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NBA Game Rankings: 12/15/10

We finally got to see Andrew Bynum for the first time this season last night against the Wizards, and well, it wasn’t much more than we expected. Bynum didn’t play many minutes in the Lakers’ 103-89 win over Washington, however, basketball fans know that it’s a different game when he’s in the lineup. When the Lakers are able to move Pau Gasol to power forward, it just opens up so much offensively. People can say Bynum is overrated, but there’s doubting the fact that the Lakers are a much better team when he is in the lineup. Continue Reading

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NBA Game Rankings: 11/22/10

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant waits for play to resume in their first-round Western Conference, best-of-seven playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center in Los Angeles on April 18, 2010. The Lakers defeated the Thunder 87-79.  UPI/Jim Ruymen Photo via Newscom

(Source: Yardbarker.com)

The game that was ranked number one on yesterday’s NBA schedule ended up being the most lopsided of the bunch. The Lakers, behind Pau Gasol‘s perfection, blew out the Warriors at Staples Center, and once again proved why they are the defending champions. Elsewhere, the Celtics lost in Toronto, the Hornets won again (check out James Grayson’s post-game thoughts as well), and the Pistons beat the Wizards in overtime. Continue Reading

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NBA Game Rankings: 11/21/10

Oct 19, 2010; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings guards Beno Udrih (19), left, and Tyreke Evans (13) during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center. The Kings defeated the Clippers 96-94. Photo via Newscom

(Source: Yardbarker.com)

There’s only four games on the schedule for tonight, and it’ll be hard to top what turned out to be a fantastic night of games last night. You had Rudy Gay‘s buzzer beater. You had Blake Griffin scoring 44. And you had Stephen Jackson recording the first triple-double in Bobcats’ history. It was quite a night in the Association, and we’ll see if any of these games can bring us that same kind of entertainment. Continue Reading

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Free Agency Delusions

The first two days of 2010 free agency haven’t been devoid of excitement, to say the least. But given the two years of mounting expectation and anticipation, it really wouldn’t be fair to get anything else, would it?

Already we’ve seen countless moves spanning from the brilliant to the regrettable to the shocking, and the biggest names haven’t even made their decisions yet. We should be in store for a lot more before the week is out. With that said, to follow is a list of the biggest delusions in the minds of the public before and after free agency began. We’ll start with the biggest one.

Delusion #1: LeBron James will be the first domino to fall

Before free agency began, it was essentially a foregone conclusion that megastar LeBron James would be the first to decide which team he would play with next year and all the others would follow shortly thereafter. Everyone wanted a shot to play with the King, so it would only be fitting to make a decision based on where he would play for the next five or six seasons.

Already, though, we’ve seen a number of minor signings ranging across the league. Moreover, among the top candidates, three appear to have already sealed their fates. Rudy Gay (Memphis Grizzlies), Joe Johnson (Atlanta Hawks), and Paul Pierce (Boston Celtics) all seem content on re-signing with their current squads. Further, still, though, there are suggestions that two of the biggest stars are on their way to making up their minds. Dwyane Wade seems peculiarly interested in the Chicago Bulls, and Amar’e Stoudemire is flirting with a defection to New York and a reunion with Mike D’Antoni.

So much for waiting for LeBron. Apparently, all these desperate teams searching for talent to bolster their title chances are a tad more convincing than these players expected. No longer are they expecting James to pace the field; they’re now set on making up their own minds.

Consequently, this could end up making the decision a lot easier for the King. If Wade goes to Chicago, that will presumably eliminate the Miami Heat as contenders for LeBron’s services. It would also sweeten the possibility that James could go to the Bulls, where he’d play alongside another great, but Chicago still needs to clear a little cap space to make that happen. In the same vein, LeBron could go to New York knowing that STAT will be waiting there for him, but Donnie Walsh’s mediocre presentation has reportedly turned LeBron away.

Delusion #2: Rudy Gay and Joe Johnson are worth max deals

The first two notable deals of the summer were Gay and Johnson’s agreements with their current teams, the Grizzlies and Hawks. They both seem to have gotten what they wanted, a max deal, and to tell you the truth, both seem like horrible commitments. They say it’s a buyer’s market, but there’s a point where desperation melts into stupidity.

First off, let’s look at Gay’s situation. To get one thing straight, Gay is a good, not great, offensive player. He’s incredibly athletic and he can hit the long-range shot. However, he is an absolutely dismal defender. Shawn Bradley could probably get by him off the dribble if he really wanted to. To suggest that Gay’s above-average offense is worth an amount of money in the neighborhood of what James and Chris Bosh are going to get is a crock, especially when his addition assures that the roster that couldn’t even crack the playoffs this season is going to remain the same.

Apr. 14, 2010 - Oklahoma City, OKLAHOMA, UNITED STATES - epa02117334 Memphis Grizzlies player Rudy Gay goes in for a dunk against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second half of the game at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA, 14 April 2010.

Source: Yardbarker.com

The team’s front office is sending mixed signals. They handed Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers on a silver platter to shave salary, but they they go out and get Zach Randolph and now ink Gay. Seems like they don’t really know what they’re doing. Moreover, it appears they forgot that Gay was a RESTRICTED free agent — any offer extended to Gay could have been matched, and they would have automatically retained his services. If Memphis had waited things out, an opposing team could have offered him far less money, and the Grizz could have kept him for cheap. In the worst of circumstances, another team could offer him the max, and if they were so content on keeping him, they could have matched and been no worse off than they are now.

As for Johnson, it’s understandable to think that the team would suffer a major setback by losing him to free agency this season. But to give maximum money to a player who fades in the playoffs and couldn’t lead a YMCA team is purely a bad decision, especially with such a stacked roster, and a starting-caliber shooting guard in Jamal Crawford still on the depth chart. Like the Grizzlies, they will have basically the same squad for a second year in a row, and this year they showed that they can’t do any better than getting torched by a Finals contender.

Delusion #3: All the free agents are going to follow the money

June 16, 2010 - Los Angeles, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - epa02205919 Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce answers reporters questions prior to team practice at the Staples Center in Los Angeles California, USA 16 June 2010. The Los Angeles Lakers will face the Boston Celtics in game seven of the NBA playoffs 17 June 2010.

Source: Yardbarker.com

So far, we’ve already seen some vexing decisions by players who elected to avoid guaranteed money by opting out of contracts and seeking new deals. No one really figured that players might have an eye on the future and the impending negotiations for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Many are discussing the validity of Richard Jefferson and Paul Pierce’s choices to throw away the final years ($15.2 million and $21.5 million, respectively) of their incredibly lucrative deals, but in the interest of the long term, it makes sense.

Pierce seems to have a deal in place for $61 million over the next four years, in which he’ll make $6 million less than he would have made next season if he opted in. Similarly, RJ will not get $15 million on any deal he signs after his subpar production with the Spurs.

But players are wary of the their potentially worse situations after the negotiations for the new CBA, and even though they’re sacrificing one year of improved financial security, they know it might be better in the long run to assure that money’s coming in at a lower rate for several more years.

Before free agency began, it was essentially a foregone conclusion that megastar LeBron James would be the first to decide which team he would play with next year and all the others would follow shortly thereafter. Everyone wanted a shot to play with the King, so it would only be fitting to make a decision based on where he would play for the next five or six seasons.

Already, though, we’ve seen a number of minor signings ranging across the league. Moreover, among the top candidates, three appear to have already sealed their fates. Rudy Gay (Memphis Grizzlies), Joe Johnson (Atlanta Hawks), and Paul Pierce (Boston Celtics) all seem content on re-signing with their current squads. Further, still, though, there are suggestions that two of the biggest stars are on their way to making up their minds. Dwyane Wade seems peculiarly interested in the Chicago Bulls, and Amar’e Stoudemire is flirting with a defection to New York and a reunion with Mike D’Antoni.

So much for waiting for LeBron. Apparently, all these desperate teams searching for talent to bolster their title chances are a tad more convincing than these players expected. No longer are they expecting James to pace the field; they’re now set on making up their own minds.

Consequently, this could end up making the decision a lot easier for the King. If Wade goes to Chicago, that will presumably eliminate the Miami Heat as contenders for LeBron’s services. It would also sweeten the possibility that James could go to the Bulls, where he’d play alongside another great, but Chicago still needs to clear a little cap space to make that happen. In the same vein, LeBron could go to New York knowing that STAT will be waiting there for him, but Donnie Walsh’s mediocre presentation has reportedly turned LeBron away.

Delusion #2: Rudy Gay and Joe Johnson are worth max deals

The first two notable deals of the summer were Gay and Johnson’s agreements with their current teams, the Grizzlies and Hawks. They both seem to have gotten what they wanted, a max deal, and to tell you the truth, both seem like horrible commitments. They say it’s a buyer’s market, but there’s a point where desperation melts into stupidity.

First off, let’s look at Gay’s situation. To get one thing straight, Gay is a good, not great, offensive player. He’s incredibly athletic and he can hit the long-range shot. However, he is an absolutely dismal defender. Shawn Bradley could probably get by him off the dribble if he really wanted to. To suggest that Gay’s above-average offense is worth an amount of money in the neighborhood of what James and Chris Bosh are going to get is a crock, especially when his addition assures that the roster that couldn’t even crack the playoffs this season is going to remain the same.

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Will Jackson Go Out on a High Note?

Phil Jackson has his 11th NBA Championship, and speculation has swirled lately that he might retire now that the 2009-2010 season is over. Is possibly the best NBA coach of all time ready to throw in the towel? ESPN.com reports that his daughter has the inside scoop:

“I think this is it. I think he’s done now,” Chelsea Jackson, the coach’s daughter, told Sports Illustrated.

Jackson’s contract expires this offseason, and he’s weighing whether to return to try to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a third straight title. He has said that he should have a decision by June 27, with the biggest factor being his health. He has a problem with his knee, among other ailments, that he is getting checked out.

Even so, the Lakers players want him to return and ultimately think he will:

“Obviously his main issue is his health,” Lakers center Pau Gasol said. “I think he’s concerned about that. He loves the game of basketball as much as anybody and I think he wants to continue to be a part of what we’re doing here, but health is the first thing for everybody. If we don’t have health, we can’t function and the NBA schedule is very, very demanding, and going through three years the way things have gone — which luckily have been really good — it’s wearing and it’s draining.

“So, he’s got to take care of his health first and hopefully he’ll come back, because obviously he’s a big part of our success.” [...]

Sasha Vujacic has had an up-and-down relationship with Jackson, getting meaningful minutes and then riding the pine this season. But he was in Game 7 in crunch time and hit two title-clinching free throws.

“Coach was making me better throughout the year,” Vujacic said. “Sometimes when you don’t play, when you get pulled out or whatever happens, it’s that mental training that PJ does with all the players and I’m glad that I kind of passed the test and he gave me that confidence in the most crucial game when not only the game was on the line, but the entire series, the season. He showed me confidence when he puts me in the game like that. That shows a lot.”

Ron Artest has had a rocky ride with every team he’s played for, but he accepted a lesser role on the Lakers and it paid off with a championship, in which he saved his best for the decisive game.

“With coach, I know it depends on his health if he’s able to move forward,” Artest said. “He’s been coaching a long time, but I hope he comes back because his whole philosophy is team. I know I can strive under a coach whose philosophy is team and structure and the system.”

Some players are taking a proactive approach to Jackson’s decision.

“I’m going to put the pressure on him,” said Andrew Bynum, who has his own health challenge in impending knee surgery. “We all want PJ to come back, every last one of us, so hopefully he makes the right decision and decides to get another ring.”

Whether he comes back will not have any impact on his legacy. Jackson’s success is unquestioned, and he will remain a major figure for the league far into the future.

Will the Lakers be able to play without him? There’s no doubt about the talent, but a change in system and philosophy might have a negative influence.

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Lakers Poised for Threepeat

The Los Angeles Lakers deserved their series win and their 16th title against the Boston Celtics. They played hard, overcoming an ominous 3-2 deficit, and eked out revenge with their east-coast rivals.

I don’t think the Lakers are done with their winning ways, though. As much as it pains me to say it, the Lakers seem ready to acquire a second threepeat in the span of a decade. Here’s why:

  1. They aren’t losing any talent. Kobe’s locked up for three years, Pau Gasol’s still around, Ron Artest is still around, and Andrew Bynum will still be around if he’s not dealt for someone even better (e.g., Chris Bosh). They will have the talent for several years to compete for a championship, and I don’t see how another year of regression for any of these players will bring in a decline in performance.
  2. They didn’t even play their best this year. This season was an interesting one for the Lakers, and even though they finished first, they could have done a lot better. They were merely above average on the road, and it seems like they’re going to improve away from the Staples Center next year. In addtion, they didn’t have Gasol for the whole regular season, and he appears to have drastically improved over the course of the playoffs, so he should be an even stronger post threat in 2010-2011.
  3. There will be a dilution of talent in the league next year. With all these top free agents available this summer, many of the competing teams this year are going to lose key cogs in their rosters or succumb to other pressures. In the West, Phoenix is likely to be without Amar’e Stoudemire. The Spurs will be another year older. The Mavericks may not not Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Kidd’s effectiveness is waning. Elsewhere, LeBron might join a project team like the Knicks or Nets, Dwyane Wade might be stuck with no one in Miami, and it is doubtful Boston will be able to replicate this year’s effort, especially if Ray Allen dips in free agency.

While it would be nice to see a different team on top next year, the Lakers have to figure as being the favorites going in. They have too much talent and too much a thirst for winning to be considered any less. But if Phil Jackson decides to retire, that could be problematic.

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Gasol is not the League’s Best Big Man

June 10, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02196015 Boston Celtics player Rasheed Wallace (R) fouls against Los Angeles Lakers player Pau Gasol (L) from Spain during the first half of game four of the NBA Finals at TD Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 10 June 2010. The Lakers lead the series over the Celtics 2-1.

Source: Yardbarker.com

Over the course of the playoffs, a case has begun to surface that the Los Angeles Lakers’ Pau Gasol is the best offensive big man in the game. Some even go as far as to say he’s the best big man overall. I will concede this: Gasol’s play has been markedly great over the course of this postseason, and the suggestions of 2008 that he’s soft are long gone — the Lakers would not be close to where they are without his constant support.

Accordingly, it makes sense that people are crowning him the best right now, when he’s playing at his best. Unfortunately, a few playoff series make up too small a sample size to serve as a significant basis for the argument at hand. Let’s look at the comparison between Gasol’s postseason and regular-season numbers.

During the regular campaign, Gasol was solid on both ends of the ball. Injuries limited him to only 65 games, but he still gathered averages of 18.3 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the field and 79 percent from the stripe. On defense, his length proved a solid deterrent to opposing power forwards, and he registered 1.7 blocks per contest.

In the playoffs, Gasol has been closer to inhuman. In the second round and the conference finals, Gasol dazzled spectators with a wide array of post moves, tip-ins, and an automatic mid-range jumpshot. During the first three rounds, Gasol could have made an argument for the best big man in the league, at least on offense. But take a look at Gasol’s matchups in those three rounds and some questions begin to arise.

In the first round against Oklahoma City, it was Jeff Green. Against Utah, it was Carlos Boozer. And against Phoenix, it was Amar’e Stoudemire. What do those three guys have in common? They’re all 6-foot-9, and Gasol has a three-inch height advantage on all of them. No wonder he was so dominant. He had a significant length advantage on all his defenders. It puts a damper on any nomination that he’s the best big man.

So when Boston came around, Gasol did hold his own in the first two games in Los Angeles. But when the series shifted to Boston, it was a different story. In Games 3, 4, 5, Gasol averaged only 15.6 points and 9 rebounds while shooting a measly 44 percent. It goes to show what effect a good defender can have on the supposed best big man.

But just looking at Gasol’s numbers doesn’t decide this. There needs to be some comparison. On the defensive end, the discussion starts and stops with Dwight Howard. He’s the best defender in the game; there’s no question. He blocks so many shots, but that doesn’t do him justice. The number of shots he effects or discourages has a profound impact on Orlando’s defensive game. Think of it like a big slugging hitter chasing a home-run record. If Barry Bonds didn’t get walked all the time, he could hit a lot more home runs. If opposing players took shots indiscriminately without considering Howard’s swat, he’d rack up a lot more blocks.

On the offensive end, you have to look at both Chris Bosh and Stoudemire. Bosh averaged six more points per game this year than Gasol. He’s much more athletic, his post moves are just as good, and his perimeter game’s even better. Some may argue that Gasol’s a better passer, and he is, but to whom is Bosh going to pass the ball? Sonny Weems? C’mon. As for Stoudemire, he may not have a back-to-the-basket game, but his face-up skill set is fantastic. He’s significantly more explosive than any top-tier big in the league not named Howard, and he has a better shooting touch than Gasol does.

So Gasol is clearly not the league’s best big man. And NBA fans shouldn’t let a few solid playoff games misguide them into thinking he is.

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Zone defense against the Lakers

Can Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol handle the Suns' 2-3 zone?

The Phoenix Suns showed the Los Angeles Lakers that they aren’t just going to roll over and allow the defending champs to waltz into the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year.

On Sunday night, the Suns defeated the Lakers on their home court by a score of 118-109 on the strength of a defensive effort absent in Games 1 and 2, in which the Lakers scored 128 points and 124 points, respectively.

But aside from the advantage of playing in front of their fans at home on Sunday, there was another reason the Suns excelled on defense. Noticing the Lakers’ complete obliteration on the front line, coach Alvin Gentry decided to make a change. Deviating from the man-to-man defense he instituted in the first two contests, in Game 3 he had his team playing a 2-3 zone defense.

Continuously discussed before and during the beginning of the series was the Suns’ deficiency in the front court against the trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom off the bench. And that was only magnified by Amar’e Stoudemire’s comment that Odom “got lucky” with his 19 rebounds in Game 1.

The goal of the zone defense, particularly the 2-3, allows the defense to swarm easily on Gasol and the others down low (or deny the entry pass altogether and keep the ball out of the paint), nullifying their advantage and making any shot in the immediate basket area a difficult one.

There are typically drawbacks to such a defensive scheme, though. With a good passer in the post like Gasol for the Lakers, the Suns run the risk of a kick-out pass to an open shooter. With three men left clogging the middle, that leaves only two defenders remaining to close out on three possible jump shooters.

Luckily for the Suns, the Lakers are not a great perimeter-shooting team. Other than Kobe Bryant, who played very well (36 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists), their other guards aren’t very good three-point shooters. Ron Artest, specifically, has been dreadful from the outside thus far.

If the Suns can continue to execute on defense, the zone should help them deep into this series. But as soon as the Lakers set in to the mindset that they have to attack the zone with drives from the outside, it could wreak some havoc and get Phoenix into early foul trouble.

That said, it’s really their only option right now. In Games 1 and 2, the Suns were lame ducks looking to be blown away by the Lakers. In Game 3, they showed what most were expecting coming off of a series sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. The series should get interesting from here on out.

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Competitive balance in the NBA? Good one.

Why is it that even in the conference finals we can't seem to get an interesting game?

I was on my way to Tufts University this evening from Boston on I-93 when I saw a billboard on a vacant office building looking for lessees. It read: “Sitting in traffic? Not anymore if you work here.”

While I was neither sitting in traffic nor looking for office space at the time, the message was intriguing nevertheless. In fact, it got me to start thinking about the NBA and the shortcuts it has taken (If I don’t want to sit in traffic, I can just work here!”) to try and establish competitive balance. As a result, there is a complete lack of competitive balance present in the league today, something that David Stern and his cohorts need to address to stimulate interest in professional basketball here in the United States.

Amid playoffs in which five of the six matchups in the conference finals and semifinals could be sweeps, there is definitely a problem with the balance of the game. So let’s take a look at the plague of disparity around the league, shall we?

The MLB is the only sports league in the United States that doesn’t have a salary cap. And as long as the players association lives and breathes, there will never be a salary cap in baseball. That said, Major League Baseball succeeds where other leagues don’t in promoting a compelling, competitive league.

For one, the nature of baseball (and the construction of multi-game series during the regular season) is such that any team can beat any other team on any given day. In a three-game series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, there’s a considerable possibility that Pittsburgh will squeak one game out during the set. In the NBA, when the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves meet, nobody’s betting on the T’Wolves and rightly not.

In addition, the MLB went about establishing two systems to help curb extravagant spending by big-market teams. It instituted a revenue-sharing program and imposed a luxury tax on high-payroll teams. While these policies don’t quite dissuade teams like the Yankees from blowing large sums on free agents, it does well to control spending near the middle (in terms of payroll) of the league.

But the NBA does have a salary cap. Isn’t the whole point of the damned thing to keep games close? In theory, it sure is. But keep in mind that the NBA’s cap is a soft one, and there are plenty of channels by which to circumvent the loose limit.

The most prominent of those is via Bird Rights, which allow teams to go over the payroll cap in order to re-sign free agents who have been with the team for three years or more. That’s why the Lakers are allowed to sign Kobe Bryant to a 3-year, $90 million extension despite with will be over $85 million in payroll next season with a projected $56 million cap. So that’s one way in which teams in big markets with rich owners can weasel their way to greatness. Needless to say, you wouldn’t see the Maloofs offer that kind of money to keep a player around on the Kings because they just can’t afford the salary itself or the accompanying luxury tax.

In addition, to continue the comparison to baseball, the dollar goes a lot further in the NBA game, so going over the salary cap is more valuable to success. In baseball, starting pitchers (who command very high salaries these days) go only one out of five games. And those position players who do play nearly every game, they are only expected to contribute three out of ten times from the plate and once in awhile on the defensive side (depending on the position).

In the NBA, everybody’s playing every game, and each of the five players contributes to every offensive and defensive set. Besides scoring and the other major stats, there are ways to help your team: setting effective screens, moving well without the ball, affecting shots, and denying your assignment the ball, to name a few.

For a practical illustration of this mess, look at the payrolls of the four teams left in the playoffs: $91,314, 026 (Lakers), $83,875,420 (Boston Celtics), $82,087,014 (Orlando Magic), $74,012,783 (Phoenix Suns). The salary cap this year is $69,920,000. So none of the remaining teams is working under the s0-called “limit.”

With all this established, let me go about setting a few suggestions for bringing true competition back to the NBA.

(1) Make the cap a hard cap.

Much like instituting a salary cap or removing the DH in baseball, this will never happen. Setting up a hard-cap system infuriates both conflicting parties: the NBAPA because in such a scenario star players would have to take major paycuts to make payrolls work and the NBA because all the luxury tax payments go straight to the league anyway.

Nobody really wants this except concerned fans. Not the Laker fans that think they’re devoted because they know who Pau Gasol is but the fans of teams like the 76ers who can tell you the stat line of every player from Andre Iguodala to Jrue Holiday for the past season. If it is so obvious that you need to shell out the cash like the four teams mentioned above to compete, there’s no way all 30 teams can never hope to contend for a championship; it’s just not feasible.

(2) Cut down on the teams that make the playoffs.

Right now the NBA playoffs are a bit, well, imperfect. There are 16 teams, four 7-game rounds, and over two months of 20-game blowouts. No one wants to see that. No one wants to see the Magic beat up the Bobcats in four circus games. Certainly, the thrill of an underdog upset like the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007 is great, but you have to play the odds. That type of series doesn’t come around too often.

One could argue that even the conference-finals round is bad this year, but again, play the odds. This is atypical of the NBA playoffs. Cut the the pool that makes the postseason in half, and the league will have a lot more satisfied and less exhausted fans.

(3) Oust owners who aren’t in it to win it.

Nothing serves as a greater doomsday to a fan base than an owner to has ulterior motives for owning a basketball team. Guys like Donald Sterling and Bruce Ratner who use the franchise as leverage for their real-estate ventures are true parasites to the league and bad for the game. Get rid of them, somehow, or else you’ll have more teams that fail to ever be in contention.

I know these rules aren’t terribly practical (and simply “getting rid” of unsatisfactory owners would prove to be a nightmare: Are there objective qualities? Who gets the team? Etc.). But something needs to be done to protect the integrity of the league. If we keep seeing blowout after blowout and sweep after sweep in the playoffs, fans will start to lose interest, and no one wants that. Just try and represent the little guy a little better because I can’t stand seeing the Lakers win anymore.

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Lakers have concerns despite sweep of Jazz

As the Lakers win Game 4 of their series with the Jazz tonight, completing the series sweep, they’ll enter the Western Conference riding a six-game winning streak. Even though they’ve played very well over that span, there’s still a looming concern for the purple and gold as they prepare to face the Suns.

They lack the killer instinct.

Three of the four wins for the Lakers in the semifinals came with fairly comfortable margins, but there was one overarching theme that defined all four of the contests. In each game, LA would get out to a fast start, outpacing Utah by double digits in the first or second quarter. Certainly, it’s a good sign that they start games on the right foot.

That said, lethargy, too, has struck in each game — and it nearly got the better of the Lakers in Game 3. The Lakers would continually fall into second-half lulls, allowing the Jazz to come back within reach of a victory.

For the defending champions to advance to the Finals and defeat the Suns, they will need to avoid succumbing to any such stretches of difficulty. Playing Phoenix, it is likely Phil Jackson will work hard to get the ball inside to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who can outmuscle Suns post defenders like Amar’e Stoudemire, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Accordingly, those high-percentage shots will spring them out to appreciable leads early in games.

Phoenix is not an easy foe to put down, however. On the strength of its transition play, early-scoring mindset, and lights-out perimeter shooting, the team can bounce back in a hurry from sizable deficits. At the center of those comebacks will be Steve Nash, who showed his toughness in the Suns’ sweep-ensuring Game 4 against the Spurs.

He will run Derek Fisher ragged, and the Lakers will be running on empty toward the end of the game. That’s where Kobe will need to step in and deliver the final knockout blows. He needs to regain that killer instinct he hasn’t shown so far in the postseason.

You know who has shown that murderous intent so far in the playoffs? The Orlando Magic. They’ve obliterated the competition, making the considerable Hawks look like a D-League team. They continue to pile on the points and don’t stop until the job is done.

So the Lakers have something to learn from their potential Finals counterparts in the West: keep applying pressure until there’s nothing more than charred remains of your opponent.

Otherwise, they may find a way to come back and haunt you.

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