My Favorite Albums of 2015

Here are a few lists (Buzzfeed much?) that highlight notable records from this year, etc. These lists only become harder to do since I’m discovering more music than ever before. Anyways, enough talk — on to the music!


 

Top 15 of ’15

These are not ranked 15 to 1, but they are grouped into tiers. I guess the tiers are ranked in countdown fashion, but I wouldn’t take it as gospel.

Tier 5: Netflix & Chill

Pretty self-explanatory. Albums that are perfect for driving, chilling, parties, dancing, etc. 

 

jamie_xx_-_in_colour

Jamie xx – In Colour

Definitely ventures beyond the familiar sound of his band. To say it’s just a dance album feels like an understatement. It’s not just that I enjoy this album; it’s also that this album strikes a certain chord in the listener, I think. A review described this as a dance album for introverts, which I totally agree with. The album generally leans towards minimalism, so that every element/moment in a particular song means something. Engaging album from start to finish. (Tracks to check out: Loud Places, The Rest is Noise)

 

Neon Indian – Vega Intl. Night School

It’s as 80s as a mullet. One helluva electro/synth pop album. A very accessible album that will make you want to dance, if you’re into that. (Tracks to check out: The Glitzy Hive, Slumlord)

 

Tom Misch – Beat Tape 2

Keep your eyes on this 20 year old composer/producer/instrumentalist from the UK (oh, and he can sing too). His promise/talent was obvious in all the little EPs and instrumental tracks he shares at a prodigious rate. Technically, Beat Tape 2 is his sophomore full-release, but given the rawness of Beat Tape 1 and the years that have passed since then, Beat Tape 2 truly feels like his coming out party. The featuring musicians are as diverse as the music, which ranges from chillwave, jazz, to neo-soul. The sky’s the limit for this cat. (Tracks to check out: Wander With Me, In the Midst of It All)

 

Seoul – I Become A Shade

Fun little dream pop album by this Montreal band. Reminds me a bit of early Toro y Moi. It’s like the perfect soundtrack to driving around on a cool night. Solid debut album – looking forward to seeing how they develop from here. Kudos to Bon Jaik for introducing me to their music. (Tracks to check out: The Line, Stay With us)

 

Tier 4: Babymakers

Yeah. Don’t think I need to explain this tier.

 

The Internet – Ego Death

Rich instrumentation (Thundercat would approve of some of the bass work on the album) and smoky vocals from this neo-soul motley crew. Little bit of funk and jazz sprinkled throughout the album. Some Maxwell vibes. Oh, and Janelle Monae’s a featuring guest to boot. Just a smoooooth, relaxing album. Will definitely tide me over until the new Frank Ocean album comes out. (Tracks to check out: Under Control, Something’s Missing)

 

Kehlani – You Should Be Here

I don’t really consider myself an R&B fan, but I loved this mixtape. It feels very real, the lyrics, singing, and all. Even though the production isn’t perfect, its rawness somehow enhances the authenticity of the album. Altogether, this mixtape feels like a hot knife that just cut through the butter that is the oft-inauthentic pop scene. In terms of magnitude, the NBA equivalent of would be like when Brandon Jennings dropping 55 points during his rookie season. Unlike Jennings though, Kehlani’s future is bright. (Tracks to check out: The Letter, Down for You)

 

Tier 3: Just Plain Fun

Really fun, really straightforward, really solid albums. These albums might not be pushing musical/artistic boundaries, but what these albums do, they do it very, very well. 

 

Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION

So, as great as T. Swift’s 1989 was, there were still a few tracks I was ‘meh’ on. On E•MO•TION, I enjoy every single track. To use an NBA analogy, I feel like 1989 is Paul George, while E•MO•TION is Kawhi Leonard. The former might have a higher ceiling, but I do think the latter is a more consistent package. On this album, every song’s message seems to come out loud and clear. On top of that, it’s got that 80s vibe, which I’m always a sucker for. It’s a great pop record with zero pretentiousness. A quick google search revealed that she got sick of the “Call Me Maybe” fallout, spent a few years trying to carve out artistic independence from her label, did a musical, etc. Whatever she learned in the past few years, I feel like it all comes together on this album. (Tracks to check out: Emotion, Making The Most)

 

CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye

They set a pretty high bar with their debut full-length (The Bones of What You Believe), but it’s clear that Every Open Eye represents an evolution, even if there is a bit less diversity/adventure in the songs. The production is more polished, Lauren and Martin both improved their vocals (thanks to additional training), and the music here feels like it’s meant to be played in full-scale arenas. The band seems more confident in itself than ever before, and it shows in many of the self-affirming messages/songs on the album. For lack of a better description, CHVRCHES took the best of Bones, dialed it up to 11, and out came Every Open Eye. (Tracks to check out: Clearest Blue, Playing Dead)

 

Mutoid Man – Bleeder

Mutoid Man is a supergroup consisting of longtime collaborators/friends Steve Brodsky (Cave In) and Ben Koller (Converge). In Bleeder, their first full-length effort, Mutoid Man has created a hellacious album full of shredding, riffing, and breakdowns. Take Koller’s chaotic drumming (the backbone of Converge’s music) and Brodsky’s shredding (reflective of Cave In’s diverse discography), and you’ve got one of my favorite releases this year. Given the members live on different sides of the country and Ben’s #1 priority being Converge, we may have to wait a while (or forever) for new material. If we never hear from them again, I’m just glad they left us with this buzzsaw of an album. (Tracks to check out: Bridgeburner, Dead Dreams)

 

Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1

The first thing I did after listening to this album was go back and listen to all their previous albums. I can’t believe I didn’t discover them until now. Given that my legitimate foray into hip hop is still relatively recent, I guess I could be forgiven for not discovering a group that, prior to this, hadn’t released an album in a decade. Gift of Gab’s rhyming and flow is otherworldly (0:30 to 1:15 on “Alpha and Omega” might be my favorite moment in any song this year), and Chief Xcel’s production is on point, managing to capture both recent sounds while maintaining some old school influences. Lots of warm, positive vibes and introspection here. (Tracks to check out: Blacka, On Fire)

 

Tier 2: Almost Famous

Albums that are unique and pushing boundaries, etc., but not the easiest of listens.

 

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

I mean, what else is there to say about this album? It says a lot about TPAB that it makes all comparisons to his previous album, GKMC, pointless. It advances the dialogue (both lyrically and musically) that D’Angelo started with Black Messiah and then some. It’s an album in which his rap skills are, relatively speaking, less noteworthy. The ideas are complex, grand, and unabashedly personal, much like the music. Kendrick’s collaborations with Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat continue to pay rich dividends. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s a necessary one. (Tracks to check out: King Kunta, These Walls, i)

 

Kamasi Washington – The Epic

I discovered Flying Lotus and Thundercat on my own, but I found out about Kamasi Washington through him being “the saxophone guy from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly'”. The Epic certainly lives up to its name, running almost three hours long and featuring a 32-piece orchestra and 20-person choir. It’s chaotic, adventurous, and at times, overwhelming. Never a dull moment on this roller coaster ride. It’s unlike anything that’s been released this year (and not just because it’s jazz). (Tracks to check out: Askim, Miss Understanding)

 

Tier 1: G.O.A.T.

These albums are the total package.

 

Caspian – Dust and Disquiet

One of my favorite post-rock albums in quite some time. What I like most is how diverse it is. One song might be light, another intense/dark, and another epic. While I’m not a big fan of short interludes, they work to absolute perfection in this album – often providing a soft cushion after an explosive ending to a song. Some post-rock albums suffer from having their songs follow the same formula/sound. Not here… each song has a purpose to it and, taken together, they result in a dynamic album that is engaging from start to finish. (Tracks to check out: Arcs of Command, Darkfield, Dust and Disquiet)

 

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

After exploring grander musical exploits in recent projects, this album represents a return to simplicity. An economy in instrumentation, which often consists of nothing more than the banjo, guitar, and a piano. It’s raw and direct, which is fitting because more than an art project, this album is a window into his life. Carrie & Lowell is influenced by the death of his estranged mother and in it, he explores faith, loneliness, loss, nostalgia, and finding hope at the end of the day. It’s amazing what this album accomplishes – some of the saddest songs ‘sound’ the happiest, and some of the happiest songs ‘sound’ the saddest. Given my own life experiences, this album was a cathartic experience. (Tracks to check out: Should Have Known Better, Carrie & Lowell, John My Beloved)

 

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Even though this came out in 2014, it came out in December, so I’m still counting it for the list. To me, this is a masterpiece of an album. Definitely more varied than his previous works, with a greater infusion of funk, blues, and jazz. The ways in which his vocals are transformed into just one of many instruments in a given song adds a nice touch. The guitar, which he mastered during his decade-plus exile, provides a new backbone to his sound. There are songs of protest, as well as songs of romance, and all are masterfully crafted. I could live with waiting another 10-15 years for his next album, because there’s so much to chew on in this album. (Tracks to check out: the whole damn album)


 

Just missed the cut

 

CJ Trillo – Undrafted: His most recent release. A bit darker and more experimental than Nostalgia, but it holds its own. Trillo continues to carve out his sound, but the Kendrick/Cole influences can still be felt. (Track to check out: 2012)

 

Counterparts – Tragedy Will Find Us: I don’t listen to much (melodic) hardcore these days, but this band is probably all that I need. I don’t have to miss the original Comeback Kid lineup when I’ve got this band to listen to. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the standard for melodic hardcore right now. (Track to check out: Burn)

 

Dustin Kensrue – Carry The Fire: No one can accuse me of bias since this album didn’t make the cut. In all honesty, I think this is his best solo album yet. With 8 years, 3 worship albums, the Mars Hill debacle, and the Thrice hiatus, there’s a lot of history between “Please Come Home” and this album, which I think shows in the music. There’s definitely a Dustin Kensrue ‘style’ (which is distinct from Thrice), but what I enjoy about this album is how he’s able to show off and embrace different genres/styles. (Track to check out: Gallows)

 

The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven: This album reminds me of mid-2000s Brand New. Probably the best compliment I can give the band. (Track to check out: Cardinals)

 

Wonder Girls – Reboot: I didn’t think a K-Pop album would be one of my favorite albums this year, yet here we are. Again, I’m a sucker for that 80’s vibe, which this album has in bundles. This group has such a fascinating career arc: enjoyed peak popularity, lost all momentum when they tried to break into the US market, returned to Korea only to tread water for a few years, and now have transformed themselves into a girl group/band hybrid with live performances that combine singing, dancing, AND playing instruments. (Tracks to check out: Baby Don’t Play, I Feel You, Faded Love)


 

Better Late Than Never: Albums I didn’t discover until 2015

 

Small O – Temper of Water: Fantastic little folk band from Korea. It’s got really folky folk songs, but it’s also got poppy folk songs too. If I enjoyed hiking/camping, I think this album would go perfectly with that experience. They remind me a good bit of Fleet Foxes. Good stuff, which is unsurprising since they’re from Fluxus. (Check Out “That Will Fall”)

 

Asoto Union – Sound Renovates A Structure: Who doesn’t love good funk? Absolutely hits the spot. Also, mad respect to the lead singer… who’s also the drummer of the band. (Check Out “Think About ‘Chu”)

 

CJ Trillo – Volume 1: Nostalgia: I don’t know how I’d describe my taste in rappers, but this cat is probably close. The beats are diverse (chill/jazzy to old school), the lyrics relatable, and his flow solid. I think he makes whiplash music because he’s got me nodding my head hard. Probably my favorite album of his to date. (Check Out “Naughty By Nature”)

 

The Ocean – Pelagial: The instrumental version is the version that makes this list. The Ocean is a prog-metal band from Germany, and Pelagial is a concept album with each track, in descending order, referencing the layers/depth zones of the ocean. Just as the ocean gets darker and more claustrophobic the deeper you go, so does the music on the album. If you’re a fan of prog/post metal, you’ll love this album. (Check out the entire album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9L7YSrQmVDw)

 

Jun Bum Sun & The Yangbans – Love Songs: A Korean indie pop/folk band whose sound harks back to the “emo” (in the good sense) bands of the mid-to-late 90s (e.g. Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral). The vocalist REALLY reminds me of the vocalist from The Get Up Kids as well. Love Songs is a concept album, about a fictional woman named “명월” and the evolution of her relationship with the narrator/singer. If you’re interested, here’s an interview with the frontman (Jun Bum Sun) that’s well worth the read. He explains the name of the band, his interesting background, the album concept, etc. (Check Out “Because You Are”)

My thoughts on tonight’s draft

Thought I’d dust off this blog and post some thoughts (compiled over the past few weeks) on tonight’s draft. Specifically, there are six things I wanted to cover:

  • First, who do I prefer with the 2nd pick? Jahlil Okafor or D’Angelo Russell?
  • Second, what’s the case for/against Okafor?
  • Third, what’s the case for/against Russell?
  • Fourth, who do I prefer the Lakers draft with their other picks (27th, 34th)?
  • Fifth, various quick-hitting questions (e.g. most likely to be a bust).
  • Sixth, I want to share some of the very informative/helpful articles I’ve read over the past month.

1. The Lakers will be drafting either Okafor or Russell (Thanks, Magic)

Who do I prefer? I have a slight-to-moderate preference for Okafor, but I would be just as happy with Russell. This is assuming Minnesota takes Towns at #1.

2. A summarized case for/against Okafor

Arguments for Okafor:

  • Skilled bigs are harder to find than skilled guards.
  • Okafor averaged 0.933 PPP on post-ups, shooting 57% FG. In the NBA, 0.933 PPP would have ranked ahead of Duncan, Cousins and Z-Bo, and the 57% FG would have been tops (min. 250 post-up possessions) in the league. He was this productive despite having a target on his back all season long.
  • In short, his post game is better than most of the NBA already. Not only that, but Okafor’s a willing and gifted passer, especially out of double teams (e.g. https://vine.co/v/Oj31MYW7Y7Y).
  • While he’s only shown flashes of it, Okafor has shown off a running hook a la Duncan.
  • Finally, there’s already a Hack-a-blank phrase that suits him perfectly — Hack-A-For!

Concerns about Okafor:

  • FT shooting and defense, defense, defense.
  • Yes, he’s been told to lay back on D to avoid foul trouble and provide offense since high school. Still, other than post-up defense, he was bad everywhere else.
  • The good thing is that he CAN get better. With better conditioning, NBA experience, as well as his physical tools (7’5″ wingspan and giant hands), he can definitely become a solid, all-around defender. Given that most of the league still ICEs the P&R (the big drops back), I think Okafor will fit in just well. J.A. Adande coined the term SOBOA (Shots Over Bynum’s Outstretched Arms), after noticing the defensive impact Bynum made just with his arms alone. I think Okafor can do the same.
  • My other concern is that Okafor and Randle might be an awkward fit next to each other. Neither has a consistent perimeter game at the moment, and neither are a plus defender. The comparison you want to draw is the Z-Bo/Gasol duo, but there’s a lot of steps LA’s young bigs will need to take to get there.
  • Finally, Okafor’s game is a bit of an awkward fit in the modern NBA. The rule against hand-checking (which helps perimeter players) and the league getting rid of illegal defense rules (making it harder on post players) certainly don’t help.
  • My counter is that I think what gets lost in all the small ball movement discussion is that a reason for its emergence is the DEARTH of elite post-up bigs. As for the lack of illegal defense rules, I think Okafor’s IQ in the post and passing abilities will counter that somewhat from Day 1, and only improve with time.

3) A summarized case for/against Russell

Arguments for Russell:

  • If Okafor’s the most polished/skill big in the draft, the same can be said for Russell when it comes to guard prospects.
  • He’s a combo-guard in the best sense of the word. He’s got elite size at PG and can play off the ball. He has fantastic hands, great court vision, can shoot, and has as high a basketball IQ as anyone else in the draft.
  • It’s hard to watch him play and not see sparkles of Manu, Brandon Roy, and Curry in his game.
  • In contrast to Okafor, Russell fits perfectly into the modern NBA game with his versatility, shooting, P&R excellence, and ability to push the pace.
  • Russell is also a much better fit for LA. He and Clarkson can play either guard spot, make plays, and space the floor. I can already imagine Russell-Randle P&Rs with Clarkson slashing from the weakside.
  • Russell learning from the best (Kobe) is also exciting.

Concerns about Russell:

  • He’s a so-so athlete (lacks a quick first step), still a bit undersized (in terms of weight), etc.
  • He will have trouble adjusting to NBA-level defenders and athleticism. Case in point, Russell feasted on weaker competition, whereas he struggled against better competition (with NBA-level talent).
  • In 18 games against defenses ranked outside of the T-100, Russell averaged 20.8 ppg on 52.2% FG, 47.4% 3PT, with a 2-to-1 AST/TO ratio (5.6 ast to 2.8 TOs).
  • Against T-100 defenses? Those numbers decreased to 17.7 ppg on 38% FG, 34.7% 3PT, with a 1.5-to-1 AST/TO ratio (4.4 ast to 3.0 TOs).
  • The eye test confirmed this as well. Against inferior competition, Russell’s handles allowed him to penetrate and get to the rim at will (north-south). But when he played against a team like Arizona in the tournament, against NBA-level defenders like RHJ and Johnson, Russell, for all his handling abilities, struggled to go anywhere but east-west on the court.
  • The counter against this, which is legitimate, is that Russell had a weak supporting cast around him. This meant defenses honed in on Russell and were able to help off his other teammates (aside from Loving) to double Russell, etc. With NBA-level talent around him, it’s reasonable to think this disparity will dwindle over time.
  • Finally, Russell deserves some grief over his defense. He was a weak point in OSU’s defense, and OSU hid him on defense like how Portland hides Dame (with Batum/Matthews) and how Houston hides Harden (with Beverley and Ariza).

4) Who to draft with our other picks (27th & 34th)? 

Ideally, Mitch looks into packaging our later two picks in order to trade up in the draft, in the 20-23 range. Given how relatively top-heavy this draft is, I couldn’t care less about our 2nd round pick. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to discuss the various options (both realistic and slightly out of reach) with the 27th pick.

The realistic options 

  • Delon Wright — On defense, he’s a 6’5″ Patrick Beverley. He was dominant on that end in college. He’s a good playmaker and can post up on smaller guards. Think Shaun Livingston, but with not-as-good handles. The downsides are that he has no perimeter game to speak of and he’s already 23 (a few months older than Clarkson). In any case, he should at least be one of the league’s better backup PGs.
  • Rashad Vaughn — Good size at SG, and very solid offensively. Can spot up, score on the move, and create his own shot. He’s been compared to Nick Young for the less-than-stellar shot selection he had in college. Defensively, his effort was inconsistent, but he has the basic tools to be solid-to-decent on that end. If nothing else, he should be able to carve out a role in the league as an off-the-bench scorer. Given that he’s the 2nd youngest player in the draft (behind Booker), his ultimate ceiling might be much higher than that.

Prospects who will most likely be out of reach (i.e. taken before LA picks 27th)

  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — He and WCS are the best defensive prospects in this draft. Problem is that RHJ is basically Tony Allen on offense.
  • Justin Anderson — As mentioned before, Simba projects to be a solid 3-and-D guy from Day 1. I actually prefer him over RHJ because he can shoot.

5) Quick Hitters

  • Most likely to be a bust? Porzingis, Mudiay, Oubre, Dekker
  • Most likely to outperform his draft position? Cliff Alexander, Justin Anderson, Stanley Johnson
  • Biggest reach? Hezonja in the T-5, Kaminsky in the T-10, Dekker in the T-12
  • Biggest slide? Mudiay slipping to the 6-8 range, Willie-Cauley Stein slipping past the T-10

6) Links

In-depth articles on Towns v. Okafor, etc.:

Articles that poke a hole in the “Towns is hero, Okafor is zero” narrative:

In-depth articles on D’Angelo Russell:

Revisiting the Lakers-Thunder Debate

In light of the Howard trade, I decided to re-read my Lakers-Thunder playoffs preview blog post from last season, after all, OKC should still be considered the favorites out west. After a quick review, the following things from that post stood out to me:

1) Bench:
In my post I noted –

“Jordan Hill will be a key player in this series. With OKC having the luxury of bringing Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison off the bench, it’s up to Hill to give Pau/Drew credible rest during the game. The Lakers two big men will have much on their plate to begin with, and it will only exacerbate their stresses if they’re not able to get their breathers.”

Now with Antawn Jamison and (presumably) Jodie Meeks, this should be an area of improvement – particularly when you consider that LA can rest both Howard AND Gasol for stretches.

2) P&R defense:

“The Thunder are AMAZING at P&R offense, which is no surprise considering they have three fantastic ball-handling scorers in their big three. This will be a HUGE challenge for the Lakers – whether our bigs try to hedge and rotate back or whether we end up switching on defense.”

Dwight Howard is a three-time NBA defensive player of the year. Bam.

3) Shooting:

“With the best post/big man defender in the game in Perkins, the Lakers’ bread and butter on offense is exactly what OKC’s defense is tailored to counter/combat against.”

With Jamison, Nash and Meeks, the Lakers have a lot more shooters than they’ve had in quite a while. Moreover, with Nash as PG, the Lakers offense will be diverse and won’t be predictable like it was last season. In short, should LA-OKC meet in the playoffs, OKC will have new challenges to deal with.

4) Rebounding advantage:

“The Lakers were the 8th best offensive rebounding team in the league, which is unsurprising. What might be surprising, however, is the fact that this season, the Thunder gave up the 2nd most offensive boards per game. This is an area where Pau, Drew, Hill, and the Lakers MUST exploit, for it might be their best shot at controlling the flow of this series.”

As much of an advantage this was last season, it should be an even greater advantage since Howard is a more consistent/relentless rebounder than Bynum is AND he can run the floor in transition.

5) Concerns:

– OKC’s small ball line up will still be an issue for LA. The Lakers will have to depend on Ebanks and (presumably) Meeks/Delfino to be able to counter with their own small ball lineups.
– OKC is going to be much improved AND will boast better chemistry. The Lakers will have to integrate two dominant players with injury questions while being under intense scrutiny 24/7.
– Believe it or not, but Perkins is probably happy about the trade. If there’s a big man defender Howard struggles with, Perkins is definitely one of those few.

Game 4 – Thunder v. Lakers

If the Game 2 loss was sudden, startling and sharp, tonight’s loss was slow, exacting and wore away at you like a dripping faucet. The recipe for success has been clear since Game 2 and it’s no surprise that LA has nearly been OKC’s equal in the last three games. Tonight, the first half was just what the Lakers wanted, with the added bonus of them being especially efficient on the offensive end. At halftime, both teams had 45 possessions, but LA had the greater offensive efficiency rating at 124.4 as compared to OKC’s rating of 102.2. The TO battle was close (8 to 9) and LA won the rebounding battle 43 to 39 (18 to 9 on the offensive boards!). Finally, and I don’t know the final results, but I know the Lakers were up 36 to 16 in points in the paint during the 3rd quarter.

The Lakers had valuable contributions from a variety of sources. Sessions opened up the game penetrating and taking the extra space OKC gave him, Bynum imposed his presence early and often, MWP was brilliant during the 4th quarter when Kobe was resting, and Kobe carried this team BRILLIANTLY throughout the game. These offensive efforts combined with LA’s defense helped the Lakers build and maintain a 8-10 point lead for most of the game.

…And yet, the lead never felt safe. At no point in the last three games (which were all very competitive), did I ever feel safe when the Lakers were in the lead, even with their 56-46 halftime lead. OKC kept plugging along, continuing with their sets, and avoiding any sort of panicking (I’m sure Fish’s leadership had a lot do with that). As for today, Harden didn’t have a particularly great game, but he didn’t need to because Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant absolutely carried OKC today. While Kobe was having a brilliant 3rd quarter, Westbrook was right there with him – driving to the hole, dunking on breakaways and making enough jumpshots to keep the LA defenders honest. Then there was Durant to close the game, seemingly making shots anywhere he had a sliver of daylight. Ice cold closer. Seeing him up close this series only affirms him as the opposing player I fear the most. Nevertheless, as amazing as Durant’s shooting display has been, I think the key for OKC was Durant defending Kobe when they closed out the game with a Westbrook-Harden-Durant lineup. Lanky defenders bother Kobe, and save for one P&R play between Kobe & Blake, Kobe attempted, albeit inefficiently, to take on Durant in isolation.

In what has become a common refrain, the Lakers were done in by mental/physical fatigue and bad habits again. I noted in my post last night how Kobe, Drew and Pau played 39, 40 and 36 minutes. Tonight, those numbers were 40, 42 and 39. Per @LakersReporter, Drew and Pau combined for 8 points in the second half. Moreover (per Mike Brown’s postgame presser), both bigs had something like 2 rebounds each in the 2nd half. Kobe, for his part, went 1/8 in the 4th quarter, with many of those looks being extremely difficult shots while Durant was guarding him.

Did Kobe get tunnel-vision because of hero ball? Or was he simply responding to Pau and Bynum’s ineffectiveness? That’s up to you. On the one hand, Ibaka, Perkins and OKC’s smothering defense inside wore away at Pau and Bynum throughout the game. On the other hand, asking Bynum to increase his minutes from 40 to 42 minutes on back-to-back nights AND hoping he’ll maintain his effective P&R defense (esp. on Westbrook) WHILE being the offensive anchor inside is a little too much for one player to handle. Unsurprisingly, Westbrook dropped 23 second half points to lead OKC’s comeback. Interestingly enough, the bulk of Bynum’s expanded minutes tonight came from a rotation adjustment by Brown that I applauded. Tonight, Mike Brown addressed the chronic issue of the Pau/bench lineup giving up leads to open up the 2nd & 4th quarters by keeping Bynum in the lineup along with Pau to open those quarters. In short, the Lakers might have won the battle, but they may have lost the war because of what is now, in hindsight, a risky adjustment.

At the end of the day, OKC played with (dare I say) championship-worthy poise. Maybe if this were 2008, the Thunder would have buckled and allowed LA to extend its lead to 15-20. But credit to them for their tremendous gumption, staying the course and fighting back en route to shocking the Lakers on its home court. As a Lakers fan, nothing more needs to be said at this point other than that the X’s and O’s are clear enough and that, with there being no more back-to-backs, LA can take things one game at a time and buy themselves more time. We shall see.

Game 3 – Thunder v. Lakers

Summary

If the narrative of Game 2 was that the Lakers lost a game they “deserved” to win, tonight’s narrative should be that the Lakers won a game they DIDN’T deserve to win, for a variety of reasons. First off, Kevin Durant scored 31 points on just 23 shots, including a medley of ridiculous, contorted, and unfair layups and dunks. Just as important, the Lakers lost the turnover battle 15 to 9, with the Thunder scoring 19 points off those 15 turnovers. Every time the Lakers had a great defensive possession or started building momentum, they would shoot themselves in the foot by turning the ball over. Nevertheless, the main stat that matters tonight is 41/42. The Lakers made 41 of 42 FTs, with Kobe making 18/18 of them and Metta World Peace making both of his clutch FTs near the end of the game. Although it was a sloppy game, the Lakers brought forth intense effort on the defensive end, won the rebounding battle (44 to 37), and made all but one of the many FTs they earned tonight as a result of playing with desperation.

Observations

– It was good to see LA continuing their disciplined, intense play on the defensive end, particularly on the P&R. They brought their Game 2 efforts tonight and held OKC to 15 points in the 1st quarter on 6/20 shooting and forced 3 TOs as well.

– Perhaps the least unsurprising thing is the fact that the Pau/roleplayer lineup that opens the 2nd/4th quarters continues to flail and lose whatever momentum the starting lineup built up to that point. This was particularly the case in the 2nd quarter when Mike Brown kept Kobe/Bynum on the bench and allowed OKC to go on multiple runs and drop 32 points in that quarter.

– The most maddening thing about tonight’s game were the turnovers. Over and over again, the Lakers would have a great defensive possession and either close the gap or start to build a small lead only to watch momentum switch sides after some combination of missed shots and multiple turnovers. With an athletic team like OKC, they will convert almost any TO by LA into scoring opportunities. The fact that 41 FTM by LA only resulted in a 3 point victory should tell you everything you need to know about how thin their margin of error is in this series.

– Drew’s offensive game was off tonight. It could be for a number of reasons. One factor was probably exhaustion from his wholehearted effort on defense. Another was Perkins, who was smothering Bynum, anticipated post-positioning, and even blocked a few of his shots. On that note, although Drew a turnaround left hook, he needs to give Perkins different looks because tonight, Perkins feasted on Drew’s predictability and made his life tougher. On that note, Drew’s defense was GREAT tonight. Unlike Game 1, there was no hesitation. He showed early, recovered quickly, and clogged the paint and made life tough for the Thunder players. Drew is going to need to bring that same commitment for the rest of the series.

– MAJOR shoutout/props to the Lakers role players, each of whom made invaluable contributions tonight. Sessions’ early activity penetrating, scoring and dishing was the key to the Lakers attack at the beginning of the game. An aggressive Sessions really diversifies the Lakers offense and tonight, we saw glimpses of the brilliant flashes he showed earlier in the season (PS – he only had 8 & 5 in his last 3 games combined whereas tonight, he had 10 & 4 by halftime). Sessions’ PG cohort, Steve Blake, was also invaluable today. Between his 12 points (including making multiple open shots – take that you haters), spirited defense on Harden/Westbrook and 8 rebounds(!), Blake’s fingerprints were all over the game, particularly in the 4th. Jordan Hill continues to bring a surge of energy off the bench, and he continues to save multiple offensive possessions for the Lakers. Also, though he fouls often/quickly, kudos to Hill for his defense on Durant. Aside from Bynum’s ability to show/hedge and get in Durant’s face, Hill is the only Lakers big mobile enough to keep up with Durant on the move and on switches. That makes him VERY valuable to the Lakers defense. Finally, Metta World Peace also deserves credit. Tonight, he continued to be a physical presence in this series, bodying up Durant, and disrupting OKC ballhandlers with his magic/fast hands. Also, kudos to MWP for draining the only two FTs he attempted in the dwindling minutes of the game.

– I mentioned it in different parts, but the Lakers defense tonight nicely translated from Game 2. OKC’s big three combined for 73 points, but only shot a combined 42%. Outside the big 3, no other Thunder scored in double digits. Between Bynum’s hard shows/hedges, Hill’s great mobility as a big, and MWP’s physical defense, the Lakers’ defensive plans couldn’t be any more fundamental and smart – make it hard as hell for OKC’s big three and force the role players to step their game up.

– Kobe Bean Bryant. You live and die with your superstar and tonight was another one of those nights. His medley of terrible shots and turnovers were maddening, and his pouting and not getting back on defense, upsetting. Nevertheless, the same stubbornness that drives his efforts to those extremes also goes the other extreme. And tonight, his stubborn aggressiveness found its greatest expression in his hitting 18/18 FTs to keep the Lakers close and eventually seal the game.

Looking Ahead

– The Lakers played some heavy minutes tonight. Pau played almost 37 minutes, Kobe played 39 minutes, and Drew led the Lakers with his 40 minutes tonight. With Games 3 & 4 being on back-to-back nights, I’m somewhat concerned about how much the Lakers (in terms of effort/energy) can carryover from Game 3 to Game 4. That said, I think the back-to-back doesn’t (surprisingly?) do OKC any favors either since they’ll be grinded two days in a row by a physical Lakers team.

– We all knew the Lakers would be the underdogs in this series. I totally forgot who mentioned it on twitter, but this series resembles the Denver series. What’s meant by that is, slowly but surely, there is a progression from the favorites (OKC, LA last round) winning handily in Game 1 to the underdog scrapping and clawing and becoming a tougher and tougher out (LA now, DEN last round). Denver was able to come back from being down 3-1 (a scenario which LA needs to avoid at all costs) to taking LA to Game 7. We’ll see whether the results end up being the same.

– I’m not trying to be Negative Nancy, but I am trying to be Realistic Richard in stating that LA’s margin for error is thinner than my peach fuzz facial hair. Although I mentioned it above, consider again the fact that it took 41 FTs for LA to win by 3. But yeah, there are multiple concerns LA needs to keep in mind/address and answer in Game 4:

1) The Lakers MUST limit TOs and take care of the ball. If they want to dictate the pace and feel of the game, they can’t turn the ball over and gift wrap fastbreak scores to the Thunder. This means stupid alleyoop attempts should be few and far between, and reserved for obvious, open dunks.

2) The Lakers MUST be diverse and sharp on offense. LA must be disciplined on the offensive end because, by doing so, you limit bad shot attempts. And as you limit bad shot attempts, you limit another potential source of fastbreak scoring opportunities for OKC. LA must also be diverse on the offensive end. This includes our bread and butter – dumping the ball inside and playing through Drew/Pau as much as possible. This includes our superstar Kobe – not just scoring on isolations, but COMING OFF PICKS/CURLS and getting easier looks (Sefolosha has been an absolute stud on defense) in motion. This also includes Sessions STAYING aggressive. A penetrating and aggressive Sessions makes the Lakers offense hum and dynamic. I can only hope that in Game 4, Mike Brown finally exploits Fisher-Session mismatches and maximizes Pau/Sessions P&Rs.

3) Kevin Durant. The truth is that, unsurprisingly, MWP is our only hope and real defender against Durant. Kobe needs to conserve energy and is more likely to pick up Westbrook and Harden on the defensive end. Devin Ebanks has been on milk cartons since the Denver series. Finally, Matt Barnes, although he tries, just doesn’t “fit” in this series. He’s too big to adequately guard Harden and he’s too short to guard Durant. He scored 31 points on 23 shots and barely broke a sweat. Westbrook’s limitation is his inconsistency while Harden’s limitation is his minutes (I think Brooks gave him far too little minutes tonight). Maybe I’m overpraising Durant, but I really believe he has little holding him back and that scares me. So yeah, how LA fares in guarding Durant will go a long way towards deciding how this series will progress.

 

Game 2 – Lakers v. Thunder (The Beginning of the End?)

46 minutes of solid execution and effort ALL negated by the last 2 minutes of the game. We’ll take this recap in two halves.

The first 46 minutes:

From the beginning, the Lakers adjustments were clear and well-executed. On the P&R, Pau and Drew were showing and hedging early, consistently crowding and challenging OKC’s ballhandlers off the pick. This adjustment was most clear on LA’s defense on Westbrook, who was 5 for 17 tonight. Not only that, but LA dictated the tempo/pace, finishing the first quarter with only 21 possessions and 0 TOs compared to OKC’s 4. Thanks to the Lakers taking care of the ball, paying better attention on defense, and winning the points in the paint & 2nd chance points, LA finished out a very competitive 1st half down only by 3 points.

LA only built on a competitive first half to open the second half on a 6-0 run. LA built their lead in part because of their aggressive P&R defense and rotations against Harden/Westbrook/Durant and decision to live with Ibaka and Perkins taking jumpers. Pacing the Lakers charge throughout most of the game was Jordan Hill and Metta World Peace. Jordan Hill was infectious with his activity and saved multiple offensive possessions with his rebounding. Metta World Peace, though a black hole on offense tonight, was an absolute beast on defense. He bodied up Durant, met him aggressively/early off curl screens, and limited him to only 10 FGA until the late 3rd/early 4th quarter. He and Kobe’s 7 combined steals helped LA get easy buckets and slowly build their lead in the second half as well. The Lakers finished the 3rd quarter with a double digit advantage in both points in the paint as well as 2nd chance points AND limited OKC to 12 points on 21 possessions for the entire quarter.

Nevertheless, the confidence that had been built up by the end of the 3rd quarter was tenuous knowing that a Pau/bench lineup would open up the 4th. Unsurprisingly, they neither played through Pau much nor were able to stop OKC from cutting down the lead, which led to Kobe and the other starters from getting back into the game just minutes into the 4th quarter. Thankfully, the starters were able to restore sanity and balance in the game, lockdown on the P&R, limit OKC to long jumpers for long stretches in the 4th quarter, and hit enough shots (though if they could have hit more than 2/15 3PT like they did tonight, things would have been a LOT easier) to extend their lead to 7 with 2 minutes to go…

The last 2 minutes:

The last 2 minutes of the game was certainly devastating in and of itself (two straight TOs, two bad shots by Kobe, etc), but it was especially devastating because of all that it nullified. Consider the fact that OKC was the top scoring team in the playoffs (103.6) and the top scoring team at home this season (106, 49% shooting). Tonight, OKC scored only 77 points on 42% shooting.

The Lakers made the defensive adjustments they needed to, executed and showed grit/effort for most of the game. And for that, they found themselves with a well-earned 7 point LEAD with 2 minutes to go in the game. Unfortunately, they took “lead” to mean “victory”, and abandoned all that had gotten them the lead in the first place. It all disintegrated in the final two minutes of the game; thanks to two Harden layups, two costly LA turnovers, badly missed shots by Kobe and a clutch go-ahead shot by Durant, a 7 point lead became a 1 point deficit.

As for the last (real) LA possession, I don’t really want to hear it. Sure, Kobe might have been open but, whether Metta panicked or not,  Metta made the right pass to Blake for a wide open 3. Remember, this is the same Steve Blake whom we celebrated in the Denver series for hitting big, open shots. There is no one to blame on that play. So if you’re pissed at Metta for not passing it to Kobe, pissed at Blake for missing the shot, and/or pissed at Mike Brown for “not doing a better job” of getting Kobe the ball, then you’re just completely missing the point.

Looking Ahead:

In my opinion, the heart of the matter for the Lakers is a matter of the heart (and mind). Tonight’s game proved that while the Lakers don’t necessarily need perfect execution to compete with the Thunder, they DO need, beyond a shadow of doubt, the right heart and mind. No X’s and O’s can fully explain the last two minutes. No advanced metrics can account for the Lakers deciding to abandon their bread & butter game plan. In light of LA’s “meltdown”, the first and foremost adjustment they need to make is maintaining that heart/mental effort for an entire game.

A secondary adjustment they could make is swapping Sessions for Blake in the starting lineup. Whether it’s his ankle/shoulder injuries or confidence issues, Sessions is absolutely invisible in the starting lineup right now. Bringing him off the bench wouldn’t guarantee that his play improves, but it would at least put him in a better position to utilize his skills (speed, penetration, P&R) with players like Matt Barnes and Jordan Hill. Moreover, if this change works out, it could do wonders for that dreaded Pau/bench lineup, which continually flails at both ends of the court, that opens up 2nd/4th quarters. Finally, by starting a “shooter” like Blake, it could allow for better spacing and flow at the start of games for LA.

Looking ahead, it’s obviously not looking too good. In fact, I’m pretty confident (though sad) that the Lakers season will probably meet its end in the next week or so. What needs to be done to avoid that is obvious: Beat the Thunder in 4 out of the next 5 games, with the next two games (Games 3 & 4) being on back-to-back nights in LA (where’s the home court advantage?). What is less obvious (or perhaps it’s crystal clear) is whether the Lakers can recover from this loss, say “to hell with history” and make a miraculous comeback for the ages.

Thoughts on Lakers-Thunder

Make no mistake about it, the Lakers are BY FAR the underdogs in this matchup. If you thought the Lakers’ grueling 7 game series versus the Nuggets was tough, the Thunder are, in short, a suped up version of the Nuggets. Like the Nuggets, the Thunder play at a fast pace, playing the 7th fastest pace in the NBA. However, unlike the Nuggets, the Thunder are an elite defensive team (particularly in FG% defense) AND shoot significantly better (36% to 32%) from 3PT than Denver does. What’s more, at each position, the Thunder clearly possess an upgrade over what the Nuggets have: Westbrook > Lawson, Harden > any Denver bench player, Perkins > Mozgov, Ibaka > Faried, Durant > Gallo, etc.

When the Lakers are on defense:
– When the Thunder go to a crunch time lineup that includes Westbrook, Durant AND Harden, that will present MAJOR problems for the Lakers. Kobe getting Westbrook seems somewhat obvious and MWP covering Durant is a clear matchup. Nevertheless, unless the Lakers (undesirably) go to an unconventional lineup for defensive purposes, Blake or Sessions will have to guard Harden down the stretch.
– Another lineup to worry about is when the Thunder go small and play Durant at the 4. I’m not sure I want to see Hill or Gasol guarding KD, but if the Lakers MUST roll with Hill/Gasol, they MUST punish KD by posting him up.
– The Thunder are AMAZING at P&R offense, which is no surprise considering they have three fantastic ballhandling scorers in their big three. This will be a HUGE challenge for the Lakers – whether our bigs try to hedge and rotate back or whether we end up switching on defense.
– On that note, it should be noted that among PGs, Westbrook is just about top 5 in FG% in shots taken between 16-23 feet. That’s if he doesn’t decide to blow by his defender for FTs or for the easy lay-in/dunk. Moreover, at 46% in FGA between 16-23 feet, Kevin Durant is the best shooting SF (save for Dudley, I think.. hA!) from that distance – better than LBJ and Melo. Finally, Harden’s comparisons to a young Paul Pierce/Manu Ginobili should not be looked down on because with a wicked first step, crafty penetration skills (insert perverted joke), and strength in the hole, Harden is one of the premier producers in the P&R.
– Complementing this main thrust of attack are Thunder shooters (Sefolosha, Fisher, and Ibaka) who will surely be left wide open as secondary options off the P&R action with any one of the Thunder’s perimeter stars.
– OKC’s sweep of Dallas marked a transition from the Thunder’s dynamic duo to their own “big 3”. The Thunder can win even when Durant has an off game. YouTube Harden’s 4th quarter crushing of Dallas in Game 4 to see what I’m talking about. As a Lakers fan, you need to look no farther than the Lakers’ huge comeback victory over the Thunder (the elbow game) to realize what I’m talking about. In that game, even with no Harden and a terrible shooting night for Durant/Westbrook, it took a vintage Kobe performance to barely beat the Thunder.
– Simply put, OKC’s bread and butter on offense is the Lakers D’s kryptonite.

When the Lakers are on offense:
– The Thunder in Ibaka and Perkins can single coverage Gasol and Bynum, thereby keeping a body on the Lakers shooters. Or, they can adopt Denver’s strategy and execute it to a higher level. Either way, the Thunder have the ability to be as effective as Denver on defense AND then some.
– With the best post/big man defender in the game in Perkins, the Lakers’ bread and butter on offense is exactly what OKC’s defense is tailored to counter/combat against.
– Jordan Hill will be a key player in this series. With OKC having the luxury of bringing Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison off the bench, it’s up to Hill to give Pau/Drew credible rest during the game. The Lakers two big men will have much on their plate to begin with, and it will only exacerbate their stresses if they’re not able to get their breathers.
– It’s pretty much a non-negotiable that Bynum must bring it against Perkins. Should be a beast of a match in any case. As for Pau, he will have a much easier matchup against Ibaka, but knowing Pau, it remains to be seen whether he plays up to his standards. What I will say is that Pau MUST be aggressive because Ibaka, as amazing an athlete he is, is a pretty nondescript man-to-man/post defender. At the least, Pau MUST make him work, otherwise an invisible Pau will allow Ibaka to go off and make the weakside block over and over again.
– On that note, it should be noted one way the Lakers can impose their will/pace/tempo/etc is on the boards. The Lakers were the 8th best offensive rebounding team in the league, which is unsurprising. What might be surprising, however, is the fact that this season, the Thunder gave up the 2nd most offensive boards per game. This is an area where Pau, Drew, Hill, and the Lakers MUST exploit, for it might be their best shot at controlling the flow of this series.
– An interesting matchup to look for is OKC putting Kevin Durant on Kobe Bryant. Here’s Mark Travis (from SS&R) on that matchup:

Sefolosha allowed 49% shooting and over a point per possession to his man in one-on-one situations this season and Harden allowed .911 PPP (bottom 23 percentile in the league) and a score on 43% of isolation possessions. I think the combination of those numbers as well as Kobe’s usual playoff mentality, he’s primed for some big games. There is one strategic move that Scott Brooks can go to, however, that could severely hurt the Lakers’ chances of winning this series: putting Kevin Durant on Kobe.

Durant’s biggest improvement to date has been his defense. Here is a full list of players that guarded 100 isolations this season and allowed fewer PPP than Durant: Joe Johnson and LeBron James. That’s the list. Durant has begun to harness his length beautifully on that end of the floor and the result was 26% shooting for his man on isolations. It would be a risky move because Bryant could conceivably get Durant into some foul trouble on the block but there isn’t a player on OKC’s roster that would give Bryant more trouble than Durant.

At the end of the day, it’s conceivable for the Lakers to beat the Thunder to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but their margin for error is a LOT thinner than it is for OKC. Although my heart earnestly picks the Lakers in 7, my head neutrally/coldly picks the Thunder in 6.