The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them
I typed that sentence roughly 8 million times in the preseason and the first month of games. But as the season has moved on and wins kept piling up, the early season mantra has faded out. The offense has been beautiful, shiny toy that distracts us from a defense that is at times brilliant and at times frustrating.
But the mantra remains true. It is the Lakers defense that is the key to a title — and now is the time to start really ratcheting it up.
Which is why the Dallas game was frustrating. The Lakers were in control of that game early because of that distracting offense — Pau Gasol was in control of the paint and that was opening up wide-open threes for Ariza and others. But while the Lakers were shooting 71% eFG% in the first quarter, Dallas was shooting 67%. It wasn’t Dirk and Kidd, the Lakers did a good job of pushing those two out of the places they wanted to be on the floor, then contesting their shots and passes (at least early in the game).
Then Terry entered the game and quickly nailed two threes for Dallas. He’s like that; this is a pure shooter and a guy who for a night can carry a team. They run him of screens so he can catch and shoot, put him on the weakside so he can get skip passes. The Lakers know this, he has burned them before. This means you have to adjust, you don’t stray far from the hot hand. So what do they do? Sasha, Ariza and Walton all had turns on him, and while Terry hit some contested shots the Lakers players — particularly bench players — were not getting through picks fast enough and he was getting a lot of open looks. Bigs were not helping out. It was a team effort.
Then the Lakers offense started helping Dallas — long jumpers against a zone that missed and became long rebounds led to fast break and early clock chances for the Mavericks.
Finally, when it mattered, the Lakers got stop by pressuring the ball on Kidd and Dirk, not letting them make the clean, easy pass to Terry or anyone else. But the Lakers went lax on defense for a long time. Rather than put a team away again, they played around. Phil Jackson said as much after the game, saying the Lakers now do not have the killer instinct of the team from earlier this season. That is particularly true on defense, and particularly with the bench, which seems to want to steal and break rather than play team defense.
That frustrating game followed a couple where the Lakers defense was also up and down.
In Houston, the Lakers could not stop the Rockets inside — Yao Ming and Luis Scola combined to shoot 14 of 18. Part of the problem here for the Lakers was not having Bynum, but the Rockets were able to get balls inside on a defense that is supposed to protect the paint. The Lakers did a poor job slowing entry passes or interior passes. Fortunately for the Lakers, Brooks and Artest wanted to do all the shooting, and the Lakers played those two well. With Artest, they just didn’t let him get to the rim and he was not hitting his jumper (plus, he just destroys the flow of their offense when he tries to take over a game).
The one good thing the Lakers did against the Rockets was pressure the ball and create turnovers. When the Lakers defense is going well against anyone, you see this. Phil Jackson talked about this in a backhanded way: When asked the difference between the NBA Finals Mavs of a couple years ago and these Mavs, he talked about the ball pressure defense. How they never let you get easily into the offense or the spots you wanted on the floor. The current Mavericks team doesn’t do that.
The Lakers do it sporadically. Then did it in the final minutes against Dallas Sunday and it worked.
Against the Spurs, the Lakers used a smart defensive system, as Darius explained.
I really liked how we kept the ball on one side of the court against the Spurs offense (the Spurs really helped us accomplish this by continuing to initiate their sets from the wing, but that’s a tangential discussion). We did not allow Parker to get back to the middle of the court and continued to force him baseline and feed him to our bigs. Parker would much rather shoot from directly in front of the hoop with his floater or come at an angle where he can use the glass, but when he comes from the side and he can’t do either he will not force it. I also liked the way that Odom played Parker when we switched the P&R-following him through the lane and then chasing him back to the perimeter, playing off him, and then contesting his jumpers. In the second half, we didn’t do as good a job of keeping Parker out of the middle of the court and he showed why he’s one of the better scoring guards in the league.
Part of the challenge for the Lakers is that their best defense seems to flow out of the offense — when they are hitting shots and they have time to set the defense and put on whatever level of ball pressure, they do it. When shots don’t fall, someone argues with the ref while a couple teammates are back trying to stop a break or a drag play (a high screen early in the shot clock before the defense sets). When the Lakers are set, they tend to be good.
Having Ariza in the starting lineup seems to help. Against Dallas, we saw him spend time on Jason Kidd, a PG too big for Fisher but not a good enough shooter to warrant Kobe’s full time attention. Ariza can guard positions one through three, and it opens up what the Lakers can do. In the second half against Mavs he spent time on Terry, Kidd and Singleton, and the Lakers use him as the long-armed closeout guy on the weakside of the zoned off defensive scheme.
But we all know the Lakers have the personnel to play good defense. The question is are they focused on it. Right now, starting in the next stretch, they need to get that laser focus back.
The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.