Thursday, May 14, 2009
I love the Lakers, but I hate them
If you came up to me on the street one day and told me that a team that featured Ron Artest, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola My Friend From Argentina, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry, Von Wafer, Kyle Lowry, and Brent Barry would be facing a team with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Josh Powell, and Shannon Brown, and they were going to play 100 times, just based on the names you just gave me, I would pick the latter team to win all 100 times. Seriously. That's what should happen. And yet, the first team has beaten the second team by double-digits in two of the last three games - even though they lost the game in between by 40 points, and even though this is the playoffs and its supposed to matter.
As a Lakers fan, it makes me sick to my stomach. Watching them struggle against themselves to beat this courageous Houston team, it reminds me of the time in 2003, when the Pacers lost a first-round playoffs series to the Celtics, and Bill Simmons bashed Isiah Thomas for losing a series in which he had 10 of the 12 best players. Why will the Lakers be hosting a completely unnecessary and embarrassing Game 7 to the Rockets on Sunday night?
Let me count the ways, in no particular order.
1. They don't know how to play defense
I'll give them this much credit: At least they're trying to play defense. That's more than you could say for them in the Utah series, or pretty much the entire regular season. But still, even with the effort (it tells you something about the team when I am commending them for actually making a valid attempt to stop the other team from scoring), the Lakers are still pretty pitiful on that end of the floor. Before the season, Phil Jackson appointed assistant coach Kurt Rambis as a kind of defensive coordinator for the team. Rambis came up with a scheme that overloaded the strong side of the floor, trapping the man with the ball and forcing passes to the weak side. It made them vulnerable to open threes and scramble situations, but they conceded that. I guess it worked well enough, I don't know. After the first 20 or so games of the season, the Lakers just stopped playing defense altogether. I noticed a bit of that defense Thursday night, but in this series the Lakers have mostly just played defense like idiots. That's what we'll call it: The Idiot Defense. I have news for anyone on the Lakers coaching staff this may concern: Your defense sucks. It doesn't work. Someone is always open. The players help out on everyone. They'd double my grandma. This is hurting them against Houston. The Rockets have no one who demands a natural double-team (by that I mean no one on Houston commands a second defender unless an uncommon match-up happens where they have a gross size advantage, such as when Brown was matched up with Artest). The only help should come when Brooks gets past Fisher. If Artest wants to post up Ariza, let him. If the Lakers let Artest post-up Ariza without help for a whole game, is he going to score 40 points? In the slim chance that he does, does that help the Rockets? Of course not. But no matter who on Houston has the ball, it seems that the Lakers are cheating off of their individual assignments, then bringing help whenever the guy with the ball makes a move. Why not just play everyone straight up, rather than let Houston's stellar ball movement pick them apart?
Also, Kobe chases the ball on defense, and can wreak havoc playing that way. But when he leaves Battier alone like he does, it often results in a clean look at a three for the No-Stats All-Star, as he's too far away to get back, and his teammates are not covering for him. Either Kobe needs to stop playing that way, play a little more honest, or his teammates need to, as Jeff Van Gundy put it during the telecast, "help the helper." But something needs to be established. Game 4 excluded, Battier has made only four threes in five games. But he's too good of a shooter and it's too much of a risk to leave him open. It's almost like playing Russian Roulette. I don't get it.
One other defensive problem...
2. Aaron Brooks is owning them
Playing against the Lakers has the same affect on fleet point guards that using steroids has on baseball players. It jumps them a level. I believe it was none other than that old despised prophet Jose Canseco who said that steroids help turn a decent player into a great player and a great player into a superhuman player.
And whether it be because of their utter lack of a clue as to how to guard the screen roll, the inability of Derek Fisher (God bless his soul) to keep quick guards in front of him, or a combination of both, the Lakers have been making opposing point guards look better than they actually are for years.
Mike Bibby has been a terrific NBA point guard for more than a decade now, but the last (and only) time he played the Lakers in a playoff series, he looked an unearthed legend, like he was going to be an All-Star for the subsequent ten years.
Why? Because being defended by (mostly) Fisher (God bless his soul), he was able to get anywhere on the floor that he pleased at any time. Furthermore, maybe even worse, the Kings would put Bibby in the screen-roll...and Lord knows the Lakers haven't been able to defend that thing since before Shaq got here. No switch on the play, and Bibby picked them apart with long jumpers.
That was in 2002. Seven years later, Bibby still has not cracked that first All-Star nut. In that series, however, he looked like a superstar (and they had similar struggles with the young Tony Parker in 2004, several years before he was a top-three point guard, and yes, Gary Payton, you get a little of that blame, too, although of course things would have been different if you had been in your prime).
Now enter Chris Paul, er, Aaron Brooks, who looks like Chris Rock but doesn't make me laugh as much. Brooks is a good player. There is no disputing that. His speed and quickness are blinding, making him more valuable in today's NBA than ever before, and he can score. But seriously...Aaron Brooks? We shouldn't be able to corral Aaron Brooks? He should be wreaking havoc in the NBA playoffs? Really?
He has been the single most important player in this series for the Rockets - he's only in his second year, and he's only started 40 games in his career, so he's still learning and he's still inconsistent, but when he has played well the Rockets have won: 19 points in Game 1, 34 in Game 4, 26 in Game 6, mostly on layups and threes. The assists totals have not been high, but they disguise the baskets he's making with his penetrating, which causes the defense to react, and then his dishing, which even if it doesn't end in a dime ends up being the pass that led that to a pass that led to a bucket.
Just shoot me already.
3. They still show no heart, toughness, or drive on a consistent basis
Now let's see: L.A. rotates 7-1 Bynum, 7-0 Gasol, and 6-11 Odom (the best rebounder of the three) at the big spots. And not only are those guys tall, they have extra long arms. Meanwhile, Houston competes with 6-9 Scola, 6-9 (yeah, right) Landry, and 6-6 Hayes as their 4-5's.
And yet, Houston still manages to compete on the boards, because L.A.'s big men allow their bigs to seal them off without making a real effort to fight for position. I know guys like Landry and Hayes are beefier and stronger than thin guys like Odom and Gasol, but come on...if L.A.'s big guys try hard enough, if they push back a little and move their bodies, they will own the boards.
To be accurate, the Lakers have outrebounded the Rockets 131-124 in the last three games, and are pretty much dead even on the offensive glass (33 to Houston's 34). But that's the point: they should be dominating. To make sure I was being fair to the Lakers, I looked up the rebounding numbers for Cleveland's 4-0 sweep of Atlanta. Just as I suspected: the Cavs outboarded the Hawks 178-123 overall, and 53-41 on the offensive end. Now that's a team that's doing what it needs to be doing.
In particular, if I were the Lakers big men, and I had the kind of height advantage that they have on the inside, I would be crashing the offensive glass even more than usual, with all my might, because I knew the other team was too small down there to handle me.
But that's just me.
Which brings us to our final point.
4. Phil Jackson?
I do think the guy cares. He's famously nonchalant, but he was up off the bench early and often in Game 6. And I'm sure he wants a tenth ring. He's clearly great at managing great talent, his teams have rarely underachieved, and he instills a calmness and confidence in his players that prevents them from panicking under any situation.
But think about it: He can't get these guys to play defense, they play with even less nightly purpose than the Shaq-Kobe teams (even those guys blew a couple of playoff games with lackadaisical performances, knowing they were superior and could turn it on and off, only occasionally the switch wouldn't come on), and I just don't see any adjustments from them (for example, why don't they post Kobe up more against Battier, so that he can get some shots closer to the basket?), unlike in his first stint here, when he and his staff always made excellent game-to-game adaptations and counter-moves.
Hey, I love Phil Jackson. I am forever indebted to the guy. He came here and turned EVERYTHING around - the Lakers had gotten swept out of the playoffs in consecutive years before his arrival and were looking like a talented team with no direction, a team with potential going nowhere fast, and then he comes in and they immediately win three straight championships. Think about that. That was an incredible job by him. No one else could have done what he did in such a short period of time. There is some genius in Phil Jackson. He doesn't get enough credit. Anyone who thinks of Phil Jackson as some cat who just won a grip of titles with the best players in the league needs to seriously contemplate the first half of this paragraph.
It's just that, since his initial year back in 2006, when he coached a team with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown as starters to a 45-win season, then came up with the brilliant game-plan that nearly allowed the underdog Lakers to topple the favored Suns in the first round of the playoffs, it doesn't seem that he's done much, except sit back and watch the team become stacked. That's why I wonder how much he cares. They're paying him $12 million for this year and the next. Is that the main reason he's still coaching?
Of course, I'm writing all of this after an extremely bad loss. If the Lakers win Sunday, which is likely but not a sure thing, obviously, I'll still be disappointed in them, and more relieved than happy. No way this thing should have gone seven. But if they end up winning the championship, all of this will be either dismissed as a speed-bump on the road to a ring, or forgotten all together. No one will care.
Still, though, if you're a Lakers fan you can't help but be frustrated, and this was my way expressing mines.
Now, for another full day of anxiety. I understand that the game should be on Sunday, but for my health, why couldn't it have been on Saturday?