as an effective point guard, rendering him useless. Nash only had seven points and four assists. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an appalling statline for Nash. Steve Blake had more assists for crying out loud. It also hurts the impact Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could be having: both big men are efficient at running the floor and Howard in a half-court offense allows teams to foul him and send him to the line, where his dismal free throw shooting (3-for-14 last night) hurts the team. This team’s entire starting five is comprised of superstars who have all been the best player on a team at some point in their careers. Not being able to get a win at home with Howard, Nash and Kobe against an injury-depleted Mavs team goes beyond a lack of team chemistry; that’s just poor coaching and management of your personnel.

    The next problem? The Lakers’ health. Howard had a nice statline, but he clearly looked rusty in his LA debut.

  2. Health – Mike Brown certainly has to change a lot of things to get the most out of his star-studded lineup, but he can only do so much while two of the Lakers’ biggest pieces are still healing. Although Kobe and Howard both played in LA’s opener, you could tell they were either rusty or still ailing. Kobe didn’t play as many minutes as we’re used to, although he still finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Howard looked like he was completely out of rhythm. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but his appalling free throw shooting and a few easy missed shots show he’s not quite back in his groove. Credit Brandan Wright, Elton Brand and Eddy Curry for their defense, but Howard still has to get back into the flow.
  3. Chemistry – Even if they were healthy and had proper coaching for their star-studded personnel, the Lakers need time to develop their chemistry. Steve Nash has to find his place in the offense and free up looks for his teammates. Howard has to figure out what his role on offense is. The offensive pace has to speed up. Kobe has to relinquish some ball control to his All-Star point guard. Pau Gasol was really the only one last night who needs to duplicate his performance every night (23 points, 13 rebounds, six assists).

So all in all, it makes a lot of sense for LA fans to be upset. That was an ugly loss to a team that’s not very good and it wasn’t pretty to watch (no offense Maverick fans, but if you think a Dallas team without Dirk or Kaman will beat LA a few months down the road, you’re dreaming). But as frustrated as fans must be with such an anticlimactic opening night,  it was still only game one. There are bound to be some speed bumps before this superstar cast finds its groove. There’s still a long season to go and Laker haters are kidding themselves if they think this is the LA team we’ll see all year. However, one stat is pretty telling and it’s one that the Lakers may not be able to help down the road: Darren Collison had 17 points for the Mavs tonight. Now Mavs fans were very excited for this acquisition, but I never really was. Here was a guy who was a scrub behind George Hill in Indiana. So if Steve Nash, an eternal defensive liability, is giving up 17 points to Darren Collison, what’s going to happen in the playoffs when the Lakers meet up with Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson? Just something to think about.

If Nash is getting his ankles broken now, what’ll happen when he faces an elite point guard?

2012 Olympic Basketball: USA vs. France Game Recap

The United States earned a 98-71 win against France in their 2012 Olympic opener, making it clear that it will take a gargantuan effort to knock this team off. However, it also became pretty obvious that this is no ’92 Dream Team. Read the game recap and analysis from Team USA’s Olympic opener here.

Thunder Finish Lakers Off, Advance To Western Conference Finals

I predicted the Oklahoma City Thunder would finish off the Lakers in six games, but it turns out they were more dangerous than I anticipated. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder got the job done in five games and made it look relatively easy in the process, either blowing LA out or coming back in the game’s final minutes with a relentless fury that the Lakers couldn’t match. With their convincing 106-90 victory on Monday, the Thunder sent Kobe Bryant and the Lakers home and advanced to their second straight Western Conference Finals.

Russell Westbrook led OKC with 28 points, Kevin Durant followed up with 25 and James Harden added 17 off the bench. No one else reached double digits for the Thunder, but their role players each pitched something in. Serge Ibaka had eight, Nazr Mohammed had seven off the bench, and Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison each had six. Kobe Bryant led all scorers with a dominant 42 points on 18-of-33 shooting, but as has been the case in this series and the majority of the playoffs, received little help from his teammates. The Lakers were out-rebounded 51-35 as LA’s bigs continued to underachieve. Andrew Bynum finished with just 10 points and four rebounds and Pau Gasol had 16 rebounds but could only muster 14 points, which didn’t help the sentiments that he needs to be shipped off after this season. Kobe looked like the only one who cared and couldn’t carry the burden of having no bench and disappointing stars around him against this tough Thunder team.

Westbrook was a problem for the Lakers all series long, but it was his circus shot that sent Kobe and his disappointing supporting cast home early.

For the Lakers, their inability to compete has to be a little disconcerting. Knowing LA’s history of success and how they’ve been competitive each and every year for such a long time, some offseason moves are going to happen. A year for the Lakers without a championship is a failure in LA’s book and because of how competitive Kobe is, management will be forced to make some changes to give their superstar one more chance to win his sixth ring before he finally retires.

Kobe was able to keep the Lakers relatively even with the Thunder for almost three quarters, but when Russell Westbrook picked off Ramon Sessions’ pass and made a spectacular circus shot for a three-point play, the crowd ignited and Oklahoma City never looked back, outscoring the Lakers by ten in the fourth. Oklahoma City’s two elite superstars and their superb Sixth Man of the Year proved to be too much for LA’s one-man attack, as Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were able to bother Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol just enough to limit their contributions. Ramon Sessions was completely underwhelming for the entire series, Steve Blake and the rest of the bench completely disappeared at times and the Thunder will able to storm back in two games to get huge wins. The Thunder will meet the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, which is sure to be a battle between two unstoppable forces; the Thunder have lost one game in the postseason so far and the Spurs have won 18 games straight. This series will really be a pick ’em, but you can be sure whoever comes out of the West will be hard-pressed to not win it all.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers need to make some changes this summer.

Late Kevin Durant Three Caps Off Thunder Comeback

The Thunder’s come-from-behind win at Staples Center last night revealed one important truth about this Oklahoma City-Los Angeles series: no lead is safe in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, that truth has stung them twice and left them on the wrong side of a 3-1 series advantage after the Thunder’s 103-100 win in Game 4. Russell Westbrook took over in the fourth quarter rally and led the Thunder with 37 points and five assists, but it was Kevin Durant who put the final nail in the coffin with a clutch 3-pointer to put OKC up 101-98 with 13 seconds to go.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but his struggles in the fourth quarter opened the door for the Thunder’s comeback that will now send the series back to Oklahoma City for an elimination game. Andrew Bynum had 18 points and nine rebounds and everyone in LA’s starting five scored in double digits. But the Lake Show made critical mistakes down the stretch and couldn’t stop the Durant-Westbrook tandem down the stretch and gave up a nine point lead with less that six minutes to play after leading by as many as 12 in the third quarter. In fact, the Lakers were ahead for the majority of the game, racking up points in the paint and physically abusing the Thunder on both ends of the floor. But OKC hung around and as is the case with any great team, if you let them hang around, you will come to regret it in the end. After the 42 free throws debacle in Game 3, the refs (relatively) shortened up on the whistles, which meant the Lakers greatly benefitted from their advantage in being able physically push the Thunder around in the paint and on the defensive end for the majority of the game. LA was the aggressor for almost the entire game, abusing OKC’s bigs, getting to the foul line and letting the Thunder settle for contested jumpers because Oklahoma City couldn’t get anything going to the basket against the Lakers’ physical defense. Serge Ibaka finished with 14 but the Thunder didn’t really get much out of anyone else. James Harden had an off night, shooting 2-for-11 from the field to finish with just 12 points, but Westbrook made up for it as he caught fire with 10 points in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds and the Thunder ended the game on a 22-8 run, capped off by the Durant 3-pointer and two Harden free throws that sealed the Lakers’ fate.

Kobe Bryant helped the Lakers build a 12 point lead in the 3rd quarter, but he struggled down the stretch once again, going 2-for-10 in the 4th.

The series now heads back to Oklahoma City for Game 5. This is a pretty demoralizing loss for the Lakers, who led for the majority of the night and did everything they needed to to win except finish. The Thunder outscored LA 32-20 in the game’s final period and after three quarters of being dominated in the post, OKC turned the game on its head by becoming the aggressor. The Lakers reverted to the Thunder’s patented style of basketball by shooting a large number of long distance jump shots as OKC got to the basket and started hitting mid rand jumpers. Kobe Bryant, who choked down the stretch in Game 2, once again had problems living up to his distant accolades as a clutch performer by going 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter, jacking up a large number of perimeter shots that didn’t find their mark. So even though Ron Artest knocked down a few critical jump shots with Kobe on the bench to keep the Lakers’ lead alive, as soon as Kobe returned to the floor, the ball never made it back inside the paint to Bynum and Kobe launched it every time he got it. Pau Gasol, who has been criticized throughout the playoffs for playing soft and disappearing on the offensive end, once again disappointed Laker fans not only because of his 10-point, 5-rebound night, but also because of his critical turnover that led to Kevin Durant’s 3-pointer to seal the game.

All the momentum is now with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve got home court advantage, they were able to overcome a (relatively) balanced scoring effort from the Lakers without Harden playing well and they once again showed their resilience, grit and determination in the fourth quarter, even facing a deficit against a tough team on the road. Kobe is doing all that he can do and since Bynum has mentally checked out, as long as he’s putting up double doubles Los Angeles will be satisfied. But if the Lakers don’t get a lot more out of Gasol, Kevin Durant and the Thunder should have the killer instinct to put this series away on their own terms at home in Game 5.

Kevin Durant proved how clutch he is in the playoffs and gave the Thunder a 3-1 lead.

Lakers Hit Free Throws, Beat Thunder At Home

Credit the Lakers for swapping roles with the Thunder from Game 2 by coming back from a five point deficit with just under three minutes to play in Game 3. But Kobe Bryant and his team greatly benefitted from an overly aggressive and controlling referee crew (led by Joey Crawford, of course) that awarded the home team with 42 free throws and completely slowed down the pace of the game throughout. There were a total of 70 free throws in this game, a complete travesty for NBA Playoff basketball. But whatever the case, Los Angeles handled business at home, hit 41 of those 42 free throws and breathed new life into this series with a 99-96 win. Oklahoma City still leads the series 2-1, but the Lakers finally got over the hurdle and proved they can beat this offensively powered Thunder team.

Kobe led the Lakers with 36 points (18-for-18 from the line) and made up for his fourth quarter collapse in Game 2 by making so many free throws Game 3’s waning minutes. But the biggest difference in this game, other than the shamefully high number of fouls, was that he finally got some help from his supporting cast. Ramon Sessions, who I criticized in my last post for not showing up at all in the Lakers’ last three playoff games, finally reached double digits again with 12 points. In fact, Sessions, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest and Steve Blake all scored in double digits. On the Thunder side of the ball, Kevin Durant led OKC with 31 points and Russell Westbrook and James Harden each added 21. But whereas Los Angeles had six players in double digits, the Thunder only had three and couldn’t get much out of their role players. Serge Ibaka went 4-for-10 for just eight, Kendrick Perkins had six, Derek Fisher had four and Thabo Sefolosha had just three. The Lakers’ supporting cast has been incredibly weak for the entire postseason, so any game where the Thunder’s role players are outplayed by LA’s does not hold a promising result for OKC, no matter how proficient Durant, Westbrook and Harden might be.

Kobe Bryant made all 18 of his free throws as the Lakers made the series 2-1.

For the Thunder, this was a pretty costly loss. Not only did they give the Lakers hope in this series by surrendering that five point lead, but they completely abandoned attacking the basket and settled for numerous contested jump shots down the stretch. Even Harden, who has been OKC’s voice of reason in the past with his incessant ability to get to the rim, settled for a jumper late in the fourth quarter. In a game where the refs completely controlled the tempo by calling so many fouls (including at least three questionable calls on Harden), it was a huge mistake to keep taking those jumpers instead of attacking the basket and drawing whistles from the refs. The Thunder have now shot the ball poorly in the past two games, which is the main reason why the games have been so close. A jump-shooting team can’t afford to miss so many shots on the road, so you combine that with Ramon Sessions’ resurgence and the ridiculous amount of free throws taken in this game and it makes sense why the Lakers came out on top. However, this loss is not the end of the world for OKC either. The Thunder probably would have liked to take Game 3 and go for the sweep today in Game 4, but as long as they get one victory on the road, they’ll have taken care of business in Staples Center and put themselves in position to close the series at home.

Game 4 becomes a must-win for the Lakers and it might as well be one for the Thunder. If the Lakers can defend their home court and tie the series up at two games apiece, this series suddenly becomes competitive again. You can never count out a Kobe Bryant playoff team, no matter how superior the Thunder may appear in the postseason so far. Don’t forget that Kobe’s been in this situation before: The Lakers were down 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 2004 NBA Playoffs before winning four straight to advance to the Western Conference Finals. For the Thunder, the worst possible thing would be to let the Lakers take Game 4 and inspire confidence in a supporting cast that has only played one good game in the series so far. If the Thunder hit their shots and the foul count stays low (or at least lower than Game 3), OKC should get a win on the road and finish the Lake Show in five games.

Kevin Durant dropped 31 but the Thunder didn’t get much out of their supporting cast.

Thunder Storm Back Late In 4th, Take 2-0 Lead

After a 29-point rout in Game 1, it was fairly obvious Game 2 would be a little more competitive. But despite a drastically improved effort from Los Angeles and an off shooting night for OKC, the Thunder stormed back from a seven point deficit with two minutes to play and stunned the Lakers with a 77-75 win in Game 3. Oklahoma City took a 2-0 lead on the series after the Lakers crumbled down the stretch in the hands of the man they usually trust to hit game-winners: Kobe Bryant.

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists, including the go-ahead basket with 18 seconds to go. James Harden was also critical for OKC down the stretch, driving to the basket after the Thunder had fallen in love with jump shots and hitting two critical, contested layups in traffic. In fact, Durant and Harden were the only two Thunder players behind OKC’s 9-0 run to close the game and send the Lakers back to LA facing a 2-0 deficit. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka took too many shots away from Durant and Harden in this one, even if OKC should keep trying to exploit LA’s weakness guarding point guards (and even though Ibaka’s seven blocks certainly earned him some offensive looks). But as much as the Thunder came back and took this game, Los Angeles definitely helped them out a bit by offering such little resistance.

Kobe Bryant, who has been a hero and savior for the Lakers many times throughout his career, surprised everyone by making a few key mistakes down the stretch that cost his team the game. After a Harden layup cut the Lakers’ lead to five with just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kobe quickly made a bad pass that Durant easily stole and turned into a dunk at the other end. On the next possession, Steve Blake threw a bad pass and it looked like it was tipped by Russell Westbrook, but after the officials looked at the replay, they discovered it really just went through Kobe’s hands and out of bounds. The Thunder didn’t convert on the ensuing possession, but the second turnover fired the crowd up and Harden got his hands on Kobe’s next shot that fell way short of the target. Then Harden made another layup and Kobe bricked a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left. Durant then gave the Thunder the lead with his floater over Pau Gasol, leaving LA with 18 seconds to try and reclaim the lead.

LeBron James is getting a lot of scrutiny for his recent fourth quarter struggles, but Kobe was no better down the stretch last night in Game 2.

But what will stand out the most after this game is the Lakers’ last possession. Everyone in the arena knew who Ron Artest would be looking for on the inbounds pass, and after Kobe’s last few possessions, there was a justifiable fear that he was going to somehow put the Lakers back on top in typical Kobe fashion. But the double screen they ran for Kobe didn’t work and Artest didn’t wait long enough for him to come off the flare screen. Why? Because Steve Blake was sitting wide open in the corner as Russell Westbrook momentarily forgot his defensive duties and moved further toward the paint where all the action was. Artest got the ball to a completely unguarded Blake, who bricked the wide open 3-pointer. Kobe couldn’t get the rebound, Thabo Sefolosha was fouled with one second left and the game was basically over. Kobe clapped his hands in disgust at not getting the chance to right the ship and make up for his mistakes down the stretch, but was Artest wrong for getting the ball to Blake? The answer to that question is absolutely not. Kobe had two defenders on him, Westbrook made a mental error and Blake was wide open. Blake was the dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes in the last series, so getting him a good look for the win wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Obviously Laker fans would have loved to see Kobe get the ball, but you should blame Mike Brown for not drawing up a better play to get Kobe open if that’s your main gripe.

The Lakers’ defense was a lot better, but a fair amount of that can be attributed to the Thunder’s poor shooting and terrible shot selection. Westbrook took too many shots (he went 5-for-17) and so did Serge Ibaka (4-for-11) while Los Angeles made sure its best players got all the looks (Kobe, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol took 55 of LA’s 78 shots). The Thunder will need to improve their shot selections and turnovers after committing 13 in Game 2, but other than that, they proved they can grind a game out when their perimeter shots aren’t falling, a real testament to Harden’s value driving to the basket. However, the Lakers are really running out of options. Bynum had 20 points and nine rebounds while Gasol had 14 points and 11 rebounds, so LA’s bigs were actually involved. The Lakers’ defense was fine and other than falling apart down the stretch, Kobe Bryant was fine too. But they haven’t been able to get anything out of their supporting cast. Blake missed a potential game-winner and had five points. Ron Artest went 2-for-10. Matt Barnes put up a goose egg. And Jordan Hill only had six. But the biggest disappointment has to be Ramon Sessions; Sessions was seen as the missing piece to the puzzle when the Lakers acquired him a few months ago, now he’s just a missing piece. Sessions put up two points last night and is averaging 2.7 points and 1.7 assists in his last three playoff games. Not what you want from your starting point guard. Kobe, Bynum and Gasol all have to step it up at home and be wary of how dangerous the Thunder can be at any time, especially in the fourth quarter. They also would really benefit from anything their supporting cast could provide, but at this point, all OKC needs to do to lock up this series is win one of the next two games at Staples Center.

Kevin Durant didn’t get many shots, but made the most of them and gave the Thunder a 2-0 lead.

Thunder Throttle Lakers In Game 1

The Oklahoma City Thunder unleashed their full offensive power on Los Angeles in Game 1 last night, throttling Kobe and the Lakers in a 119-90 victory that left no doubt OKC means business in the postseason in this growing rivalry matchup. The last time these two teams met, Ron Artest gave James Harden a concussion with a vicious elbow to the head that earned a seven game suspension. After tonight’s beatdown, there’s no doubt that the Thunder haven’t forgotten.

Russell Westbrook lit up the Lakers’ defense in the first half, finishing with 27 points, nine assists and seven rebounds while Kevin Durant came alive in the third quarter, scoring 13 points and leading the Thunder on a 15-2 that put them up by 29 points and left no hope of coming back for the weary Lakers. Durant finished with 25 points and eight rebounds while James Harden had 17 off the bench. Everyone came to play for the well-rested and clearly eager Thunder team in what quickly turned into a rout. Thabo Sefolosha had seven,  Serge Ibaka had six, Kendrick Perkins had four and the Thunder bench outscored LA’s by a huge margin, 50-26. Everyone contributed, with guys like Daequan Cook, Nazr Mohammed and Derek Fisher putting up a decent amount of points. The lead got to as many as 35 and it was such a complete blowout that the Thunder will able to rest their starters with a minute left in the third quarter and complete backups like Cole Aldrich and Royal Ivey got to play significant minutes in the fourth.

The Lakers had no answer for Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant and got smoked in Game 1.

For the Lakers, nothing went right. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum led LA with 20 points each, Ron Artest had 12 and Pau Gasol chipped in 10. Unfortunately, Kobe went 7-for-18 and even though the Lakers out-rebounded the Thunder 43-41, they committed 15 turnovers while the Thunder only had four. The Lakers looked exhausted by the time the second quarter came around and the Thunder were relentless in knocking down jumpers. OKC shot 53 percent from the field on the night. But what should have been just a bad game got even worse when Lakers’ sub Devin Ebanks was involved in a tussle late in the fourth quarter and was ejected. As Ebanks walked to the locker room, he struck a chair on the bench and took his shirt off in a disgraceful manner reminiscent of Andrew Bynum in the playoffs last year. Ebanks’ actions seemed to be a slight reflection of what the entire Lakers team was feeling after getting thoroughly pounded in Game 1. Even though it’s just one game, last night’s rout showed just how vulnerable LA is and how deadly the Thunder can be, especially when they’re knocking down shots.

For OKC, they really don’t have many areas to improve, although an injury to Kendrick Perkins might raise some concern. Perkins left the game after a dunk that left him gingerly limping down the court. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Perkins could have returned but he’ll be reevaluated today just to be safe. But that was really the only negative of the night and considering how well Nick Collison played on the defensive end against LA’s inconsistent bigs, the Thunder don’t have much to worry about at this point. For Los Angeles, there have to be a lot of major improvements for Game 2. Kobe has to play lights out. Bynum and Gasol can’t disappear and have to have big games. Ron Artest has to keep knocking down outside shots and find a way to limit Kevin Durant. Steve Blake has to be useful like he was in the first round, which will require him to take more than one shot. But most importantly, Ramon Sessions has got to show up. Sessions has been a complete no-show for the Lakers this entire postseason. What happened to the guy that was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle? Sessions has been non-existent on offense and even worse on defense. It’s a tough job to try and stop guys like Ty Lawson and Russell Westbrook every night, but LA has been getting abused by quick point guards so far and Sessions and Blake are the direct cause of that. Mike Brown has got to find a way to emphasize the defense he is so well known for and the Lakers have got to completely regroup for another tough Game 2. But if the Thunder shoot like they did in Game 1, this series could very well be over in four or five games.

James Harden got a little revenge out of the Game 1 rout, but the Thunder aren’t just looking for one convincing victory.