In situations like the one describing this Lakers/Thunder series, conventional wisdom would normally tell us that this should be a learning experience for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re a team with a collection of young talent making their first playoff appearance against the defending World Champions, a team that has gone to the NBA Finals two consecutive years. However, for right now, it’s the Lakers who can learn a thing or two from the Thunder, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
Yes, the series is tied 2-2, but for the most part, the Thunder have outplayed the Lakers up to this point. The Lakers have won THREE quarters, that’s it, and the Thunder are outplaying the Lakers with the very defensive scheme that the Lakers should be using on them. I believe that we’ve all finally accepted that the Lakers are a horrendous three-point shooting team, but what the Lakers need to realize is that the Thunder (barely) had a worse shooting percentage from behind the arch than the Lakers did this season (Lakers shot 34.1%, the Thunder shot 34%). During this series, the Thunder are shooting only 30 percent from behind the three point line. So shouldn’t the Lakers adapt to the Thunder “crowd the paint and make them beat us from outside” philosophy? I certainly think so. Let’s take a look at how both teams are defending and see where the Lakers need to make an adjustment.
On this first sequence, we’ll see how OKC got their first basket in Game 3 after the Lakers got out to that 10-0 start. This first picture shows Kevin Durant holding the ball at the top of the key. Jeff Green had just cut through the middle of the key to run to the left corner. What I want to point out is the number of Lakers defenders in the painted area: zero. They’re too concerned with what might happen if the ball is caught behind the three-point line.
In this second picture, the ball has been moved from Thabo Sefolosha to Jeff Green in the left corner. We see Pau Gasol guarding him way out at the three point line (against a guy who had been struggling and a team that had yet to score) giving him baseline. Andrew Bynum is too high out guarding Nenad Krstic considering where the ball is and where a pass would have to be made – and still, not one Laker is completely in the paint (‘Drew is partially in the paint, but only because Krstic is there).
In this third picture, we see why not crowding the paint is hurting the Lakers. Jeff Green drove baseline and beat the slow-footed Andrew Bynum to the spot, got the bucket and the foul. Gasol is not quick enough to guard Green being so close to the three-point line, especially if he’s going to give him a definite lane. If Bynum wasn’t so high out on Krstic, he’s already at the spot, and Jeff Green is forced to take a short jumper or the same shot without the benefit of getting the call.
However, one of the main reasons I thought this clip in particular was so important was how it illustrate how the Lakers aren’t ending their defensive possessions when they can. Yeah, Green made the shot and got the foul, but if he didn’t, the Thunder were in excellent position to get the offensive rebound. Since Gasol was beat, Drew and Kobe had to rotate over, leaving Krstic and Westbrook free to rebound without a body on them. Bynum wouldn’t have been in the best rebounding position and Gasol wasn’t in position at all. Kobe would have had to work around the bigger Krstic to get that rebound.
This second sequence shows how the Thunder have played the Lakers and why they’ve been able to outplay the Lakers more often than they’ve been outplayed. This first picture is here just to give you a glimpse on how this possession started. Notice how the Thunder are playing. They’re focused on making it tough on Kobe (Durant playing on the weak side to help Sefolosha if it’s needed) and over crowding the strong side making help easier to give when the ball rotates to that side, because it can’t go anywhere else at this point save a Kobe dribble drive.
On this second picture, the ball has moved to Derek Fisher. Again, notice where the Thunder defenders are. Everyone is shaded over to defending the strong side. As of right now, Derek Fisher has no where to go but to give the ball back to Kobe. There are no driving lanes, there are no interior passing lanes. Yes, the Lakers have awful spacing, but they’re disciplined in what they want to do no less. The defensive scheme is focused on preventing those things because they understand that the Lakers have struggled shooting the ball all season.
In this picture, the ball has gone from Kobe and back to Fish in the corner. Look at the Thunder defenders now. As Fish looks to get the ball inside, everyone’s eyes are on where Fish wants to make the pass. Sefolosha has fallen off of Kobe, Green is inching closer to help on the backside to help a fronting Krstic, Durant has taken his focus off of a Artest who likely isn’t getting the ball from there and Russell Westbrook is applying great ball pressure. There are three guys with at least one foot in the paint at this point.
On this last picture, we see that the Thunder have gotten what they wanted – a three point attempt. If they can’t turn the ball over, they want the Lakers to be shooting from as far away from the basket as possible, because if it’s a miss, it’s essentially creating a turnover for them. Long rebounds are gold for this team as they’re fast break starters. Most importantly, the Thunder have rebounding position for all five guys. Not one Laker has inside position over a Thunder defender, and for a young team, not giving up second chance opportunities is definitely key to winning basketball games. Yeah, Kobe made that shot, but they can live with that because it’s a team that shoots less than 35 percent from that range.
With this knowledge, I would hope that the Lakers can make the necessary adjustments, especially later in games when Russell Westbrook likes to get going. It’s no longer about stopping Kevin Durant, it’s about stopping a basketball team. They absolutely need to clog the lane and make the Thunder a collection of jump shooters instead of drivers. The Lakers are going to give up some fast break points, that’s a given, but they can’t continue to give up points in the paint in half court sets. They have too much size for it to be so easy for the Thunder.