In my Lakers/Thunder preview, I focused on how the long giants of the Lakers’ front line would beast the Jazz’s midget interior. (Respectively speaking here, obviously … 6’8/6’9″ guys like Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap are fairly tall.) Well, that’s what we saw in Game 1, both on offense (Pau had 25 points on 15 shots) and, particularly, on defense.
The Jazz had trouble simply even passing the ball around the outstretched arms of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom (or even when one of those three was “short guy” Ron Artest). This, more than anything else, made the usually-surgical Jazz offense look mostly pedestrian
Jerry Sloan’s system is predicated on continuity. For many NBA teams, scoring is a matter of finding the best one-and-one mismatch on the floor, the exploiting it, but that’s not the case for the Jazz. They flow into their offense by moving the ball in a pattern. The system relies on crisp passes to players who dart off screens away from the ball, and often on entry passes into Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap from the wings. Against an undisciplined, average-sized team like Denver, swinging the ball around the court is child’s play. But the Lakers make that task extremely difficult.
“Those passes you usually see Wes [Matthews], Kyle [Korver] and I make from the wings? It’s hard to zip those passes because you have three 7-footers with their arms out,” Jazz forward C.J. Miles said.
The success of Utah’s scheme depends on fluid motion, which means the Jazz can’t afford any hesitation or else the offense stalls. Since the Jazz don’t have many shot-creators who can burn the defense in isolation, the ball must keep moving, something that doesn’t come without risk against the Lakers’ battalion of big men.
“Battalion.” Great word. Well done, Kevin.
And, reader, go read the rest of Kevin’s well-done piece. Otherwise, you would miss some more great stuff on the most important element of this second round match-up. Don’t listen to the TV commentators. Kobe vs. Deron, while awesome and more fun to watch/talk about, isn’t the primary factor that will decide this series.
It’s length, length and more length.
Even DWill knows this.
“Unless I grow another three inches before tomorrow, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Williams said.
Try Enzyte, my man. I hear it works
Good luck with that, Boozer. Should be a really fun series for you and Mr. Millsap. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew Bynum’s health really, really matters here.
As of a few hours before Game 1, he is scheduled to play — and start — but if he is for some reason unable to play at least close to his normal minutes in this series (because of a recent, small meniscus tear) then Utah might have a shot at knocking off Los Angeles. Otherwise, the Pau Gasol/Bynum/Lamar Odom/Ron Artest front line will just be too big, too long and too punishing for Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and the Kyrylo Fesenko/Kosta Koufos two-headed “monster” to handle. There is also talk of Andrei Kirilenko practicing tomorrow, so if he can come back this series and play effectively, that would help.
With all these variables, it’s hard to be certain about anything, but I would expect the Lakers to grind this one out regardless. They play great defense when they want to and this length/size advantage will be even pronounced against the short Jazz front court. Booz and Millsap thrive in space and with all the long arms and legs clogging up the inside, their skills probably won’t be enough to overcome their genetic short-comings.
Deron Williams played out of his mind in the first round — and for most of the past three years. This will continue. The abuse he will give Derek Fisher will be comical and even when Kobe, Artest, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown try to stick him, his quickness off the bounce and historically good crossover (easily the best in the NBA currently) will allow him to get into the paint and clear space for unperturbed pullback jumpers. Much like everything Deron does, it will be great to watch.
But Kobe, being Kobe, will be just as impressive on the other end. So, in short, brilliance counterbalances brilliance.
Given their solid play in the first round, CJ Miles and Wesley Matthews should give the Jazz an overall back court advantage, as LA has little more to offer outside of Fish doing Fish stuff (a few big shots late, spacing, savvy knowledge of the triangle, non-box score reliability). Shannon and Farmar could theoretically score some points, but that seems unlikely given how much of a six-man team Phil’s bunch has become. Throw in at least one hot-shooting night from Kyle Korver, and it seems pretty obvious that, if Utah wins this series, a lot of it will have to do with its guard play. It does seems odd to give a team of Deron and a few other relative nobodies a clear advantage here when going against a team with Mamba, but so it is. And so it shall be. If the Lakers have to play the Spurs, Manu and Tony will, metaphorically, rip LA’s face off.
But as much as I love Booz and Millsap, they’re just not 7-feet tall. And Bynum and Pau are. Gutty, active, skilled rebounders, Booz and ‘Sap will not get destroyed on the glass. But they will get destroyed in the post. If Bynum is healthy enough to hit jump hooks, catch lobs and mop up putbacks, and if the Lakers stay committed to pounding it inside (which they often, for God’s know what reason, do not) then there really isn’t much Jerry Sloan can do to stop the onslaught. Throw in some block work by Kobe and Lamar, and the Lakers should just be able to abuse the Jazz all series long.
Obviously, when a 21-year-old, nationally emerging superstar who just became the youngest scoring champ in league history goes up against Kobe Bryant in his first-ever Playoff series, that is going to be the story line.
It’s a shootout. Durant vs. Kobe. Young vs. Old. The Durantula vs. The Mamba.
And that’s all fine. The NBA is rightfully a superstar league and all but the most bitter, delusional NBA dorks amongst us will even tell you that that is the main reason we watch. We watch to see Flash do Flash stuff. We want to see Nash do Nash things. We want to see LeBron do stuff we have never seen in our lives.
But that isn’t what this series is about. It’s all about the defense, as boring as that might be. Oklahoma City is the 9th best defensive team in the NBA and that, more so than anything else, is what helped them go from an embarrassing 23-win season in 2008-09 to the 50-win season that has turned them into the darlings of the league.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are even better. They are the 4th best defensive team — and that’s after you account for the fact that they spent much of the regular season not trying all that hard. As long as Jay Bilas has been dropping uncomfortable references to the “length” of grown men on national TV, it has been a punchline and a quality that has enticed way too many GMs to gamble in the Draft on players who were, literally, long on athleticism but, figuratively, short on talent. (Looking at you, Tyrus Thomas.)
But that’s a big reason why this Laker team is so hard to score on. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom and Ron Artest and even Kobe Bryant have such long arms and take up so much physical room on the court that when three or four of those guys are out there at the same time, it is almost impossible to find space to operate — let alone open up a passing lane. They close up all the seams just by standing around, so when you add in the fact that they can all play great defense when motivated, every possession becomes a challenge. (This is all part of my belief that the NBA should widen the court, but that’s another talk for another day.)
Very few teams can maintain a proper commitment to their offensive systems in the face of that constant challenge. Twenty-four seconds is not a long time, so when you try to execute a play and fail and then go down to the other end and get torched by Kobe and then come back to execute offensively again and fail … and rinse … and repeat … rinse … repeat … it kills your confidence. Before long, players start freelancing, and a capable offense turns from effective ball-sharing into just a bunch of guys taking turns shooting.
Once that happens, kiss the baby. You’ve probably lost. The Lakers are simply too good on both ends to consistently lose to teams that can’t stick to a game plan. Too much talent. Too much Pau. Too much Kobe.
Make no mistake, though — OKC will shut down a team, too. The little known secret (among national pundits anyway) is that the Thunder have a pretty mediocre offense. People see Durant and Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green and James Harden and Serge Ibaka and think “look at all these young athletes flying around making highlight reels and running and gunning.” But that really aint it. Sure, they make SportsCenter for their spectacular plays and they can get out on the break, but, as KG says, the defense is the backbone. They get out and run because they force turnovers (7th best in the NBA at that) and because they force their opponents to miss shots (4th best in the NBA at that).
They’re great in the open court. But in the half court, they often struggle unless Durant is bailing them out with his individual amazingness. Westbrook and Green take a lot of bad shots, Harden can’t create a ton of offense for himself and their post presence is … well, there really isn’t much of one.
They won 50 games on consistent, often suffocating defense. (Getting so many young players to play this way is why Scott Brooks is the runaway Coach of the Year in my eyes. It’s not even remotely close.)
And a big defensive moment for the Thunder — as well as for Kevin Durant’s career — may have come last night in the fourth quarter. After guarding other players for the whole game, KD switched over to check Kobe. It was a fantastic move for OKC, culminating in a horrid 2/10 shooting fourth quarter for Bryant and one perhaps-game-changing block as Durant swatted away a Mamba jumpshot. Kenny Smith highlighted the rejection as the biggest play of the game on Inside the NBA.
But more than helping his team win one game in a series that the Thunder will still almost certainly lose, Kevin Durant’s willingness to guard Kobe in crunch time shows us a lot. About his mentality. About his ability. About his willingness to win. About his understanding of how to win. And about how his limitless potential may have, paradoxically, just become even more limitless.
Here we have OKC’s offensive leader looking over at one of the most difficult covers in NBA history — and also looking over and seeing his excellent defensive teammate Thabo Sefolosha on the bench, not to mention Harden and Green who are no slouches themselves — and saying “Nah, guys … I got this. If Kobe’s going to beat us, he’s going to have to go through me to do it.”
Feel free to call the cliché police on me, but that’s what great players do.
That’s what Kobe did last year when Melo was lighting up the Lakers. That’s what LeBron does. That’s what MJ used to do on the reg (although having Scottie around gave him quite the luxury in that regard).
It’s nearly impossible for a human being to expend enough energy to play Bruce Bowen-level defense for 40 minutes in a Playoff game while they are also carrying the offense. Casual fans like to just call less-defensive-oriented players like Carmelo and Dirk lazy. But the fact is that it is just almost impossible to go all out on every play on both ends. Offense, in this league, at this level, against this competition, is incredibly taxing just by itself.
There is a reason that the most consistently great defenders on an every-play basis are specialists. There is a reason that even Ron Artest’s never-as-good-as-publicized offensive repertoire, when combined with his all-world shut-down ability, convinced so many GMs to salivate over paying a clearly chemically imbalanced man with unhinged, violent tendencies millions of dollars to play for their teams.
What is possible, however, is to carry the team offensively for three quarters while playing good, smart defense and then turning it on in the last quarter to go after it with all your energy for the final 8 minutes on both ends. Or, as is more often the case in practice, picking your spots to really turn it on defensively whenever your team really needs its no matter how much time remains in the game.
Carmelo started to do this last year in the Playoffs and, at 25-years-old, finally showed the world that he can really be a two-way player. It was great to watch and, hopefully, debunked any arguments that may have still existed about his greatness. Well, Kevin Durant, your NBA scoring champ, ladies and gentlemen, just did that exact same thing last night.
He is 21.
Here’s some post-game video of Durant discussing his assignment. Also, League Pass heads know that Durant playing defense isn’t altogether new. He did it a lot this year. This is just his coming-out party to tell the world “Oh … what … yall didn’t know I was an athletic freak with a condor wingspan? Lemme show yall then.” Check this video of my favorite defensive play he made this year. Ya know, the time Kevin Durant blocked a shot while only wearing one sneaker.
Ron Artest has a new video, but this aint the regular grimy Warier you’ve come to expect. Nope. This is more like his “I Need Love” attempt and is all for the females. I’m not exactly sure what the hook means and am guessing his intent was something more along the lines of “touch me like you’re blind.”
Kobe was on the premiere of The George Lopez Show last night and actually came off as a normal human being. Like, not a guy pretending to act like all the other humans, but, like, an actual person with organic emotions and natural reactions and everything. I mean, relatively.
Much more importantly, however, this interview reminded me of the time Ron Artest interviewed Kobe back before they were teammates. I can’t recall if this was during Ron’s Houston year or if it was when he was still back in Sacramento, nor can I recall if I’ve ever posted it before, but regardless of the logistics, it’s Ron interviewing Kobe so it’s pretty great — even though it is in actuality rather boring and uninformative.