Defending the Suns is a difficult task. Before this series started we talked about the nuances of the Suns offensive sets and how the variations of their P&R give teams fits. There’s a reason this team was the top ranked offense in the league all season (both in points per game and efficiency) – they’re damn good on that side of the ball. And while the Lakers had mild success slowing the Suns’ attack in the first two games of this series, whatever hurdles the Lakers were presenting are now gone. In games 3 & 4 the Suns blitzed the Lakers defense and we’re now at the point where the Lakers need to get back to their defensive principles to recapture their ability to be more than just a minor speed bump on the Suns’ path to 115+ points a game.
Below are 5 defensive techniques that the Lakers need to get back to on the defensive side of the ball:
1). Create the proper angles when defending the P&R. In the first two games the Lakers did a good job at simultaneously fighting over screens and hedging and recovering to the roll man. Understand that when Nash is the ball handler in the P&R, his top priority is to set up one of his teammates. So, the Lakers guards need to get back to getting over the top of the screen while the big men show on the ball handler in a way that discourages penetration while also limiting the passing angle to the big men. This is easier said than done, but if the Lakers can’t at least slow down the decision making process of the ball handler, they’ll continue to get beat on this action. In order to accomplish this, every Laker defender must have active feet and hands; they must have fluidity of movement to rotate and recover while getting their hands into passing lanes forcing the ball handler to hold the ball or getting deflections when the pass is made. The Lakers accomplished this reasonably well in the first two games and they need to get back to doing it in game 5 and beyond.
2). Containing dribble penetration. Again, this is easier said than done. Plus, this is one facet of the Lakers defense that has been an issue for multiple seasons running. However, besides the P&R, the entirety of the Suns offense is predicated off of dribble penetration into the paint. Whether it’s Amar’e, Dragic, Barbosa, or Nash the Suns want to drive the ball and either get all the way to the hoop for a layup/dunk or they want to collapse the defense to kick the ball out to open shooters. If the Lakers are going to slow down the dribble penetration, they need to do one of the two things. First is to be much better defensively while closely guarding ball handlers on the perimeter – which if you’ve followed the Lakers for the past several seasons isn’t that realistic. Second, and a better strategy, is to lay off the ball handler and turn them into jump shooters. This may sound counter intuitive because the Suns boast one of the better jump shooting teams in the league. However, besides Nash and Hill (and to a lesser extent Barbosa and Dragic) the Suns aren’t a team that is comfortable pulling up for jump shots off the dribble. So, by giving the ball handler space, you invite them to shoot pull up jumpers while at the same time limiting their driving lanes. How many times did Farmar or Brown give up drives to Dragic and Barbosa? How many baskets did those drives create? How many times did Amar’e bull his way to the hoop and make shots right at the rim? These are the plays the Lakers need to limit and it starts with either playing much better defense on the ball handler, or inviting them to take the pull up jumper instead of penetrating.
3). Remember transition defense principles. This is pretty straight forward as the Lakers need to understand that when in transition, the Suns players run to the three point line. In game 4, the Lakers often got caught out of position in transition defense by recovering to the paint when the ball was getting pushed at them. This led to shooters being left wide open behind the three point arc. In that 9 point burst that gave the Suns their lead (that they would not relinquish) in the 4th quarter, the Suns got two 3 point baskets just because the Lakers lost their men in transition and recovered to the paint. Needless to say, those baskets changed the tenor of the game and created a hole the Lakers never dug themselves out of. If the Lakers are going to defend the Suns effectively, they need to limit their transition points and that means marking shooters that run to the wing and wait for Nash, Dragic, and Barbosa to set them up after pushing the ball up court. The Lakers showed that discipline in games 1 & 2. They need to regain it in game 5.
4). Rebound at the defensive end. Whether or not the 18 offensive rebounds the Lakers surrendered in game 4 were an anomaly, that number is entirely too high and can’t be repeated. The Suns are too elite of an offensive team to give extra possessions and nothing good can come from the Lakers giving the Suns second chances to score the ball. In order to slow down the Suns on the offensive glass it’s going to take a team effort. Not only do the Lakers bigs need to rebound better than they did in game 4, but the Lakers guards/wings need to close down the FT line and not allow the long rebounds from the Suns’ missed jumpers to be grabbed by the opposition. This simply comes down to boxing out and hustling to the ball. If the Lakers want the ball, they have to go and get it. They can’t just stand around and hope it bounces to them. All of the previous points require focus and effort, but none more so than rebounding. The Lakers just need to put in the work.
5). Practice good shot selection. I know I said that these are defensive principles that need to be improved upon, but the Lakers shot selection is too intertwined with their struggles on defense to be ignored. In the past two games the Lakers have shot 60 three pointers and only made 18 (30%). That’s entirely too many attempts and too many misses that fuel the Suns transition offense. I understand that the high number of 3′s attempted are tied into the Suns’ zone defense, and that any talk about shot selection needs to also discuss how the Lakers can crack the Suns’ zone. But, ultimately, it’s not so much what the Lakers need to do to beat the Suns zone but ultimately the types of shots that the Lakers take that matter. The Lakers are scoring the ball well enough, but the fact that they’re taking and missing so many long jump shots is impacting their ability to effectively transition from offense to defense and thus doesn’t allow them to set up their defensive formations. That loss of defensive integrity is allowing the Suns to get into the paint too easily which then leads to over helping, which results in too many wide open shots by the Suns. So, the Lakers need to show more patience on offense and execute better if they hope to help their defensive efforts.
In the end, as Kobe said after game 4, “We lost the game because our defense sucked.” So if the Lakers are going to get back to their winning ways, they need to tighten up the D. It’s an old cliché, but defense wins championships and the Lakers haven’t been playing enough of it lately to advance for the chance to play for that trophy. Here’s hoping that when the Lakers return back home they rediscover some of the defense that they didn’t bring with them to Phoenix.