Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Unleash the Dragic?

Weird games prompt weird reactions. The most recent iteration of the Suns-Lakers series was weird, no doubt about it: Kobe had a great game, Nash and Stoudemire had mediocre ones, the Suns missed 9 free throws…and the Suns ended up winning fairly decisively. So, with the axiom I’ve proposed earlier, you should expect weird reactions. And you’re right: the focus has very rightly been placed on the Suns bench (here’s why the Suns won in one statistic: Goran Dragic plus/minus +22 with three or four super exciting moves. Dragic has officially joined the Manu Ginobili/Pete Maravich/Ricky Rubio school of “moves” guys, who seem to have no overwhelming athletic skills, but have simply absurd basketball moves born of a daring and strong basketball IQ), but very weirdly on the zone defense. Look. The Lakers had a 55 TS%. During the regular season they shot 53 TS%. During the regular season Phoenix gave up 53 TS%. The reason for this victory was that the Suns played really well on offense and the Lakers only played well on offense. That’s it—don’t try to dissect this much further in terms of the topline reasoning.

I was probably a little early in the Oklahoma City series predicting that that team exposed a fatal flaw—like some Greek tragedy. Unlike those, teams can elude their flaws, and it seemed like the Lakers had for a while, at least until this game. Somehow the Lakers’ reaction to adversity is always the same: abandon Pau Gasol, act shocked that cutting out one of the best offensive players in the league produces poor results, decide to continue ignoring Pau Gasol, and the vicious cycle continues. Poor Pau Gasol: he seems destined to be misunderstood; if your own teammates can’t figure out you’re good, how can we count on the public to? While you might hear kvetching about how the Lakers don’t have a penetrator nor can hit outside shots, keep in mind that there’s a very easy way to get the ball low and into the gaps: the simple bounce entry pass into the low block; alternatively, post up Pau Gasol at the elbow. They had at least five separate possessions in which they turned down easy entry passes (I started counting when I became sufficiently distressed by their poor offensive play) and only tried to post Gasol at the elbow once that I can remember. Greatness, for some people, is nonnegotiable: you and I, most of us don’t have the skills to be great at anything. That’s fine. For these Lakers, greatness is a choice: perhaps not as easy a choice as cereal or toast for breakfast, but a choice that could be made by an act of will nonetheless. This season, the Lakers have chosen to turn down greatness. Most galling of all, they might yet still be rewarded for it: they might yet win the championship and receive all the accolades that come with it and only those of us who remember games like this, or games like Game 4 against Oklahoma City, will know that they only occasionally chose to be great.

I’m not big into making overheated character judgments based on a few fleeting moments. Yet this has been a pattern for two seasons now of the Lakers making their path more difficult than it needs to be. Will the Suns win twice more? Probably not. But we shouldn’t have to equivocate about it; the Lakers possess the very best big men in the league. But we do have to: the Suns might win two more games. If Amare plays more like Game 3 than Game 4; if Steve Nash finally has the Steve Nash game that I’ve been expecting (the Nash-Fisher mismatch should be the defining one of the series; instead it’s largely irrelevant); if Goran Dragic can toss up another game like this…well, it’s very possible. I hope they do.

(Yes, a very deliberate Clash of the Titans reference)


  1. After watching the last two games, I am confused and have more questions than answers.

    Why can't one of the best coaches prepare his talented team to attack the zone? Yes, they scored but should have scored a lot more, right?

    Will the zone come back as a credible defensive strategy and even change the nba game? The fact is that the zone does not require much energy (or thought), leaving a run and gun team with a deep bench to focus on the offensive end.

    Is the Sun's bench deep enough to tire the lakers? If this goes seven games, the aging and injured Lakers might not have enough in the tank.

  2. Yeah, these are all good questions.

    I do think they should be able to score more, and I don't know why Phil Jackson hasn't been able to get his team to play consistently against it. But this isn't just a Suns problem: they had this same problem against the Nuggets and Rockets last year too. Is it Phil or the players at fault? Probably both, right? Anyway, someone really needs to call out Derek Fisher for just being awful. I wish someone would do it.

    I think the zone can be played if a team commits to it. A lot of college teams play zone very well, despite playing against a longer shot clock (I feel like the zone is a relatively better defense against a shorter shot clock.) Ultimately, though, my preference is man-to-man.

    The Lakers, they are really tired. Bynum especially. If Bynum's effectiveness is more like Game 3 than Game 4, the Lakers are in a lot of trouble.

    One thing to keep track of: the Suns, this season, have played really badly against the Lakers, even worse than you'd predict based on home court advantage. Maybe it's just luck, maybe not. Who knows. Something to think about.

  3. This has to be the last year that Fish gets any minutes. He is nearly operating at Sam Cassell speeds of 2008. If he makes Dragic look like an all star, he certainly won't be able to play against the real all star, Rajon Rondo, in the Finals.

    Will be watching to see if they rediscover that poor chap in the post.

    Bty, great blog - impressive range of interests...

  4. Yeah, if you're a Lakers fan, you have to hope that there's an upgrade (well, if you're a sane one--the Lakers fans I know insist that there is NOTHING WRONG with Derek Fisher; they also believe Kobe > LeBron and Pau is soft and a bunch of really bizarre things. I suspect that the Angelenos who aren't Scientologists become Laker fans, so they too can have a cult of their own...) But the question is as always how, and what system are you going to get a point for? Phil plays the triangle, and it's a great offense, but it demands specific things of its points that don't port well to other offenses. And even if Phil stays for another run next year, he's getting old and has to leave eventually, right? And no other NBA team really runs the triangle, meaning there's a distinct possibility of a poor fit at point in the future for the Lakers.

    Against Boston, the Lakers might be able to get away with the same thing they did with the Thunder: switch Kobe onto Rondo and put Fish on Ray Allen. Fisher remains very good at fighting around screens, so it's not a huge liability...not as huge, at any rate, as Fisher-Rondo.

    Thanks for commenting--hope you jump in for any of the other topics.