Lakers fans are happy because they finally beat a team "worth a s***," as Kobe Bryant put it. Given all the turmoil they have experienced this season, that has to count for something. Sunday was a happy day in Hollywood.
The key adjustment: nixing a lot of Mike D'Antoni's offense and instead relying on Bryant to create double teams and find open players. In this game, he had 14 assists, which keyed the Lakers' victory. Bryant bulled Thabo Sefolosha in the post, forced doubles and found the right guy nearly every time. It's a simple way to play, and in this game, the Lakers needed simple.
As we roll the tape forward, we're going to see why this works. As Bryant comes left, Kendrick Perkins, who is Howard's man, will come with him. Howard rolls to the basket, forcing the Thunder to defend three people with two men.
The rest is all Bryant. Oklahoma City's two help defenders are positioned pretty well, but Bryant makes a great play, looking toward Earl Clark (3) as he passes to Metta World Peace (2). Kevin Durant races to Clark, leaving MWP wide open for three.
This is very clearly the Lakers' new gameplan. After the game, Bryant admitted that he's going out of his way to facilitate. But can Bryant continue to play this way going forward?
Color me skeptical.
For one thing, this goes against Bryant's very nature. Two games of facilitating doesn't undo a several-year trend of shooting, and as we all know, it doesn't take long for Bryant to stop trusting his teammates. Will Gasol, Howard and Clark cut as hard when they see Bryant launching tough shots in situations where he passed on Sunday? Will D'Antoni continue to allow Bryant to run an offense that seems so antithetical to his ethos?
For another, teams won't defend the Lakers like the Thunder did. In a curious coaching decision, Scott Brooks had his team be unusually aggressive with their double-teams, opening up passing lanes for Bryant that shouldn't have been open. Smarter teams will be more judicious with providing help, if they even help at all. Given this stat, I might be inclined to single-cover Bryant and make him beat you by shooting 35 times. He might get 50, but his teammates will be frozen out.
The alternatives aren't great, of course. The offense can't be built around Steve Nash because he's too slow at this point in his career to consistently get by defenders. It can't be built around Howard because he turns it over in the post way too often. It can't be built around Gasol unless Howard isn't in the game. In many ways, this is D'Antoni's only choice.
I just wouldn't expect Sunday's success to carry over perfectly as we go forward, not when the plan relies on Bryant to consistently take fewer than 15 shots in a game.
A crazy game that was obviously overshadowed by the Rajon Rondo injury news. The Celtics got big contributions from their bench, particularly Jeff Green and Leandro Barbosa. If they keep getting that consistently, maybe they do stay afloat without Rondo. I'm just not sure I would count on that.
The Heat seem to be playing possum this year. Not only does their defensive effort come and go, but it doesn't look like Erik Spoelstra has really opened up his offensive playbook. Miami's default strategy is to spread the floor and dribble-drive. That's enough to get them a hyper-efficient regular-season offense, but there are definitely times where more is needed. I'm just guessing that Spoelstra sees no point in showing his cards until the playoffs begin.
There's a lot that we can potentially discuss with this game. However, I want to focus on the final minute for Josh Smith, because it demonstrates that any team that gives him a maximum contract will regret it. (If you think there's absolutely no chance someone does, you don't understand the way the NBA's artificial price ceiling works).
Smith was prominently involved in the three plays that decided the game. On all three, he made a negative play. The one everyone noticed was his wild missed three-pointer in the final seconds, and that was bad. But that wasn't necessarily his fault as much as he was just put in a tough position. The previous two plays, though? Those were his fault.
The first: an obvious illegal screen with 23 seconds left that gave the ball back to the Knicks. The Hawks spread the floor hoping to get Jeff Teague coming with a full head of steam, but Smith failed to execute and got docked. Lots of people will blame Teague for trying to drive too early, but that's the whole point of the play. Look at how far back Teague is.
The Hawks want Teague to attack with a full head of steam because that takes advantage of his speed. Having Teague hang back until Smith is ready defeats the whole purpose. It's a timing maneuver, and Smith's timing was way off. Rather than wait until Teague ran Felton into the screen, Smith took a poor angle, coming way too high up the floor and committing the obvious foul.
On the Knicks' next possession, Smith committed the cardinal sin of not realizing where his help is. The Knicks shocked nobody and put Carmelo Anthony on the left block while spacing the floor. Under these circumstances, Smith cannot try to guard Anthony straight up. He's too tough getting to the rim. Instead, he needs to shade Anthony towards the middle and into the Hawks' help.
As you can see, though, Smith opens up his defensive stance and ushers Anthony toward the only area of the floor that he can drive unimpeded.
Smith is so talented, but he still thinks the game too slowly. If you point these errors out on film, he'll understand them. But when it's time to make an instinctual read, he falls way short. If you root for a team with lots of cap room, hope against hope that they don't use it on Smith.
New Orleans continues to show that they're a pretty good team when healthy. Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith had the points, but while Greivis Vasquez had a nightmare shooting night, he didn't let it affect his playmaking. Vasquez consistently set Smith and Anderson up for good looks down the stretch in the Hornets' win.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, scored 15 fourth-quarter points. This continues to be a massive, massive problem.
Clippers 96, Blazers 83
It's a pleasure to see the Clippers run an offense that takes advantage of Blake Griffin's high-post passing. Been a long time coming on that one.
That Lindsey Hunter honeymoon was fun while it lasted.