I'm still a little frazzled after reading today's referee assignments for the Rockets/Lakers Game 2. Yes, you read that right. Tonight's lead official is Joey freakin' Crawford. It's like David Stern isn't even trying to be subtle anymore.
Nonetheless, I did an exhange of questions with Brian over at the LA Times.com Lakers blog ... his answers are below. As for me, I just want to see if he had any good ideas for how the Lakers will try to slow down (or at least stay in front of) Aaron Brooks. For Pau Gasol has no answers...
(a) After Game 1, how do the Lakers go about slowing Aaron Brooks? Do they just hope he forgets he's faster than everyone?
Normally, I'm all for a "pray for amnesia" strategy, and there have been times this season where it seems that's how the Lakers defend opposing PGs. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that this has been a problem for the Lakers all year. Despite the total lack of space constraints on the Internet, I still doubt I have the room to list all the point guards that have given the Lakers trouble this year. Basically, if they play in the NBA at one point or another they've made the Lakers look bad, so Brooks is more the rule than the exception. And there were times on Monday where I thought the Lakers did okay on the little fella, forcing him into traffic or producing poor decisions. What has to stop, though, are those Sunday strolls into the paint (particularly along the baseline). For that, it's a matter of help defense.
The Lakers are hardly unique in lacking a guard quick enough to stick Brooks. Does that guy even exist? With that in mind, it becomes an issue of help. Rotations have to be quick and decisive, and importantly, unified. It's not just the first man who cuts off the penetration, but the next in line who has to fill the vacated space. As the saying goes, it takes a village. The Lakers just have to avoid the jailbreaks. If Brooks penetrates and there's a body waiting for him, I'll take my chances.
(b) Who is going to be the difference maker in this series for the Lakers (I am sick of the term "x-factor")? Is there anyone on the Laker bench who will surprise Rocket fans?
This is a little tricky. Obviously Lamar Odom is LA's best bench player, but he's hardly the typical sixth man option, and plays more minutes than Andrew Bynum. The guy that I think they've missed is Luke Walton, who said at practice today that he'll be good to go- or at least healthy enough to play- Wednesday night. (Fortunately, Walton is slow enough that if he's limited to 80% speed, nobody will know the difference.) It's not so much that Walton himself is a world beater. Not by a long shot. But he is a consummate role guy, and his presence has a very positive impact on the rest of the bench. Walton's passing skills free up Odom to work more down low or play with greater creativity from the top of the key. It relieves guys like Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic from primary ball distribution and handling duties. All of this stuff matters more against a team like Houston that demand teams play with efficiency on offense.
On the other end, Walton is a bigger, stronger body than Trevor Ariza. Not a better defender, but occasionally a better option, depending on the matchup (Walton, for example, has more success against larger players like Carmelo Anthony, and could defend Artest in ways Ariza can't. Not necessarily better ways, but different, and sometimes that's enough). His 15 minutes or so a night also mean less burn for guys like Josh Powell, who works his ass off on both ends but can be a drag on the motion of the offense and, at least if you believe the numbers at 82Games, doesn't have a particularly positive effect on what happens on the floor.
He isn't a game changer, but does make that second unit much better, which obviously matters.
(c) If I put the over/under on "number of free throws Kobe Bryant shoots in Game 2" at 13.5, do you take the over or the under? And why? (*note, this answer was submitted before it was announced that Joey Crawford would be the lead official tonight. Not that I am surprised.*)
I'm going under, if only because 13.5 is a huge number, almost twice as much as his season average and more than all but a handful of his games this year, including the Playoffs. I don't think Kobe needs to get there that much... but something over the one free throw he managed before late in the fourth when the Rockets were determined not to foul (it was the only way they could lose) would be nice. The Lakers have to put more pressure on the lane and force the Rockets, and particularly Yao, to make decisions. One way or the other. Jim Cleamons (Lakers asst. coach) said today that the Lakers did a very poor job showing patience in the offense, reversing the ball, switching sides of the floor and so on. Against a disciplined team like the Rockets, that makes it too easy.
Four regular season games showed the Lakers are fully capable of operating against Houston's defense. Fundamentally, I don't think anything has changed, They just did a lousy job of it on Monday.
(d) What can we expect to see from Derek Fisher for the rest of the series? He's been slumping since late in the regular season; do you consider Game 1 to be more of the same, or a fluke?
Defensively, what you see is, to some extent, what you get. There's no way Fisher can stick Brooks (Brown struggled too, and in more minutes Farmar would as well, basically as soon as the Rockets realized he could be the single easiest guard in the Association to screen off a play), but I suspect he'll start shooting a little better. Fish hit some nice smooth J's on Monday. Where he gets into trouble is when he decides to put the ball on the floor and drive the lane. Occasionally it works, but more often than not, bad things happen. If Fish sticks more to spot up shooting, I think he'll be fine.
This certainly isn't his first go round at the rodeo, and he's had plenty of success.
(e) At what point does Phil Jackson give in and stop trying to guard Yao with only one player?
Call me crazy, but I don't have a big problem with how the Lakers defend Yao. Six of his points came on free throws in the last two minutes of the game, two of his buckets came on 18 footers, and looking at the shot chart, he only had only a few chippies. Had he just thrashed them by the rack I might feel differently, but that's not really what happened. Most of his makes were in the neighborhood of 10 feet, or beyond. Meanwhile, the Lakers were able to generate a few turnovers, whether on Yao himself or by disrupting passing angles into him (Pau Gasol had some success in varying his coverages and poking a few balls away, for example). Through the season, the Lakers have had success with smart pressure on players in the post, bringing doubles where appropriate but not committing to full time extra attention.
The real key, I think, is limiting the time he spends on the line. If he makes about half his shots but doesn't live on the stripe, that's fine. I think they could do more damage, though, by consistently bringing help to the post and opening up lanes around the floor.
But maybe that's just me? And by the way, you guys love the "Eat the head!" commercial as much as I do, right?
Brian originally asked us a few questions about the series prior to game 1, and you can see our answers (and some Laker fan responses) here.