What the hell was that? What was supposed to be a grudge match featuring the league’s highest profile free agent leading the league’s most rapidly ascendant team to a victory over his depleted former team turned out to be a nightmare in Houston. It was an ugly exposé of what might be gaping holes in the Rockets' ability to win basketball games.
Picture yourself waking up from a multi-day, Pinkmanesque bacchanal. The couch is smoldering, strangers are snoring in the hallway, ominous stains dot the rug, and the detritus of now-departed house guests litter the scene. There, in the dawn light seeping through torn drapes, is a person dutifully bagging the beer bottles, wiping off the counters, and sweeping up the ash. That person is Pau Gasol, and this is Lakers Media Day 2013.
Antawn Jamison has never been to the conference finals. He’s been open about his desire to get there. In the last two offseasons, Jamison has signed a pair of relatively cheap contracts in hopes of advancing deep into the NBA playoffs. Last season he went to the Lakers, and that didn’t work out. This season he moves across the hall to the Clippers. If it’s true that Jamison just wants to end his career playing for a competitor, this move could easily be read as the latest sign of an ongoing power shift within Staples Center.
In case you were busy becoming an expert on the recovery period for hip surgeries, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
The Red Sox bolstered their rotation before the trade deadline, acquiring former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy from the Chicago White Sox in a three-team deal. When asked if he was worried about the pressure of playing in Boston, Peavy responded gravely, "Yes. Terrified. Everything changes. I've spent the last couple of hours weeping into this bucket. Look at it!" Peavy then held up an empty bucket, before adding, "Of course I dumped out the bucket before I came out here. I'm not a weirdo."
Mark Ellis hit a walk-off single and the Dodgers kept on rolling, edging past the New York Yankees, 3-2, and improving to 27-6 over their past 33 games. The hit extended Ellis's hit streak to 11 games, a run he credits to "not having anything to do with hallucinogenic drugs, why is everyone asking me that? Of course I'm not tripping at the plate. That would have made this impossible I would imagine." Ellis then furrowed his brow and asked, "Is this because of that honorary doctorate I got in June?"
How do you want to remember Phil Jackson? Let me answer that question for you. You want to think of him as the lord of the rings, the coach who mentored and mind-gamed some of the best basketball players in the history of the game, the brains behind some of the NBA's most dominant teams, the architect of the Triangle offense. You want to think of him as the Zen Master, the guy who preferred to motivate with great works of literature rather than tired clichés.
There used to be something mysterious about Jackson. He was that guy with an outsize, collapsible frame, sitting on the bench between Tex Winter (the actual architect of the Triangle offense, along with Johnny Bach) and Jimmy Cleamons, staring knowingly at the action on the court, refusing to call a timeout and making his players correct themselves on the fly. He was able to get through to Michael Jordan after Doug Collins had failed. He was able to bridge the gap between Shaq and Kobe. He was a font of wisdom, an all-knowing, fly-fishing, koan-spitting genius. After all, he is the guy who said, "If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball."
Which makes it all the more depressing that he now sounds like any other asshole ex-coach on talk radio.
Less than 10 minutes before tipoff, the real weight of last night’s game at Staples Center, the type of weight given to fighting for playoff life and extending a season that seemed over a dozen times, was gone. As the Lakers and Rockets warmed up on the court, the video board showed the final seconds of the Grizzlies’ win over Utah, and with them came a cheer from those who’d already made it to their seats. After all this, the Lakers were going to the playoffs.
Whatever relief there was (and as Mike D’Antoni noted afterward, there was plenty) was short-lived. The playoffs were one thing, but this was also a Lakers team that had a lot to gain from stealing the 7-seed away from Houston. It’d be their fifth consecutive win, and their second against a playoff team without Kobe Bryant. It would also mean a weekend flight to San Antonio instead of Oklahoma City — likely the difference between a remote chance at winning a series and a remote chance at winning a game.
Much of the first quarter featured the Lakers’ same old issues. By running their offense through Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, there were plenty of open shots for the likes of Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. When those shots weren’t going in, long rebounds led to quick run-outs, and the Lakers showed off the type of horrid transition defense they’ve made into a trademark all season. Chandler Parsons finished two layups in three possessions at one point in the first quarter, and by halftime, the Rockets were on pace for 100, and the Lakers trailed by six after shooting 33 percent from the field.
If the Lakers had something to hang their hat on from the first 24 minutes, it was that the defensive energy in the half court that has built during the past few games was there again. If it wasn’t a James Harden isolation or a basket on the run, Houston wasn't getting the shots it wanted, and late in the second half, that would make all the difference. A Harden 3 made the lead 11 with four minutes left in the third, but that’s as high as it would ever get. In 21 more minutes of game time, the Rockets would score just 29 more points, and as much as it had to do with Harden going cold, it also had to do with Howard looking like the player his teammates imagined he would be.
In the 71st game of your 17th season, in the midst of a “heated” playoff “race,” why are you still watching your own errant jump shot while your mark, Klay Thompson, beats you back in transition for an open 3-pointer? Thompson doesn’t exactly take off like Corey Brewer, either, and he still beats you down the floor by several steps.
Why is this still happening? It’s almost April, and Bryant and the Lakers still can’t figure out transition defense, or defense in general.
After a crazy night of NBA injuries, wild finishes, and resounding wins, a smorgasbord of random thoughts that don’t merit their own posts:
• The Lakers’ defense has been a disaster over the last 20 games whenever Dwight Howard sits, mostly because the Lakers have zero reliable big men beyond Howard, with both Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill injured. An Earl Clark-Antawn Jamison-Metta World Peace front line offers some interesting athleticism, but very little in the way of size or rim protection. It cannot survive against good offenses over extended minutes.
But now we might get to see the opposite challenge: Can the Lakers’ offense survive without its own crutch in Kobe Bryant, dealing with a severe ankle sprain suffered when Dahntay Jones stepped underneath him in defending a potential game-tying shot? (Note: Can you imagine if the Lakers rallied to win that game, with the Hawks missing a couple of late free throws and Kobe nailing a instant killer 3 on an out-of-bounds play to keep L.A. alive with about 20 seconds left? The Lakers were due for a close loss after semi-miraculous wins over the Hornets and Raptors in the last week, but they damn near pulled off another one.)
Let’s not mince words here — the Lakers are boring. Sure, they’re a flaming train wreck from which we can’t avert our eyes, but their actual on-court product (and even some of the drama off it) is far from enjoyable, in the traditional sense. If you stripped away the star power and franchise mystique, all you’d be left with is a basketball team that’s losing far more than it wins, and there’s not much fun about that. (Again, in the traditional sense.)
But given there isn’t any way to not talk about the Lakers, I went to the ESPN Trade Machine (at least in part) and tried to figure out a deal that, in an alternate reality, would make the team more palatable. The trade I came up with is both realistic (based on some real rumors I’ve heard/read and players’ fair market value in mind) and totally effing bananas (five-team, 15-player trades and unicorns tend have a lot in common). I’d still like to think at least some parts dabble in the vicinity of the plausible.
In the end, I came up with a Lakers team (as well as a Cleveland one) that I would actually enjoy watching on a nightly basis. Of course, it’s built along the lines of my own personal views — fit over star power and great offense over any type of defense — but I think it would make the struggling L.A. team, as well as a couple of the others involved, more interesting.
Either way, there’s enough in there to get people yelling at each other (or at me), which is easily the best part of fake trades anyway. So here ya go:
Sports talk radio never changes. Kevin from Saugus is Leo from Bensonhurst is Robbie from Schaumburg is Carl on a cell phone on the 280 outside Daly City, and although each of those guys complains in a regional style about regional players, they all share a similar tone — the annoyed arch in the vowels when they pronounce a terrible quarterback's name, the self-righteous lilt whenever they talk about a linebacker who has been recently arrested. Here in Los Angeles, sports talk radio is really just Lakers talk radio. The Kings can win the Stanley Cup, the Clippers can win 17 straight games, UCLA can recruit the top high school player in the nation, but as long as Kobe Bryant is doing something at Staples Center, every Dan from Santa Monica, Jun from Cerritos, and Miguel from West Covina will call in to sing his praises. It's a weird, profoundly Southern Californian inversion of the usual sports talk radio formula — Dan, Jun, and Miguel might be the same guys as Kevin, Leo, and Robbie, they might still be nasty and paranoid, but they are nasty and paranoid about the greatness of Kobe Bryant.
This season, the unctuous positivity of Lakers fans has been stretched thin. November talk about 70 wins and a surefire championship quickly devolved into "It doesn't matter that we went 0-8 in the preseason because PRESEASON GAMES DON'T COUNT WHEN IT'S WINNING TIME," which, in turn, devolved into "The Princeton offense sucks. Mike Brown sucks, but Kobe rules!" This lasted for about a week until Mike Brown was actually fired, leading to a 4-1 stretch under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff. For about 10 days here, the talk upticked to "We might not win the 1-seed, but we'll still win the championship and that's all anyone cares about here in championship town." But once Mike D'Antoni took over and the Lakers started losing again, even the most positive callers began to question the team's chemistry and makeup. After the Lakers lost to Cleveland last month, Armageddon seemed nigh. Nobody would come out and say that these Lakers couldn't beat anyone in the playoffs (except THIS GUY — sorry, I am right so infrequently that I sometimes feel the need to take a victory lap), but the talk about blowing up this current product and starting afresh with anyone but Pau Gasol had begun in earnest.
It’s a refrain we’re hearing now from Mike D’Antoni’s harshest critics: The Lakers are banged up, yes, but any team with Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant should be better than 9-13. Even worse, they're 4-8 since D’Antoni took over on the bench.
Jalen Rose talks to David Jacoby about what it's really like to play for Mike D'Antoni, and much more. Also, check out the video! Jalen lists the top five all-time NBA players he would like next to him in a dark alley.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Dwight Howard scored 23 points and grabbed 15 boards as the Lakers beat the Nets 95-90 in Mike D'Antoni's first game on the L.A. bench. It was a virtuoso performance for D'Antoni, who, despite a knee injury, was firing on all cylinders with such bench-themed moves as the running bench slide, the sitting bench slide, the Captain Morgan leg, the reverse Captain Morgan leg, Poppo's Droppo, the fussy towel wipe, the angry kick, the Ruppian hop, the Wooden whine, the frustration head-bury combo, the satisfaction back lean, Magglio the Good Pirate, the gentle head pat, the Faustian substitute, the restless foot tapping two-second sit-me-down, the supine cry, the post-dunk defensive urge, the smirk of fierce disbelief, the hurried jump, Nap Time, the furious Chaplain march, the standing contemplative hand-to-mouth, the existential laugh of the oppressed, the recumbent plea, the player's shoulder strap grab-and-toss, the Dutch persuasion, Appletini, and his favorite, the two-clap Crazy James Nai-Nai.
How many adjustments does a team need to make before you just throw up your hands and call it broken? If you read any of the papers in Los Angeles or listen to any sports talk radio or scan through the dozens of purple-and-gold blogs, you’d believe there must be some master solution that will make all the Lakers' disparate parts cohere into some unstoppable basketball force. Once Dwight learns to play with Pau, everything will be fine. Or once Nash learns to play alongside Kobe, the team will stop looking slow and confused on offense. Or once the bench players find their roles, the second unit will look like something more than five random dudes who happen to be standing on a basketball court together.
Up until last week, the dominant excuse/adjustment was something called the “Princeton offense,” which, due to its Ivy League origins and all the requisite unathletic associations, never sat well with the locals who had grown up with Showtime and Shaq. (As a side note, the Princeton offense was mostly a branding problem — if Mike Brown had just called it “the system” and not said a word about New Jersey’s capital of secret societies and lax bros, every sound bite about Princeton and the Lakers would never have existed. They still might have lost a ton of games under Brown, but he at least wouldn’t have been the guy who — gasp! — tried to get Kobe Bryant to play within something as uncool as the Princeton offense.)
Now that Mike Brown and Princeton have bowed out of the Lakers excuse show, the adjustment story has shifted over to Mike D’Antoni and his own system and what will happen when Steve Nash comes back from his injury. That particular story line won’t even get started until Nash comes back sometime next month, which will then set off its own little barrage of separate adjustment stories. And ad infinitum till the Lakers either win or, more likely, do not win the NBA championship.