Lakers to measure themselves against Celtics: What to look for

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The Lakers are the two-time NBA defending champions. They have the newest shiny rings and the banner has barely had time to gather dust. Every time they step on the court they are the team the opposition wants to measure itself against.

Except Thursday night. Then the roles will be reversed — the Lakers will be measuring themselves against the Celtics.

It’s not about last June, it’s about this season now. And this season Boston has looked every bit the championship force, the veteran team on top of their conference with their own championship pedigree. They look better than the team that went seven games into the NBA finals last season.

On the other hand the Lakers have looked lackluster, at least as lackluster as a 36-16 team can. They have been inconsistent and uninspired, especially in big games (which they are supposed to win). That includes in a 109-96 win by the Celtics a week ago in Los Angeles, where Boston shot 60.3 percent for the game and pulled away in the second half. The Celtics looked much the better side.

That loss was the straw that broke Mitch Kupchak’s back and had the reserved Laker GM saying publicly maybe it was time to think about trades. It was the first domino to fall, leading us to the current Lakers/Carmelo Anthony silliness.

The Lakers have been more focused of late, especially on the road. Thursday we see if that change was real or cosmetic and the problems in Los Angeles more systemic.

Here are a few things to watch for:

Who controls the boards. These are two of the longest front lines in the NBA and both are used to controlling the glass. In the last 10 meetings, the team that won the battle on the glass won 9. Boston did it in last week’s meeting, but they had Shaquille O’Neal who will be out Thursday with roughly a sore everything. Watch the offensive rebound numbers, if one team has a significant advantage they will have, um, a significant advantage.

Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol. Gasol is the most skilled big man in the NBA, but in the meeting last week Garnett never let him get comfortable. Gasol couldn’t get the ball where he wanted on the floor. Gasol is the hub of the Lakers offense, they need to get him the ball and cut off him. If he can the Lakers offense will click.

Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest. This is fun to watch just because neither guy gives an inch. Pierce won the battle last go around.

Rajon Rondo vs. Kobe Bryant. In the second half of the last meeting, Rajon Rondo shredded the Lakers defensive plan for him that helped the Lakers get that ring last June. Kobe usually covers Rondo and plays off him, daring him to shoot. Rondo this year has been far better about how to use that space to create passing angles and set up teammates. Or, as he did against the Bobcats a couple nights ago, he can just knock down the shots now. The Lakers need to adjust, it will be interesting to see how.

Ball movement. Both teams use a similar defensive principle — bring a big man over early on the side where the ball is to stymie dribble penetration (get past your defender and Kendrick Perkins or Andrew Bynum is there to greet you). The way you defeat that is quick ball movement to the weak side. Boston recovers and resets quickly, the Lakers do when they are on. But whichever team is getting buckets from the weak side will be the team hitting the easier looks. And in this game the team with more easy looks will likely win.

Report: Kevin Love called out in emotional Cavaliers team meeting

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Having lost 8-of-11, a Cavaliers team meeting where the players got to vent seemed inevitable. There isn’t one person in that Cavaliers locker room that doesn’t deserve some blame for how things have turned.

However, Kevin Love apparently became the whipping boy.

From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Cleveland Cavaliers held a fiery team meeting in the practice facility locker room prior to Monday’s practice, during which several players challenged the legitimacy of Kevin Love’s illness that led him to leave Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City early and miss Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

Several players were pushing for the Cavaliers’ management and coaching staff to hold Love accountable for leaving the arena before the end of Saturday’s game, and then missing Sunday’s practice, league sources told ESPN.

The meeting was loud and intense, only calming down once Love spoke to those gathered in the room and explained himself, league sources said.

The more things change, the more things are always Kevin Love’s fault.

According to the report, the majority of the team seemed to accept Love’s explanation. Love left the Cavaliers ugly, nationally televised blowout at the hands of the Thunder in the first half and did not return due to what was described only as an illness. He did not stay around for the end of the game. I’m not about to speculate on how ill he was or was not, what matters is that his teammates were not buying it. When a team is losing finger-pointing is almost inevitable, and Love has gotten more than his fair share of it in Cleveland. At least he stood up for himself.

Team meetings may allow a pressure release in a locker room, but they almost never result in any kind of meaningful change. We’ll see what if anything changes in Cleveland.

Bucks GM on Jason Kidd firing: “This is a performance-based thing”

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Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six.

This season, expectations were high. Before the season there was talk from the team of a 50-win team (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the under/over at 47.5) that would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, hosting a playoff round. There was hope that the defense would improve, and with that the Bucks would look like a young team figuring it out.

They haven’t looked like that at all — they are 23-22 (with the point differential of a 20-25 team), and their defense is 25th in the NBA. Currently, they have just a one-game cushion for the final playoff slot in the East.

That cost coach Jason Kidd his job, first-year Bucks GM Jon Horst said Monday night at a press conference, as reported by Matt Velazquez at the Journal-Sentinel.

“At the end, this is a performance-based thing,” Horst said. “We believe in this team, we believe in our players and in the talents that they have. We’re looking forward at making playoff appearances in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade and hopefully winning a first-round series for the first time in over a decade. So we felt like at this time, this is the right decision to help this team get there.”

Around the league the move was not a total surprise, but the timing caught people off guard. Horst said it happened “relatively quickly” and explained:

“A general manager in the NHL had a statement once: ‘If something is inevitable, why wait?’ I think we came to the conclusion that this was the best thing for the future of the franchise and this was the time.”

Come this summer this will be the hottest coaching job available because of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the potential of this roster. Names such as Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams have been mentioned, but the ultimate list will be longer. Honestly, a few coaches with jobs might rather have the Bucks job (although the challenges between the two owners there can make things uncomfortable at times).

“We have another game on Friday and between that time we have a plan that we’ll put in place that we’ll kind of layout for the rest of the season,” Horst said. “We’ll go into the summer and have an extensive coaching search with an opportunity to hopefully find a great coach for this organization of which (interim coach) Joe Prunty has every opportunity to be a part of based on what happens going forward.”

This is going to a rough adjustment for Antetokounmpo and some of the players, who respected and trusted Kidd. There’s a lot of pressure on Horst with this hire.

That doesn’t make it the wrong move — Horst did the right thing here. The Bucks were going to be moving on, they just did it sooner rather than later.

 

Kevin Durant fires back, says Clint Capela’s job is “easy”

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“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them… We are better than them.”

That was young Rockets center Clint Capela after the Rockets beat the Warriors last Saturday night, feeling confident.

Asked about it, Kevin Durant shot Capela down, saying he’s not the guy that should be commenting.

There are no easy jobs in the NBA. It takes a lot of work physically, a good mental feel for the game, and the right opportunity just to get a chance. That said, some NBA jobs are simpler and more straightforward than others. On offense, Capela is not the ball handler and creator making a lot of decisions, things are simple for him — and he executes them. He’s shooting 66.6 percent this season — he does what he does well.

Houston took two of three from Golden State this season, and while that is far from doing it in a playoff series it should be a confidence boost for Houston if/when they go up against Golden State.

Jason Kidd says Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to save his job minutes before firing

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The stagnant Milwaukee Bucks shook things up by firing head coach Jason Kidd  Monday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was not happy with the news. So much he called up Kidd and offered to help save his job, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Antetokounmpo is understandably close to Kidd — he’s been the coach who helped transform the Greek Freak into an NBA superstar. Kidd is on his way to the Hall of Fame as a player, and as a coach had the vision to put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands as a point guard. Antetokounmpo trusted Kidd.

However, the Bucks’ growth has been stagnant — this is a team where the players talked about being a 50-win, top-four team in the East with a strong defense, instead they are a team on the way to around .500, barely hanging onto a playoff spot, with the point differential of a team that wins 36 games. They are not taking a step forward, and the Bucks — with the approval of ownership, which was very close to Kidd at one time — approving the move.

There was nothing Antetokounmpo could have done. It’s life in the NBA. That doesn’t mean he has to like it.