Los Angeles Lakers: Portland TrailBlazers
Among the highlights touched on in the show:
- Defense. Man alive, did the Lakers play some, controlling the glass and Chris Paul with equal effectiveness.
- Andrew Bynum. Carries the Lakers through the first half. If this is his level, the champs are in very good shape.
- Pau Gasol. Strong finish Thursday, good Game 5... is it reasonable to take the fingers off the panic button?
- Looking ahead to the next series. As we shot, we weren't sure of an opponent, but fortunately spent most of our time talking about the Mavs, showing some faith they wouldn't blow their lead.
Plus, questions about Andy's fashion sense, and devastating mongoose attacks. Hope you enjoy it.
Among the topics covered:
- Kobe Bryant's big final four minutes, and why he seemed to bust out playoff-level emotion in mid-March.
- Another high end defensive performance from the Lakers, despite losing Andrew Bynum to suspension.
- Whether the two-game penalty on Bynum for his hard foul on Michael Beasley Friday night is fair.
- The continuing evolution of viewer/chat-ee Robert Weber's opinion of us.
Harry How/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant busted out of a mini-slump in the last four minutes of Sunday's game, pushing the Lakers to a big win and busting out some playoff-caliber emotion in the process.
For the second time since the All-Star break, the Lakers and Blazers engaged in a tight, tense game. And for the second time, the Lakers came out ahead. Without the suspended Andrew Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers were off-kilter for much of the night, but still managed to rally late for a key win Sunday night at Staples.
Tonight's game again indicated why a potential first round series between Portland and the Lakers would be a lot of fun to watch, and could have Lakers fans biting their nails a little. Ironically, by beating the Blazers, L.A. made it more likely they'll actually see them when the postseason kicks off next month.
Here's how it broke down...
1. Defense. Take away the first half problems securing the glass, and the Lakers did a nice job against the Blazers. Portland was limited to 38.6 percent shooting on the night, in three of the four quarters failed to score more than 20 points, and only notched only 32 in the second half. Once Nicolas Batum, who went off for 19 points on eight-for-10 shooting in the first half, cooled off, Portland didn't have any viable options. LaMarcus Aldridge, playing as well as any big in the league over the last few months, had 18 points on 17 shots, as the Lakers limited him to only three trips to the line. Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez were a combined nine-for-36.
More importantly, the fourth quarter comeback, just as it was in their OT victory in Portland last month, was fueled on the defensive side of the ball- Kobe pokes the ball away from Miller with just over two minutes remaining, earning him a dunk at the other end, followed immediately by a steal from Derek Fisher, who finished with a layup (because most of the dunk footage with Fish is grainy at this point). Four points in a minute, helping raise a flagging offense.
Lamar Odom followed with a steal off Gerald Wallace, after Portland grabbed a rare second half ORB, helping eliminate a chance for the Blazers to score. Without Bynum out of the lineup, the Lakers stood up and delivered a strong game defensively.
2. Kobe Bryant (Last Five Minutes Version). Like most writers, in an effort to deliver analysis as fast as possible, I'll write during the game. For most of this one, Kobe's performance landed him square in the lower half of this postgame wrap. After hitting three of his first four shots, Bryant went cold, missing nine of his next 11.
It looked like the general inefficiency of their stars- Pau Gasol finished was only 6-of-15 from the floor- would be L.A.'s undoing Sunday night. But over the last 4:19, Bryant straight up exploded. It started with a nice drive-and-finish off the right wing, and went from there. On the next trip, he drew the double off the high screen, then rifled a great pass to Gasol on the block for a layup, followed by the aforementioned steal-to-dunk off Miller. He added two more buckets, including a tough baseline fadeaway over Roy with 32 seconds remaining, putting L.A. up by five.
Moreover, Bryant wore his emotions on his sleeve, screaming and punching the air with each successful play. (Including a couple moments the folks responsible for cutting together video replays may want to avoid... NSFW. I suspect he REALLY wanted to clinch the Pacific Division tonight.) The last few games haven't been overly kind to Bryant, who hadn't shot better than 38 percent in any of his previous four games. In four minutes Sunday, he seemed to exorcise a lot of demons.
This was good stuff.
|On Saturday's ESPNLA On Air, Andy and Brian talk to Jason Quick, who covers the Blazers for The Oregonian, about Sunday's game and a potential playoff matchup. Podcast|
If the season ended today, the Lakers and Blazers would miss each other in the first round of the playoffs, but the potential for a matchup is real, making tonight's game interesting on a lot of levels. Obviously Portland can't expect to thrive against the Lakers in the postseason without showing an ability to win in L.A. Meanwhile, the Blazers, particularly with Wallace in the fold, are a well-coached, active, deep and versatile team capable of throwing multiple bodies at Kobe.
To get a better feel for tonight's game and what might come in April, on Saturday's installment of ESPNLA On Air, Andy and I hit up Jason Quick, who covers the Blazers for The Oregonian, for some insight:
On what has gone well integrating Gerald Wallace, and where the Blazers have found problems:
"If you ask him, he'll say the worst part of coming to the Blazers is they're playing him a ton at power forward, and he feels like he's mostly a small forward. He's only 6-7, but he's pretty physical. They've been playing him a lot at power forward. That's where he's starting now -- they've moved LaMarcus Aldridge over to center. The Blazers seem to play better when they play small like that. It seems to ignite some energy and gives them some more versatility defensively. He's just starting -- [Saturday's win over Philadelphia was] as a starter. They're [now 3-0]. That's hindered his progress a little bit with the team, because he was coming off the bench. He was playing 39 minutes a game with Charlotte, and then he had to come here and come off the bench.
"He's still playing a lot -- he's playing about 32, 33 minutes minutes with the Blazers -- but he's starting to fit in better. ...
The Lakers very successfully worked their way through a tough four-game road trip, winning three and peforming reasonably well in the other. They've ripped off nine wins in ten tries since the All-Star break, generally against very high level competition. Now they won't play a game outside Staples Center until next month, a seven game run of home cooking providing an opportunity to boost their place in the standings.
The schedule doesn't just favor them in terms of location, but timing. The Lakers get three days between Monday's game against the Magic and Friday's tussle with Minnesota. Not a bad way to start a homestand. Here's what to watch for...
LaMarcus Aldridge has been spectacular for Portland this season, filling the void created when Brandon Roy's knees went south.
Game of the Week
Sunday vs. Portland, 6:30 pm PT
Since the break, the Lakers have taken a tour of possible playoff opponents, from potential Finals foe (Miami), Western Conference Finals (San Antonio), Western Conference Finals, Upset Version (Oklahoma City), second round (Dallas), and first round (Portland). Sunday afternoon, the Lakers get another crack at the Blazers, following an epic OT battle at the Rose Garden February 23rd. In that game, L.A. got 24 points from Ron Artest and 37 from Kobe Bryant, offsetting 29/14/3 from LaMarcus Aldridge.
That night, though, Portland was without Marcus Camby, and more importantly hadn't yet acquired Gerald Wallace from Charlotte in a huge deadline day deal.
Portland is 4-4 with Wallace in the lineup. He's had great games, and clunkers. Currently, Nate McMillan has him coming off the bench, and while the minutes have been reasonably large (around 32 in Portland after averaging 39 on a weaker Charlotte team), Wallace is adjusting to teammates adjusting to him, all while Portland adjusts to losing size up front in Joel Przybilla, sent east to the Bobcats in the exchange.
It's a lot to take in so late in the season, but by Sunday Portland will have had three more chances to iron out the wrinkles with home games against Dallas, Cleveland, and Saturday night vs. an increasingly impressive Philadelphia squad.
The re-made Blazers don't have much depth remaining in the frontcourt. Aldridge has been absolutely unbelievable over the last few months, and Camby, when healthy, remains a weakside shotblocking presence and serial eater of glass. But after those two, their only remaining player over 6'9" is Jarron Collins. They are, however, rich in versatile wing and backcourt players offering McMillan a variety of available lineup combinations. Wallace and Nicolas Batum are both athletic, long armed defenders, and while he's not the tallest guy in the world, Wes Matthews is very strong on that end, as well. All are likely to see time against Kobe Bryant.
Stopping the red hot LaMarcus Aldridge will be key for the Lakers if they want a win Wednesday in Portland.
Whether Roy plays or not, these days the Blazers are built around LaMarcus Aldridge, who has flat gone off over the last eight weeks or so. In January, Aldridge hit nearly 50 percent of his shots, and averaged 24.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. Strong stuff, enough to help him top the list of All-Star snubs. In nine games this month, though, Aldridge has upped the scoring to nearly 30 points a night (29.1) and the field goal percentage to 57.6.
Aldridge wasn't a major factor in the team's first meeting of the season, a blowout win for the Lakers at Staples (where they tend to dominate Portland) back in early November. That night, the Lakers owned the paint thanks to strong efforts from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Can they do it again?
To gain a little more insight into the state of the Blazers, I hit up Andrew Tonry of Portland Roundball Society- a top shelf source for all things Blazers- who was kind enough to answer some questions:
1. Once again, the Blazers have responded very well despite a ton of injuries. What's been the formula this year?
"Let's start with the constants, the few who haven't been hurt: LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller and Nicolas Batum. Then the guys who stepped up and filled holes admirably: Wesley Matthews and Dante Cunningham. Certainly Aldridge's emergence as a number one option has got to be the most consequential on the court. But the lion's share of the credit is certainly due to Nate McMillan, who's kept the team from packing it in when the sky fell (the two-week span Brandon Roy and Greg Oden went down). McMillan's kept these guys motivated, and his scrappy, grinding style has proved viable."
Of course, that left the little matter of the other 79. Today, the NBA released the full slate of games, and at first glance, things appear to set up reasonably well for the Lakers. Here are five things to look for:
Last year, the Lakers were among the league leaders in B2B's, with 20. This year, the number drops to 15, and a pretty cushy 15 relatively speaking:
1. Nov. 2, 3- vs. Memphis, at Sacramento
2. Nov. 16, 17- at Milwaukee, at Detroit
3. Nov. 30, Dec. 1- at Memphis, at Houston
4. Dec. 7,8- vs. Washington, "at" Clippers
5. Dec. 14, 15- at Washington, at Indiana
6. Dec. 28, 29- at San Antonio, at New Orleans
7. Jan. 4, 5- vs. Houston, at Phoenix
8. Jan 11, 12- vs. Cleveland, at Golden State
9. Jan 16, 17- "at" Clippers, vs. Oklahoma City
10. Feb. 10, 11- at Boston, at New York
11. Feb. 13, 14- at Orlando, at Charlotte
12. Feb. 22, 23- vs. Atlanta, at Portland
13. March 31, April 1- vs. Dallas, at Utah
14. April 5, 6- vs. Utah, at Golden State
15. April 12, 13- vs. San Antonio, at Sacramento
The three sets in February are tough. The Knicks should be better this season, and even if they're not, playing one night after what is guaranteed to be a physical, emotional game against the Celtics won't be easy. The opponent is almost irrelevant. Orlando will be very good, and the Lakers never win in Charlotte. Atlanta is a solid Eastern Conference playoff team, and a Portland squad ought to be an elite group out west. Dallas to Utah is a challenge as well, and visits to Memphis and Houston will provide an early season test. But for every tough sequence, the Lakers get a break. Twice they draw the Clippers as the "road" team in the home/road split, and they play the Kings and Warriors a combined four times on the back end, as well as the Pacers and Pistons, and the aforementioned visit to Utah is the only time L.A. will play the second half of a B2B at altitude.
Could be a lot worse.
2. Early balance.
Q: Hi, K brothers! I have questions. Do you think the Miami Heat have a legit chance to break the Lakers' 33 wins in a row? How about Chicago's 72 wins?
--Zibo, Newcastle, England
A: Over the past couple of seasons, we've been asked a bunch of times about 73 wins, but usually its in reference to the Lakers, not another squad. ABC/ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy told the Miami Herald he thinks the Heat will break Chicago's record for regular season victories, and have a "legit shot" at busting through the consecutive wins streak set by the '71-'72 Lakers. As for the latter, absolutely not. No team, Super! or otherwise, is going to bust through 33 consecutive wins. It's just not going to happen. As for 73 wins, I'm not going there, either. Asking an NBA team, even an outstanding one (as Miami will be) to lose only nine games in a season is a tall order. There are too many good teams, too many off nights, too many long flights from south Florida.
The return of Shannon Brown means instead of being Kobe's primary backup, Sasha Vujacic will be a primary guy watching 24 from the bench.
The Heat will be very, very good. So will the Lakers. In theory, both could make a run at 72, but in the end neither will get there. With good health, L.A. and Miami seem like a good bets to land in the mid-60's, which ain't bad, dueling along the way for the top seed come playoff time.
Q: Hey guys! Now that the team is set, how do you see [Phil Jackson] using the bench guys on the rotation? Does he leave Sasha to dry until Mitch can trade him? Thanks!
--Nadya, Los Angeles
A: Nadya, there's always a chance Vujacic earns himself a reasonable amount of minutes ... but it'll take someone else playing his way out of the rotation. The current setup will demand Sasha get closely acquainted with his warmup suit. Had the Lakers not been able to re-sign Shannon Brown, it could have been different. The Lakers didn't add another few mil to their luxury tax bill just to watch Brown sit around, and as we learned last season it's very difficult to work five guards into a rotation. So look for Blake and Fisher to hold down the point, while Brown helps the Lakers try and limit Kobe's minutes at the two.
After gaining a 3-1 Western Conference Finals advantage over the highly talented (and even more dysfunctional) Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers appeared to have turned a corner on their recent history of postseason flame outs. Then came a 96-88 Game 5 loss in L.A. Followed by a 103-93 fall in the Rose Garden. Followed by a Game 7 in which Portland took a 16-point lead after three quarters. A 67-win season appeared to be all for naught. Phil Jackson would go down at the hands of a guy he guided to six rings (Scottie Pippen). Shaq would endure another offseason hearing the critics claim he couldn't lead a team to a title.
John Mabanglo/AP Photos
Can you dig it????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!
Instead, in keeping with the drama so often defining this franchise, it was merely a dramatic setup for the biggest fourth quarter Game 7 comeback in NBA history, an epic 25-4 run waged on both sides of the floor, with everyone finding a way to contribute.
Brian Shaw drained a pair of three-pointers to help start the party. The Lakers defense hunkered down, denying Portland on ten consecutive possessions and limiting them to just 22 percent from the field during the fourth quarter. Shaq, held in check throughout the game by Portland's double/triple teams, came alive during the final frame with nine points. He also hit a pair of crucial free throws to force a 77-77 tie with 2:44 remaining.
But above all, there was the sequence now synonymous with this victory.
Kobe drives the lane as Shaq drifts towards the basket while signaling for a lob. The alley oop goes up. O'Neal stuffs it down one-handed, then races upcourt, mouth agape, two index fingers out in salute of everyone in his sight line.
These two superstars had spent four years together alternately making each other better and making each other crazy. At this moment, however, their chemistry, mindset and talents were perfectly aligned with one goal in mind.
It was a moment bigger than either of them, and together Kobe and Shaq put the ultimate stamp on a game now legendary in Lakers lore.
ESPNLA.com and Land O' Lakers are counting down the ten greatest playoff moments in Laker history. Upon completion, fans will be asked to vote on the single greatest moment of all. Previous moments include:
-Shaquille O'Neal's near quadruple-double in the 2001 NBA Finals, Game 2
-The Logo's steal in 1962
-Elgin goes for 61 in '62
-Worthy's Game 7 Trip-Dub in 1988
-Kareem's sky hook marks the end of Boston's dominance over L.A.
-Horry wins Game 4, Western Conference Finals, 2002
-Derek Fisher and .4, 2004
-Magic jumps center to secure the 1980 championship
I, along with seemingly every other media member at Staples Center Sunday, assumed the actual plan broke down. Nope. PJ designed the play specifically for El Spaniard to gun from distance. The reasoning? In a nutshell, Pau would get a good look. You can count Gasol among the surprised masses.
Like I said, wacky stuff. Maybe I'm over-thinking things (certainly wouldn't be the first time), but given PJ's rep for occasionally using games to send messages or teach lessons, I wonder if the following point was being relayed:
Pau has 23 points on just 12 shots. He should have more, but you morons have jacked 21 three's, despite making only five and despite us being a lousy outside-shooting team to begin with. If this is the best way to guarantee Pau a touch, fine. It's ridiculous, but really no more so than bombing treys when your center is shooting 75-freakin'-percent. And all joking aside, is he really that much worse an option than you people at the moment?
Perhaps it's a stretch, but if nothing else, that's the message I'd like the players to receive. You can watch Pau discuss the sequence below the jump.
|GAME PREVIEW PODCAST|
|Andy and Brian break down Sunday's game and a potential first-round matchup with the Blazers with Andrew Tonry, host of the TrueHoop Network's Portland Roundball Society.
Oklahoma City has 30 losses, San Antonio and Portland 31 each. Obviously the Lakers can push Brandon Roy and Co. to 32 with a win this afternoon, which wouldn't guarantee they'd face the Blazers in the first round but would make it far more likely. (Should the Lakers lose, I'm going back to my original plan: Look at the Web Thursday morning and see who landed in the eight spot.)
How the Lakers handle today's game could provide insight toward their preferred playoff opponent, or at the very least if they fear a series sending them into the Rose Garden up to three games. Saturday in El Segundo, Phil Jackson indicated Kobe Bryant will play, and theLakers will bring a full effortdespite having wrapped up the W.C.'s top seed. (Rest will likely be doled out this week against Sacramento and the Clippers.) The result should be a playoff atmosphere, and a fun game to watch.
The Blazers, 17-7 (.708) since the All-Star break and winners of 11 of 14, are a dangerous team for a variety of reasons:
Here we go.
Cleveland gets: Antawn Jamison, Sebastian Telfair
Washington gets: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 2010 first-round draft pick from Cleveland, Cleveland's rights to Emir Preldzic, Al Thornton, Brian Skinner.
L.A. Clippers get: Drew Gooden
The consensus "most pressing to the Lakers" transaction. The Cavs have been the NBA's best team all season, but aren't just in it to win it. They're in it to ensure a certain player remains a Cav for life. (Hint: not Boobie Gibson) Thus, a cherry is added to an already-elite sundae, and that Maraschino is Jamison.
And as far as I'm concerned, it's a better Maraschino than equally-pursued ice cream condiment Amar'e Stoudemire.
His first game was brutal for Cleveland,
but Jamison should be a great fit.
Continuity is an underrated factor in winning. The ability to build on what you have, as opposed to retooling a game plan. Along those lines, this is a terrific deal for Cleveland, who don't need a major addition. There's a reason "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" has gotten more traction than "mess with a good thing for the ^$%# of it." I understand Cleveland hedging bets with additional firepower, but a gun so complicated you can't figure out where to load the bullets does them little good.
Jamison provides a scoring punch (particularly from outside, where he and Shaq/Andy Varejao can work high-low), but in a non-obtrusive way. If all that's needed on a given night is 10-ish points with a heavier dose of rebounding, veteran savvy, and character, he's comfortable offering just that. I doubt Stoudemire would follow suit, between his career as a focal point, new contract potentially in the works, and high maintenance rep. Jamison feels like the perfect balance between pushing a team over the top and not pushing yourself over the edge.
The only wrinkle? Z deciding not to return after an assumed buyout.
You will need a comprehensive guide. We're here to help, from A to Z.
A is for... Avulsion. It's also for ankle (apple, aardvark, and artichoke, among other things), and while the latter forced Kobe Bryant to miss three games before the break and Tuesday's tussle against Golden State, the avulsion fracture to Kobe's index finger is more likely to play havoc with the Lakers over the stretch run. It's become reasonably clear the offending digit won't completely heal until the offseason, though hopefully the 10-day ankle induced layoff helped a little. Still, the fracture has the potential to be a factor game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, shot-to-shot.
B is for... Bynum. Three faboo games without the big center left some questioning his spot in the starting lineup (or perhaps on the team, given the proximity to the trade deadline). But for all the hand-wringing over how he plays with Pau Gasol or if he's reaching his potential, Andrew Bynum is averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in just over 31 minutes a night, sports a healthy PER of 20 and, at least relative to last year's team, still has more transformative power over the roster than any of his teammates.
C is for... Chase. As in, chasing down Cleveland for the NBA's best record and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. L.A. currently sits two games behind the Cavs, and since Cleveland owns the tiebreaker thanks to a sweep of the regular season series, the Lakers will have to pass them to gain the advantage.
It could happen, but the Lakers don't have much margin for error.D is for...Denver. The Mavericks made the first big move, but assuming good health, George Karl's gang is and will be the main competition in the Western Conference. Denver is a monster offensively, and play enough D these days to get the job done. Last season's loss to the Lakers in the W.C.F. made the Nuggets hungry, two big blowout wins over the Lakers this season added confidence. Thus the final two meetings this regular season (Feb. 28 at Staples, April 8 in Denver) are officially affairs of high importance.
E is for... Eleven. Both the top level for the amps in Spinal Tap and the number of titles I believe Phil Jackson will have by the end of the playoffs.
You're darn right Derek Fisher is pumping his fist after this win.
By definition, winning inside the "Lakers ain't done it since the Jumaine Jones/Tierre Brown era" Rose Garden will be difficult through the strength of a single moment. Factor in Kobe Bryant on the inactive list with a bad ankle-- an absence later compounded by Andrew Bynum missing the second half after Juwan Howard's early foul united AB17's hip and the hardwood-- and "a moment" simply won't do.
You're going to need "moments" and lots of folks stepping up to provide them.
That's exactly how the Lakers managed to snap the curse in Portland, and under the most unlikely of circumstances.
This was a victory created by hard play and contributions top to bottom. Often fantastic and scrappy group defense --Portland shot just 43.7 percent from the floor and a paltry 27.8 percent from downtown-- combined with a cavalcade of individuals bringing boatloads to the table.
As I wrote last night, the Lakers were out of sorts and out of balance, with Kobe Bryant taking 37 shots while the rest of the starters combined for 42. Mine, however, isn't the only reaction to Friday's events. With that, a smattering of stories from around the Interweb, starting with game reports from the LA Times, Daily News, OC Register, and The Oregonian.
As ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin notes, don't simply chalk up Kobe's bad night to the bum finger or tough luck. Portland's defensive plan, led by one-on-one coverage from Martell Webster, was key:
"...Bryant started off 5-for-8 from the floor, scoring on all jump shots. Instead of scrapping the one-on-one coverage, (Nate) McMillan stuck to it and kept Webster isolated on Bryant -- admirer on hero. It was a pretty simple plan and it's nothing new. The Celtics used it in the Finals against him, conceding jumpers so long as the paint remained as protected as the President. When Bryant got to the lane, they doubled and fed into Bryant's machismo as he tried to score one-one-two or one-one-three. When Bryant adjusted in the third quarter and started whipping it out to open 3-point shooters on the wing once he got in the middle, they went back to one-on-one coverage on him and lived with it if he still was able to contort his body like only he can to convert something down low. Portland opened up a 20-point lead before Bryant really got anything going close to the hoop..."