With the Lakers set to start the defense of their championship on Sunday, we start our playoff preview of the Lakers/Hornets series. Today we focus on the Lakers’ offense vs. the Hornets’ defense.
Even though both the Lakers’ O and the Hornets’ D showed some signs of slippage as the season came to a close, the match up on this side of the court really is strength on strength. The Hornets feature a top 10 defensive unit (measured by points allowed per 100 possessions) and the Lakers feature a top 10 offense. Two of the reasons the Hornets were such a good defensive team is the fact that they have an excellent on ball defender in Chris Paul and the fact that they consistently slowed the tempo of the game down to make teams play in the half court. Once the game settled into a slow down affair, the Hornets used crisp rotations on the wing to contest jumpers and limit prenetration when the ball swung around, limited shots at the rim, and then played defense without fouling. For the year, their activity and ability to limit shots at the rim and in the paint was their most successful tactic, but their lack of size is a glaring concern in their match up with the Lakers.
So with that being said, in order for the Lakers to be successful on this side of the ball, they’ll need to consistently play to their strengths and attack the weaknesses of the Hornets to make them pay in the half court. That starts with going inside to both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Even before David West hurt his knee, the Hornets lacked capable size to defend the Lakers interior players. After West went down, the Lakers’ advantage in the paint only became more pronounced. Okafor and Landry will work hard, but just don’t have the requisite height to defend their counterparts. And while back up big men DJ Mbenga, Aaron Gray, and Jason Smith do possess better size, they’re lower level players whose only redeeming qualities are their bulk.
Based off all this, it’s no wonder that the Lakers have had so much success by attacking the interior of the Hornets’ defense and why it needs to continue in this series. Understand that in four games against the Hornest this year, Gasol averaged over 22 points, shooting 70% from the field on 11 FGA’s while knocking down 82% of his free throws on 8 attempts per game. Gasol will mostly be matched up with Carl Landry where his height and length advantage is enormous; he’ll need to be fed the ball consistently to exploit Landry down low and on the short wing. Against Landry, I’d love to see Gasol do most of his work in the hub of the Triangle to put his ability score and pass to teammates to best use. Operating out of the hub means that there will both strong and weak side actions where teammates cut and screen off the ball, giving Pau a multitude of options on any given play. This isn’t to say that Pau should only work on the strong side. Isolating Pau at the weak side elbow will put Landry on and island, enabling Pau to shoot his jumper in space or attack of the dribble to get off his jump hook going to either hand.
Getting Bynum consistent touches should also be a priority. Obviously, how Bynum responds to his latest setback with his knee will determine how much of an offensive force he can be, but testing this out early needs to be a part of the game plan. Like Gasol, Bynum has put up some excellent numbers agasint the Hornets (15 ppg on 64% shooting, 71% from the FT line on 5 attempts) and as we documented in his first start of the season, his size and strength advantage over Okafor down low can lead to very good results on offense. Where I’d like to see Bynum do a lot of his damage is on weak side duck ins where he’s able to seal his man on the backside of the Triangle and get to the front of the rim when the ball reverses to the top. By stepping into the paint on the weak side, Bynum is using the defenses’ want to help against them by removing the gap that exists between him and his defender utilizing his strength against smaller men. Phillip also explains another tactic the Lakers used to get Bynum going:
What really stood out to me was after the initial entry and clear out — much like they do when anyone gets the ball in the post — a guard, Fisher in this video, would slide over to the wing on the side Bynum had the ball. Bynum was kicking the ball back out to that guard and re-posting up using a wide base and his strength to get better positioning underneath the basket. When Bynum was able to get as deep as he does in this particular video, his size made it nearly impossible for Okafor, or whoever was guarding him, to stop ‘Drew from scoring.
By getting Bynum and Gasol touches in the post against undersized defenders they’ll not only create efficient looks for themselves, but also for their teammates. Attacking the Hornets inside should be the number one priority in this series.
This size advantage should also give the Lakers the advantage on the offensive glass. Against the Hornets, the Bynum grabbed nearly 2 offensive boards a game and Gasol grabbed nearly 4. I’ll let Phillip take it from here:
Pau was huge on the offensive glass in all four games against NOH this season. He averaged 3.75 ORB for two reasons: his length and the Hornets’ propensity to allow the Lakers to sneak in for cheap rebounds due to their zone. On that note, the next few clips, all with the Hornets in the zone, will illustrate a few things that were great or need to change. First, here’s Pau grabbing two early offensive rebounds and getting layups out of them. Notice the Hornets zone and how no one is really even in a position to put a body on Pau. If the Hornets employ this zone, it’s going to be up to Pau to go after those offensive boards aggressively.
The Lakers other obvious advantage is on the wing. Trevor Ariza is their best wing defender but he has some issues on defense against both Kobe and Artest. As Zephid explains:
This will be a very interesting series for Artest. There’s no one on the Hornets that require his defensive abilities, so his offense will be key. Ever since he came to the Lakers last year, he’s been super aggressive against Trevor Ariza, the fan favorite who he replaced. We’ve seen his bull rushes into the lane, and as hilarious as they look, they have been very effective against the much lighter Ariza. Artest should also have a very strong offensive rebounding game, as the Hornets don’t have anyone who can box him out.
In the last game, the Hornets actually put Ariza on Kobe – likely because they saw that Ariza wasn’t having much success on Ron, plus Marco Belinelli’s ability to guard Kobe is what you’d expect from Marco Belinelli. However, the results in that game weren’t much better for the Hornets. Kobe scored 30 points on 25 shots (a number drastically skewed by his 1-6 on three pointers), mostly having his way with Trevor for the entire contest. Kobe worked mostly out of the triple threat, jab stepping to create space for his jumper and then driving around Ariza when played too closely. In this series, I expect Kobe to continue to be aggressive but I’d also like for him to reduce his shot volume in favor of utilizing his big men. As Phil Jackson stressed in his pre-playoff press conference, the Lakers need to get back to playing to their strengths and while Kobe is a strength, the Lakers big men are too. I do think Kobe (and the other wings) recognize this, but being reminded on the eve of the playoffs isn’t the worst thing. If needed, I have full confidence in Kobe’s ability to work in both isolations and within the structure of the Triangle to get his shots from the mid post, at the elbow, and coming off screens. I do hope his work in 1-4 sets is limited however, as there are better ways to attack this team.
Considering that the Lakers have so many inherent personnel advantages, it would not be a surprise to the see the Hornets play a fair amount of zone defense. I mean, the Hornets’ best defender will be mostly guarding the Lakers’ last option on offense (Fisher) and the overall strength of the Laker team is attacking inside. With the Lakers not being a strong perimeter shooting team, this tactic makes complete sense and the Lakers need to be prepared for it. As Phillip shows in the clips below, the Lakers have know what they need to do to break the zone but don’t always do it. First up is an example of what not to do:
This last clip shows the Lakers attacking the zone more effectively. Both of them start with an entry pass to Pau at the pinch post, where he reverses the ball over to Kobe. Kobe, then, does Kobe-esque in route to the basket and finishes around the rim instead of a three point shot being taken. What both of these plays illustrate are pretty much the three main principles of attacking zone defenses: Ball reversals, gap penetration and entry passes.
In the end, the Lakers have too many advantages on offense to really struggle scoring agaisnt this team. The Hornets invite a slow down pace and this only further plays into what the Lakers want to do on this side of the ball. As always, however, the Lakers’ success will come down to playing with intelligence and patience in a way that capitalizes on their strengths. The Hornets will not just roll over and allow the Lakers to make these entry passes and will likely try to bait Kobe, Fisher, and Artest into taking long jumpers rather than looking to the post. The Lakers need to avoid falling for the trap and work their game plan consistently. If they do, I don’t see there being a problem scoring the ball.