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Lakers 101, Hornets 97: A Vaguely Close Game At Staples

At least we didn't get blown out again?

As disappointing as it was to lose to the Lakers once more, we saw quite a few positives tonight. Two things particularly stood out to me- the offense we ran and the zone defense we employed for long stretches. 

Offensive Play Calling

The immediate thing that pops out from the box score is Chris Paul's field goal attempts versus everyone else's. CP took 6 shots while Okafor and Ariza took 10, Belinelli took 11, and West took 18. In fact, Paul finished seventh on the team in attempts since Quincy Pondexter and Jarrett Jack each got 7 shots off the bench. The critiques about shot distribution will be alive and well for at least another day.

But the shots themselves? They were great. Monty Williams drew up tons of off-ball motion when the starters were in the game. As much as I want to see Paul shoot the ball more, if others are going to shoot this often, this is how I want to see them do it. Okafor made multiple deep catches in the post, Belinelli frequently came off screens set in the paint, and Ariza did a nice job penetrating and finding open men. Only David West caught the ball in poor spots on the floor, and his final shooting line (8 for 18) reflected it.

The Bench

Monty Williams attempted to use a similar offensive system with the bench; in this case, of course, it fell flat on its face. As much as I loved the offensive discipline of the starters, the bench needs the exact opposite. Disciplined plays won't get the second unit easy buckets because, for the most part, they're simply not good enough. Jarrett Jack can't burst off screens like Chris Paul can, Quincy Pondexter doesn't float to space like Belinelli does, and nobody on the bench sets particularly great screens. While Jack did a decent job in the first half, the bench needs a player who can drive the ball and get shots on broken plays (you fill in the blanks).

Monty Williams promised to switch things up with the second unit. Tonight, he delivered on that, cutting down Jason Smith's minutes drastically and playing Aaron Gray. I'm not sure Smith entirely deserved a demotion (and again, this could have been a case of MW playing the matchups, not an actual "demotion), but it was nice to see Gray on the floor. Gray wasn't terribly effective, but it's clear that his size brings a new dimension to the team.

Quincy Pondexter was left on the floor in crunch time but struggled to score efficiently. He fit in well defensively, but he really, really struggled on the defensive glass.

The Hornet Zone

Defensively, New Orleans employed a ton of zone. In many ways, it was a double edged sword. Zone defense allowed us to compensate for our lack of height and for the fact that L.A. featured three seven footers. Guarding Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol straight up with Okafor, West, and Smith probably wouldn't have worked well. But it's tough to say that the zone worked well either. 

The Hornets gave up a very high 33.3% offensive rebound rate, largely because of the zone. In other words, Los Angeles rebounded one in three of its own misses. In zone defense schemes, the box out responsibilities are drastically skewed. Instead of being responsible for his offensive assignment, a defender is frequently expected to simply react to missed shots or box out an area of the floor. Since the Hornets employed a fluid zone (ie, West and Okafor were just as likely to be found on the perimeter as in the paint), the latter was not an option. So while the fluidity of the zone helped us account for Los Angeles' rapid perimeter ball movement, it also got us killed on the glass.

Kobe Bryant and the Zone

The second flaw of the zone was our defense on Kobe Bryant. Instead of guarding Bryant straight up, Trevor Ariza attempted to shade him towards an area of the floor, most often the middle. Bryant gladly took the invitation, squirted around help defenders, and wreaked havoc.

There was actually a really interesting twist to Kobe's play against the zone. During two of the first four Hornet zone possessions, Kobe dribbled through three defenders and got to the paint. It was immediately obvious that Bryant could do as he pleased against the zone, but after that opening stretch, he didn't attack the zone nearly as often. It seemed inexplicable. Bryant routinely took long shots or set up passes from the perimeter. The Laker offense didn't exactly slow down, but it was intriguing to see Bryant go away from what seemed so promising initially. 

As soon as it happened, I was reminded of a really old quote from Manny Ramirez when he was with the Cleveland Indians. Manny (paraphrasing) said something along the lines of: "Sometimes, in my first at bat, a pitcher will give me a pitch I know I can hit for a home run. I'll purposely let it go for a strike because I know that when I'm back up in the 8th inning, with the game on the line, the pitcher will think it's a safe pitch. And I'll homer on it."

And I always thought that was just the most ridiculous notion ever. How would he know that the pitcher would throw it again? What if the game wasn't close? Wouldn't a homer in the 1st inning be nearly as valuable (outside of WPA) as one in the 8th? It was just Manny being Manny, I thought.

Tonight, Kobe Bryant refused to attack the zone in the first quarter as much as he could have. Three quarters later, with the game on the line, he exploited it and simply toyed with the defense. Maybe it's a totally ridiculous sentiment. But I can't shake the feeling that Kobe went "aha! I can use this" at some point, tucked the knowledge that he could beat a free-flowing zone in his back pocket, and came back to it at the end.