Friday, May 7, 2010
Sunshine Days: Things are looking up for the Lakers in the playoffs
By Brian Kamenetzky
"The perfect," Voltaire once wrote (or maybe said, then wrote- I wasn't there), "is the enemy of the good."
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
There have been some hiccups, but overall whatever they're saying in the huddle before games is working for the Lakers.
Such is the case eight games into the Lakers' 2010 postseason run. It hasn't been a work of art and they'll be the first to say improvement is still needed. But for all the hand-wringing about style points or "blown" leads (a tag occasionally tossed around too liberally, as if the Lakers are the only team in the NBA allowing the opposition to go on runs), when it gets down to brass tacks the Lakers have won six times in eight tries.
Better still, they've seen key players improve, are showing signs of life collectively, and in a nice change of pace have seen a little good fortune tossed in as well. Here are five examples:
1. Defense, particularly in the half court:Derek Fisher noted Thursday at practice the positive direction in which the team is headed on that side of the floor, and the numbers back him up. The Lakers have held Oklahoma City and Utah to under 40-percent shooting, tops in the NBA for the postseason. From an efficiency standpoint, they have the best ranking in the Western Conference (104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions), and in six of eight games have held the opposition under their season averages for offensive efficiency (107.8 for Utah, 105.8 for OKC).
Moreover, the numbers are skewed in part because of problems the Lakers still have offensively. In Game 2 against Utah, they turned the ball over 20 times leading to 26 points for the Jazz. Against the Thunder, when the Lakers didn't fuel their break with either turnovers or poor shot selection and kept Oklahoma City in the half-court, the results were impressive. The Thunder weren't a great set-offense squad coming in, but they weren't as bad as the Lakers made them look, either.
2. Fisher: Despite the overarching "Fish turns every opposing point guard into a Hall of Famer!" mantra, through the regular season Fisher did more damage offensively. Poor shooting combined with poor decision making too often hurt a group already struggling with injuries and Ron Artest's curious and worrisome devolution in the triangle. But in the playoffs, the numbers have quietly improved for Fisher: Points (9.5 per game vs. 7.5), field goal percentage (43.5 percent vs. 38 percent), three-point shooting (44.1 vs. 34.8), and assists (3.5 vs. 2.5) are all up.
Defensively, it's hard to say he's hurt them. Fish has come up with some big steals, including five in Game 2, a night where he also did some good work on Deron Williams, and as we learned through the Oklahoma City series, short of Game 5 where Kobe Bryant surprised Russell Westbrook and threw the former Bruin off his game, the Lakers don't have a guard capable of sticking a guy that quick in the open floor (this player, by the way, doesn't exist). He's playing more minutes, and as I just noted, team defense has been very solid. How bad could Fish be?
3. Kobe: Generally, I roll my eyes at the conspiracy theorists who believe everyone is out to bury Bryant, but sometimes they have a point. I wrote last month it was far too early to toss dirt on Bryant's tenure as an elite offensive force. His lack of production down the stretch and into the first round of the playoffs was as easily explained by run-of-the-mill injuries, primarily to his knee and ankle. But oddly, some seemed to think he'd never get better. Like, ever. Admittedly, I wondered if it would happen before the end of the season, but then a funny thing happened- the Lakers, who had played four times in seven days, had an extra day off after Game 4, then blew out Oklahoma City in Game 5 with Kobe playing only 31 stress-free minutes.
4. Circumstance: The aforementioned stretch of four games in seven days having ended on May 24, the Lakers have played only four times since and won't again until tomorrow night. Obviously the down time has helped Kobe, but Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and Shannon Brown have all benefited as well. Fish will never turn down a little extra rest. Andrew Bynum is obviously more a question mark now than he was before the playoffs started thanks to the torn meniscus in his right knee, but clearly the less frequently he has to play, the better.
And the schedule is helping in other ways, too. Salt Lake City is a quicker flight than Oklahoma City, and a jump of only one time zone. And on the other half of the bracket, up two games to none, Phoenix is a heavy favorite to advance over San Antonio. From a travel standpoint, that's another win for the Lakers. Less time on airplanes is a good thing.
5. The offense is trending in the right direction: In the first four games of the playoffs, the Lakers exceeded 100 points per 100 possessions only once, in Game 3's loss at Ford Center. Over the last four, they've done it four times, and in three cracked the 110 threshold. Only once, the gritty, series-clinching Game 6 win in Oklahoma City, have the Lakers been held below their season average (using HoopData.com's numbers) of 105.9 points per 100 trips. Not surprisingly, in three of the four, the Lakers have exceeded their regular season assist rate (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) of 19.56.
The ball and the players around it are starting to move better, and combined with a more explosive Kobe, the Lakers are getting to the line more. Over the last five games, only once (Game 6 in Oklahoma City) has L.A.'s free throw rate (percentage of free throws per field goal attempt) been below their season average of 28.9. In the other four, the Lakers have exceeded 34 percent, a figure which would put them among the regular season league leaders.
A few weeks back in writing about the struggles of the Lakers' offense, I noted how it's hard to score at an elite level if a team neither gets to the line nor hits three-pointers. The Lakers still aren't doing the latter- their 31.1 percent mark from downtown is the worst of any team not already booking tee times- but if they start compensating with more frequent trips to the stripe, it'll mitigate the damage done by errant perimeter shooting.
They're not quite in championship caliber form yet, and I'd still make both Cleveland and Orlando favorites in a Finals matchup, but given the state of things at the end of the regular season, Lakers fans should feel much better about where the purple and gold stand eight games into their playoff run.
That's if we allow ourselves to look at the glass as half full, of course.