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Roboscouting the Lakers-Wolves Series

At this time of year, every guy in the bar who doesn’t have his eye on a cute waitress claims to be an expert on how to beat the Los Angeles Lakers. And even that distracted guy puts his fingers in his mouth to whistle like Laker coach Phil Jackson every so often.

But there really are ways to beat the Lakers. Trust me and trust my sidekick, Roboscout. You see, Roboscout is a computer program that has mastered finding strengths and weaknesses in a team. He doesn’t make all sorts of whirs and whistles like most robots (or like that guy at the bar), in fact, he doesn’t even have eyes to check out the friendly barmaid. All Roboscout does is watch basketball games, over and over again. I ask him to do it so that I can check out the barmaid and still sound somewhat intelligent with all the fans. I’m going to figure out that whistle one of these days, too.

Roboscout looks for things we all look for when we watch a game – tendencies of a team that help them win or that make them lose. But he gets to watch every game really really fast, looking through the stats, sorting out whether to keep a team off the glass, push the fast break, or play them tight or loose.

The cute waitress is walking by so I ask, “Yeah, can I have a Red Hook…” Then, in an amazingly pathetic attempt at being interesting, I come up with the masterful line, “Uh, nice belly button ring.” I smiled and looked as damn good as I possibly could, but lines like that are why I’m a poorly paid writer in a bar surrounded by guys wearing white socks with their Tevas, which I recently learned was a fashion faux pas when I actually got to talk to a beautiful woman for longer than 30 seconds. Back to basketball…

With the evil Laker empire looking in so many ways like Darth Vader – can’t you just see Karl Malone telling Gary Payton last off-season “Join me and together we can rule the NBA as father and son!” – I asked Roboscout to do his best R2D2 impersonation and find an approach for taking down the Dark Side. (Another characteristic of guys at the bar is that we all know Star Wars references and laugh hysterically when they’re actually appropriate.) Entering this postseason, there were many doubters of the ancient Lakers and, just as Darth Vader would say, the Lakers seemed to say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” as they dismantled Houston and San Antonio.

Yes, the Lakers look to be channeling the dark side of the force pretty well these days. But Roboscout sees some weaknesses. For example, the Lakers definitely like to get their points off easy buckets. They leak out after missed shots and they will take some chances to force turnovers to get easy points off those. By just emphasizing safe ball-handling, a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves can definitely save themselves a few points on the offensive side and avoid giving up a point or so to these guys in transition. Alas, they didn’t do that in Game #1 of the Western Conference Finals, committing a number of bad turnovers, each of which costing them a point or a point and a half. The Wolves can’t do that anymore if they want to win, but they, like the Spurs before them, are quite prone to losing games with turnovers, especially close games. If they just take care of the ball in close games, they pick up several points.

Continuing on the Laker defensive side, they won’t be able to pack their defense in against the Timberwolves as they did against the Spurs. The Lakers saw what Roboscout saw in the Spurs – a team that hurts itself offensively and defensively by shooting the long ball – and took full advantage. The Timberwolves have a much better perimeter game. But the Wolves have to mix it up, going with a variety of different shooters inside and outside. The Lakers’ defense doesn’t have to worry about the Wolves going to the glass much unless Minnesota coach Flip Saunders is reading this and ignoring the waitress and Darth Vader comments. Flip? You listening? The Laker crew can be hurt on their defensive glass…

…That advice is more true if one of Los Angeles’ four stars – Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, or Gary Payton (just in case you were thinking Derek Fisher was one of the four) – can be forced off the floor for a long while, an admittedly difficult task. The Laker defense with all four on the court is both more efficient and a lot less prone to changes in strategy. Get one of those guys off the court and there are things you can do. You, Coach Saunders, can definitely go to the offensive glass more against them, worth roughly 3 or 4 points. You, Coach Saunders, will shoot better, too, worth a couple points. And, because refs don’t like calling fouls on the four stars, you Coach Saunders actually can pick up a point at the foul line – if you can get those superstars off the floor. Historically, the Lakers have not liked games called tight by the refs for this very reason – losing personnel on the floor hurts them. That tendency isn’t as strong this year as in the past few years, probably because they have so many good players. But it’s probably still a very good idea for an opposing coach like you, Coach Saunders, to ask the refs to call the game tight.

The waitress now brings me my beer. My buddy looks at me quizzically and asks quite loudly, “But didn’t you order a fuzzy navel?” The cute waitress giggles and my buddies at the table bust out laughing as I hide my face in my arms, as much to think of a good comeback as to emphasize my own personal shame. As the cute waitress walks away, I turn to my so-called friend and say in my best Darth Vader voice, “You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor!” My friends continue to mock me with chants of “fuzzy navel,” and I sense my battle is lost.

Letting Roboscout do my speaking for me, since he doesn’t come up with things nearly as embarrassing as I do…When the Lakers have the ball, they’re a good offense, but they’re not as great as they have been in years past. That triangle offense apparently stifled them in the regular season, so Coach Jackson has gone away from it a bit in the postseason. That is causing some of Roboscout’s gears to grind, but one thing that is clear again is that they do like getting to the foul line. Their stars can generate the fouls, but if they don’t, the offense gets hurt by a point or two on a consistent basis. This says that you Coach Saunders may want it more loosely called, but the overall benefit of getting those guys out of the game is large enough that it beats them getting to the line, especially because the T-Wolves don’t rely on foul shooting much. You just have to make sure it is their big four getting in foul trouble, especially Shaq. Beyond this, the Wolves’ defense is a hybrid zone that, like all zones, tends to get hurt disproportionately by opponents getting offensive boards. Fortunately, the Lakers are only about average at going after offensive boards. So they can’t take too much advantage of the Wolves’ inherent weakness. The Wolves definitely have a tendency to play to the level of their opponents and that shows up a bit on the defensive side. They can relax a bit if they get a lead, but they dig in if they’re behind. Finally, you Coach Flip Saunders should take a few more gambles to force turnovers out of the Lakers. Your team needs them and the Lakers – even their big four – can be prone to them.

The waitress comes by again, “Are you the one doing the Darth Vader impersonations?”

Knowing that I’ve already blown it with the bellybutton ring comment, I admit it humbly.

“I find that voice sooo sexy,” she says with a smile, “I love John Paul Jones.”

I somehow ignore the fact that she doesn’t know John Paul from James Earl, then find one more Vader quote and get my Vader voice going as deep and sexy as possible, “This will be a day long remembered.” My friends are dumb, err, dumbstruck.

So I gotta go. Use the Force, Flip. Don’t give in to the Dark Side.

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