Friday, May 15, 2009
PER Diem: May 15, 2009
By John Hollinger
"And you may ask yourself
well, how did I get here?"
Those are the words of the Talking Heads, but they apply just as easily to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Take away Yao Ming, and you can make a strong argument that the four best players in the Lakers-Rockets series are Lakers. For crying out loud, Luis Scola is playing center for Houston. (Can he even dunk?) Yet without Yao, the Rockets have won two of the last three games and are four quarters away from pulling what would be one of the most shocking playoff upsets in league history.
History says it probably won't happen. Home teams have an overwhelming record in Game 7s, and the fact that L.A. won its last meeting in Staples Center by 40 isn't a great omen.
But the fact that we're even discussing the possibility is amazing enough. How is it that the Rockets are beating a Lakers team that, on paper, seems to be vastly superior?
Frontcourt injuries make for a convenient excuse. Opponents normally have a hard time matching up against the Lakers' frontcourt, especially opponents that are vertically challenged like the current batch of Rockets. L.A. has 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom, while Houston counters with the 6-9 Scola, 6-9 (wink, wink) Carl Landry and 6-6 Chuck Hayes.
But the Lakers didn't have that advantage in Game 6 because only Gasol was healthy. Bynum has struggled the entire playoffs, with the Game 5 rout of Houston his lone positive outing, and is likely to see limited duty on Sunday.
As for Odom, his sore back limited his effectiveness in Game 6, and one column -- the "0" under assists -- underscored this more than any. At full strength, he can take any Houston frontcourt player off the dribble, and he forces Houston to cross-match with Ron Artest on Odom and Scola on Trevor Ariza. Thursday, he was a defensive liability and an offensive nonfactor. "Half a guy," in the words of Phil Jackson.
Of course, it seems a bit rich for the Lakers to be talking about aches and pains on a night when they were ripped to shreds by a fellow who was shot a month and a half ago (Landry), and by a team that was missing both its All-Stars. Regardless of how healthy Bynum and Odom are, L.A. still has the two best players in the series (Bryant and Gasol), and it's not even close.
So injuries aren't the only problem. In fact, I think there's another factor at work here, one that nobody is talking about because of the track record of the man involved. But let's call it for what it is:
The Zen Master is getting royally outcoached.
Actually, that may be an understatement. But we've been giving him a free pass for too long because of his nine championship rings. This isn't a single data point, but rather part of a disturbing recent trend that first reared its head in the bizarre Chris Mihm cameo in Game 5 of the NBA Finals last season.
As with last year's Finals, Phil looks weary and tuned out. Maybe that's what happens when you're 64 years old and have coached 93 games on a bad hip. But if you don't think Jackson is taking a savage beating in his battle of wits with Rick Adelman, then help me answer these questions:
Why was Kobe on the bench for five minutes to start the fourth quarter?
Bryant wasn't in foul trouble, but played only 38 minutes Thursday night. The Lakers took him out for a breather to start the fourth quarter, and didn't put him in until 6:58 remained. To that point, L.A. scored six points in seven trips, wasting a golden opportunity to pull closer while the Rockets were also struggling to score. There were dead balls at 9:14, 8:48 and 8:32, but Kobe didn't check back in at any of those moments.
Why are they bothering to cover Chuck Hayes?
They know he can't score, right? Hayes averaged 4.2 points per 40 minutes this season, the lowest rate of any NBA player who played at least 500 minutes. Unless you leave him wide open under the basket, he can't hurt you. But in pick-and-rolls, L.A. continually rotates a man to Hayes and leaves Scola with an open 17-footer. The Lakers know Yao has been replaced, don't they?
Incidentally, the Lakers also passed up several chances to foul Hayes late in the fourth quarter. He's a 57.6 percent career foul shooter with a bizarre, double-clutching release that at times looks as if he's blocking his own shot.
Why is Derek Fisher still in the rotation?
For all the great playoff moments he's delivered in his career, Fisher has been such a massive liability against Houston that Rockets fans claim they'd have already won the series if he hadn't been suspended for Game 3.
He's shooting 29.4 percent against Houston and contributed several of the forced early shots that put the Lakers in huge holes in Games 4 and 6. Additionally, he's been little more than a traffic cone on defense against speedy Aaron Brooks. The two men behind him, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, have played reasonably well, so there are alternatives.
For further proof, check out their plus/minus numbers on the series. Fisher is minus-14, Brown is plus-5 and Farmar is plus-48. Even in Game 5, which the Lakers won by 40 points, Fisher was a modest plus-9.
Yet the Lakers continue to trot Fisher out with the starters. At the very least, they should have him matching up against Kyle Lowry, whose inability to shoot makes it easy to back off him. But a better option might be to use Farmar and Brown the whole game. At this point, Jackson's loyalty to the veteran Fisher looks like a victory of sentimentality over wisdom.
Why is Bryant shooting almost exclusively the shots Houston wants him to take?
So is it really true that Kobe shooting a contested 18-footer off the dribble is the best look L.A. can get for him? Nothing going to the basket against Houston's Lilliputian frontcourt? No 1-4 sets to take away the help? No back-cuts or misdirections? Bueller
While Bryant is shooting a solid 46.3 percent for the series, that's hugely misleading. He has only 10 3-pointers and hasn't been able to get to the free throw line consistently, so his true shooting percentage of 54.0 is something Houston can live with -- especially when relying just on those jumpers has shriveled any chance of Bryant creating good shots for others. He is averaging only 3.5 assists per game on the series.
Why is Jackson insisting his team is playing hard and that everything is fine, when it so obviously isn't the case?
Maybe he's just too busy devising game plans for the Nuggets to notice. Jackson took questions about Denver before Game 6, and in the process poured more gasoline on the inferno of accusations that this team is too arrogant for its own good.
Nonetheless, Jackson seems weirdly unworried about the Lakers' shameful performances in Game 4 and 6. "There's nothing to worry about," he said after Thursday's Game 6. "As long as we have the home-court advantage, we're all right."
Great killer instinct, huh?
Even during his in-game interviews, he has refused to critique his team's effort and pointed to Houston's play instead, something he also did after his team's meltdown in Game 4.
Sum it all up, and it makes you wonder what's going on behind the scenes, prodding us to ask deeper questions than the ones above: Does he like this team? Do the players like him? Can he get them to play hard consistently? Does he want to come back next season?
During our writer roundup, I pointed to Kobe Bryant as the Laker who had the most to lose in Sunday's Game 7 (3 p.m. ET, ABC). But you can make an equally strong case for Jackson. He's acting and looking like a guy who's a bit bored with this whole thing, and for a coach of his stature to lose when he has such an overwhelming talent advantage would be a shocking turn of events.
|The Lakers seemed destined to top the West again. Now, only questions surround their future.|
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.