Sunday, February 24, 2008

Opposing View: 2/24 vs. L.A. Lakers

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, we turn to Kurt Helin from Forum Blue and Gold, the outstanding Lakers blog. Here's Kurt's preview of tonight's matchup. The BasketBlog also has a look at the Sonics.

How much of the credit does Pau Gasol deserve for the Lakers going 8-1 since he entered the lineup?
He gets a lot, although the change he brought to this team was mental as much as physical. After Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury, the Lakers struggled (especially on defense) and the team went into a bit of a malaise. From the day the trade was announced, even before Gasol stepped on the court, the Lakers have been playing with a renewed energy. Now they are starting to show the confidence of a contender.

On the court, Gasol’s game blends perfectly with what the Lakers want to do. In it’s pure form, the triangle offense likes a post player to be productive in both the low and high post. (Shaq, back in his prime, passed well enough from the high post to be useful that far from the hoop.) Gasol fits so well because he has a variety of post moves, can shoot it consistently out to 18 feet, can put the ball on the floor and is a very good passer from the post. With him on the court you see a Laker offense really clicking because everyone keeps moving and spreading the floor — if you’re the guy with the best shot he gets you the ball. That type of play is infectious, and right now the Lakers are passing very well.

Have you noticed any effect of Kobe Bryant's torn ligament in his pinky finger?
Not much. The first couple of games it clearly bothered him, but after longtime Laker trainer Gary Vitti came up with a specific tape job that keeps the finger in a better position Kobe seems to be Kobe. He is still driving to the lane like always. His outside shooting, particularly from 3, seems less consistent (shooting just 30% from three in the last 10 games) but he continues to be efficient in the offense -- the other night against the Suns he was 16 of 25 from the field. The other thing you may notice, he’ll take fewer shots. Last night against the Clippers he had 11 shots. That however is more a function of how the Lakers are playing unselfishly on offense than it is the finger.

When you compare the Lakers with Gasol to the Lakers with Bynum before his injury, how are they similar or different?
There are a few key differences. First, the Lakers have not been as good defensively (giving up two more points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games than they do for the season, from stats prior to the Clipper game last night). Bynum had become a very good defender in the paint, blocking and altering shots, then grabbing the rebound. He really protected the rim. Gasol is a nice defender in the paint, smart and solid, but he doesn’t bring the intimidation Bynum did. However, the defense issues haven’t hurt them because the offense has been so much better.

The other thing of note is the pace is slower, but the team is more efficient in the half-court offense now. With Bynum protecting the paint, the Lakers perimeter defenders took more chances, and Bynum’s rebounding and outlets helped fuel some speed. That led to easy baskets. Plus, a favorite play of those Lakers was to have Bynum trailing the play setting a drag pick (a pick and roll early in the clock, before the defense is set) on which everyone would rotate to Kobe and Bynum would roll hard to the basket and get a lot of lobs and dunks.

With Gasol the Lakers are going at about three fewer possessions per game, but they are much more efficient in the half-court offense. Gasol has a much more rounded game and can score away from the basket. The Lakers are cutting without the ball, guys like Derek Fisher and former Sonics forward Vladimir Radmanovic are spreading the floor and getting more open looks because of the extra pass. Also, Lamar Odom is much more comfortable in the role of third option, without the pressure of having to score much, and the result is he is become far more aggressive when he gets a matchup he likes. Odom is averaging 15 points and 12 boards a game in the last 10.

After losing to the Suns in the playoffs the last two years, is it meaningful that the Lakers won this year's season series 3-1?
It’s not just that they beat them, but how. In the first few meetings, the Suns had no real answer for Andrew Bynum’s offense, they had nobody large enough to to contain him on the block. The Suns countered by getting Shaq — but in doing so they gave up their best perimeter defender. So when the Lakers played them this week (on the second game of a back-to-back for LA) the Lakers took advantage out on the wings. Plus, Gasol pulled Shaq out 18 feet from the basket, then shot over him and drove around him. And, at the end of that game, the Lakers went with a smaller lineup (Kobe playing the three) and beat the Suns that way.

The Suns are a very good team, you never know what will happen in the playoffs, but I think the Lakers don’t fear the Suns this year. Really, because of the versatility of the roster, I don’t think they fear the matchups with anyone in the West.

What don't we know but should about the Lakers?
I think the one thing not many people see — because of the amazing record since Pau arrived — is that the defense really has not been as good. Nobody is in panic mode, because Bynum will be back next month and that will help considerably. But it is going on right now.

One other thing — the Lakers have played the toughest part of their schedule. While there are no easy games in a very deep Western Conference, the Lakers have played their season series against the Suns, Celtics, Pistons and most of their games against the other top teams in the West. While the Lakers still have to blend Bynum back into what they do, it will be easier to do it against more teams likely headed to the lottery than what their competition at the top of the West have left.