No time to panic over Lakers

Things that aren’t falling for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers include a reasonable percentage of jump shots and the sky.

You’d assume the first category might have a profound influence on the second, but good NBA teams have experienced road bumps before. And that’s our first stop on today’s examination of the Lakers’ recent three-game skid; all three losses were absorbed on the road. A tragic four-game slide was averted in L.A. on Tuesday night when Kobe Bryant buried a fade-away jumper from the corner with 1.9 seconds left in a 109-107 decision against the Toronto Raptors.

During the three-game march of doom, the aforementioned shooting woes were a factor — L.A. bagged just 37 percent of its field-goal attempts at Orlando (29 percent from three) and 36 percent (16.7 percent from three) during a dismal clouting by the Jordancats in Charlotte.

OK, so the Lakers were over 50 percent in a Miami Heat victory, but the L.A. defense — still ranked second among league teams in terms of fewest points per 100 possessions — was a mess.

Anyway, while refusing to go anywhere near a panic button, we’re here to take a closer look at why the shots weren’t falling and the defense was disturbingly less effective than we’re used to. For those opinions, we’ve recruited two assistant coaches working for teams in the league’s fluid Western Conference. Coach A will dig into the Lakers’ defense and explain where the issues may be. Coach B has offered to diagnose what’s going awry when L.A. has the ball.

So, let’s start with some words of wisdom on the D from Coach A.

"In the NBA, we have sort of a caste system in terms of go-to players getting the bulk of the touches and opposing defenses giving help or even double-teams to stop them," Coach A said. "That means rotating after giving help or double-teaming or defending screen-roll is the key to almost any defense in the league. Well, that and stopping dribble penetration at the point of attack, which I’ll go into next.

"The recent Laker games I’ve broken down show that the rotations are both done improperly — which can mean not at all — or without any consistent effort or vision. To give help effectively, everyone has to be a step ahead of what’s happening and rotate over to the ball early. Against Orlando, the Lakers were just awful at rotating to the rim before Dwight Howard could slip a high ball screen. Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom were guilty of arriving late or not at all a few times. And when someone did show up, Howard was allowed to get his arms above his shoulders and finish with an and-one."

OK, so we’re in the dog days of an NBA season and the Lakers’ effort is a bit on the light side. This shouldn’t be a concern once the big games come up in April, right?

"Maybe, but there are real on-court issues," Coach A said. "One thing about the Lakers is (Coach) Phil (Jackson) usually prefers to have his big man who is guarding the screener staying back in rebound position rather than show on most ball screens. This leaves the Laker who’s guarding the ballhandler on an island. If he goes under the screen, most NBA guards can hit that shot before the guard — usually Derek Fisher — can recover. Even when Orlando was setting the screen really high and out of shooting range, (Pau) Gasol or whoever was defending the screener was so far back that Jameer Nelson was able to turn the corner, get into the lane and find shooters."

In Tuesday’s slide-ending triumph over the Raptors, Toronto point guard Jarrett Jack — working primarily on a high screen-roll initiative — burned the passive Laker scheme for 13 points in the third quarter.
Jackson adjusted in the fourth quarter, ordering a hard show by the Laker guarding the screener and that helped prevent Toronto from slicing the defending champs with dribble penetration.

Unfortunately, the Lakers played it soft while holding a three-point lead late in the game and Raptor Chris Bosh was able to nail a game-tying 3-pointer on a pick-and-pop.

It should be noted that the Lakers’ dilemma in stopping dribble penetration goes far beyond defending ball screens.

"Yeah, Fisher doesn’t stay in front of the really quick guys like he used to even when playing straight up," Coach A said, "and (reserve Jordan) Farmar looked really confused about how to play Nelson the other day. Nelson just blew past him twice. He (Farmar) didn’t seem to know if he was supposed to force sideline-baseline, like most teams do, or middle."

That certainly isn’t good. But shouldn’t the Lakers be really nasty on defense with two 7-foot shot blockers, with Bryant defending one perimeter player and Ron Artest the other? They are, in most games. Remember the season-long efficiency numbers.

"One issue they seem to have with Artest on one side and Kobe on the other is the level of help," Coach A said. "Artest has been great at taking the challenge of trying to shut down his guy. Without being in their strategy meetings, I don’t know if he’s been told not to help off of the guys he’s guarding, but lately he hasn’t been there to help against dribble penetration and dribble penetration, as we’ve mentioned, is an issue with the Laker point guards. So, while he’s almost hugging the guy he’s been assigned to stop, the opposing guards have really wide splits to drive through."

And Bryant?

"Kobe can be the direct opposite … he often neglects the guy he’s guarding and over-helps," Coach A said. "For example, the big 3-pointer that Matt Barnes hit late in the game on Sunday happened when Bryant came over to help against Nelson, I think it was, although Fisher already had received help from one of his bigs. Kobe completely left Barnes without really needing to — sort of playing free safety like he often does — and he was too late to prevent a clean look at a three."

Ironically, Bryant’s interest in taking on Barnes at the other end of the floor sort of defined a Laker offensive issue that was pretty obvious during the loss to Orlando.

"Everyone was ripping Barnes for getting chippy with Kobe because you supposedly can’t get into Kobe’s head," Coach B said of the Magic forward’s extended machismo posturing with Bryant. "But what it did was inspire Kobe to either go the block and demand the ball or attempt to take Barnes head up almost every time he touched the ball after they began woofing.

"The ball movement, which can be an issue with Kobe even when no one is challenging him, was non-existent after that. Kobe did go off in the fourth quarter, but that’s a tough way for a team to make a living. The next day, I read some quotes from Gasol about lack of movement and ball reversal and he’s right."

So, we’re back to the old concerns about Bryant taking over and his playmates standing around while the defense digs in, right?

"That pretty much can define how the Lakers will go," Coach B said. "If Kobe is moving the ball and taking shots within the flow of the offense, the Lakers are tough to handle. And when everyone is involved to a certain degree on offense, getting shots, scoring points … their effort on defense tends to increase. Anyone who’s ever coached knows this.

"But with all that being said, having a guy with that cut-throat attitude and the ability to back it up is a luxury. Hey, they won a championship last year, right? Even when you’re attempting to move the ball, reverse it from side to side or whatever, you still have only 24 seconds to work with and in a playoff situation, a lot of your offensive sets won’t work more than once or twice. Good teams become familiar with what you’re doing and shut it down. That’s when having one of the best shot creators in history is a real blessing."

With the early glut of home games coming home to roost in March, we’ll have to follow the Lakers and see if they’re able to smooth things out on the road before the playoffs begin. Don’t bet against it.

"Never forget that a great deal of NBA coaching has little to do with Xs and Ox and everything to do with psychology," Coach A said. "Phil Jackson is like Freud or somebody compared to a lot of the guys he’s coaching against."