Saturday, May 19, 2012
The Lakers: On point in Game 3
By Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- Laker Sentimentalists weren't happy about it. Shipping Derek Fisher and a draft pick to Houston for Jordan Hill seemed like an unceremonious send-off for the man who enshrined "0.4" into the storied history of the franchise.
Hard-bitten realists countered that clearing a slot for a younger, more able point guard like Ramon Sessions was the right move for a team that had grown older and slower. There were only faint remnants of the Triangle offense in Los Angeles under the new Mike Brown regime. The days of Fisher feeding the ball to the pinch post, then clearing out to the corner were over. What the Lakers really needed was a more resourceful point guard, someone who could initiate offense in a pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant. Steve Blake wasn't doing the job, he of the 8.55 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and 37.7 field goal percentage. A change was clearly in order.
Ramon Sessions: Floating upward in Game 3.
Sessions, long a favorite of stat heads, had consistently produced during his four-plus seasons in the league -- a career PER of nearly 17, impressive assist rates and an ability to manufacture trips to the line. Sessions would provide the Lakers' best hopes of hanging around the ranks of the elite of the Western Conference.
Maybe, said the Fisher partisans.
Sessions -- with spells from Blake -- might be able to hold things down for the Lakers at the point on a sleepy night in March against Sacramento, but would there be big-game production when the Lakers needed timely shots, the kind of buckets Fisher had produced time and again? Toiling in obscurity, as Sessions did in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Cleveland, is one thing, but playing meaningful games in late spring for the league's marquee franchise is an entirely different matter, a job mastered by Fisher, but altogether foreign to Sessions.
Blake performed reasonably well for Portland in the Trail Blazers' first-round loss to Houston in 2009, but was an nonentity for the Lakers last season in two rounds and, prior to his Game 7 heroics, was largely seen as a lost cause for the Lakers -- a solid character guy, but one carrying an outsized contract.
The Fisher loyalists had their suspicions about Sessions confirmed over the Lakers' first nine playoff games this postseason. After a solid Game 1 outing against Denver, Sessions became inefficient, then downright tentative as the series against the feisty Nuggets wore on and grew more tense. By the time Game 7 rolled around, Sessions never saw the court in the fourth quarter.
Enter Blake, who was the Game 7 hero and Brown's go-to man at the 1 during the tight close of Game 2 against Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. When Blake missed a wide-open corner 3 to win the game for the Lakers, he received death threats to his family over social media. Between Sessions' struggles and Blake's miss, grumbles about the Fisher trade -- however irrational -- bubbled to the surface.
On a personal level, Sessions and Blake each entered Game 3 in Los Angeles badly in need of redemption. More imperatively, the Lakers weren't going to dig themselves out of a 2-0 hole against Oklahoma City without some passable play from their platoon of point guards.
Both Sessions and Blake delivered. Sessions started for the Lakers and scored six early points, displaying his best skills. Sessions is intuitive, the kind of player we often say "has a feel for the game." In the first quarter, he scored on a sharp basket cut from the weak side, working a two-man game with Bynum for his floater, then sprinting out in transition the instant the Lakers secured a steal on the Thunder's side of the court.
"I just tried to push the ball a little bit more," Sessions said. "In this offense, it's not traditional where you have the ball in your hands a ton off pick-and-rolls. I just tried to find angles and ways I can be aggressive and get baskets."
Sessions denied that he was bottled up in Oklahoma City, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Sessions had absolutely no luck attacking the Thunder's bigs on the pick-and-roll. The Thunder aren't a top-5 defensive squad, but they got their pick-and-roll coverages down at home and neutered the best part of Sessions’ game. And if the Lakers’ point guard -- whoever he is -- can’t effectively initiate the pick-and-roll, then he’s relegated to spot-up duty, which isn’t Sessions’ strength, one reason why Brown opted for Blake, a better perimeter shooter.
Sessions worked well on Friday night with both big men -- a pick-and-roll early with Bynum, a dribble hand-off with Gasol. The fluid play translated into 12 points (5-for-9 shooting from the field) and four assists in 28 minutes, the most he's played since Game 6 of the Denver series. After a frenetic couple of nights trying to dodge the Thunder's corralling big men, Sessions navigated the half court nicely. His drive-and-kick to Metta World Peace on the final possession of the first half resulted in a clean 3-pointer that gave the Lakers a 50-47 lead at intermission.
Brown ultimately chose Blake as his point guard for the closing stretch, as Blake recovered from that excruciating miss at the end of Game 2. He finished with 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field. He single-handedly erased a five-point Oklahoma City lead midway through the fourth quarter on consecutive possessions, the first on a pull-up jumper on the left side, the second a 3-pointer to tie the game after moving left of a Bryant screen.
"I thought Steve Blake's two shots were big," Brown said. "He came off the pick-and-roll and shot his pull-up. He was aggressive and knocked that thing down. He came off the pick-and-roll a second time and knocked down a 3."
Sessions and Blake have no shot at matching Russell Westbrook's production. They're unlikely to write themselves into the annals of Lakers history as Fisher did. But if Blake can hit from the perimeter, he'll be sufficient. And if Sessions can attack the Thunder's defense in the middle of the floor with aggressive actions, deliver the ball to Bynum and Gasol at their spots, make some smart plays off the ball and keep Bryant happy -- essentially much of what he accomplished in the regular season -- he'll get to experience something he never could while playing out the string in the league's most remote outposts.