Thursday, May 3, 2012

State of Laker Nation Playoff Recap: Right Where We Need To Be

Before we discuss the finer points of Game 2, take a collective deep breath Laker Nation. The Lakers are 2-0 heading back to Denver and have defended their home court. They led wire-to-wire both games and have never really been tested. All bets are off on the road, but we’re right where we need to be. Andrew Bynum may not have had a triple double, but he set a career playoff high with 27 points and Kobe reminded us mortals that he still has plenty left in the tank. Kobe dropped an effortless 38 points and had a LeBron-esquerun-down block that must be seen to be believed.

Let’s be clear: the Lakers did not win Game 2 looking like a grind-out Mike Brown team. They allowed Denver to shoot 44% from the field, were outrebounded 48-52 (including 30-23 at half), and failed to control the sparkplug in Ty Lawson, who scored 25 points on 17 shots and got to the rim whenever he wanted. The Lakers allowed Denver to run in transition off rebounds and even made Corey Brewer (13 points and 3 steals) look like a real NBA player. Sure, they had a few stretches where the defense tightened up, but defense was not the key to the game. They won this game playing like a Phil Jackson team of offensive savants selflessly sharing the basketball.

The Lakers only used 8 players and got a solid effort across the board. Sessions did a great job of breaking down the defense and didn’t turn the ball over. Jordan Hill had 10 rebounds again. Ebanks continued his Trevor Ariza impression with 8 rebounds and a key steal. Gasol (13 points, 10 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals/blocks) had the kind of understated game we’re all going to look back at in 10 years and wish we’d appreciated more. The Spaniard is consistently excellent, even if I still scream at him to stop screwing around and dunk the ball at least once a game.

But the star power of Kobe and Andrew just overwhelmed Denver, whose personnel strategy of substituting in waves resembles an NHL team. A game like this is why I think that an incredibly deep team without a superstar will always struggle in the playoffs. You get significantly more rest, particularly in a season like this, and can afford extended minutes for your stars. Depth is critical, don’t get me wrong, but a winning team needs a player who can consistently grind out points over the course of a game like Kobe, Dirk, or CP3. If the shot isn’t falling, they can get to the line.

Well, tonight Kobe’s shot was falling and it was a long night for the Denver contingent attempting to contain him. He hit contested jumpers, utilized pristine footwork in the post, and even threw in a Dirk one-footed fadeaway for good measure. He had 21 points on 12 shots at the half and just eviscerated whoever they put on him. Although he did resort to a little hero ball at the end, Kobe also set up Bynum for a huge And-1 and did a good job of keeping his other teammates involved as well. For his part, Bynum wasn’t the defensive presence he was in Game 1; he was an offensive force to be reckoned with. He was patient with double teams, either going baseline with a drop step or setting up an open jumpshot with a hockey assist. Bynum even had a few fast break buckets as a direct result of his hustle to get down the court, which is always a good sign.

Still, this was not a perfect game and still showed a few of the deficiencies we’ve come to expect from the Lakers: 
  • Mental Focus: While I’m hesitant to ding them here because of their stellar offensive performance and timely bouts of defense, the Lakers fell back into a number of bad habits tonight. Their stars played like stars, but they also whined like them. Kobe/Andrew both failed to get back in time on several plays because they were complaining about non-calls.
  • Battle of the Boards: The Lakers should never be outrebounded by this team. Tonight they were. Denver has a lot of athletes and their team was hitting the boards hard, but the Lakers have got to do a better job of utilizing their length and boxing out on rebounds.
  • Protecting Leads: Denver played hard, but the Lakers need to find a way to go for the jugular and hold onto leads. They had a lead of 19 in the 3rd and 12 in the 4th, but still needed a Kobe bail-out three in crunch time. This game should not have been won by four and did not feel as close as it was.
  • Defend the 3: Although Ty Lawson was shredding our interior at will, Denver’s offense only operated in spurts because they weren’t hitting the three.  As KOBEshigawa pointed out at halftime, if they were hitting their jump shots, this would have been a much tougher team to defend and the Lakers might have been in trouble. The Lakers rotated to the perimeter much more quickly in the second half, but will need to be more consistent here on the road.

KOBEshigawa and I both picked Lakers in 5, which I still agree with, but I want to see more consistency out of this team. Kobe won’t shoot like this every night and I’d like to see them establish the critical habits that will help lead to a long playoff run. Boxing out every time. High-energy defense. Sustained mental focus. As I’ve said about this team for a long time, the Lakers alone will determine how far they go in these playoffs. If they play the kind of basketball they are capable of on both ends of the court, the sky’s the limit. 

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