I was reminded of something on Friday night, when the Lakers dismantled the Nuggets to advance to the NBA FInals: When the Lakers run their offense well, they play a prettier brand of basketball than any team in the league.
Look: I’m not comfortable saying that. I’ve hated the Lakers since I can remember being alive. But if you missed that game against Denver Friday night, you missed an incredible display of team basketball–a type of game even the Lakers (or the Cavs, or the Magic or the Celtics when healthy) are only capable of pulling off a few times per season. They scored 119 points on about 88 possessions against a top-10 NBA defense on the road. That’s about 140 points per 100 possessions. They shot 57 percent–only the third team all season to hit that mark against Denver–made all 24 of their free throws, hit better than half of their three-pointers and turned the ball over just three times in the last 30 minutes of the game.
All insane numbers. But what’s more amazing to me is that if you re-watched that game, I’ll bet you wouldn’t find more than a half-dozen high degree of difficult shots among the 75 field goals the Lakers attempted against. Frankly, I’m surprised the Lakers “only” recorded 28 assists on their 43 field goals. Almost every look was, in NBA terms, easy. The cuts were precise, the passes were timely and on target, and the shooters were open. It was gorgeous basketball. And it is hard for me to truly hate a team that can take basketball to that level. Perhaps I should hate the Lakers because they have this ability but can only put it all together occasionally.
The beauty of the offense, for me, starts not with Kobe Bryant, but with Pau Gasol. Bash the Gasol-Gasol trade all you want, and it deserves criticism, but the bright spot for me has been the opportunity to watch Pau Gasol more often. I like basketball and all, but I have a job and a life, so I am not going to watch many Memphis-Houston games in January.
The easy criticism of the Laker offense before Game 6 Friday was: “Why in the world is Gasol taking just 10 shots per game?” I was as guilty as anyone of voicing that opinion. Perhaps we missed the point. He took “only” 12 shots in Game 6, but he was still the fulcrum for the Laker offense during stretches of the game. Maybe we just misunderstand Gasol’s game and his nature when we demand greater volumes of shots from him. He has averaged 13.5 FGAs/game for his career, and never more than 14.9.
He’s just an unselfish player. I’ve said this regularly to fans I talk to: There is nothing prettier in the NBA than watching Gasol and Lamar Odom pass the ball in the interior.
Is Gasol the best passing big man in the game? His assist rate–the percentage of teammates’ baskets a player is credited with assisting while on the floor–was 14.8 this season. That would have placed him second among centers, behind only Brad Miller, and 12th among forwards, according to Basketball Reference. With two exceptions (Boris Diaw and Mike Miller), the 11 forwards ahead of Gasol dominate the ball to an extent Gasol never will with Los Angeles.
If you are a fan of NBA halfcourt offense, there may not be a more enjoyable thing to watch than Gasol facing up at the elbow as the other four Lakers are moving around and the defense is deciding what in the hell they are supposed to be doing.
That said, of course I will be rooting for Orlando against Los Angeles. Just not with the fierce, nearly irrational, throw-the-remote-at-the-wall hatred I have reserved for the Lakers and the Yankees in the past. This is about history for me. I want to be able to call the Celtics the winningest franchise in basketball when I’m 75. I want to be able to lord that over my friends forever. I never want Phil Jackson to pass Red Auerbach. I never want anyone to pass Red Auerbach.
So, yes, Orlando: BEAT L.A! But just don’t ugly up the series too much. (Official prediction, after the jump).
As for the Finals, this should be a very interesting match-up. There are a million questions to ask, and you’re going to read them in previews all over the place. I’ll just add one:
How healthy are Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom?
Odom has a bad back, Ariza a sore hip and groin.
I focus on these guys because the Lakers, unlike the Celtics and basically everyone else in the league, have plausible defensive match-ups for Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. Those guys have been killing defenses because of their unique combination of size, quickness and shooting ability. Turkoglu, especially, is the stabilizing force behind Orlando’s offense.
Trevor Ariza is listed as 6’8”, Odom 6’10”. They seem like the perfect counters to Turkoglu and Lewis–if they’re healthy enough to pull it off.
Official prediction (gulp): Lakers in 7.