With the possible exception of the Christmas Day game against the Cavs (when it rained foam fingers instead of Denver three-pointers), Friday's loss to the Nuggets stands as the season's worst for the Lakers, or at least their fans. A fully healthy Lakers team letting a nine-point third quarter lead slip away to a visiting team without its best player? That just ain't right.
The contest's signature participant, of course, was Denver's Chauncey Billups, who hit nine of his first 11 threes and finished with 39 points.
After the game, Phil Jackson was asked if Billups deserved credit for incredible shooting or if the Lakers allowed him to go off thanks to bad defense. "That was all him," PJ said. "He might have had one in the first half that guys didn't close out and get to him, and Fish a couple times, he's down helping out and as a consequence he got going. But he was shooting beyond the line considerably."
So is he right? I went back this afternoon, fired up the DVR, and took a look. Below is a rundown of all nine Billups threes. Settle in.
#1 (11:10, Q1): Billups takes the ball up the floor to the right wing, then dumps it into Nene, setting up very high against Andrew Bynum. Facing up, Nene drives to the bucket as Billups rotates to the top of the key. Derek Fisher collapses down on the penetration, deep into the lane. Four Lakers surround Nene in the paint, so he kicks to Billups. Straightaway three over Ron Artest, who tries to close but doesn't get there in time. Not exactly sure why Fish rotated down so hard, but it certainly didn't help.
#2 (9:50, Q1): Billups crosses half court, then moves left against Fish, trying to use a Kenyon Martin screen. The Lakers trap him hard, forcing the ball from his hands. Billups feeds Martin, who drives, then kicks back out on the right wing to Arron Afflalo. He drives, moving from the corner high towards the right elbow around Artest. Fish rotates down to cut him off, allowing Afflalo to hit Billups in nearly an identical spot. Fish tries to close, but can't get there fast enough.
#3 (4:09, Q1): Nuggets in transition thanks to a Artest airball on the other end. J.R. Smith runs up the left wing, drawing Artest and Fisher. Smith kicks out of the double to Chris Andersen just beyond the free throw line. The Birdman feeds Billups on the right wing. Kobe is slow to rotate up off Afflalo in the corner, and Fish can't make it from one side of the court to the other in time. This was was really set up by the ineffective offense at the other end. The Lakers never really had their defense set, as Billups' man was occupied in the opposite corner thanks to Smith's quick push up the floor.
#4 (1:00, Q1): Jordan Farmar in for Fish. Billups comes straight up the left side of the floor against JF, who retreats below the free throw line extended, likely fearing penetration. Instead, Billups just pulls up and buries his fourth triple of the quarter. It would get worse.
#5 (8:40, Q3): More transition for Denver, as the Nuggets come the other way following a bad pass from Pau Gasol to Artest on the other end. Martin gets the loose ball, and pushes quickly to Billups who moves quickly up the floor. With nobody behind him, Fish retreats to about the top of the circle. Billups pulls up quickly, and buries the shot.
#6 (3:47, Q3): The first of three Billups would hit in the most decisive 97 seconds of the game. With the Lakers up eight, Smith brings the ball up the right side, moves past Sasha Vujacic (in after Kobe picked up his fourth foul) to the right corner, but is contained well as Sasha recovers and Gasol helps aggressively. As Smith looks for an outlet, Andersen cuts from the left wing down towards the basket. Fish rotates down to cut off that option, leaving Billups open at the top of the arc. Smith hits Billups. Fish recognizes where the ball is going even before the pass is made and recovers, but doesn't get close enough. Again, fearing dribble penetration. Billups goes ahead and takes the shot. Fish gets his hand up, but it doesn't really matter. Should have bodied up and forced a dribble.
#7 (3:03, Q3): Again, in semi-transition, this time off a bad Vujacic three at the other end. Billups takes it up the right side, Fish picks him up early, as Billups indicates he might drive. Billups backs off. Fish stays on him as Billups pulls the trigger with Fisher in his face. At this point, he's just unconscious.
#8 (2:29, Q3): Sasha picks up Billups in transition. Smith tries to penetrate on the right wing, and is cut off by a crowd of Lakers. Sasha shades down as the penetration comes to near the elbow. The ball is kicked to Martin in the corner, who feeds Billups at the top of the arc. Vujacic, who habitually crowds the guys he's guarding chooses this occasion to merely stick an arm out at Billups, and only after Billups rises to shoot. Not terribly effective, to say the least.
#9 (1:57, Q3): Out of the timeout, Artest picks up Billups, who brings the ball up the middle of the court. Moving right, he tries to use a K-Mart screen, and is cut off by Lamar Odom, who shows aggressively. But Odom makes the mistake of turning his back on Billups just slightly, looking to recover on a rolling Martin. Except Martin didn't actually go anywhere, and instead Odom manages to screen Artest as Martin screens both Lakers defenders. Artest can't get around fast enough as Billups casually pulls up from about 30 feet. Again, he hits from his sweet spot, right at the top of the arc.
So all in all, what went wrong?
There were absolutely plays where the Lakers broke down before a Chauncey three. The first one, where Fish rotated down on Nene, was an unnecessary bit of help. On the play in the third where he closed on Billups after cutting off the pass to Andersen, Fisher did a good job recovering, but simply didn't get close enough to Billups once he did. Sasha's defense on his go 'round was absolutely awful, retreating too much and not really doing much to get the arm up once he did try to contest. The final shot, where Odom and Artest misplayed the pick and roll wasn't great, either.
The Lakers also hurt themselves in transition, where Billups had the freedom to either pull up or blow by a retreating defender. The moral of the story: Take care of the ball, take good shots.
None of this, though, is all that unusual. Over the course of a game, where a team might have 80 to 90 possessions, there will be moments where the D doesn't operate at peak efficiency, or guys make mistakes on an individual level. The real outlier was looking at the score sheet to see Billups had made them pay on nine of 11 threes through the third quarter. On a typical night, he'd make four or five. Six when he's rolling. Friday, Billups was simply on fire, and should be applauded. He's an All-Star who came up huge.
So when PJ gives credit to Billups rather than crushing his defense, on balance I agree.
My biggest criticism is the Lakers never seemed to respond to the idea something unusual was happening. Nobody forced Billups to put the ball on the floor. Fish is a big, physical defender, but didn't get up in his body. Sasha laid off. And PJ was slow to change the looks on Billups as well. Vary the coverages, so to speak. Artest took a turn on Billups, as did Kobe, but for the most part the Lakers continued choosing to concede the jumper rather than risk penetration from Billups and stuck too long with Fisher as a primary defender. Maybe the percentages favor it on most nights, but at the very least Friday night someone had to get a body on Billups and risk the ball getting into the lane, if only to change the rhythm Billups had established.
It's less about what Fish is doing wrong and more about making Billups react to something different. PJ was too slow in making that happen. (And while I understand Kobe had some foul trouble in the second half, there was no need for that much Sasha. Just speaking generally here.)
That Denver's shooting line is unlikely to be repeated in the next 25 times the teams meet doesn't change the significance of the loss, but insofar as it relates to Billups, I see it more as a great player making great plays more than unusually bad play from the Lakers.