Timberwolves 100, Lakers 111: Hard and soft science
That the Lakers are the NBA’s most colossal, most fascinating bummer has been well-documented. In the past, they were un-lovable but majestic. You could hate Kobe’s post-dagger jawfaces, you could hate Phil Jackson’s finely tailored beard and bullying spiritualism, but you could also marvel at their success and be awed by the sight of basketball beautifully played.
Now, however, we’ve got the same sense of blithe, Californian entitlement, the same terrible fans, the same petulant Kobe (he’s the only player I can think of who could drop 14 assists as an act of contempt) only now without the beauty and without the winning. David Roth, writing at Vice, has the definitive account of their poisoned well of a season. He put it this way:
If a winning Lakers team evokes the smugness of a Magic of the Movies montage during an Oscars telecast, a losing one reflects a different and more forlorn LA—a million hideous publicist-planted upskirts and celebrity DUI mugshots and pill-powered Daniel Baldwin car chases, all narrated in the sneer-scream of a TMZ correspondent.
Not deliciously infuriating, then, just lonely and depressing. If the Lakers’ signature failing has been their caustic team culture, then a close second has been the awful, awful defense. Consider: their starting point guard is 38 years old and was, during his prime, among the league’s worst defenders; their two other veteran stars are playing the worst defense of their careers; their bench is populated by the Antawn Jamisons and Steve Blakes and Jodie Meekses of the world. Its easy to understand, then, just how badly the Lakers miss even a much-diminished Dwight Howard anchoring the middle.
Given the rotten state of LA’s Howard-less D (surrendering over 110 points per 100 possessions according to 82games), it might have been hard to predict that the Wolves would spot the Lakers a 28-point second-quarter lead. But that’s exactly what they did. Given the Lakers’ soft middle, one would think that the Wolves would be champing at the bit to attack the basket. But early in this game, save for some tepid Nikola Pekovic-on-Pau-Gasol post-ups, the Wolves didn’t really do this. Instead, they settled for a procession of midrange jumpers–good looks, many of them, but we already know too much about the Wolves’ outside shooting to be fooled–and a rather mellower attitude on both ends of the floor than one might hope.
But although the Wolves’ early effort left something to be desired and although Nikola Pekovic seemed all night to be a step slow to rotate to the basket, none of these things really explain LA’s first-half outburst. The Wolves were loading up on the strong side of their half-court defense in an attempt to deter Nash and Kobe from penetrating the lane. In doing so, they conceded the long, weakside jumpers to players like Meeks, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol. In the first half, the Lakers just hit an absurd number of those long jumpers: they canned 27 out of 48 first-half field goals and nine of their first 12 threes. Many of these were long, contested shots by mediocre shooters: exactly the shots, in other words, that the Wolves were hoping the Lakers would take.
Such things never last. The Wolves continued to concede those weakside threes, going to a 2-3 zone for most of the game’s final three quarters, and the Lakers continued to take those weakside threes. But the magic had faded; the Lakers hit just three out of the 20 threes they attempted after the 6:44 mark of the second quarter.
That was a helpful turn of events. Even better, though, was Ricky Rubio’s will to attack the basket. Since that first beautiful game against Dallas, Rubio has been notably, tentative in almost every aspect of his offensive game. Its not that he’s lacked the will to penetrate the paint, but he’s lacked both the decisiveness and the sheer power and quickness to make it happen effectively.
Recently, though, the wind has started to shift. Rubio began to be more decisive in the fourth quarter in Charlotte, attacking the Bobcats quickly whenever they switched on the pick-and-roll. This trend has continued over the past two games, which is good news for a few reasons. The first is that both Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea tend to size up opponents before attempting to penetrate the paint. This is, I guess, a nice piece of psychological scaffolding for Shved and Barea, a moment for them to gather their courage and overestimate their own talents before heaving themselves into the gauntlet. But its also pretty nice opportunity for the defense to set itself and anticipate the Wolves’ next move.
Second, given Ricky’s physical shortcomings–his inborn lack of explosiveness plus the effects of major reconstructive knee surgery–he has a hard time scoring over help defenders. Recognizing opportunities and attacking quickly allow him to beat the help defender to the basket and catch the defense wrong-footed. In the second quarter, he began to do this in earnest, most memorably when he beat Nash with a wicked crossover and then danced around Pau for a neat reverse layup.
This also got Pekovic moving toward the basket (rather then moldering in the post) and exposed the many shortcomings of that Lakers’ defense.
The Wolves cut the Lakers’ lead down to four by the middle of the fourth quarter and for a moment it looked like they might get over the top. But it didn’t happen. Despite Rubio’s minor resurgence, there are too many mis-executed possessions, too many ill-chosen shots, too many missed opportunities. If the Lakers’ problem is one of alchemy and disposition, the Wolves’ is biological: right now, they simply lack the talent to make plays late in games, even against a defense as vulnerable as LA’s.