NBA Playoffs 2011: Los Angeles Lakers: The Switch Is On, the Electricity Is Low

Chris O'Brien@@Chris0BrienCorrespondent IMay 6, 2011

NBA Playoffs 2011: Los Angeles Lakers: The Switch Is On, the Electricity Is Low

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers sits on the bench alone before the start of the third quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Did anyone see this coming? 

    Here the Los Angeles Lakers are, down two games—not to the Portland Trailblazers—but to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks

    Worst of all, these games were played in the Staples Center.

    In Game 1, the Lakers gave up a double digit fourth quarter lead and watched the Mavericks steal a victory they didn't really deserve. 

    In Game 2, the Lakers were blown out of their own gym. 

    Most people are saying the Lakers are not flipping the switch, they are underestimating their opponent again and are playing uninspired basketball. While these may be trendy arguments, it's simply not the case. 

    The Lakers are down two games, because the Mavericks—as of right now—have much better pieces.

Superstar Battle: Dirk Nowitzki Is Playing Better Than Kobe Bryant

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts after making a three-pointer in the third quarter while taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Cente
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    We knew that Kobe Bryant was going to have to be superman at some point in these playoffs.

    The assumption was, that Kobe's legacy defining moment, would take place against the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, or maybe, the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

    But here we are, in round two of the playoffs, and Kobe is being challenged by someone who is equally as dangerous down the stretch of big games and is just as capable of getting off any shot he wants on the floor.

    The difference between this matchup, and say the one he might encounter with Dwyane Wade in the finals, is the similarity in age between the two stars. Both Nowitzki and Kobe are 32 years old—Nowitzki turning 33 in June, Kobe in August—and both are at the stages of their careers when they can not get by on athleticism alone.

    This duel has now become a challenge as to which veteran player can play longer at a superstar level.

    So far in the series, Nowitzki has proven to be the one who is better positioned to have success in the final years of his career.

    Has Kobe played poorly? Not at all. There have been stretches in this series when Kobe has dominated the game, creating those tiny inches of space, that only Kobe can create, then hitting those difficult shots, that only Kobe can make. He's averaged 29.5 ppg and has six total steals compared to four total turnovers.

    Kobe is playing well, but Nowitzki is playing better. Nowitzki is finishing the games stronger than Kobe and has set the rest of this series up to be either his triumphant moment, or Kobe's epic, come-from-behind victory that might just propel him forward to a chance of winning ring number six.

Kobe Bryant Is Not Built to Last as Long as Dirk Nowitzki

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the second quarter from the bench while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 4, 201
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    At 50-years-old, Dirk Nowitzki's height and release will still be able to find its way over a smaller, athletic defender.

    At 40-years-old, Nowitzki will still have the advantage on the perimeter over any power forward in the league.

    At 32-years-old, Nowitzki's combination of height, shooting ability, perimeter skills and versatility has a much easier time delivering baskets than Kobe's traditional, shooting guard game.

    This is not Kobe's fault. If you think this two game hole is because of Kobe's lack of effort, please, that's like saying Chris Paul didn't work hard enough in the first round series for the Hornets or Michael Jordan didn't really care about winning.

    There is only one thing in this entire world that Kobe wants more than ring number six.

    Ring number seven.

    The problem? Each year there are more and more athletic guards capable of—not taking Kobe out of games, not really even slowing him down—but wearing him down over the course of a seven game series. His size—6'6'' 205 lbs—is not going to give him the edge over other shooting guards and his ability to get to the rim will continue to go down each year over age 32.

    He is now in the position where he has to make jump shots to survive. 

    Those are a lot easier to make when you have Nowitzki's size.

Ron Artest: Meant for Eastern Conference

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02:  Shawn Marion #0 of the Dallas Mavericks and Ron Artest #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers go after a loose ball in the second half in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 2,
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    I guess I could start out with the easy approach bashing Ron Artest's one game suspension and saying this is the old, out of control Artest that we thought had finally disappeared, only to resurface in a last second swing at the tiny J.J. Barea.

    Good thing the announcement of his humanitarian award wasn't scheduled for a week later...

    However, I think getting himself ejected from Game 3 might be the best contribution Artest has made to the series thus far. 

    Artest is meant for the Eastern Conference. Out West, the only real threat for him to guard at the small forward position is Kevin Durant. In the East, he can be used to guard Paul Pierce, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Luol Deng.

    It made sense to have Artest on this Lakers team since those Eastern stars—primarily Pierce and James (even though the Kobe v. LeBron series has yet to happen)—would be the ones they would meet in the Finals.

    In those circumstances, his role is vastly important, because if he can lower the other team's best player's ppg by 10 points, then no matter how many bad shots he takes, turnovers he commits or new gray hairs he causes on Phil Jackson's head, he has given the Lakers an edge.

    The problem becomes when Artest is called on to guard Shawn Marion—a third or fourth offensive option for the Mavericks—where suddenly Artest's impact on defense no longer covers his negative effect on the offense. 

    In Game 3, because of the suspension, Phil Jackson can try his hand with several different lineups. He can use Matt Barnes as his starter, he could use a massive lineup of Lamar Odom on the floor with both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum or he could start Shannon Brown in a small ball approach.

    If the Lakers make it out of this round, Artest can help them against the Thunder or whoever they would play in the finals. However, in this series, he might as well be suspended for the next four or five games.

Pau Gasol: Relapse

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for a shot as Brendan Haywood #33 of the Dallas Mavericks goes for the block in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 4, 2
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    In a way, Pau Gasol is relapsing more in these playoffs than Ron Artest did when he punched J.J. Barea. 

    I thought we were over this. In 2008, the Boston Celtics bullied him around. Gasol took that series to heart, came back stronger the next year and helped the Lakers win them a title. In 2010, he was even stronger and finally stood face to face with Kevin Garnett, this time, winning the challenge. 

    So what is happening now? His statistics are not bad—he almost got a triple double in Game 1—but his game is lacking any sort of grit, any sort of real toughness.

    On defense, we knew he was going to struggle with the match-up on Dirk Nowitzki, but if Gasol was truly in the contention for best power forward in the league, he should come back down on the other end and work his low post moves to his advantage on Nowitzki.

    If these two are both All-Stars, it should not be this one-sided.

    For example, imagine if Zach Randolph was going against Nowitzki. Yes, Nowitzki would have a field day out on the perimeter against Randolph, but on the other end, Z-Bo would come down, establish his position and punish Nowitzki physically until a) Nowitzki was in foul trouble or b) Carlisle switched Chandler over to Randolph leaving Marc Gasol to be guarded by... Nowitzki? Shawn Marion? 

    Right now, all the mismatches are working in the Mavericks' favor. This doesn't have to be the case. If both Gasol and Bynum can be true inside presences, then suddenly the Mavericks have to figure out how they deal with the mismatch, instead of the other way around.

Phil Jackson May Be the Better Coach, but Carlisle Has More Tools to Use

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Head coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the first quarter while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 4, 2011 in Los
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    What's lost in the discussion on Phil Jackson is that he is not 11-0 in terms of getting to the NBA Finals and winning. He has, in fact, been to the finals twice—with Lakers teams—and come up short. 

    In both instances he faced very good coaches who had not won an NBA Title (Doc Rivers and Larry Brown). These coaches were not necessarily better than him, but they had the personnel to make adjustments that Jackson could not. 

    Let's start with the 2004 NBA Finals. Larry Brown said, "Ok, Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal can score as much as they want, but we're going to shutdown everyone else." Simple enough. All Jackson had to do was get production out of his other guys and they would win the series.

    However, Jackson could design the best plays in the world to get Gary Payton, Devean George or Stanislav Medvedenko open looks, but if they are not knocking down the shots, it really doesn't matter. 

    In 2008, the Boston Celtics had guys like Eddie House, James Posey, PJ Brown and even Leon Powe that came up in big ways that guys on the Lakers' bench could not.

    Then here we are in 2011, and Rick Carlisle is able to make adjustments—not because he is a superior coach—but because he has more weapons. He wants a defensive first approach; start Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion.

    The Lakers are packing it in to eliminate Nowitzki from getting to the basket; no sweat, insert Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic to stretch out the Lakers' defense. Chandler in foul trouble, sub in the massive Brendan Haywood, need a boost at point guard, put in the speedy J.J. Barea. 

    Jackson simply does not have that type of luxury with his bench. He has no easy answer to throw at Nowitzki, he has given Steve Blake plenty of opportunities to hit open shots and he has amazingly not pulled the reverse Sprewell-Carlesimo on Ron Artest. 

    To say Jackson is being out-coached is not entirely fair. Carlisle's pieces are just working more effectively.

Derek Fisher: Too Old

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  DeShawn Stevenson #92 of the Dallas Mavericks boxes out Derek Fisher #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers from the ball in the first quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Has he played poorly? No.

    Has he been a defensive liability? Not nearly as much as he was against New Orleans.

    Would he start on any other team left in the playoffs? Barely.

    Let's start out West. Russell Westbrook is faster, Jason Kidd is a better floor general and even Mike Conley is a better option running the offense than the 36 year old Fisher.

    In the East, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo would easily blow past Fisher and either Kirk Hinrich or Jeff Teague would be more effective for the Lakers.

    The only team remaining where he might start—besides over Steve Blake in Los Angeles—is in Miami, the only other team that was pursuing him during the summer.

    Fisher always plays hard. He still tries to get right in the face of his opponent, and at the end of the day, Kobe has never won a ring without him. His legacy will never be in question.

    However, championships are not won by simply having pure heart and determination. Elite talent and fresh legs are also essential ingredients, but are two weapons that are slowly disappearing from Fisher's arsenal.

Steve Blake: Absent

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02:  Jose Juan Barea #11 of the Dallas Mavericks goes up for a shot alongside Steve Blake #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers in the fourth quarter in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    In Game 2, when I watched Steve Blake shoot, I thought of a nervous golfer trying not to miss on the 18th green rather than confidently going for the birdie.

    Zero points. One assist. One steal. Two turnovers. 

    This is what Steve Blake has given the Lakers so far in this series in nearly 38 minutes of action off the bench.

    As you read in the last slide, the Lakers have one of the weakest starting point guards of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs. Their problem continues into their bench. 

    For Dallas, J.J. Barea has come in and given the Mavericks a huge lift. Likewise, for Oklahoma City with Eric Maynor, and even the Memphis Grizzlies are getting production out of the very unlikely source, Greivis Vasquez.

    Steve Blake in eight playoff games: 12 points

    Greivis Vasquez in Game 6 against San Antonio: 11 points

    Before the season started, I thought this was a great pickup for the Lakers. Blake would give them a point guard who could stay in front of the younger stars out west and could hit the occasional three-point shot.

    In this series, Blake is hardly doing anything on offense, and is being embarrassed by Barea on the defensive end.

Andrew Bynum Big, Effective, but Not a Skilled Low Post Player in Terms of Moves

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 02:  Andrew Bynum #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers makes a move on Brendan Haywood #33 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second half in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 2, 2011
    Harry How/Getty Images

    The most dominant part about Andrew Bynum's game is his size. If you do not have size to match him, Bynum will grab offensive rebounds and put in easy baskets. 

    What Bynum is not—or at least not yet—is someone that you can dump the ball into and say, "Ok, get me a basket." This is not the younger Shaquille O'Neal, or Dwight Howard, or even Nene Hilario in terms of skilled moves around the basket. He still has a long way to go in terms of learning effective post moves.

    Bynum had a great first round series against New Orleans, but the Hornets did not have Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood to throw at the Lakers' big man. Now that the Lakers are playing a team that can somewhat keep Bynum off the glass, Bynum has to effectively make post moves to score. 

    For the Lakers to still contend as Kobe gets older, Bynum will have to develop into a more complete center, who can serve as a pressure release to the entire offense.

Light Switch Analogy Is Not Accurate

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes after a loose ball in front of Shawn Marion #0 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Cen
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Everybody talks about this "light switch" situation going on with the Los Angeles Lakers and how they are being punished for thinking they can always turn it on and off.

    I don't think that is the case at all.

    In the first round series, there was no "light switch" they could flip on to magically make Derek Fisher 10 years younger and stay in front of Chris Paul

    In this series, there's no "light switch" they can flip on to make Pau Gasol a legitimate defender on Dirk Nowitzki or strengthen their bench to the level of the Mavericks. 

    This series is not a matter of turning on or off a switch, but instead, this may all be revealing the electricity of the Lakers is finally running out. 

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