Following game 1, we talked a lot about adjustments. How would Kevin Durant and the Thunder solve the riddle of Ron Artest’s defense? How could the Lakers beat a fronting OKC defense? What could the Lakers do to slow down Russell Westbrook’s onslaught of the paint? Etc, etc, etc. Well, I’m still waiting for answers to these questions. On one sideline we have a 10 time NBA champion and on the other we have the freshly minted Coach of the Year (needless to say, two pretty smart guys) and I’m still seeing each team struggle with cracking the other team’s codes. Durant, while getting his numbers is still shooting an awful percentage from the field (27-74 FGA’s, 5-20 from three), the Lakers still can’t consistently get the ball inside (31 threes attempted in game 2), and Westbrook is still getting to the rim quite frequently (sorry LO). My point in all this? It still comes down to executing the game plan on the court. It’s naive to think that the coaches aren’t installing schemes to counteract what the other team is doing against them, but it’s still on the players to go out and do it. In game 2 how many times did the Lakers look to the post, get discouraged from not seeing an opening, and then proceed to just pass the ball around – burning precious seconds off the shot clock – and then fire up a long jumper? I’m pretty sure that’s not how it was drawn up in practice. Again, it’s on the players to make the right reads and decisions that lead to success. The coaches can only repeat what they want; they can’t suit up and play the game too. But, that doesn’t mean that they coaches don’t keep tinkering. So with that in mind, we look at more adjustments…
Last night, we saw the Thunder make a line up adjustment down the stretch. In the first two games, Scott Brooks was searching for that one player that he could play next to Durant, Westbrook, Collison, and Ibaka that could score the ball. He tried Thabo. He tried Harden. He tried Green. None of them worked. However, last night he went back to Harden (not a difficult choice considering the game he was having) and found that other offensive weapon that could be relied upon. However, the consequence of playing Harden was that the Thunder really didn’t have a great option to guard Kobe. Both Harden and Green have had limited success on Mr. Bean in this series so going back to them would have only been asking for trouble. So, Brooks went with Durant. At this point, I must give commenter Aaron some credit because he was touting Durant’s defensive ability before this series started (essentially saying the better player is typically better at everything) and I essentially said that Thabo was still the better defender. And while last night didn’t necessarily change my mind, Durant did flash some very good defensive ability against Kobe. But, I think where the Lakers got in trouble was in how they decided to attack the freakishly long Durantula. Essentially, the Lakers went into an isolation heavy attack and asked Kobe to create against a long and quick defender. Umm, that hasn’t worked for the majority of this season (think Batum, Thabo, Matt Barnes, etc). Even when Kobe was able to get a half step on Durant, the Thunder’s bigs were in full help mode and quickly showed Kobe the second defender (this is one of the reasons that Kobe was settling for pull up jumpers against KD). What I would have preferred the Lakers do was go into an attack where Kobe played off the ball and could make his catches coming off screens and flashes rather than in isolation on the wing against a locked in defense. If we see this match up in the next game, I have a feeling this is exactly what we’ll see.
But freeing up Kobe is only one aspect of more successful offense. At this point, I think it’s obvious that the Thunder have a knack for denying the Lakers direct post entries. You can blame the bigs’ lack of fighting for position or the guards’ general lack of patience, but the Thunder’s defense deserves the bulk of the blame (from LA’s perspective). The Thunder are either effectively fronting or just plain moving our bigs off the block to disrupt the spacing that makes feeding the post easier. So, rather than calling for a high-low game that has been absent for most of the season or for the Lakers to use a pass to the corner that they don’t seem comfortable making (lest it initiate our scissor cut/sideline P&R action) like I did after game 1, what I’m now looking for is better timing on the flashes from our weakside big/wing. On several occasions last night, the Lakers were in their Triangle set on the strong side and when the post entry wasn’t there, the ball handler then looked for the weakside big or guard to flash and that player was no where to be found. There was even a sequence where Kobe (as the top side guard on the strong side) had picked up his dribble, was pressured into turning his back, and then in desperation just through the ball away as neither the weakside guard nor big flashed to make themselves available to receive the pass. On the following possession, Kobe hit one of his three consecutive three pointers (with a sly grin for Harden after), but that is beside the point. If the Lakers are to actually open up passing angles to the post, they have to reverse the ball (a point Doug Collins made repeatedly during the telecast). But, if the Lakers are to swing the ball, they need for their weakside players to flash in rhythm and with timing to create the passing opportunity. Without that action, the Lakers are not going to be any more effective than they currently are.
And this leads me to Lamar Odom. Odom is our best flashing big man and our second best passing big. He’s a player that has a good feel for angles, spacing, and timing. However, few of those traits have been on display in the first three games. If stating that Lamar needs to play better was a reasonable adjustment, I’d leave it at that. However, things aren’t that simple (that’s like saying Fisher, Ron make shots). In order to get Odom going, I’m hoping to see a couple of different options. One is a greater emphasis on the two man game between Odom and Pau. Whatever issues that Odom has had in the past, he’s often been excellent when paired with Gasol on the weakside. And one play in particular is the weakside screen and roll action that is used primarily to get Pau a post up look. As you can see in this breakdown from NBA Playbook, LO and Pau run this set to get Pau an easy catch on the mid block. After the catch, Pau goes to work against his defender and gets an easy lay up. However, this is a set in which Odom can also thrive as a cutter due to Pau’s ability to score on the block. As Pau holds the ball, the instinct of the player that is guarding Odom is to help down on Gasol, and it’s when that defender helps that Odom can take advantage by cutting/slashing to the basket or into open space. Second is to get Odom on the move more and coming to the ball on offense. Similar to what I’ve described for Kobe above, those same sets can work for LO. Have him curl into the paint for easy jump hooks. Have him screen on the weakside and then open up to the ball handler to receive passes. These are all tiny adjustments that can be used to get LO more active and more into the flow of the game.
We’re now at the point where adjustments and counters are going to be even more important. Brooks’ adjustment to ride Harden’s hot hand and then switch Durant on to Kobe probably won the Thunder the game. If Phil or the Lakers can make similar adjustments (in the form of the few I mentioned or others) the Lakers can take game 4 and be in command of the series. However, if the Thunder are the ones that can make the changes that lead to more sustained success, they’ll have a great chance of returning to Staples with the series tied. Which coach can do the better job and which players can follow through on the court is something that will determine the winner of game 4. I’m hoping that Phil is the one that has the Thunder second guessing after the next game.