Erick Blasco's Sunday Review, Nov. 9 Edition

Erick BlascoSenior Writer INovember 9, 2008

Sunday night was a big “test” night in the NBA, as two Western Conference unbeatens faced their first real challenges of the young season, and the Pistons with Allen Iverson squared off against the opponent they brought him into beat in the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers passed their first test with flying colors, by beating the Houston Rockets 111-82. Despite struggling early, Los Angles’ length and athleticism really took the game over in the second quarter, and put it away in the second half.

With Houston’s power forwards not long enough to guard him, Pau Gasol was able to reach over and around Houston’s defense for 20 points and 15 rebounds on 7-10 FG shooting.

The Lakers used their length to even more of an advantage on the defensive end. Gasol and Andrew Bynum each blocked three shots, while Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom swatted two.

The Lakers bench also dominated the action as the Lakers turned things around in the second quarter. Odom, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza, and Sasha Vujacic combined to shoot 15-26, 7-11 from three, with 17 boards, 14 assists, eight steals, and 42 points.

Everybody knew that Kobe Bryant was going to score this year (he had 23 points on 10-17 shooting by the way), but the way the Lakers have defended, especially the pick and roll, has been impressive. Plus, the Lakers did a great job of targeting Houston’s best players on defense. Aaron Brooks went off, and Carl Landry earned some scores by moving well without the ball, but Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest combined for only 23 points on an ugly 9-33 shooting night, with only six assists to go with eight turnovers.

For the Rockets, they’ve been treading water nicely this season, but they desperately need to get healthy. Yao Ming has looked gimpy all year, and Tracy McGrady has no explosion. First the Rockets need to get Shane Battier back, so that the Rockets can at least get a capable starter in the lineup, instead of throwing Aaron Brooks or Brent Barry into the opening five.

Speaking of Battier, it isn’t a coincidence that despite the acquisition of Ron Artest, Houston’s defense has struggled mightily this season. Battier is the premier wing defender in the league, and he’s an exceptionally bright team defender. Without him, the Rockets are missing an elite defender, and a reliable shooter on offense.

While the Lakers aced their first test, the Jazz flunked theirs by losing in Madison Square Garden to the Knicks 107-99. The Utah offense was still ultra precise, and took advantage of the smaller Knick lineup by posting up whenever they could, for 33 points during their 31 adventures into the low box.

If post-ups didn’t work, after setting a cross-screen in the post, a Jazz guard would receive a down screen, and pop back out on the weak-side elbow. With all the smaller Knick bodies tangled up in the chaos, Utah’s guards would frequently wind up with wide open jumpers.

Catch-and-shoots, pin-downs, baseline brush screens, virtually everything Utah dialed up resulted in an open player.

However, the Jazz are probably the worst passing team in the NBA. Any pass that required a degree of trickiness was an adventure and usually wound up in the Madison Square Garden stands. That’s why the Jazz committed 20 turnovers.

On defense, Mehmet Okur was unable to defend screens, and was too slow to out-jump Zach Randolph for rebounds, tallying two defensive rebounds to Randolph’s seven offensive ones.

Utah need Deron Williams back in the lineup to improve their passing, and a more athletic defender and rebounder than Mehmet Okur to defend the back line.

As for the Knicks, defense is still a problem, as are easy looks in the halfcourt, but the offense has much better ball movement and spacing. Progress is being made, albeit slowly.

Detroit’s offense was horrendous against the Celtics in an 88-76 defeat. Allen Iverson shot 4-11 for 10 points with four assists, but none of those assists came in the first half, while all four of his turnovers did. Iverson also missed three layups, and his inability to find Rip Hamilton in harmony, resulted in Hamilton shooting 0-8.

It’s hard to blame Iverson too much as it was only his second game playing with a stringent offensive system, but if Iverson can’t grasp the ins and outs of where to make the right pass and when, the Pistons might not make it back to the Conference Finals.

It would also be nice if Rasheed Wallace didn’t attempt nearly half as many three-pointers (going 2-8) as two-pointers (making 2-9).

Of the other teams faced with important tests, the Hawks were able to keep their perfect record alive by coming back to beat the Thunder 89-85. Despite the victory though, Atlanta’s offense really struggled, only shooting 37%, and only tallying 13 assists. They were still able to beat the going-nowhere Thunder, but a better opponent would have knocked Atlanta off. Their trip to Chicago on Tuesday will be a nice indicator of how resilient the Hawks can be.

The Los Angeles Clippers are finally healthy and it showed in beating the Mavericks 103-92. Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman combined to block five shots and pull down 23 rebounds, while Baron Davis supplied 22 points and ten assists worth of offense.

Still, now sitting at 2-4, it was a terrible loss for Dallas. They get the Lakers and Orlando in the next week, sandwiching a trip to Chicago.

The Toronto Raptors continued their trend of riding Chris Bosh to victory despite getting little out of Jermaine O’ Neal. Bosh poured in 30 and 15 in an 89-79 road win over the Charlotte Bobcats. O’ Neal only had five points in the game, all from the line. He missed his only five field goal attempts.

Chauncey Billups only shot 2-13 against the Grizzlies, but Denver won by ten, 100-90. Despite missing 11 of his 13 shots, Billups moved the ball, attacked the paint, and played exceptional defense. Meanwhile, Nene had 18 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. He’s the post player the Nuggets thought they’d be getting when they acquired him from the Knicks on draft night in 2002, and when they signed Kenyon Martin in 2004. Injuries have severely curtailed his development, but he’s healthy now, and making a strong early case for Most Improved Player.

The Warriors have competed hard this year, but playing so many youngsters is taking its toll. The team won’t defend, the scorers are inefficient, the ball movement is non-existent, and the inexperience is catching up. Losing Baron Davis, losing Monta Ellis, and now losing Corey Maggette have the left the Warriors with Stephen Jackson as their only accomplished perimeter player, and he’s not nearly as consistent, let alone talented, as the above three.