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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lakers Start Grammy Trip With Loss to Suns (1.31.12)

What an odd week it has been for the Los Angeles Lakers.

A three game home stand saw Kobe Bryant reinvent himself as a triple-double threat, including an especially surprising ability to facilitate in spectacular fashion. Bryant dished out 39 assists in three games, his highest cumulative total in such a span throughout his 17 seasons of NBA play. Bryant also gobbled up 26 rebounds in this stretch to go along with his 49 total points on just 34 shot attempts. With Bryant controlling the tempo and setting up his teammates, the Lakers began winning ball games, going 3-0 at home.

Starting against the Utah Jazz, and continuing against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Hornets, the team began to give maximum effort on both sides of the ball. Dwight Howard may have played his best game as a Laker against the Jazz by playing stellar defense and throwing down four monster alley oops. Then Bryant turned in a classic performance against the Thunder by dishing out 14 assists and finishing the game in Mamba mode by hitting clutch buckets in the final minutes. Topping it off was a 20 point, 12 rebound performance on 8-11 shooting, including 4-5 from deep, from Earl Clark against the Hornets.

Throughout this bizarro world time frame, Bryant primarily led the charge by playing the point and initiating numerous screen rolls. With Bryant on the ball and picking apart the defense, Steve Nash played off the ball and turned into a catch and shoot threat. Nash is one of the greatest pick and roll artists in NBA history, but his threat as a career 42.8% three-point shooter allowed greater floor spacing for Bryant to drive and dump, kick, or score. With defenses unable to leave Nash, Bryant was given numerous options with a great amount of space. With Nash and Bryant playing opposite roles, the Lakers averaged 106 points per game, about four points higher than their season average.

Even more bizarre, the Lakers overcame two poison pills in the three games. The Lakers held the Jazz without a 30+ point quarter, but against the Thunder and the Hornets, the Lakers surprisingly overcame these failure prognosticating quarters. The Thunder dropped 30 on the Lakers in the second quarter, but the Lakers only allowed 23 in the first, 22 in the third, and an impressive 21 in the fourth en route to the 96-105 victory. That 30 point quarter should have spelled disaster, but the Lakers were able to dig in and pull out a victory against the best record in the NBA. Then, against the Hornets, the Lakers allowed multiple poison pills, as the Hornets put on a furious rally in the second half with a 31 point third quarter, and a 33 point fourth quarter. Despite nearly blowing an 18-point lead, the Lakers held on and won 106-111.

So, riding a three game winning streak, and essentially entering the make-or-break portion of the schedule with seven upcoming road games due to the Grammy's taking place at Staples Center, you would figure the Lakers would take care of the lowly 15-30 Phoenix Suns, right? 

Wrong.

Despite leading 78-65 with 10:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Lakers blundered away the game with turnovers, a four minute scoring drought, and missed shots. As this happened, Michael Beasley decided to go into beast mode and score 10 fourth quarter points, including two go-ahead buckets with the score tied in the final two minutes. 

Oh, and let's not forget that Dwight Howard injured his shoulder, again. Remember in the preseason when Howard, in an asinine attempt to distance himself from Shaquille O'Neal's moniker of "Superman," anointed himself "Iron Man"? What a joke. He ripped off O'Neal, and then he failed to know enough about the Lakers' history that he ripped off A.C. Green, a Lakers' great that played in 1,192 consecutive games.

Anyways, Howard is no "Iron Man." With 6:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers leading 78-73, Howard grabbed an offensive rebound, and as he went up with the ball, Shannon Brown (a memorable, former Laker) swatted down with two hands and stripped the ball from Howard. Howard instantly felt the pain in his injured shoulder, and he had to sit out the rest of the game due to his right labrum injury. I'm not questioning Howard's toughness, because a torn labrum is definitely a problem for a basketball player, I'm just pointing out that Howard is not an "Iron Man." Oh, and it would help if Howard kept the ball up high in the chest area like they teach big men at the high school level. Yeah, that simple fundamental aspect would help. In fact, the past two times Howard has aggravated the injury, he had the ball low, and he was stripped by a guard. 

Moving on, Howard's absence isn't to blame for the loss. Even with Howard on the floor for most of this stretch, from the 9:59 mark to the 6:08 mark, the Lakers didn't score a single point. Not a field goal. Not a free throw. Nothing. This stretch featured two turnovers and nine missed shots. The worst culprit of this stretch would have to be the five bricks Metta World Peace laid, with most of the attempts wide open.

Following World Peace's struggles, Bryant finally got the Lakers on the board with a jumper at the 6:07 mark. From there, Bryant would struggle to carry the team. Abandoning the pick and roll success of the first three quarters, and the three prior games, the Lakers began going to Bryant in isolation sets. Bryant shot just 1-4 from isolation sets in the fourth quarter, and just 2-7 for six points and two turnovers in the final 6:56 — the other Lakers shot 0-3 in this final stretch, with Gasol scoring two points off of free throws. To top it off, Bryant missed a left handed layup that would have tied the game at 88-88 with 23 seconds remaining in the game. Instead, the ball had a bit too much oomph, and it rolled off the front of the rim and allowed the Suns to hit some free throws and win 86-92. 

I can't explain why the Lakers abandoned the pick and roll late in the game. It may have been due to numerous wide open bricks from the weak side, namely World Peace and his 3-10 shooting from deep. Earl Clark was no better with his 1-4 from deep. Even Nash shot 1-4 from deep. And Bryant himself was 0-3 from deep. It also could have been a function of the five turnovers in the quarter, with D'Antoni favoring just getting the ball to Bryant in isolations and not having to worry about moving the ball around.

Overall, Bryant scored six of the Lakers final eight points, but his inability to find teammates for easy buckets truly hurt the team. Bryant finished the game with nine assists — pushing his mark to a career-high 48 assists in a four game stretch — yet none came in the fourth quarter. Whatever the case, the Lakers scored just 13 fourth quarter points. Yes, 13.

Meanwhile, the Suns poured in 29 fourth quarter points as Beasley carried them with clutch buckets all up in World Peace's grill, including an impressive off hand layup that gave the Suns an 86-88 lead with 43 seconds remaining in regulation. Despite playing solid defense for much of the game, the Lakers allowed the Suns to finish the game on a 19-6 run in the final 5:09. Howard's absence was obviously a factor, but the Suns did hit four jumpers in that stretch for nine points, while six points came from layups, and four points came from the line.

It's a loss like this that may be the deciding factor as to whether the Lakers make the playoffs. 20 turnovers against a middling defense is unacceptable. Shooting 8-27 (29.6%) from downtown just won't get it done. Having just one Laker top 50% shooting isn't efficient enough. Six turnovers from Bryant, and four from Gasol, are far too many. With six more road games on this Grammy trip against very winnable teams, the Lakers need to go 6-0 just to get to .500 at 26-26. Facing the Timberwolves, Pistons, Nets, Celtics, Bobcats, and Heat, a 4-2 closeout is more likely, but I figured the Lakers would destroy the Suns, so who knows.

Sitting a full four games behind the Rockets for the eighth seed, and five games behind the Jazz for the seventh seed, the 20-26 Lakers can't waste any more opportunities, and their 5-16 road record doesn't boast any confidence. In fact, the Lakers finished the month of January with an 0-7 road record, marking the first time in the history of the franchise that the team finished with an 0-7 or worse road record in a full calendar month.

With just 36 games remaining this season, each mounting loss spells a postseason drought. Needing at least 25 more wins to have a chance at the postseason with a 45-37 record by season's end, the Lakers must go 25-11 in the final 36 games. Such a mark isn't impossible, but with the Lakers blowing games this season against the Mavericks, Kings, Magic, Cavaliers, Sixers, Raptors, and Suns, all teams below .500, I can't say this Lakers team has instilled any sort of consistent play that warrants my belief in their ability to turn this season around. I can hope, but I need to see results. 

You know what may be the most damning fact of the season? 22 players this season have either set a season-high or a career-high in a specific category against the Lakers in just 36 games, and seven opposing teams have set a high mark as well, whether it is points in a quarter, most field goals at the rim, or most points in transition. 12 of those 22 player highs came in the points department, with Beasley's performance as the newest addition with his season-high of 27 points on an efficient 12-20 shooting, including 1-1 from deep and 2-3 from the line. Add in his six rebounds, one assist, and five steals, and it's clear that the Lakers allow players to blow up on them far too often.

To come full circle with the odd factor, despite not allowing the Suns to produce a poison pill quarter, the Lakers lost. After winning two poison pill games in a row against the Thunder and Hornets, the Lakers are now 7-16 in poison pill games, and due to this loss against the Suns, 8-5 in non-poison pill games throughout the D'Antoni era. What a weird week. 

Three weeks ago, this team had no shot at the postseason. Then, this past week, the Lakers instilled some hope. Now, I just don't know how to feel. I have a suspicion that my uncertainty is likely no different from what's taking place inside the Lakers' locker room, especially with Howard's availability up in the air.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Bryant and Howard Unite to Lead Lakers Past Jazz (1.26.13)

I guess it's true, a happy Dwight Howard is a dominant Dwight Howard. Fresh off of his statement, "Negativity is just not good," Howard turned in his finest performance in a Lakers uniform against the Utah Jazz on Friday night, a performance that may serve as a stepping stone in turning this disastrous season around.

It wasn't just the 17 points, 13 rebounds, one assist, two steals, two blocks, and just one turnover, throw all of that out. Those are just numbers. It was the effort. It was the athleticism. It was the willingness to accept a role. It wasn't demanding post-ups on the box. It wasn't saying, "Look at the stat sheet." It was altering shots on the defensive end time and again. It was rotating from the weak side to the strong side to poke away entry passes, or to trap a man, or to help a beat teammate. It was fronting a beast like Al Jefferson, and then working to get inside position once the shot went up in order to secure the rebound. It was holding Jefferson to 12 points on 5-14 shooting and just seven rebounds. It was setting hard picks and rolling to the basket with authority. It was skying over the defense to throw down alley oop slams. It was accepting a defensive first mentality, and understanding that the scoring will come if he just does the little things and plays hard.

Case in point, Howard scored 17 points on 8-12 shooting, while shooting 1-3 from the line. Six of Howard's eight made shots were spoon-fed at the rim, with four monster alley oop dunks, and two layups due to drop offs. His two other baskets featured a putback following an offensive rebound, and a traditional post up shot from seven feet. This should be a typical Howard game. Instead of traditional post ups that lead to strips in the lane, and intentional fouls that yield missed free throws, Howard can have a tremendous impact simply by utilizing his athleticism and rolling hard to the rim. Doing so will either lead to slam dunks, catch and kicks, or collapsing defensive shells that will open up open three-point opportunities for his teammates. Abandoning post ups altogether isn't necessary, but utilizing Howard's greatest advantage, athleticism, will surely lead to success.

Speaking of three-pointers, the Lakers shot 9-21 (42.9%) from deep. With Kobe Bryant adopting the role of point guard and initiating pick and rolls all game long, the Jazz defense was forced to contend with Bryant getting to his sweet spots at the elbow, Howard rolling to the rim, and shooters on the opposite wing and corner. Other than Howard, who made four buckets on assists from Bryant, the biggest benefactor from Bryant initiating the offense was Metta World Peace. World Peace sank 5-11 three-pointers on the night, with most of them coming wide open in the corner following a Bryant pick and roll. In fact, four of World Peace's makes from deep were assisted by Bryant. Bryant also assisted Chris Duhon for a three, giving Bryant a direct hand in five of the nine makes from downtown.

Taking the load off of Steve Nash, and presenting more of a scoring threat with the ball in his hands, Bryant turned in a spectacular game with 14 points on 7-10 shooting (no attempts from deep) to go along with his nine rebounds, 14 assists, three steals, one block, and just three turnovers. With Bryant assuming a playmaker identity and opening the game with four assists in the opening five minutes, including two alley oop lobs to Howard for monster slams, the Jazz had no answer. If they didn't hedge, Bryant would turn the corner as a scoring threat with options in the lane. If they did hedge, Bryant would find Howard on the roll or Pau Gasol on the slip. If they trapped, Bryant would swing the ball to Nash or World Peace for a three at the wing or corner.

At one point in the third quarter, Bryant dished out an assist on four consecutive possessions — a three for Duhon, two threes for World Peace, and a layup for Jodie Meeks. Essentially, Bryant was unstoppable running the pick and roll, and it may become a staple in this offense for select stretches throughout the rest of the season. With teams fearing to leave Nash, a career 42.8% shooter from deep, Bryant will have plenty of room to operate while assessing numerous options. Dropping 14 dimes, Bryant finished one short of tying his career high — 15 back in '02 when he dropped a triple-double all over Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.

With Bryant turning in his most unselfish game of the season, it's clear that he wants to make sure that the Lakers as a whole get rolling. Amid team meetings and the blame game, Bryant understands that he can't carry the Lakers all by himself. In turn, five Lakers scored in the range of 14-17 points against the Jazz. Howard and World Peace led the way with 17 apiece, Nash and Gasol turned in 15, and Bryant scored 14. Fourth on the team with just 10 shots, Bryant took what the defense gave him and shared the basketball. An offensive balance of this nature is surely difficult to defend, and it fosters a sense of unity both offensively and defensively.

Contributing to the success on the offensive end of the floor seemed to spurn the defensive efforts of certain Lakers (cough, cough, Howard). Case in point, the Jazz, winners of eight of their last ten games heading into the game, shot just 34-81 (42%) from the field, and just 3-14 (21.4%) from deep en route to just 84 points (14 points below their season average). With Howard's energy, athleticism, and protection in the paint, the guards were able to hound the ball handler with the understanding that Howard had their back. Pressure, rotations, and overall effort were considerably greater against the Jazz.

Furthermore, the Jazz didn't burn the Lakers with a "poison pill" quarter. With outputs of 19, 18, 26, and 21 in each quarter, the Jazz didn't pour in 30 or more points in a single quarter like so many teams have done against the Lakers this season. With this win, the Lakers snapped an abysmal four game losing streak, and the D'Antoni era Lakers are now 5-16 in poison pill games, and 8-4 in non-poison pill games.

With 39 games remaining in the season, the Lakers sit in 11th place in the Western Conference with an 18-25 record, five games behind the Jazz, and four behind the Houston Rockets for the seventh and eight seed. One can only hope that stringing together a streak of non-poison pill games along with strong team play will surely get the Lakers back on track for the playoffs. A .667 win percentage is a hell of a lot better than .238 (8-4 vs 5-16). Likely needing to reach at least 45 wins for a possible playoff berth, a 27-12 record to close the season will require a .692 win percentage. If the Lakers keep up the defensive intensity, and continue to play balanced basketball, maybe reaching 45 wins won't be as impossible as it looked just a couple days ago.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lakers Lose to Heat, Barkley Comments on Bryant (1.18.13)

Any professional basketball team that enters a season with four future Hall of Famers in its starting five cannot achieve a "moral victory."

There is no such thing.

Nobody would have guessed that a starting five of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard would currently be sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference with a 17-22 record, but such is the demise of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, it just comes down to wins and losses. That's it. A change in expectations does not change outcomes.

With just 43 games remaining in the season, and 10 of the next 13 games on the road, moral victories are not going to lead the Lakers into the playoffs this season.

Want to know what will get the Lakers into the playoffs? A 31-12 record to close the season will almost guarantee a seventh or eighth seed. Unfortunately, that calls for a .721 win percentage for a team that is currently playing .436 ball. Even under coach D'Antoni's new season timeline, the Lakers are playing just .667 ball.

How about a more manageable record, let's say 28-15? That record would leave the eighth seed as a possibility for the 45-37 Lakers, but it would also be highly volatile with teams such as the Jazz, Rockets, Blazers, Timberwolves, and Mavericks in the mix. Even in that hypothetical situation, the Lakers would have to play .651 ball for the remainder of the season.

Hey, if the Lakers keep up the pace they are on since the beginning of D'Anotoni's "new" season, they might just have a shot!

...

Either way, begin counting down the losses. With their loss against the Miami Heat, the Lakers have anywhere from 12-15 games to lose throughout the remainder of the season. With the postseason hanging on by a thread, the Lakers will have to pile up victories in bunches, because with each loss, the amount of bleeding will move from a minor abrasion on the finger, to a full on exsanguination.

So, yes, the Lakers played with effort and heart against the defending champion Heat, but that doesn't make the 99-90 loss at home any easier to digest, nor does it point to a team turning the tide.

Charles Barkley summed it up best in his post-game comments on TNT.

Barkley stated,
"Kobe Bryant is an older guy, he's one of the ten greatest basketball players ever, but to ask him to go out every night and guard the best perimeter player, and score 30 points a night, he's going to have more nights like tonight. Because, at his age, he can't do that anymore. They will question how long he can sustain it, and everybody is going to say 'Well it's one game,' but they are putting him in a situation where he is going to have more downs than ups. Everybody gets old [...] Kobe Bryant's an older player. To try and play great defense against the best guard every night, and tonight it was compounded, if he's playing against Milwaukee or Cleveland, it ain't the same as playing against Dwyane Wade or Russell Westbrook." 
Following some statements from Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal, Barkley continued,
"Why did LeBron James not guard Kobe Bryant until the last five minutes of the game? Steve Nash is not a good defender. You can't wear Kobe Bryant down night after night. He locked down Kyrie Irving, okay, that's pretty impressive. The next night he had to guard Brandon Jennings. But those young guys, they are wearing him down. Now he had to come down here tonight, and he didn't have anything left in the tank. He won't say that, but you can't do that."
To put these quotes in context, for the past three games (including the Heat game), in an effort to spur the Lakers defensively, coach D'Antoni has asked Bryant to guard the opposing team's best offensive playmaker. It worked well against Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as against Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks. In each game, Bryant shut down the opposing guard as the Lakers went on to win each game decisively at home (93-113 against the Cavaliers, and 88-104 against the Bucks). Irving finished with just 15 points and seven assists as Bryant hounded him on the ball, sometimes even full-court. Jennings received the same treatment, and he finished with 12 points and one assist. Following the game, Jennings stated, "It was probably the best defense somebody's ever played on me since I've been in the league [...] Just constantly putting pressure on me, touching me, hitting me at all times in the game. He wouldn't let me just catch the ball easy, and I wasn't able to get the ball a lot, so it was pretty difficult."

With Bryant taking on a bigger role defensively, Barkley has his doubts about the sustainability of such a task, especially considering Bryant's age and fading athleticism. Despite Barkley's doubt, the Lakers have not allowed a "poison pill" quarter in the past three games (includes the Heat game) — a quarter in which the opponent scores 30+ points. After allowing five straight games with a poison pill, the defensive role of Bryant changed, and the results speak for themselves. With the loss to the Heat, the Lakers are 5-14 in poison pill games, and 7-3 in non poison pill games throughout the D'Antoni era. Bryant can still get the job done, but Barkley believes that doing so for every minute while he is on the court is counterproductive, especially against elite teams.

Case in point, Bryant shot 3-16 (1-6 from deep) from the field for just nine points throughout the first three quarters against the Heat. In the fourth quarter, Bryant began to heat up, and he finished the game 8-25 (4-9 from deep) for 22 points. Although Bryant began to finally hit shots when he should have been the most fatigued, that doesn't dispel the notion that he didn't have tired legs due to chasing Wade all over the court, rather it shows that Bryant can do some incredible things — Bryant hit four consecutive shots to score 10 points in a three minute stretch that gave the Lakers an 81-83 lead at the 6:33 mark, and later he hit a three pointer to tie the game at 90-90 at the 2:32 mark.

However, prior to his burst in the fourth, Bryant couldn't buy a bucket for his opening 31 minutes of play, and he also couldn't shut down Wade at any point. As Bryant missed good attempts that he normally drains, Wade went on to have a hell of a game on his 31st birthday, finishing with 27 points on 11-20 shooting, along with four rebounds, five assists, two steals, one block, and just one turnover. On the other hand, Bryant struggled to stuff the stat sheet, finishing with his 22 points, and just four rebounds, one assist, one steal, and six turnovers — about four too many, and attributable to fatigue and the stifling defense of the Heat.

So does this mean that Bryant should go back to roaming off of the weaker guards on opposing teams? No, not at all. It just means that the potential success of this team is severely handicapped unless a greater group effort is put forth. Bryant can't be a one man show against the upper echelon teams. Furthermore, if the Lakers actually make the playoffs, and want to do any sort of damage, having a worn down Bryant won't do the team any good.

So what's to be done? Well, there are two solid alternatives, and each was pointed out by Barkley's co-analysts in the post-game show.

Smith stated, "Yes, I still would put him on Dwyane Wade or LeBron James in key moments, but I wouldn't have that as a diet." Smith is essentially saying, Bryant can still cover those guys, but he should do so for key stretches, not for every minute of the game.

Following this, O'Neal stated,"But, you have two seven footers out there. If one dominates, or two play great, then that diet is a good diet. It will work."

I believe O'Neal's statement is more on point. Essentially, O'Neal is stating, if Howard can dominate the paint offensively and defensively, it will ease the load on Bryant on both ends of the floor. Even further, if Howard and Gasol can dominate the paint, it will be smooth sailing for Bryant to give maximum effort defensively, because that maximum effort will be a lot less if he has intimidating big men taking care of business at the rim. The amount of effort Bryant has to play with when those guys aren't dominant is much greater than the amount he could play with if they are. Obviously, working less while fielding more efficient results is far more desirable, and it would lead to greater sustainability. With Howard finally looking healthy, the season will truly come down to if he can overpower opponents nightly and open things up offensively while clogging the lane defensively. If so, the Lakers should win a lot of ball games, and Bryant should be fresh enough to be able to deliver some damage when it matters most.

So how did the big men do?

Well, not so well. The Heat outscored the Lakers 68-28 on points in the paint. Just read that again. The Heat don't have a single player on their roster taller than 6'9".

Howard finished 4-7, 5-13 from the line, for 13 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, and one block in 38 minutes of play. A decent game — although the free throws were disappointing — but nowhere near dominant. Although the Lakers looked to feed Howard down low, the Heat did a great job denying passing lanes, fronting Howard, and constantly rotating weak side help to prevent lobs over the top — Howard didn't help the cause as he seems to regularly fail at pinning his man with his backside and anchoring post position to prevent rotating fronts.

Gasol was actually pretty solid in his first game back from the concussion he sustained against the Denver Nuggets on January 6th. In the second quarter, coach D'Antoni ran a few sets for Gasol on the box, and he delivered with an arsenal of post moves. In the fourth quarter, Gasol showed off his spectacular court vision, with three assists in a five minute stretch that led to an 81-81 tie at the 7:05 mark. Gasol even slammed home a dunk with authority following a drive and dish from World Peace in the fourth quarter — on a play that he has been laying up this year (encouraging).

Overall, Gasol shot 4-7 from the field, 0-1 from deep, and 4-4 at the free throw line, scoring 12 points, while also tallying four rebounds, four assists, one steal, and three turnovers in 25 minutes of play. Gasol converted three of his four makes in the paint, shooting 3-4 from within four feet, and just 1-3 from beyond — his next closest shot attempt came from 15 feet. When in the low post, Gasol showed that he still has the most extensive low post game in the NBA, one that, when used correctly, nearly led an upset against Team USA in the 2012 Olympics.

Despite the lack of domination in the paint, and a poor shooting game from Bryant, the Lakers were able to hang with the Heat all game. After a Bryant three-pointer in the fourth quarter, the game was tied 90-90 with 2:32 remaining in regulation. However, from there, everything went downhill.

First, Howard attempted a free throw that epitomizes the Lakers' season thus far. Trailing 92-90 with just 1:51 remaining in regulation, Howard stepped up to the line and air balled his first attempt. Yes, air balled. Deflated, Howard clanked his next free throw back iron. Following that, the Heat came down, and Ray Allen sank a difficult fading jumper in the lane over Howard's outstretched hand, giving the Heat a 94-90 lead with 1:30 remaining.

Then, directly following Allen's shot, Nash tossed up a doozy of his own. Hounded by Wade in the post, Nash shook him off as he turned baseline with a pivot and scoop shot. However, Nash's shot went off the side of the backboard. Following Nash's blunder, James sealed the deal with a one-on-one stop and pop jumper over World Peace.

Following some desperate attempts, James closed the game with an unnecessary dunk that drew an and-one because Gasol rightly gave him a push in the back — there was no shot clock, yet James decided it was time to go dunk the ball. James sank the free throw to end the game, 99-90.

Anyone want a moral victory? I sure don't. This game was up for grabs and the Lakers let it slip away. A few more of these, and the season won't last longer than April 17th, aka, the Lakers final game of the regular season.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Denver Broncos Upset by the Baltimore Ravens (1.13.12)

Well it looks like the Denver Broncos won't be reaching the Super Bowl after all.

My Super Bowl forecast following Peyton Manning's stellar Week 1 performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers came to a disappointing end as the Broncos were upset at home in stunning fashion by the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Losing 38-35 in a double overtime thriller, the Broncos have no one to blame but themselves, especially considering the amount of mental lapses they committed.

Manning certainly instilled confidence in my early season projection. Starting in Week 6, the Broncos ripped off 11 consecutive victories to close out the regular season. By winning week after week for nearly three solid months, the Broncos earned the number one seed in the AFC, a bye week, and home-field advantage. Obviously, this stretch had me feeling ecstatic about my team's play.

Looking back, maybe it shouldn't have. Here's a list of the teams the Broncos beat in that stretch: the Chargers twice, the Saints, the Bengals, the Panthers, the Chiefs twice, the Buccaneers, the Raiders, the Ravens, and the Browns. Winning 11 in a row is nice, but only two of those teams made the playoffs. I'm not sure what to make of this; 11 consecutive victories is nothing to sneeze at, but that competition certainly wasn't anything near playoff-caliber.

With that streak, my expectations may have turned quixotic, but with Manning at the helm, I truly expected success. Facing the slumping Baltimore Ravens, losers of four out of their last five regular season games, including a 34-17 thrashing at home from the Broncos in Week 15 — and coming off of an unconvincing victory over rookie Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round, 9-24 — I certainly expected to witness a stellar Manning versus Brady matchup in the AFC Championship game. While Brady held up his end of the deal, Broncos' fans were treated to a pins and needles game that never should have been all that close. The Broncos struggled to gain complete control, and instead, they bled out chunk plays that ensured their demise. With the score never more than seven points away for either side, this game was truly up for grabs.

Overall, the game was a classic, but as a Broncos fan, it sure was disappointing — it will go down in Denver lore right next to the '96 upset handed down by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.

Let me run down some positive and negative aspects of the game from my point of view as a Broncos fan.

Positives

  • Trindon Holliday
  • Peyton Manning's control of the offense
  • Brandon Stokley and Ronnie Hillman

Negatives

  • Peyton Manning's turnovers
  • Broncos' defense
  • Coach John Fox's conservative play calling in key situations

Trindon Holliday

Let's start off with the man who got the the game going. Trindon Holliday was absolutely spectacular as the Broncos' return man. Holliday opened the game with a 90-yard punt return touchdown following the Ravens' first series of the game. Then he followed that up with a 104-yard kick return touchdown to open up the second half. Each return set an NFL postseason record, and Holliday became the first player in NFL postseason history to record a kickoff and punt return touchdown in the same game.

On the opening punt, Holliday took advantage of the Ravens' punt coverage team failing to properly fill assigned lanes during the return. As the Ravens stacked his left side, with eight of eleven Ravens pursuing from the left, Holliday was able to hit the middle hard, break one arm tackle from behind him that over pursued, and sprint along the right sideline on the way to paydirt as he outran the punter. This put the Broncos on the board, giving them a 0-7 lead with 12:14 remaining in the first quarter.

Then, to commence the second half, Holliday did it again, this time, on the opening kickoff. Holliday caught the ball deep in the right corner of the end zone. Then, he accelerated from the right corner to the middle of the field, planted his foot at the 10-yard line, and hit the hole hard to break through the teeth of the coverage. Eventually, Holliday made it to the left side of the field after juking the kicker and shaking off a tackle from a trailing Raven at the 30-yard line. With everyone behind him, Holliday outran the rest of the Ravens for the remaining 70 yards, and he put the Broncos ahead 21-28 at the 14:47 mark in the third quarter.

Holliday's contributions were instrumental in the Broncos' chances for winning, however, like much of the Broncos, he wasn't without fault either. In the first overtime period, Holiday fielded a punt at the Broncos' 14-yard line, and he proceeded to lose seven yards as he tried to circle across the field. Holliday's gaffe set the offense up on their own seven-yard line, and Manning would toss the game sealing interception on this drive. Despite Holliday's gaffe, his positives far outweighed this one mistake, and his returns were game changers that nearly led the Broncos to victory.

Manning's Offensive Execution

The next subject to examine is Manning's control of the offense. Although his three turnovers marred the outcome, Manning led three stellar drives that produced touchdowns. I'll give a quick rundown of the drives to highlight just how brilliant Manning was when given the opportunity to run the show.

Facing a 14-7 deficit at the 9:49 mark in the first quarter, Manning came back strong from a pick-six and engineered an 11-play, 74-yard drive that was capped off with a beautiful 15-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley. On the touchdown play, Manning and Stokley took clear advantage of their time together as teammates on the Colts. After watching the replay numerous times, I still can't tell if the play was improvised or not, but either way, it was astounding. On third-and-eight, Stokley ran a five-yard hitch on the outside, completely turning to face Manning, before circling out of the hitch and turning up field to the far right side of the end zone. Manning lobbed the ball over the top, and Stokley hauled it in, tapping both feet and getting a knee down before falling out of bounds.

Out of the 11 plays on the drive, nine came in the shotgun, eight were pass plays, and 69 of the 74 yards on the drive came through the air. Manning controlled the tempo and cut up the defense with solid throws and no-huddles. The window for the touchdown to Stokley was no larger than a foot or so, and Manning fit the ball in perfectly.

On a side note, with the Stokley touchdown, the first quarter finished tied up at 14-14. While that's nothing out of the ordinary, the interesting part is the fact that it entered the record books as the first playoff game in NFL history to feature an offensive, defensive, and special-teams touchdown in the opening quarter.

Later on, following some failed drives from each squad, Manning turned in another impressive drive in the second quarter. Manning engineered an eight-play, 86-yard drive that was capped off with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Knowshon Moreno. The drive featured the Broncos longest play of the game, a 32-yard reception by Eric Decker that moved the ball to the Ravens' 14-yard line. From there, set up in a five-wide formation, Knowshon Moreno ran a cunning stop and go route, and he was able to come down with the ball in the right corner of the end zone. Similar to the Stokley touchdown, Moreno pulled off a double move to beat his man — this double move was definitely a part of the route. Utilizing a formation advantage that had Moreno (a running back) lined up outside on the far right with a linebacker covering him, Manning lobbed the ball over the top and Moreno came down with it.

Out of the eight plays on the drive, three came in the shotgun, five were pass plays, and 72 of the 86 yards on the drive came through the air. Once again, Manning put together a great drive, and he put the Broncos ahead 14-21 at the 7:26 mark in the second quarter.

That drive would conclude the Broncos' offensive output in the first half, however, that was no fault of Manning's. After the defense forced a three-and-out following the Moreno touchdown, Manning led a 14-play, 47-yard drive that gave the kicker, Matt Prater, an opportunity for a 52-yard field goal. Unfortunately, two things went wrong on the series.

First, Moreno injured his knee on the drive, taking away a legitimate pass catching option out of the backfield, as well as a trusted pass protector in the shotgun formation. Second, Prater's field goal attempt was one of the worst kicks I have ever seen. With the ball at the Ravens' 34-yard line, and facing a fourth-and-eight, coach John Fox called for a field goal, a 52-yard attempt. Unfortunately, Prater, a legitimate long distance kicker, especially in Denver, totally blew the kick. Prater's kicking foot made contact with the ground about half a yard before reaching the ball, thus taking away his leg momentum, and causing his kick to come up woefully short as the ball sputtered toward the goal posts. At first viewing, it looked as if the kick had been blocked since it barely rose up into the air, but upon a slow motion replay, it was evident that Prater kicked the ground on his down swing. Lacking the proper depth on the kick, the ball never rose above the height of the cross bar, and it shanked left.

Following three-and-outs from each squad to open the fourth quarter, Manning engineered his final productive drive. Manning led a 10-play, 77-yard drive that was capped off with a Demaryius Thomas 17-yard touchdown reception. Following an audible at the line from Manning, Thomas ran a bubble screen, broke tackles from Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, and scampered into the end zone, giving the Broncos a 28-35 lead with 7:11 remaining in regulation.

Out of the 10 plays on the drive, six came in the shotgun, seven were passes, and 58 of the 68 yards came through the air — 20 yards were tacked on due to penalties on the Ravens, making the drive an 88-yarder. For the third time, Manning engineered a long, impressive drive that culminated with a touchdown. This would mark the end of Manning's prowess as conservative play-calling would take the game out of his hands until it was too late.

Stokley and Hillman

My final positive discussion will focus on the efforts of Brandon Stokley and Ronnie Hillman.

First, Stokley.

As I mentioned earlier, Stokley came up with a spectacular touchdown in the first quarter that had as much to do with his effort as it did with Manning's. Utilizing great hands, and perfect footwork, Stokley managed to turn a tight space reception into a sure touchdown. An average receiver surely would have come down out of bounds.

Then, in the first overtime period, Stokley put his spectacular hands to work as he completely laid out in order to catch an underthrown pass from Manning on a critical third-and-five. Running a comeback route on the far right, Stokley hustled back to the ball and went completely parallel to the field as Manning's pass came up yards short. Stokley was able to get his hands under the ball, secure it, and give the Broncos a first down with the nine-yard reception. Since the play was so close, the Ravens wisely challenged it, but they ended up losing the challenge. Replays showed that Stokley kept the ball less than an inch off of the field as he secured it with his hands. The Broncos would later stall on the drive, but at the time, his spectacular catch allowed the drive to continue in an effort to score — any sort of score would have won the game. Although Stokley only finished with three receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown, his impact was critical.

Then there was the effort of Hillman.

Thrust into play in the second half due to Moreno's injury, Hillman stepped up with 22 carries for 83 yards and three receptions for 20 yards. The rookie may not have torn it up, but he also didn't serve as a reason for the loss. Hillman was especially exceptional with his ball protection. Understanding his opponent, Hillman kept both hands on the ball any time he touched it in order to make sure that the Ravens' defenders would not succeed with their attempts to knock it out for a fumble. After losing nearly every rep to Moreno following Willis McGahee's midseason injury, credit Hillman for his ability to keep up with all of the offensive audibles and protection changes in a hurry up Manning-run offense. Hillman's longest rush and reception may have been just 11 yards each, but his cerebral impact cannot be overlooked.


Now, it's time for the negatives — there sure were some doozies.

Manning's Turnovers

First off, Manning's turnovers. Manning had three turnovers on the day, two interceptions, and a fumble, and each turnover led to points on the board for the Ravens, 17 points to be exact, with the final three coming in the second overtime to close out the game.

Tied up 7-7 at the 9:58 mark in the first quarter, Manning tossed a pick-six interception on his second throw of the game. Following an incomplete pass that was behind Thomas on a slant route, Manning targeted Decker on a sqaure-in route. The ball was spot on, hitting Decker's left hand and popping up in the air for the easy interception. Corey Graham caught the tip and took it 29 yards to the house. The interception marked the first turnover of the game, and it gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead at the 9:49 mark in the first quarter.

However, the interception truly wasn't Manning's fault. Upon slow motion replay, it is evident that the referees let some early contact slide on this play. The covering cornerback, Chykie Brown, absolutely made contact with Decker's left arm prior to the ball arriving. As Decker cut in and reached up for the ball, Brown swiped down Decker's left arm, thus moving Decker's hands out of position to securely catch the ball, and allowing the ball to bounce off of his left hand and pop up in the air. Brown definitely made contact before the ball got there, but you have to credit the Ravens for their tight defense and for making a play on the tipped ball.

Manning's next turnover came in the third quarter at the 2:51 mark. On the eighth play of a promising drive, Manning took the snap from the shotgun on third-and-eleven from the Broncos' 46-yard line. As the pocket closed in on him, Manning made an ill-advised decision to pump fake rather than just take the sack or release the ball. With four seconds of pass protection, Manning had more than enough time to make a decision. As Manning came down with his throwing arm due to the pump fake, his throwing arm was hit, and the ball squirted out. Somewhere, Jon Gruden is kicking and screaming, because Manning's fumble awfully resembled the infamous "Tuck Rule." Rather than getting lucky like Brady did once upon a time against Gruden's Raiders, the call was ruled a fumble. With solid field position, the Ravens ran the ball five straight plays. On the second run, Ray Rice exploded up the middle for 32-yards, setting up the Ravens on the Broncos' four-yard line. Three runs later, Rice punched in a one-yard touchdown, making the score 28-28 with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.

Manning's final turnover was the dagger. In the first overtime period, needing just a field goal to win the game, Manning made an indefensible rookie mistake. Facing a second-and-six from the Broncos' 38-yard line, Manning took the snap from the shotgun, rolled right as he was flushed out of the pocket, and threw across his body back into the middle of the field toward Stokley. The pass had no zip, and it was easily intercepted by Graham. Manning could have simply thrown the ball away and lived for another third down opportunity, but instead, he made what may go down as the worst throw of his career. With solid field position at the Broncos' 45-yard line, the Ravens gained 16 yards before sending out Justin Tucker for the game winning 47-yard field goal. Manning certainly had his positive moments, but nothing can save him from the scrutiny of this unnecessary interception.

The Defense...

The next negative aspect to examine is the Broncos defense, or lack thereof. Playmakers such as the feared pass rushing duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were rendered useless as they combined for just one sack in the game — although it was a huge sack in the overtime period. Hall of Fame bound cornerback Champ Bailey was actually picked on as Torrey Smith burned him deep multiple times for multiple touchdowns. And third downs were a problem as the Ravens converted 7-17 third down attempts, with six of those conversions coming in the second half and overtime periods.

First, I'll examine the rush defense.

The Ravens ran the ball 39 times for 155 yards and a touchdown. Ray Rice was especially productive, with 30 carries for 131 yards and a rushing touchdown. With Rice averaging 4.4 yards per carry, he allowed the Ravens to continually face manageable opportunities on second and third down. Rice's longest run of the game was a 32-yard scamper up the middle that led to his one-yard touchdown. Rice's most important run of the game was an 11-yard run up the middle on a second-and-ten from the Broncos' 45-yard line at the end of the first overtime period that moved the Ravens into the necessary field position for a game winning field goal. Overall, the Ravens running game was a much needed balance for their boom or bust passing offense.

Speaking of passing, Joe Flacco tore up the Broncos' pass defense as he competed 18-31 attempts for 331 yards and three touchdowns. 161 of those yards came on touchdown passes, as Flacco threw touchdowns of 59-yards, 32-yards, and a miraculous 70-yarder to force overtime. The Broncos made the mistake of single covering Smith, a burner out wide, with Bailey, and Flacco made them pay with two first half touchdowns. Then, Flacco flung a miracle throw that should have been picked off by any sort of competent safety play, but was instead caught by Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown with just 31 seconds remaining in the game.

Let me breakdown the touchdown throws.

Trailing 0-7 following Holliday's punt return, Flacco capitalized on a third down pass interference penalty that kept the drive alive and moved the Ravens up to their 33-yard line. Two plays later, Flacco threw the ball deep down the middle and Smith hauled it in for the 59-yard touchdown. Facing single coverage without any safety help over the top, Smith burned Bailey deep with pure speed and went into the end zone untouched to tie the game up. Bailey is a great cornerback, but at this stage of his career, it may have been unwise to have him on an island with a speed demon like Smith.

Then, following Prater's missed field goal in the second quarter, the Ravens began their drive with solid field position, and Flacco capitalized with a beautiful 32-yard touchdown pass to Smith. Starting on their own 42-yard line, Flacco completed three straight passes, an 11-yarder, a 15-yarder, and then the 32-yard touchdown. What looked like a sure interception on the far right sideline soon turned into a marvelous reception by Smith. As Bailey ran with Smith stride for stride, Smith gave Bailey a subtle push on the shoulder, and as Bailey stumbled out of position, Smith elevated, adjusted his body in the air, and fully extended in order to catch the ball and tie the game up at 21-21 with just 36 seconds remaining in the first half. The reception was Randy Moss-esque, and it will surely be replayed for years on end in Smith's highlight package. Once again, Bailey was burned, and once again, he didn't have any safety help.

Flacco's final touchdown will be featured in postseason highlight packages for years on end. Trailing by a touchdown, 28-35, with 77 yards to go, just 75 seconds remaining in regulation, and no timeouts, Flacco came up huge while the Broncos pass defense suffered a backbreaking mistake. On third-and-three from the Ravens' thirty-yard line, Flacco avoided the three man rush, stepped up in the pocket, and launched a bomb down the right sideline. A bomb, mind you, that should have been intercepted. As the ball hung up in the air for just over four seconds, Jones was able to get behind the Cover-2 defense, haul in the reception, and score a sensational 70-yard touchdown.

What's truly amazing about the sequence is the play made on the ball by Broncos' safety Rahim Moore. Simply put, Moore looked foolish as he backpedaled, stumbled, and came up a whole two yards short of making a play on the ball. Moore was in position to intercept the ball, but instead he turned into a third grade Pop Warner safety that failed to comprehend basic defensive mechanics. Backpedaling for nearly five yards as the ball neared Jones, Moore flailed his arms, completely whiffed on the ball, and stumbled onto his backside as Jones took the reception the remaining 20-yards untouched.

This defensive lapse will go down as one of the worst mistakes in NFL history. Any sort of understanding of context and situation would have netted at least a bat down. Hell, a competent high school safety could have picked off that pass. After the original cornerback passed Jones off to the safety deep down the sidelines, the ball should have easily been batted down. Unfortunately, Moore turned into a backpedaling fool, and instead of sprinting to find the man and ball, he came up woefully short and allowed the absolute worst scenario to occur. This touchdown tied the game up, forced overtime, and served as the true reason the Broncos lost the game.

John Fox's Conservative Play Calling

The final negative aspect to examine is coach Fox's conservative play calling in key situations. At the end of the first half, and late in the second half, the Broncos stuck with a conservative scheme offensively that limited Manning's ability to take over the game. Coach Fox seemed more interested in not losing, rather than going out and winning. In the end, this plan backfired, as Manning, tired of watching opportunities slip away, forced the action in overtime and threw an unforgivable interception across his body and over the middle. In an attempt to make a play, Manning threw the game away. If coach Fox had given him a playmaking opportunity earlier in the game, this mistake may have never happened.

Example #1: Coach Fox decides to take a knee.
With 36 seconds remaining in the first half, and possessing three timeouts, coach Fox foreshadowed his conservative play calling as the Broncos started from their own 20-yard line. Rather than giving Manning a chance to possibly engineer one last field goal attempt before the half, Fox ordered for a kneel down, and the Broncos entered the half all tied up at 21-21. I can understand the reasoning in this instance, especially since Prater had just missed a long field goal attempt, but it may have been worth a shot with a burner like Demaryius Thomas out wide. Thomas is especially adept at bubble screens, and likely facing a prevent defense, it may have been worth a shot to give him a chance to make a play. This decision didn't bother me, but it did serve as a prognostication for future decisions.

Example #2: Late in the game, coach Fox plays not to lose rather than to win.
After Thomas' 17-yard touchdown on a bubble screen gave the Broncos a 28-35 lead with 7:11 remaining in regulation, the Broncos defense came up huge on the ensuing Ravens' series as they shut down an eight-play drive with the game on the line. Facing a fourth-and-five at the Broncos' 31-yard line with 3:16 left in regulation, Ravens coach John Harbaugh decided to go for the first down. Too close to punt, and uncomfortable with a long field goal attempt that would still leave the Ravens down four points even if successful, Harbaugh gambled. His gamble misfired. Lined up in a four-wide set, Flacco rifled a pass over the middle to tight end Dennis Pitta. Running a slant route, Pitta was jammed at the line by safety Mike Adams, and as the ball arrived just past the first down line, Adams stretched out with a full dive in order to knock the ball away.

Game over, right?

Not exactly.

Possessing two timeouts, and the two minute warning to stop the clock, the Ravens still had a slim chance to regain the ball with 3:12 left in regulation. As the Ravens assumed, coach Fox went completely conservative, calling five straight runs, with each out of a base formation with Manning under center — completely abandoning the shotgun formation that the team had primarily run for the entire game. I understand the reasoning for running the ball, but running straight into the heart of the Ravens defense is not wise. I believe that a four-wide shotgun formation with one back, or a three-wide with a tight end and a back, would have opened up some lanes for draw plays while keeping the defense honest in case Manning were to decide to audible to a pass play.

After the first two runs combined to net a first down, the game was one first down away from being over — this sequence may have served as fool's gold. Following a two-yard run by Hillman on first down, and the third straight run of the drive out of a base formation, the Ravens called their final timeout with 2:19 left in regulation.

Knowing that one more first down would win the game no matter what happened, this is where I would have liked to have seen coach Fox give Manning an opportunity to win the game. I understand the desire to run down the clock, but the risk/reward of going for a first down on second-and-eight, and then again on third down, should have outweighed the importance of clock management, especially considering that the Ravens still had the two minute warning to stop the clock.

In this situation, the worst possibility would have allowed the Ravens to regain possession with the two minute warning still on their side, and, in a worst case scenario, tie up the game with a touchdown. On the other hand, a best case scenario would feature a first down, and then taking a knee to run out the clock. Unfortunately, coach Fox called another run, and Hillman picked up one yard, making the situation third-and-seven following the two minute warning. Following that, Hillman crashed into the line for no gain on third down, forcing a punt, and giving the Ravens the ball with 1:15 left in regulation.

Coach's Fox strategy successfully ate away the clock, but it also ensured that the Ravens would get one last chance. If I had Manning as my quarterback, I think I would tell him to go win the game with a first down. Anyone think Brady would have been handing the ball off in that situation?

Example #3: Conservative mindset to end regulation.
Following this sequence, coach Fox stuck with the conservative game plan after Flacco's 70-yard touchdown pass. With two timeouts, and 31 seconds remaining in regulation, Manning took a knee on the 20-yard line to close out regulation. The Broncos' fans in attendance at Sports Authority Field at Mile High rained down the boos after this conservative decision. While I understand the reasoning, I have seen Prater hit a 59-yarder before. Following Prater's earlier mistake, I understand, but I would have liked to have seen Manning get a chance to lead a game-winning drive. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, shouldn't he have been given a chance to put his team into position for the win?

I know it was a different circumstance, since the Atlanta Falcons were losing, but we all saw what Matt Ryan did in order to set up Matt Bryant up for the game-winning field goal against the Seattle Seahawks. With 31 seconds left in regulation, and possessing just two timeouts, Ryan completed a 22-yard pass, called timeout, and then completed a 19-yard pass before calling timeout and sending Bryant out for opportunity to kick the game-winner. Bryant nailed the 49-yard kick for the win. While the situation was different, the possibility of success could have been the same.

Example #4: Coach Fox continues to take the game out of Manning's hands.
Once in overtime, coach Fox continued with the not to lose game plan. After the Broncos came up with a key stop to shut down the Ravens' opening drive, the offense needed just a field goal to win the game. Starting on their own 16-yard line, coach Fox continued calling conservative runs. After Manning converted a third-and-five to Stokley from the shotgun, Fox called three straight runs out of base formations. While the first run from Hillman netted a second-and-two opportunity, coach Fox avoided the endless options of such a desirable down and distance, and instead went with another Hillman run. This left the Broncos with a third-and-one situation. Coach Fox inserted a bigger back, Jacob Hester, and he dialed up a run up the middle. Hester didn't gain a single yard, and the Broncos were forced to punt the ball away from their 39-yard line. The Ravens wouldn't score on the next possession, but this conservative play calling took away an opportunity for the Broncos to put the game away.

On the Broncos very next possession, coach Fox would face the same exact situation, with a first down run netting a second-and-one, and a run for no gain netting a third-and-one. This time, the run on third down was converted, but it speaks volumes that coach Fox wouldn't try to catch the Ravens' defense creeping up to the line on advantageous offensive situations such as second-and-one and third-and-one. Two plays later, Manning would throw the final nail in the coffin interception.

Maybe coach Fox saw something in his quarterback, or maybe Manning saw something in his head coach.

Conclusion

Overall, Manning and the Broncos turned in a solid year. Although the team had Super Bowl or bust aspirations, it sure is a welcome feeling considering how long it has been since the Broncos were considered worthy of championship hype. Obviously, the season didn't turn out as planned, but there's hope for next year, and with a few lucky breaks here and there, along with maturation from the coaches and players, the Broncos may come out on top next year. With Manning at the helm, talented receivers out wide, and a blossoming star in Von Miller leading the defense, this team is going places. Chalk this season up to a success. It may have ended earlier than expected, but it certainly doesn't feel like the end.

And on the other side of the equation, if anyone deserved to knock out the Broncos, it would be Ray Lewis in his swan song postseason. The all-time great recorded 17 tackles against the Broncos, hopefully he can take down Brady and the Patriots as well.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Lakers Playoff Chances Are Slim to None (1.9.13)

Prepare for it Los Angeles, the Lakers have a very realistic chance of missing the playoffs this season.

Sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference with a 15-19 record, and currently on a four game losing streak, the second longest losing streak currently in the NBA — behind nine from the Magic and tied with four from the Sixers, two teams that have defeated the Lakers this season  — the Lakers will need to win at least 30 out of their next 48 games in order to have a shot at the eight seed by season's end. Factor in that the Lakers will likely drop to 15-21 by the end of the week as they head to San Antonio to face the Spurs, and then face the Thunder in Staples Center, and that margin for error shrinks to 30 out of 46.

30 wins in 46 games, a 30-16 record, a .652 winning percentage for a team that has been playing .441 ball. Without accounting for losses to the Spurs and Thunder, the Lakers still need a .625 winning percentage, which is still much higher than anything the Lakers have shown thus far. Add in the fact that 30 wins is the requisite floor in the projection rather than the ceiling, and it becomes even more difficult. 33 wins would probably guarantee a seventh or eighth seed, 30 wins would have the Lakers praying on the final day of the season for a Timberwolves or Jazz loss. So how about a 33-13 record, a .717 winning percentage? Sounds promising, right?

Yeah...

Not. At. All.

There are a multitude of reasons as to why the Lakers are in this predicament, but none can excuse the likely deplorable outcome of the 2012-13 Lakers serving as the biggest bust in NBA history. Prior to the season, no one would have bet that the Lakers would have to scrape their way into the playoffs. Now, that scraping is the reality, and the odds for failing to make the playoffs are worth putting money on. For a team that entered the season with title talk, such a reality is quite shocking. Coaching changes, injuries, and a general lack of execution have this team four games below .500.

In order for the Lakers to turn things around, defense needs to be the priority. Offensively, the Lakers score the fifth most points in the NBA with an average of 102.88 points per game. Defensively, the Lakers rank 26th in points allowed per game, giving up 100.82 points per game. Despite having the 10th best point differential (+2.06) in the NBA, the Lakers have not been able to win consistently. The positive point differential points to the fact that when the Lakers do win, they tend to win big with double digit victories, and when they lose, they tend to keep things close — often storming back from a large deficit only to come up just short.

In the D'Antoni era (24 games so far, with a 10-14 record), the Lakers have lost nine games by eight points or less. Out of the 14 losses in the D'Antoni era, nine of them were manageable games that came down to important possessions that turned the game. If half of those nine losses went the other way, this squad would be in much better shape. In the 10 victories during the D'Antoni era, the Lakers have won by an average of 22.4 points.

One common denominator in the losses is a stat that I have been tracking throughout the D'Antoni era, something I refer to as a "poison pill." This poison pill refers to a quarter in which the Lakers give up 30 or more points to an opponent in a single quarter. In the D'Antoni era, the Lakers are 5-12 in games in which they give up a poison pill quarter. In games in which they don't give up a poison pill, the Lakers are 5-2. Problem solved, right? Don't let teams blow up in a single quarter, and increase your winning percentage from .294 to .714. Simple enough.

.714, doesn't that sound familiar? I previously stated that if the Lakers were to rip off a .717 winning percentage, they would finish 48-34 and likely secure a seventh or eighth seed. .714 is close enough to .717, and it speaks volumes about the importance of playing solid defense for an entire 48 minutes. Unfortunately, the Lakers have only accomplished the feat of holding teams off of huge scoring binges in seven out of 24 games (29%) during the D'Antonia era. What's far more likely is for the Lakers to allow teams to tear them apart, build up momentum, and then withstand any sort of desperate comeback. The latter scenario has happened in 17 out of 24 games during the D'Antoni era, a troubling poison pill rate of 71% of the time.

So what's more likely, the Lakers figure things out defensively, turn on a switch that the Shaq and Kobe Lakers trademarked, or continue to get destroyed for at least 12 straight minutes in every game they play? Unfortunately for Lakers fans, it's the second scenario, and it's a resounding truth.

To further hammer home the point, the Lakers allowed 125 points to the Houston Rockets this past game. Yes, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Jordan Hill were all injured, thus placing Robert Sacre in the starting lineup and making him the only big man available on the roster, but that's still 125 points. The Lakers scored 112 in the loss, but they couldn't overcome allowing 28 points in the first quarter, 31 in the second, 38 in the third, and 28 in the fourth. The Lakers entered the half ahead, and led 78-77 with 3:48 remaining in the third quarter. In that final 3:48 in the third quarter, the Lakers allowed the Rockets to go on a 10-20 run, giving them an 88-97 lead entering the fourth quarter, and a sizable advantage that kept the Lakers at arm's reach for the entire fourth quarter — the score never got closer than that nine point gap that started the fourth quarter.

With Howard out indefinitely with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and still laboring from offseason back surgery, Gasol suffering from a concussion in a prior game against the Nuggets that has him out indefinitely as well, and Hill suffering from a torn labrum in his left hip that has him out indefinitely, the Lakers will likely bleed points in the paint for the foreseeable future.

Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may set some historical records this season, but that seems to be about all this squad will have to look forward to. It's a shame. Bryant is playing at a level no other 34-year-old NBA player has ever come close to. Nash just surpassed 10,000 assists and is fifth on the all-time list. Each play hard and inspired, yet neither can carry the team to much needed victories.

As a lifelong Lakers fan, this is the most disappointing season I've ever witnessed. I've followed this team since I was seven years old, coinciding with the Shaq-Kobe era in the 1996-97 season, and nothing remotely compares to the disappointment I feel while watching this squad this season.

Bryant's airballs against Utah were disappointing, but everyone knows that Eddie Jones froze up in his moment to be the man and instead relinquished the duties to an 18-year-old.

The loss to the Pistons in the 2003-04 Finals may come the closest to this level of disappointment, but I truly believe that if Karl Malone hadn't injured his knee, the Lakers would have won that championship.

Hell, even the 34-48 season in 2004-05 was better than this. At least watching Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Caron Butler was entertaining, especially since I saw some true potential with that trio all under the age of 26.

The worst pain definitely belongs to the 2005-06 Lakers that squandered a 3-1 series lead against Nash and the Suns in the first round. But what can you do when Tim Thomas is hitting series altering shots? I hated that series, but I never expected the Lakers to push it to seven games.

The loss to the Celtics in the 2007-08 Finals definitely hurt, but the Kobe-Pau squad was just coming together with less than half a season together. Obviously, they righted the ship in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

Now the Lakers are old, tired, and perpetually disappointing, without any sort of hope for the future, and with the looming possibility that Howard will walk in free agency this summer. I don't want to see Bryant's career end with meaningless basketball games. This squad is built to win now, unfortunately, it isn't living up to the billing. Whereas I once preached patience, stating, "By January, this team will be rolling," that leeway has come and gone, and it's given way to a depressing reality.

I'm pretty sure there has never been a team in NBA history that had four future Hall of Famers in its starting five, yet failed to miss the playoffs. Sadly, the 2012-13 Lakers are intent on setting a precedent.

The fan in me hopes for a stunning turnaround, a gelling process where the team heals up and plays inspired ball while holding opponents in check, but the realist in me understands that the Lakers haven't given me a single reason to believe in their ability to turn this season around.