The Lakers come out of a brutal four game stretch 2-2, and it could be 3-1 without a couple lucky shots by the Spurs (and a rare mental mistake from Fish). Lakers fans are feeling pretty good about their team’s chances right now — and we all should be. This is a contender.
But the other thing that has emerged, both in the last four games and over the course of the season, is the blueprint for beating the Lakers. And I don’t mean just one game in the middle of January, I mean over a seven-game series.
And there are teams that can do it. David Thorpe, ESPN.com analyst and Executive Director of the Pro Training Center at IMG thinks that the Spurs may be that team:
I still think San Antonio is the most dangerous threat to LA. First of all, they beat the Spurs 3 times in the playoffs last year by 4, 2, and 8 points. In those games, a severely disabled Manu scored 10, 7, and 9 points. Bigger picture — LA has an excellent defensive team because of the way they work together, but they have only 1 or two very good individual defenders. So a team like San Antonio, with 3 stars (when healthy), really puts a lot of pressure on that defense to move as a unit. Also, the Spurs are gritty tough (like Boston), forcing all of LA’s softness to the forefront. If they play with force, LA can win that series. But can they play with force, assuming all 3 of the Spurs stars are healthy?
The Spurs do match up well with the things that a team needs to do to more than just chant Beat LA.
Play Defense. Simply put, the Laker offense is too good for a team to win a shootout with the Lakers for seven games. There are too many weapons, too many guys who can hit the shots. Darius said it well in a recent email:
If teams really think that they can milk our defensive deficiencies into victories, I don’t think it will work. If the Finals taught me anything it’s that if you play tough enough D our Offense can stall and you’ve got a chance. But if you can’t stop our Offense, you’re not going to have enough firepower to beat us. And that was without Bynum.
What the Celtics did in the Finals last year is really still the model for stopping the Lakers. They pressured the ball, but what they maybe did best was stop the ball rotation to the weakside, something the Lakers had done well in getting through the Western Conference.
Thorpe chimes in on that:
Yes-forcing the triangle to stay on one side of the floor is always a smart plan defensively. It helps define help positions while allowing those helpers to stay more stationary, as opposed to moving from help to strong side positions. In short-it allows players to know with more alacrity that they are the helpers on a particular possession. So it ends up bottling Kobe and Pau on slashes/cuts to the paint, as helpers are already there.
If there is one thing we all — from myself and commenters — have wanted to see more of in the triangle offense is the ball to work from the inside out. When that happens, the cuts and weakside plays that the Celtics took away, opens up. Reed expands upon that:
(Teams should) do everything possible to get the ball out of the hands of Gasol and Bynum. If the offense isn’t running through them, the team is likely to either revert to Kobe ball or jack up too many difficult perimeter shots, many of them from people like Ariza and Odom. If Gasol and Bynum get the ball early in the clock they either get a high percentage shot or force the defense to collapse, freeing up open shots for others. The more Kobe shoots, the better chance you have.
On that last note — the Magic had Kobe doing a lot of that at the end of the game the other night, and it worked. The Cavaliers let Kobe get 12 assists and so at the end of the game he did not need to be the gunner.
Let’s talk about the bigs. A couple days ago Nomuskles had a great post on what Bynum is doing now. Thorpe had some thoughts about Bynum as well:
The guy he reminds me of the most right now is actually Rik Smits. Bynum, like Smits, is a huge man with an excellent shooting touch. Not elite level athletes, but inside forces that can score. At 21, there is still a long way for Bynum to grow, but he isn’t forced to do that because he already plays for such a good team that does not need him (at present) to develop into a 26 point per game beast.
Don’t turn the ball over. This really obvious statement is key to beating any team. But it is especially important against the Lakers, particularly when their bench players are on the floor because they want to get out and run and turnovers fuel that. Taking care of the ball is one of the best ways to slow the Lakers bench.
Be efficient on offense. While you need to focus on defense, your team still needs to put up 90+, and the Lakers defense can make that hard some nights. That said, there are ways to attack the Lakers.
One good way is to have bigs that can shoot from 17-feet or more out. The Lakers struggle with Sacramento because their bigs can do just that, pulling our zone apart and our shotblockers away from the basket. Cleveland could not do this last night without Big Z in the lineup and the Laker bigs at home slowed LeBron James, maybe the best dribble-penetration guy in the league.
One little thing a lot of teams have already started doing is to attack the Laker defense with penetration from the top of the key area (rather than the wings), taking away what the Lakers strong side zone. Notice this is something the Cavaliers did poorly with LeBron James (maybe the best dribble penetration guy in the game) — he started on the wings and the Lakers help was waiting for him.
Reed can take it from there:
The Lakers have several poor defenders in terms of knowing when and how to rotate, so getting into the lane from the top will almost always result in an open corner 3. Getting into the lane also will likely result in Bynum getting into foul trouble, and the more he sits the easier it is to get easy shots inside (see Boston in last year’s finals). Don’t be afraid to initiate your offense a little earlier in the shot clock than usual as LA’s length can make it difficult to score one on one when the clock is winding down.
Darius has a little something to add:
I’ve noticed that the Lakers really do a poor job of dealing with motion offenses. I noticed this against the Kings and the other night against the Pacers as well (I also remember Utah going to their Flex offense in the playoffs and it giving us problems). When there are back cuts that are built into the offense or when there are designed actions where the screener cuts hard after setting a pick off the ball, the Lakers really struggle with who they are covering and where they should go to compensate.
That’s the blueprint. The question is: What team could pull it off consistently in a seven-game series? What team has the matchups to do it? What about the mental toughness?