This is my favorite time of year, the NBA Conference Finals are upon us!
This year’s Western Conference Finals are going to be one for the ages. In one corner you've got the two-time reigning MVP, 73 wins, and perhaps the deepest NBA team since the 80s. And in the other corner you have two of the best five players in the NBA. I see this series going 6 or 7 games. There will be a blow out or two, but most games should be nail bitters!
Speaking of the Warriors and their historic season, they have looked a bit shaky this postseason. One thing that was so impressive with the Chicago Bulls in 1996 and 1997 is that they bullied their way through the playoffs. Granted, the Finals had a few moments of doubt, but the Bulls methodically took care of business in the Eastern Conference rounds. There was no doubt that they were the most dominant team. But the Warriors aren’t showing the same mettle. Yes, they had an amazing regular season, but they’ve looked beatable these playoffs. The Thunder will be a great test for them, a test I think they’ll overcome but it’s in no way guaranteed.
The Eastern Conference Finals, unfortunately, are a bit more anemic than the competition in the West. The Raptors are plucky, but they’ve run up against the juggernaut of the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers. A team that’s healthy, harmonious, and humming on all cylinders. Contrast that to the Raptors, who come in hobbled after two excruciating seven game series. The Raptors may win one at home, but I’m predicting a four game sweep by the Cavs.
This goes without saying, but, my goodness, LeBron James is a very good basketball player. It’s jaw dropping how big, strong, fast, and smart he is out on the basketball court. He’s been doing this for 13 years now without any major injuries. He’s a bit slower, sure, but he’s still the best player in the League and will no doubt go down as one of the best 5 players in NBA History. If I was building a team from scratch and needed to think about what players to take for the longevity of the franchise, I can’t think of many players I’d choose before LBJ.
Whether the Conference Finals are a historic matchup (as in the West) or a foregone conclusion (as in the East), there’s one way to make every game exceedingly more watchable and fun – and that’s by gambling on the outcome! I’ve been looking into NBA betting at William Hill as a way to spice up the excitement of each game.
My final prediction is... Warriors over the Thunder in 6, and the Cavs over the Raptors in 4. The NBA Finals will be a glorious rematch from last year, but this time the Cavs will have a full and healthy roster. I see this series being one for the ages. It will go 7 games and in the waning seconds of the final game a superstar from one team will hit the game winner. That player will, soon thereafter, be named the NBA Finals MVP (again) and there will be wild jubilation and celebration in the streets of Cleveland, as they net their first NBA championship! Yes, that’s right, I’ve got the Cavs in 7!
After an impressive start to the 2010-2011 season, the Los Angeles Lakers have, as of late, been left floundering. The Laker’s woes started after Thanksgiving, when they lost four in a row to the Jazz, Pacers, Grizzlies, and Rockets, and was compounded with an embarrass loss on Christmas Day to the Miami Heat. On Sunday, the Lakers were blown out by the Grizzlies at home, 104-85.
There is something different about this team now than there was at the start of the season, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think there may be several causes:
- Physical Fatigue – this Lakers nucleus has played in the NBA Finals four three seasons in a row – that’s playing from November through June, logging 100+ games on the odometer each season. Add to that Kobe’s playing time in the 2008 Olympics and Lamar Odom’s participation in Team USA basketball this past summer and the increased workload on Gasol without a healthy Bynum. Could the Lakers be running out of gas - too many games, too many minutes in too short a time period?
- Mental Fatigue – could the Lakers just be low of gas in the brain? With two championships under their belt, the boys in Purple and Gold may be feeling a bit invincible – “We’ll turn it on come the playoffs.”
- Artest – let’s be honest – on offense the Lakers are very often playing 4 on 5. For all his energy and defensive prowess, for everything that he brings to the game from his energy to his experience, he takes it away on the offensive side of the court. He is not a threat; his defender can sag and clog the lane. Heck, in December Artest himself said he didn’t understand the triangle offense: “See, I can't really understand the triangle [offense]. There's 1,000 plays in the triangle. It's such a challenge. I get so frustrated about it. . . . So I just stay in my one spot in the corner. If I leave my spot, I get yelled at. [Lakers Coach] Phil [Jackson's] gonna say, 'What are you doing over there!' So I just don't move." (Maybe Ron should watch this video explaining the Hi-Low Triangle Offense.)
Whatever it is that is ailing the Lakers, they need to identify it and arrive at a suitable workaround. The good news is that this slump is happening now, in mid-season, as opposed to April or May. There’s still plenty of time for the Lakers to turn it around and get back into tip-top shape.
Here’s a nice short video detailing how the Hi-Low Triangle Offense – an offensive scheme used frequently by the Lakers – is run. In this set, the play hinges on the 3, who must be a good ball handler and decision maker. The Triangle Offense works best when the 1 and 2 are legitimate outside shooting threats that will make the guard defenders think twice about sagging toward the middle.
The High-Low Triangle Offense
The NBA regular season starts this coming Tuesday with an epic opener – the Boston Celtics playing the new Miami Heat! And later that night, the Lakers take on the Houston Rockets to open their season.
With LeBron’s “decision,” the Lakers coming off back-to-back titles, Kevin Durant’s scoring title and emergence as, perhaps, one of the best players in the league, it’s going to be an exciting and interesting season. Here are five plotlines I can’t wait to see unfold:
- How will the Lakers fare? The Lakers are predicted by many to be the favorite team in the West, and for good reason. The Lakers have been to the Finals three straight years in a row, winning the last two. They have a savvy group of battle tested veterans and an intensely fierce and competitive leader in Kobe Bryant. But let’s not forget, the Lakers are another year older; Kobe is 32, but has extended miles on his legs due to entering the League at 18 and playing deep into the postseason most years. Speaking of “old legs,” Andrew Bynum will miss a fair part of the beginning of the season after knee surgery. On top of that, the depth and overall strength of the Western Conference has improved since last year. I think it’s safe to say the Lakers will start out slow, but hopefully they will hit their stride by January and be able to lock up a 2nd or 3rd seat for the Western Conference playoffs.
- How many points will Kevin Durant score each night? Last year Kevin Durant, at 21, became the youngest player ever to win the NBA scoring title, averaging 30.1 ppg. Durant’s 30.1 edged out LeBron by just 0.4 ppg. This year, I think Durant wins the scoring title again by a wide margin. Westbrook has improved markedly, the Thunder have another year of experience under their belt, and his closest competitor last year (LeBron) will not score as much this year now that he’s in Miami and will be playing a more complementary role. I’m betting Durant will average north of 31 ppg this season – should be a blast to watch!
- Who will be the beast from the East? The Eastern Conference has, arguably, three of the best (if not the best) teams in the League – the Heat, Celtics, and Magic. Each time these teams meet in the regular season will be a battle. Will any of the three emerge as a dominant team, or will each of these teams have an equal shot of winning the Eastern Conference title?
- How will the “losers” of the LeBron Decision fare? When LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, he left two serious contenders for the LeBron Sweepstakes out cold – the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. These teams each made some big signings in the off-season – the Bulls landing Carlos Boozer, who I think will complement Noah and Rose exceptionally well, and the Knicks landing Amare Stoudemire (and, perhaps later this season, Carmelo Anthony, if Carmelo has his way). Will either of these teams be serious contenders, or will they just be battling it out for the rights to lose to Miami, Boston, or Orlando in the first round of the playoffs?
- How Dominant will the LeBron/Wade/Bosh Trio Become? Have we ever seen two of the three best players in the League on the same team before? Can this newly assembled team gel quickly enough to make a serious run to the Finals? How many games can we expect to see the Heat win this year? (I’m guessing around 65. There’s no way they’re winning more than 70.) This should be the most exciting subplot of the season, and it all starts this coming Tuesday when the Heat welcome the Celtics!
Four days and counting… Let’s go Lakers!
Tonight the Los Angeles Lakers look to close out the young but impressive Oklahoma City Thunder in an important Game 6 in OKC.
The Lakers dominated the Thunder in the first game of the series, winning handily and looking like the current champions they are. But the Thunder did not roll over. They came back strong in Game 2, a game that they lost but played well and led in the 4th quarter. Back home, the Thunder ran the Lakers off the court, winning both Games 3 and 4 handily. Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers returned to their true form and trounced the Thunder, leading by more than 30 at one point to claim a pivotal 3-2 series lead.
And here we stand now, at the precipice of Game 6. A Lakers win and they're onto the conference semi-finals to play the winner of the Nuggets-Jazz series. A Thunder win and the series returns to LA for a deciding Game 7 on Sunday.
To win this game, the Lakers need to do the following:
- Go inside on offense. The Lakers have two 7 foot tall, offensive beasts in Bynum and Gasol. Bynum plays like a typical big, back to the basket. He's got some sweet post moves and can clean up on the offensive boards. Gasol is more of an all around offensive threat. He has the 16 foot jump shot, he's got the back to the basket moves, and he's one of the best big man passers in the league. In Game 5 the Lakers went to both big men early and often and dashed out to an insurmountable lead. In the games they lost, the Lakers failed to go inside, instead relying on jump shots and one on one play.
- Use Kobe as an offensive facilitator, not a creator. Kobe Bryant has lost a gear. While only 31, he's got too many miles on his odometer, too many nagging injuries, and is clearly not the same player he was in years past. He's got a broken finger that is impacting his shooting, as evidenced by his poor field goal percentage this series. Problem is, sometimes it seems that Kobe doesn't realize this. Too often he seems hellbent on creating something from nothing, instead of acting as a facilitator who conducts the offense (which should mean getting good spacing on the floor and then getting the ball inside to Gasol or Bynum). When Kobe tries to do too much, the Lakers suffer. When he defers, they win. Kobe... please defer tonight!
- Slow down Westbrook and Durant. Ron Artest has done a better job in guarding and harassing Durant than I had expected. To be honest, I thought Artest's age and declining skills would be highlighted this series, but the exact opposite has come true. So that's some silver lining in the cloud and gives me some hope that Artest can work similar magic against future opponents the Lakers may face (presuming they get past OKC). Of course, Artest's offense is another story... Artest needs to continue manning up and playing strong D against Durant, but that alone is not enough. The Lakers also need an answer for Westbrook, who has emerged in this series as a premier point guard. In Games 1-4, Westbrook lit up Fisher, blowing by him at will. In Game 5, Kobe started guarding Westbrook and played a more conservative defense. Rather than crowding Westbrook, Kobe would give him a five foot buffer, guaranteeing Kobe enough time to adjust when Westbrook makes his move, and daring Westbrook to shoot the jumper. Fortunately, Westbrook's jumper was flat in the first half of Game 5, allowing the Lakers to build on their lead. Had he been hitting the long ball (as he started to do in the second half), I wonder how successful Kobe's defense would have been. Regardless of what it takes, the Lakers need to limit Westbrook and Durant's impact on the game tonight.
- Keep the Thunder players off the offensive boards and limit second chance shots. In the two Thunder wins they dominated the Lakers on the boards and in hustle.
I hope the Lakers come out with a strong focus tonight and put away the Thunder convincingly, rather than dragging this out to a 7th and deciding game. Last year, when the Lakers played Game 6 in Houston in the first round, I was certain that the Lakers would do just that - come out strong and win handily. Unfortunately, the Lakers did the opposite last year, getting rolled by the Rockets and having to win back in LA. Let's hope this year is not a repeat of last year, and that this series can be nipped in the bud sooner rather than later.
After an extended break to nurse some injuries, Kobe Bryant returned to the lineup last night to help the Lakers beat the Memphis Grizzlies, 99-98.
The Lakers steamrolled during Bryant's absence, winning all but one game comfortably. Their one loss came to the Boston Celtics and highlighted Kobe's important roll to the team. In the 4th quarter the Lakers lead against the Celtics started to vanish as the defensive intensity magnified. Each possession, the Lakers struggled with getting their offense started. They throw it into Pau, who would kick it out to Farmar, who would sling it over to Lamar, who would dribble, dribble, dribble, before passing it back to Farmar. Most possessions ended with Farmar or Shannon jacking up a tough, long distance jump shot with the shot clock winding down. Without Kobe the Lakers had no one who could get their own shot.
Fast forward to last night, with Kobe returning to the team. While he started off a little rusty, he finished strong, hitting a three late in the game to knot up the score, and then a last second three to put the Lakers up by one with only a few ticks left on the clock. (The Grizzlies missed the ensuing shot and the Lakers walked off with a 1 point victory.)
Each year I post my (insanely inaccurate) playoff predictions prior
to the start of the postseason. I some rare circumstances my picks are
spot on - such as my prediction last year of a Lakers / Celtics Finals with the Celtics winning in 6 - but most of the time my guesses are horrific and gum up my entire bracket (such as last year's pick of the Wizards beating the Cavs in Round 1... whoops) or are just so divorced from reality, as in the case of picking that the Celtics would sweep the Hawks in Round 1. This year I didn't have as much time to pontificate on
my playoff picks because the Western Conference seedings weren't
finalized until the last day of the regular season. With such a tight bunching between the 2nd and 8th-seeded teams, every game this regular season mattered. From Chris Tomasson in Nuggets Can Thank Papovich for No. 2 Seed:
In San Antonio, they remember the Alamo. They also might remember Feb. 3. That was the night Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested most of his top players against the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Playing the second game of a back-to-back situation after winning the previous night at Golden State, Popovich didn’t use Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Michael Finley. Although Ginobili had gotten hurt the night before, Popovich gave no concrete reason for resting the others.
The Spurs J.V. team battled well. But they fell 104-96 to assure that Denver won the season series 2-1. Well, guess what? The Spurs and the Nuggets both finished the season 54-28, with Denver, due to the tiebreaker, getting the No. 2 seed in the West and San Antonio settling for No. 3. Had Popovich used his top players that night and the Spurs won, San Antonio would be the No. 2 seed and would be in line for homecourt advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Of course, an extra loss would have meant the Nuggets would have finished the season 53-29. That would have resulted in them losing the Northwest Division to Portland (54-28) and losing a tiebreaker to Houston (53-29) for the No. 4 seed.
Let's get started with this year's picks! I've put the winning team name from each series in bold.
(1) Cleveland beats (8) Detroit - The Pistons have had a disappointing season marred by a disastrous trade. Cleveland and LeBron have been unstoppable, netting the league's best record with only two loses on their home court all year. Cleveland will win this series easily in 5. I forsee the Cavs being up 3-0 when the Pistons win a meaningless Game 4, only to have the Cavs dominantly close the series in Game 5 back in Cleveland (although a four game sweep wouldn't surprise me in the least).
(4) Atlanta loses to (5) Miami - D-Wade is a beast and here's the scary part - he could have been a Detroit Piston! I've mentioned this before many times, but we, as a society, can never forget - the Pistons took Darko as their #2 pick in the draft over D-Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. Ok, I feel better now. I see Wade putting forth a Herculean effort that cannot be stopped or matched by the Hawks. Heat in 6.
(3) Orlando beats (6) Philly - While Orlando has slipped a bit in the last bit of the season, they're in a perfect position now. They won't have to worry about the Cavs until the Conference Finals and they'd face a depleted Celtics team in Round 2. Philly will be a road bump for the Magic, who will win in 5.
(2) Boston over (7) Chicago - First, the bad news: Celtics Coach Doc Rivers announced that, after sitting out several games late in the regular season, Garnett will likely be out for the entire playoffs with a bum knee. While the Celtics have won the vast majority of their games during Garnett's absenses this season, one wonders how they will fare in the playoffs without the services of their emotional leader. This first round should be a good test as Chicago is the team that poses the greatest threat to any of the top-seeded teams in the first round. However, I don't think the Bulls have any real chance here - they're still too young and too inexperienced. There will be some interesting and close games, but the Celtics will prevail in 6.
(1) Cleveland beats (5) Miami - Another walk in the park for the Cavs. I expect Wade will have at least one phenomenal game that overwhelms the Cavs - and the Heat have had a resounding win against the Cavs in Miami this year - but this series will serve as an appetizer for the main course - the Eastern Conference Finals! Cleveland in 5.
(2) Boston beats (3) Orlando - The Celtics are missing Garnett, they're old and tired from a six game series with the Bulls. The Magic are young and hungry and rested. It will be a good series with a couple of close games, but the Celtics experience and mettle will see them into the ECF. Celtics in 6, possibly 7.
(1) Cleveland beats (2) Boston - The Cavs have everything in their favor going into the ECF - two "easy" Rounds, a very hungry and motivated LeBron, and a depleted Celtics squad firmly between their sights. The Celtics will have enough juice left in them to win one game at home, but the Cavs will overwhelm them in this series, winning in 5.
(1) Los Angeles beats (8) Utah - The Lakers are the favored team in the West; the Jazz have been struggling late and have questions around the health of their star forward, Carlos Boozer. The Lakers bested the Jazz earlier this week. Things are not looking up for the Jazz. Even Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan admitted things are pretty bleak in Utah. While most analysts have written off the Jazz, I think they're going to give the Lakers two or three tough games, winning one or two. The Lakers have this series in the books barring any freak injuries, but the Lakers will have a couple of rough patches, especially seeing as how they are a team whose attention and energy is not always tightly focused. Lakers in 5, maybe 6.
(4) Portland beats (5) Houston - Portland is young, hungry, and talented. Houston is still struggling to get out of the first round of the playoffs this decade. I think this will be a heck of a series with some memorable games, but in the end I think Portland's youth and home court advantage will give them the series in 7.
(3) San Antonio beats (6) Dallas - The Spurs are old and without Manu, and Duncan's knees have started to deteriorate on him, but they still are the Spurs, they still know how to win in the postseason, and they still have a great coach in Popavich. The Mavericks biggest problem is their lack of defensive intensity and their inability to stop fast guards, like Tony Parker. There may be a close game or two in this series, but I see the Spurs pulling through without much ado, and winning in 5 or 6.
(2) Denver loses to (7) New Orleans - The Hornets are beat up and the Nuggets have home court advantage, but I think that if there is going to be one upset in the first round, this series will be it. Denver always seems one boneheaded play or emotional outburst away from a full-fledged breakdown, and Denver's stars have never seemed as hungry as the likes of Chris Paul. Granted, the Nuggets have the Hornets beat on talent, but I think last year's push into the second round and their hunger will give the Hornets the edge and the ability to best the Nuggets in a tight 7 game series.
(1) Los Angeles beats (4) Portland - This
should be a great matchup. Two fun teams who will bring a lot of energy and excitement to the floor. The Blazers will have an exciting win or two, but I see the Lakers winning this series in 5 or 6. The difference comes down to postseason experience. There will be a few key plays in key games that the Lakers will capitalize on and that will be the difference.
(3) San Antonio beats (7) New Orleans - This year's rematch of last year's WCSFs series will be just as exciting and will have the same outcome - Spurs in 7.
(1) Los Angeles beat (3) San Antonio - The Lakers are too
fast and too deep, too young and too hungry. The Spurs are too old, without Manu, and worn from a longer and more depleting Round 1 and Round 2. Much like last year's WCF, the Lakers will blow by the Spurs, winning in 5.
loses to (1) Los Angeles - The Lakers have had the Cavs number this season, winning both games against the Cavs and handing Cleveland their first home loss (and only home loss until the last game of the season). The Lakers are hungrier, too, having gotten to the Finals last year, but losing in 6. This year, with a healthy Bynum, with Phil gunning for 10 rings, and Kobe needing a ring to cement his legacy and to prove that he can win without Shaq, the Lakers will take this series in convincing fashion, winning in 6 and being crowned the world champions!
As I noted previously, I've been getting into analyzing NBA stats recently, which seems all the rage these days. Anywho, here's a random fun stat for the day:
Guards and forwards are both more than five times as likely to have a season with more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. The only centers to have more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds in a season were (when considering only players who played 41 games or more):
- Chris Dudley (1987)
- Ed Horton (1989)
- Stacey King (1992)
- Scott Lloyd (1978)
- Granville Waiters (1985)
(Keep in mind that rebound stats weren't divided into offensive and defensive stats until the 1973 season.)
A few weeks ago I also added a new feature to the NBAWebLog.com homepage - statcenter's Twitter feed. statcenter routinely posts various NBA stats via his (her?) Twitter feed, which then gets displayed on this site's homepage.
Over the past decade there's been quite the groundswell of interest in the gathering and analysis of basketball statistics. Purportedly, many NBA teams have at least one full-time statistician, if not several, trying to tease out trends and gain a deeper understanding of player and team efficiency based on the numbers. Perhaps one of the better known statistics is John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
Being a numbers geek at heart, I've often thought it would be interesting to plough through some statistics and make observations or discover some insight from the sea of data. Of course, before you can analyze data, you need to get your hands on the data.
There are some websites that sell statistics marked up in the official SportsML markup language. However, being a hobbyist, I wasn't too keen on paying for stats and, fortunately, stumbled across free basketball stats in Microsoft Excel format at DatabaseBasketball.com. There are different spreadsheets for team stats by season, player stats by regular season, player stats in the playoffs, and so forth. Moreover, the statistical history dates back to the 50s and includes NBA and ABA teams, although certain stats, such as assits, weren't recorded until the 70s, and things like three pointers attempted and made were not relevant prior to the three point line. I spent some time getting the data from the Excel spreadsheets into a Microsoft SQL Server database, where I can more proficiently delve into the data. I'm still in the process of integrating all of the spreadsheets, but I currently have the team and regular season player data.
One area of interest for me has to with how the game changed from the 80s to the 90s, and now into the 00s. The 80s was typified by high scoring, fast break offense. Fun, free-flowing ball with high scoring and breakneck action. But in the late 80s the Pistons showed that defense could win championships, and the Knicks and Bulls exemplified a stronger defensive mindset. Scoring dropped precipitously. Over the past decade, the NBA has had several rule changes to encourage a faster paced game, which has brought more energy to the game and increased scoring, although not to the levels in the 1980s (or even to the levels of the early 1990s), but the offensive numbers are steadily increasing with each season this decade. I am curious as to how this change in strategy from the 80s to the 90s affected various facets of the game, and whether today's trend of more offense is going to return us to an 80s style of play or not.
I plan on writing up a more in-depth post as I continue to poke at this data, but for now consider this:
- Average ppg in the 1980s: 108.6
- Average ppg in the 1990s (Excluding 1998): 100.5
- Average ppg in the 2000s: 96
The high-scoring 80s did not end abruptly with the start of the 1990 season, but were starting to wane from the high of 109 ppg in 1988 to 106 in 1990. From 1990 to the 1997 season scoring decreased every year, from 106 ppg down to 95 ppg. (I have exlucded the 1998 lockout year from my calculations, in which half a season was played; in this lockout year there was an abysmally low 91 ppg, but that was certainly due in part to players being out of shape when the season started.) The lowest ppg season since 1980 was 2000, at 94 ppg, but this number has been steadily increasing every year since, and last season (2007) was at 99 ppg. And this year currently stands at 99 ppg, on average. Point being, we're unlikely to see a decade ppg average eclipse 100.
The more interesting question is how did the improved defense of the 90s affect the offensive game. Sure, fewer points were scored, but was that because there was poorer shooting or fewer attempts at shots because of stiffling defense? Or were there fewer fast break attempts? Fewer fouls, and therefore fewer free throws? Or some combination of the above? Moreover, how have these factors changed as the scoring has increased over the past eight seasons? Are we seeing a return to the conditions in the 80s or is today's offense more the product of quicker foul calls and one-on-one plays? The answers lie in the data!
The Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Bobcats have announced a trade today: the Lakers send Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown. This trade is more about freeing up some cap space for next year rather than making a big move. Radman and Morrison are two players who see only limited playing time and neither player's absence will affect either team significantly. Adam Morrison was a phenomenal college player at Gonzaga and was selected third overall in the draft in 2006, but has not adjusted well to the NBA. Early in his career he had a knee injury, and he's never had the speed or defensive sharpness needed to make it big in the NBA. It's safe to say that so far his professional career has been a disappointment. Interestingly, Morrison was the first round pick by Charlotte, which was at the time (and still is) headed by Michael Jordan. MJ was also the executive responsible for the Wizards drafting Kwame Brown, another player whose professional career never panned out and who played for the Lakers. I don't expect Morrison will see nearly as much PT as Kwame got in those years he played with the Purple and Gold.
The Lakers won their sixth straight game today capping off their six game road trip by besting the Cleveland Caveliers 101-91. Kobe Bryant was reportedly feeling under the weather and didn't have a major impact on the game, but Lamar Odom played very well, with 28 pts and 17 boards, both season highs. Prior to Bynum's knee injury, Lamar was coming off the bench and was playing limited minutes when compared to previous seasons. With Bynum's absence from the lineup, he will be called on to start games and will need to stack up boards and easy points like he did today.
Despite Bynum's injury, I think it's safe to say that the Lakers are the hottest team in the league as we head into the week preceding the All Star Game break. They have the best record (41-9) and have beaten the Celtics and the Cavs on the road in the last week, as well as winning against Cleveland and the Spurs at home in the past three weeks. Of course, we are still a fair stretch away from the postseason, and anything can happen between now and April, but if the Lakers can stay healthy and focused they are going to have another very successful postseason. On Tuesday the Thunder come to LA and then on Wednesday the Lakers fly out to Salt Lake City to play the Jazz. The team is then off until Tuesday the 17th, when they play at home against the Atlanta Hawks.
Last Saturday in a game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the ever-improving center Andrew Bynum suffered an injury when Kobe Bryant collided into his right knee. The result was a torn MCL and will be out 8 to 12 weeks. That means his return date, if it happens at all this season, would be sometime in April. It also means he would (likely) be out of shape and out of sync with his team. Last year Bynum suffered a similar injury in January, but in his left knee. That injury sidelined the budding Bynum, but doctors were optimistic and announced that he'd be back in 8 weeks. Unfortunately, 8 weeks turned into the rest of the season, and Bynum was not on the active roster come the postseason. His lack of size, energy, and skills were part of the reason the Lakers stumbled in the Finals, as they were routinely outsized and outplayed underneath the rim. And not to be too dire, but Kobe is suffering from his own set of ailments - his finger and shoulder, for instance - yet I somehow doubt Kobe would go on the IR unless his legs were broken or his shooting arm amputated.
Despite the Lakers strong record (currently 39-9 with a 12 game lead in their division), this injury is certainly a setback as they return to their roster from the second half of last year. A roster strong enough to get them into the Finals, but not strong enough to win it all. This year their roster has another year of experience and Pau Gasol has had more time to be integrated into the offense. Pau's also playing with more chutzpah than last year. Compare his performance in the Christmas game this year against the Celtics, when he stepped up late in the 4th and hit several big shots, many of them driving to the basket. In last year's Finals he often looked lost and intimidated. And this year he is playing quite well, both with Bynum in the lineup and without. His stats are on par with his stats last year, but he seems to come up big more often, more comfortable to take an important shot, whereas last year he seemed to be more hesitant, perhaps still feeling out his role on the team and how Kobe would respond if he took a big shot and missed.
What's more, this years Western Conference is weaker than last years. The Spurs are a year older (so old, it seems, that Pop gave Duncan, Manu, and Parker an entire night off!), injuries about for the Jazz and Hornets, the Suns players miss D'Antoni and don't seem to much like playing for their new coach, and while Denver and Portland have a lot of upside, I can't see them beating the Lakers or Spurs in a seven game series. But the East is a Beast this year, with the Celtics, Cavs, and Magic all playing an exceptionally strong first half of the season.
So what's the short term battle plan? The Lakers star players need to step it up a notch, and they have already done so. On Superbowl Sunday Kobe netted 61 in New York against the Knicks, setting a record for most points scored in MSG. And Gasol has had a couple of monster games where he's scored over 30 and racked up more than 10 boards. Tomorrow's game on the road against the Celtics, after playing a game today against the Raptors, will be a good litmus test. Will the Lakers be able to raise their game to the level of the Celtics, who are riding a 12 game win streak? Can Kobe and crew up their game and beat Boston in both of their games this season? I doubt it, given the back-to-back and being in the midst of a long road trip, but a W will sure give the Lakers much needed mental fortitude and a sense that this Celtics team can be beaten sans Bynum. (There's another big game on Sunday in Cleveland against the Cavs that should serve as another litmus test.) Another short term option would be to get another big man on the roster. Perhaps some team will take Lamar Odom and a draft pick for a reliable big man. Don't forget, last year around this time they landed Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies, so you never know what might happen.
Long term, the Lakers are going to have to plan on being Bynum-less the rest of this season. While the doctors say he might come back before the postseason, I am not optimistic given the history. With a healthy and hungry Bynum I think the Lakers are the deepest team in the League and are certainly capable of winning it all. Without Bynum, the Lakers still have a lot of depth and skill and are still the best team in the West, but their ascention to the Finals is more in doubt without Bynum. I still am picking the Lakers to make it to the Finals this year, but I think they are going to lose to a hungry Cavs team spearheaded by the unstoppable LeBron James.
The Lakers had the toughest three-game stretch of their season the past six days, matching up against the always dangerous San Antonio Spurs, the hot Orlando Magic, and the unstoppable Cleveland Cavaliers.
The first game against the Spurs was, perhaps, their toughest, as it was on the road and the second game in a back-to-back. Yet the game was close and down to the wire, with the Lakers up by two with less than a minute. However, San Antonio's newest big shot baller, Roger Mason, who scored 18 points it total, hit the most crucial three by draining a jumper while getting fouled by Derek Fisher. The bucket tied the game and the subsequent free throw put the Spurs up by 1. On the final possession, Kobe Bryant passed to a cutting Trevor Ariza who got whistled for traveling when his feet got tangled up with a Spurs players.
On Friday, the Lakers returned home to face off against the Magic, whose 31-8 record was certainly on par with the Lakers (31-7). Dwight Howard had a monster game, netting 25 points, pulling down 20 boards, and blocking three shots. Jameer Nelson helped ice the game with 15 fourth quarter points. The Lakers didn't keep this game as close as they did in the Spurs game two nights before, and ended up losing 109-103.
Last night the Lakers welcomed another Eastern Conference power, this time winning in style, 105-88. This game had a scary moment - Kobe Bryant dislocated the ring finger on his shooting hand in the 2nd quarter. The trainer re-located it and Bryant returned to action, albeit clearly playing in pain. The good news is that the X-rays were negative, there was no fracture. In aftergame comments Bryant noted that this was the greatest amount of pain he's ever played in, but that he doesn't expect to miss Wednesday's "away game" against the Los Angeles Clippers.
As it stands, the Lakers are curretly sitting atop the Western Conference at 32-8, five games ahead of their nearest competition. Unfortunately, the wear and tear of the season is starting to impact this squad. Kobe's finger aside, the Lakers have had Lamar Odom in and out of the lineup as of late. And backups Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton have been beseiged by injuries, as well. Hopefully the Lakers can continue to avoid any major injuries, like Andrew Bynum's season-ending injury last January, or Ariza's broken foot, which took him out the majority of the regular season.
The NBA regular season started tonight, starting off another long season that's sure to have it's share of drama, stars,injuries, duds, hot streaks, and cold streaks. The Lakers started their season against the young and hopeful Portland Trailblazers and won handily, 96-76. Speaking of injuries, the cursed Blazers suffered a setback when Greg Oden - who sat out all of last year after undergoing knee surgery - injured his foot early in the game and could not return. The X-Rays were negative, but he's scheduled for an MRI to ascertain the extend of the muscle damage.
A lot of people like the Lakers chances this year, with a hungry Kobe, a healthy Bynum, and Gasol playing in the more natural PF spot (as opposed to the center position he played after Bynum's injury last year, a position where he was routinely muscled around by stronger big men). I think as long as Kobe maintains the pass first, shoot second attitude he adopted last year, and assuming the Lakers stay healthy, I like their chances, too.
It's been a while since I've last blogged here, and my posts this season may be more infrequent than in years past in large part because my wife and I added a new member to our family in September. Also, I've been becoming a bigger and bigger NFL fan over the past four or five years and as a result don't really get ramped up to the NBA regular season until February. Which is not unlike the attitude of certain NBA players (Shaq, I'm looking in your general direction).
Between Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy said that a handful of past postseason games were called impartially by the referees to extend a series per the machinations of the League and stations carrying the postseason games. It is believes that one game Donaghy was referring to was Game 6 of the WCF in the 2002 NBA Playoffs between the Kings and Lakers, a game the Lakers won to force a Game 7 in Sacramento. Commissioner David Stern quickly denounced Donaghy's claims, referring to him as a "singing felon" who is looking to lessen his prison sentence and take down another ref or two on his way out.
When I was in high school I worked as a youth soccer referee for some spending money. Each Saturday I'd referee two to three games at the ballpark, from the Under 6 games to the Under 13 games. (Only adult referees were allowed to referee the Under 18 games, which made sense... no point in having a referee who is younger than some of the players or who may be friends with the players.) Having been in this position - albeit a far, far, far, far cry from refereeing a professional sport - I can say with certainty that refereeing is by no means an objective endeavor. There is nothing objective about sports, from the fans to the announcers, to the referees. Everyone of these actors are human and have some sort of subjectivity. As a referee, the way a player or coach interacts with you affects your call making. It shouldn't, granted, but it does. If you have a coach that comes up to you before the game, is very polite and kind, and drops a line like, "Hey, last time we played these guys, I had two of my boys hurt from #25 on the other team, he plays really rough." That comment right there is going to nestle into the folds of your cranium and you are going to, subconsciously if not consciously, keep your eyes open when #25 is near the ball. Likewise, if a coach or player is exceptionally rude or mean to you, you can't help but let that affect your mental state. Or if you missed calling a rather blatant foul committed by Team X at one point, if they commit a more ticky tack foul 30 seconds later you're likely to call that, to makeup the first missed call. (This happens all the time in the NBA.)
What's worse is that due to the subjectivity of fans and announcers, they are going to interpret a ref's actions in a different light, even if, by some magical circumstance, the ref is purely objective. Here's an interesting thought experiment: imagine that the NBA took referees off the court and replaced it with people watching the game off the court, but having a way to signal a foul. How would that affect fans' interpretation of the calls being made? Would they feel differently if they couldn't actually see the refs, as humans, making the calls and interacting with the players? Take it a step further. Imagine that the NBA had a computer program that could watch the game and, in real time, make objective calls. And then imagine that you had half the games "ref'd" by humans watching the screens, and half by the computers, but you never told the fans which games were being refereed by humans and which by computers. Do you think the average fan could tell what games were refereed by humans vs. those by computers? Even if they knew a computer was making the calls, would they anthropomorphize the computer by assuming it "favored" one team over another?
In the end, I think that virtually every NBA ref is as objective as he or she can be. Yes, there can be rotten apples like Donaghy, but most, I think, are as objective as you're going to get. It's far too easy to "see" a conspiracy - the NBA wants a Game 7, so "they" corroborated with the officials to "fix" the game!! I think such accusations are rubbish and too easy a cop out for a team that isn't playing well. Take Game 2 of this year's NBA Finals. In the first half the Celtics got several phantom calls and were seldom whistled for fouls they committed. I think even the most die-hard Celtic fan will admit to this discrepancy. Yet it's too easy to blame the Lakers loss (or Celtics win) solely on the refs that game. The Celtics played outstanding D most of the game, the Lakers let the refs affect them mentally, and (as has been the case this entire series), Gasol and Odom shrunk from the spotlight while Ray Allen has continued to play lights out.
Until referees are replaced by computers, there will be "homer calls"
and "makeup calls," and we're just going to have to live with that. If you can't stomach the human element in the refereeing of your sport games, then start following referee-less sports, like chess.
I've been quite busy lately and haven't had a chance to blog much about the playoffs. I have been doing my best, though, to watch many of the Lakers game throughout these playoffs. Given the ease with which they dispatched the Nuggets and the lack of serious challenges against the Jazz and Spurs, I thought the Lakers would roll on the Celtics. And at halftime in Game 1 my confidence was still there. Heck, even after they lost Game 1 I was still thinking that the main reason they lost was because they went cold in important parts of the latter half and that they'd redeem themselves in Game 2. But, as we know, they didn't, in part because the refs were making some pretty questionable calls, but in a larger part because Kobe was bickering with his teammates and the Celtics were playing strong D. That's when I realized what, perhaps, I should have known all along: the Celtics are a better team than LA. And that's the thing about 7-game series. The best team wins the series most every time.
Anywho, I figured that if the Lakers could sweep at home they'd be heading into Boston with a lot of momentum and a Celtic team with a shaken psyche. And in tonight's game, when they were up by 24 in the 2nd quarter, I thought if they could keep this lead up and extend it even, win by 25 or 30 or 35 points, a shell shocked Boston team would likely be would likely wilt in Game 5, giving the Lakers the home sweep and setting up a possible Game 6 win in Boston. But we know what happened. The Laker squandered a magnificent lead and strong first half and ended up getting embarrassed at home. My new prediction: Boston in 5. I don't see the Lakers bouncing back from this defeat.
I watched the entire game and kept a running diary to post here. This game started so well - Lamar playing out of his mind, the role players really stepping up and scoring - and then it ended so badly. All times are Pacific Daylight Savings Time.
[6:10 PM] Four shots from LA - one 3 ball attempt from Kobe, three drives to the hoop. To win this series the Lakers need to keep attaking the basket.
[6:11 PM] Back door cut by Pau for an easy dunk. First nice off the ball movement we've seen by the Lakers this Finals.
[6:16 PM] Lamar to the hoop for two! Again! Welcome to the NBA Finals, Lamar. In case you didn't hear, they actually started last week, but I'm glad you're here now. Please don't leave until we wrap this series up.
[6:26 PM] 21 point lead for LA. But what's more important is that Lamar has finally showed up, is playing aggressively, getting boards, and on fire (5 for 5 shooting). During the regular season the Lakers had too many games where they'd open a big lead and then let the other team come right back. Times where they were up 20-25 points in the 3rd only to end up in a game that goes down to the wire in the 4th. They gave up a big lead in the Utah series, too, and barely hung on to pull out the W. Let's hope that this pattern doesn't repeat itself tonight.
[6:29 PM] Odom, again! 6 for 6!
[6:36 PM] Clearly "Good Teammate Kobe" is in the building tonight. Yes, he's commanding the ball to start the offense, but he's very often passing to open players. A much more team-oriented approach than what we saw at the start of Game 3. Although you wonder if we'd be seeing "Scowl at My Teammates" Kobe if they weren't enjoying a 21 point lead at the end of the first.
[6:42 PM] Interesting lineup for the Lakers. Gasol is the only starter with four bench players. This has been one of the Lakers main assests this season - an exceptionally strong and talented bench. They didn't show their talents very well in Boston, though.
[6:45 PM] Ariiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiza! It's good to see Trevor back. He showed some great flashes in the regular season prior to his injury. With a healthy Bynum, a better integrated Ariza, Sasha with a new contract, Lamar in a contract year, and the team coming off of a World Championship (fingers crossed), next year's squad should be absolutely amazing.
[6:52 PM] Odom! Again! 7 for 7!
[7:04 PM] Celtics on a 12-0 run. Erp.
[7:05 PM] Fisher to the hoop... and 1!
[7:15 PM] FAMAR AT THE BUZZER! Wow! FOR THREE! Speaking of Famar, how about those ears?
[7:17 PM] End of the first half, Lakers lead 58-40. Their biggest lead of the half was 24. You know the offense would shut down at one point, and the Celtics would start hitting their shots, slicing into the lead. After narrowing the gap to 12, the Lakers came out of the slump and finished the quarter strongly. Lamar is playing quite well (although for some reason he sat for most of the 2nd quarter). Gasol is having some troubles with his handles. A number of passes have slipped through his hands, and he's lost the ball going up for a layup once, too. He needs to step up his game, too. Not tonight, maybe, but certainly on Sunday for Game 5. Fun fact of the half: Kobe has yet to score a field goal. Yessir, it's "Good Teammate Kobe" tonight.
[7:38 PM] The first couple of minutes of the third quarter will set the tone for the rest of the game. Let's hope the Lakers can come out strong, build this lead back up to 24-28 points, and send the Celtics a message.
[7:46 PM] Gasol is playing very timidly tonight. Virtually every time he catches it in the post he's looking to pass. Even on his cuts to the basket he's looking left and right, wanting to dish off rather than take it strong to the bucket. He started off the game with a nice back door cut and dunk, but since then has had poor hands, has been getting schooled by Garnett, and has apparently has come down with some sort of strange allergic reaction to iron that's keeping him far away from the rim.
[7:56 PM] Celtics on a run. Deficit cut to 11. The Lakers came out flat to start the third quarter and despite pushing the lead back up to 20 at one point, they've been playing rather uninspiring ball.
[8:03 PM] It's now a single digit deficit game with two minutes left in the 3rd.
[8:04 PM] A botched finished by Gasol at the rim (ball slipped out of his hands) then a foul on the defensive end trying to (futilely) stop Garnett. Can we just start calling this "The Gasol Move?"
[8:07 PM] Celtics down by two. Lovely.
[8:12 PM] Kobe... dribbling... dribbling... dribbling... shot clock ticking... dribbling... dribbling... pass to Touriaf under the rim, nice.
[8:13 PM] Turiaf: two missed free throws. Not nice.
[8:31 PM] Celtics take the lead and, with that, the Lakers players' testicles. All of them. In one fell swoop. Let's hope the Lakers can get them back before this game ends.
[8:35 PM] With a shade over two minutes remaining, the Celtics push their lead to 5. Beautiful.
[8:46 PM] There's still time left, but there's no way the Lakers are going to win this game or the series. And they don't deserve to win the title. No team that can surrender a 24 point lead in a game of this magnitude deserves to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy. What a horrible game by the Lakers. Just horrid. The Celtics are clearly a better, deeper team.
[8:52 PM] I feel sick to my stomach. The Lakers had this series in their hands. Witha big win tonight, they would have had all the momentum heading into the most important game in a 2-2 series - Game 5.
[8:56 PM] I can't imagine what the players on the Lakers must be feeling now. They had a chance to stick it to the Celtics, to truly shake their confidence and hold serve in LA. But the opposite happened, instead. They let the Celtics dig themselves out of the hole they fell into and win and take a vital 3-1 series lead. Gasol was terrible this game. What motivation does he have to pick it up next game? And Lamar had a strong first half, but shrunk from the spotlight in the second half. This would have been such a great game for him to bolster his confidence headed into Game 5. But now? Now he's going to continue to hide in the shadows. My prediction for Sunday? Lakers put forth a subpar effort and get blown out by the Celtics at home. What a total letdown.
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