The Lakers' annual midseason swoon came early this year. After looking so dominant early in the season, the Lakers have looked rather ordinary recently. Tuesday night's loss was their third in a row, and while all three losses have been competitive, they're still losses.
It's the same thing we see every year from the Lakers. Their defense falls apart for a few games, they ignore their inside game, the players stop moving with a purpose and Kobe Bryant tries to do too much. They put together stretches where they dominate, and remain the league's toughest team to put away down the stretch, but they can't sustain that kind of effort for a complete game. That explains the loss on Sunday to Indiana, and it explains last night's loss in a game where, really, only one player on the Grizzlies (Mike Conley) played that well.
As usual, we need to grade Bryant on a curve for these issues. It's not Bryant's fault that Derek Fisher can't stay in front of anyone anymore. It's not Bryant's fault that Pau Gasol channeled his brother's lack of foot speed when guarding pick and roll. It's not Bryant's fault that Lamar Odom floats, that Shannon Brown doesn't pass, that Matt Barnes commits two face-palm worthy plays a game and that Ron Artest didn't pass him the ball on the game's final possession. It's not even really his fault when his teammates aren't exerting maximum effort when running through the screens and cuts necessary for the Triangle offense to function. But as we all now, Bryant could do a lot to solve those problems if he didn't try to force it offensively early in games.
In the first quarter, Bryant ended six of the Lakers' first nine possessions. The other three possessions ended with a Pau Gasol jumper set up by Bryant, a Gasol hook shot and a Lamar Odom missed jumper after Bryant's jumper was blocked by Lamar Odom. Phil Jackson's teams have always been most successful when the star defers early and gets his teammates involved. Bryant decided not to do that. Naturally, he shot just 9-25 from the field, ending nearly 48 percent of the Lakers' possessions, and only scored 29 points because he bullied his way to 12 free-throw attempts.
If Bryant is more deferential, then Gasol will rotate better defensively, and the whole offense will be more in rhythm. That's the theory, at least. Watching the way this game played out, there might be something to it. The lack of rhythm early in the game didn't hurt the Lakers late -- they nearly pulled this out with some excellent execution on both ends down the stretch. But it did hurt the Lakers in the third quarter, and points in the third quarter count the same as points in the fourth quarter.
I'm not worried about that problem, though. That happens to the Lakers every year, and they usually figure it out. The more concerning thing is that they can't stop quick point guards. Mike Conley has improved this year, but he shouldn't be dropping 28 points on you. Time and time again, he got into the lane (five shots inside of 10 feet), which is crazy for a guy who had major issues getting into the paint last season. Fisher and Steve Blake were equally culpable, so you can't just pin this one on Fisher's old age. I think the Grizzlies simply didn't respect Conley enough, and he made them play. Just look at how far Fisher is playing off him on this one play.
It's a good thing Conley stepped up, because the rest of the Grizzlies didn't play well. Marc Gasol struggled against his brother, Zach Randolph was stifled by Odom and Rudy Gay was pedestrian against Ron Artest. The Grizzlies' second-best player may have been rookie Xavier Henry, who chipped in with 12 points and excellent defense on Bryant.
Play of the Game: Great pass, Rudy Gay.
From the blogs: Silver Screen and Roll writes that we've seen this kind of performance from the Lakers before.
Boston Celtics 106, Cleveland Cavaliers 87
Austin Carr, the Cavaliers' TV color commentator, has become much more tolerable since LeBron James left town and took Carr's "LEBRONNNNN ... DEEEEEEEPPPP IN THE QQQQQQ" call with him. But tonight, I wanted to gouge ... well, I don't want to get in trouble here, but you catch my drift.
Carr kept prattling on about how Cleveland needed to get out and run, because the Celtics' half-court defense is too good. Every poor Cavaliers play came with the same analysis ("the Cavaliers aren't playing their style," "the Cavaliers need to push the tempo," "this game is being played at Boston's tempo"). On and on and on and on. If you invented a drinking game around Austin Carr using the words "tempo," "pace" or "style," you would have blacked out in five minutes.
So Carr was annoying. But was he right? In a very simplistic way, sure. The Cavaliers are playing at a faster pace this year than in year's past, ranking above the league average after being slow as molasses with LeBron James (counterintuitive, I know), and the Celtics have a great halfcourt defense. But Carr's analysis as it pertained to this specific game was way off. For one, the game was fast-paced -- there were 97 possessions in the game, well above the league average of 95.3. More importantly, though, running at all costs just doesn't work against Boston, because the Celtics are too good at running back at you. If you run for jumpers, you run the risk of getting pushed back underneath the basket and getting beat yourselves. Boston's big men are experts at beating their men up the court, and Rajon Rondo is a blur. Their halfcourt defense is lethal, but their ability to push off missed shots is even more lethal.
Running against Boston is fine, but if the layup isn't there, pull it back and get into your early offense. Contrary to Carr's suggestion, the Cavaliers were running: they were just forcing it. The Cavaliers had just 89.7 points per 100 possessions, shooting just 39 percent from the field.
Boston killed the Cavaliers in the paint (34-43 on shots inside of 10 feet, which is obscene), but I think a lot of that came because of the confusion Cleveland created for themselves by forcing the break.
Play of the Game: You get full highlights for this one.
From the blogs: Celtics Blog credits Rondo for stopping Cleveland's early surge in the first quarter.
It's really sad to watch Brandon Roy play right now. His knee is clearly a major problem, and he hasn't been able to reinvent himself. It was so bad in the fourth quarter of this game that Roy couldn't even move well enough to get the ball. It's not like the 76ers were playing especially good defense either - he just couldn't move. He tried setting picks for Andre Miller to free himself, but even that didn't work. I'd say he should sit down for a while and rest the knee, but I'm not sure that solves anything. Very sad.
With Roy being so limited, the Blazers offense looks confused. Last year, with Roy out, they had a clear pecking order: either give LaMarcus Aldridge the ball in the post or let Andre Miller make a play. This year, though, that pecking order has been disrupted. Roy still wants to make plays, so the Blazers are trying to give him the ball, but it isn't working. New addition Wesley Matthews has played well, but he also stole too many possessions (nearly 35 percent, to be exact) in an attempt to prove he can score. The end result is that there's no team concept, and everything breaks down.
Philly gets credit for finally finishing out a close game. They deserve it after struggling in those situations all year. Elton Brand continued his bounce-back year with an efficient 18 points on just 10 shots. Evan Turner continued his dreadful rookie season by scoring just one point on 0-4 from the field. Evan, the answers aren't up above.
Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday fouled out in 23 minutes. I blame the Twizzers he chewed during pregame warmups.
Play of the Game: Brand hasn't looked this fast in years.
I know point differential, the closest thing to an end-all be-all stat in basketball, says otherwise, but the San Antonio Spurs are the best team in the NBA right now. End of story. No two guards are playing better together than Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, which is ironic because Ginobili was kept as a sixth man because the team feared two ball dominators couldn't play together. Ginobili was absolutely brilliant against the Warriors, scoring 27 points on 13 shots, along with six rebounds and five steals. This pre-game tweet proved to be a foreshadowing of things to come.
It reallly upsets me when somebody from the hotel wakes me up of my pregame nap by mistake VERY early. Baaaad mood.
Tim Duncan turned back the clock with his first triple double since 2003, and everyone on the Spurs contributed. I'm not sure if San Antonio has the right mix to win the playoffs, because their best lineups are their small ones, but for now, their offense is just a sight to behold. The Warriors had no chance.
Play of the game: Here's the Jefferson/Lee situation in video form. Bob Fitzgerald said Jefferson "tried to ride [Lee] like a donkey." Oh-kay.
New York Knicks 111, New Jersey Nets 100
The loss of Harris really hurts a Nets team that lacks shot creators. Once Harris went out, the Knicks double-teamed Brook Lopez in the post, and nobody picked up the slack. Lopez had 36 points, but most of those came early on, and the ones he got late were jump shots. I don't know if it was a Phil Jackson-like ploy or just poor planning, but the Knicks decided to single-cover Lopez in the first half, and he killed them. They eventually brought double-teams in the second half, and Lopez, per usual, couldn't pass well out of them. Either they were trying to keep Lopez off-balanced, or they're just dumb. I'll lean to the latter.
Lopez was clearly confused either way.
Play of the Game: Apparently Danilo Gallinari can dunk.
Indiana Pacers 107, Sacramento Kings 98
The Kings are a mess. They're poorly coached, take the first open shot they get and just don't fit together in any way, shape or form. They moved the ball well in the first half, but then abruptly stopped in a disastrous third quarter in which they were outscored 28-17. Josh McRoberts punctuated the sequence with an alleyoop one-handed dunk that surprised even him
The one play that sticks out to me is an after-timeout call Paul Westphal made early in the third quarter. Indiana went on a mini-run to go up nine with eight minutes left, and Westphal decided to calm his troops down. Then, he called a play for Samuel Dalembert to post up Roy Hibbert. Why? I don't know. Dalembert air-balled a fadeaway, as expected, and the Kings never recovered.
Sacramento needs to make some changes. They need to find a new head coach that can reach mercurial big man DeMarcus Cousins (who did play well, it should be noted). They need to consolidate their big man rotation, because there's no reason for either Jason Thompson or Carl Landry to play as little as one of them does. They need to settle on either Donte Greene or Omri Casspi at small forward and deal the other one away. They need to find a combo guard to pair with Tyreke Evans going forward, because Beno Udrih can't defend and Luther Head is a ball-stopper that stinks. Finally, they need to figure out what's wrong with Evans, who had another poor shooting game and tons of bad turnovers.
The Pacers continue to impress with their motion-based offense. Danny Granger poured in 37 points, and Darren Collison had one of his stronger games of the season. Defensively, this team has really made some strides.
Play of the Game: Here's the McRoberts slam.
Orlando Magic 90, Detroit Pistons 79
If you're a bad team, you hate playing the Orlando Magic. They just have so much depth that they can beat you on nights they're playing poorly. Last night, the Magic were playing with almost no offensive rhythm, throwing passes to each other in poor spots, but they got bailed out by inspired fourth-quarter play from J.J. Redick and Mickael Pietrus, two bench players. You can bet Stan Van Gundy won't be happy about this one.
And ... as he turns out, he wasn't.
That last one is after a Redick three that gave the Magic the lead for good. Don't ever change, Stan.
Play of the Game: Full highlights for this one.
From the blogs: Orlando Pinstriped Post writes that Vince Carter was key in the win despite his poor shooting numbers, while Detroit Bad Boys has a remarkable stat: the Pistons were outscored 44-10 at the end of quarters.
A quick note about the future of this column:
In case you haven't heard, SB Nation has just hired Tom Ziller to run our NBA wing. Ziller is arguably the single-best pure NBA blogger in the business, and I'm really psyched to begin working with him. He's the webmaster of SB Nation's Sacramento Kings blog Sactown Royalty, and most recently used his talents for Fanhouse, specifically his daily "The Works" column with Free Darko's Bethlehem Shoals.
Going forward, this means there will probably be some changes in how NBA Scores And More will function. We'll continue to provide recaps, analysis and hilarity for as much NBA action as we can watch, but it's going to be more of a team effort spearheaded by Ziller. The daily feature will remain, but it will be better than ever.