If the Lakers are going to go as far as their defense takes them, today they offered a statement that they hope to go very far in this post-season. In beating the Nuggets 103-88, the Lakers held the Nuggs to 35.6% shooting from the floor and an offensive efficiency of 95.7 (or nearly 14 points per 100 possessions lower than their yearly average). The Lakers got back in transition, turned the Nuggets into a perimeter team, and contested all shots both at the rim and on the wing. Simply put, they were dominant on that side of the floor.
And it started with Andrew Bynum:
Yes, Andrew Bynum recorded 10 blocks, tying an NBA playoff record in the process. And when added to his 10 points and 13 rebounds, he put up the first triple double in Lakers’ playoff history since Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals. The big fella was simply a terror today and his effort to contest, block, and alter shots were the difference for this team on the defensive side of the floor. To put some statistics to the dominance, the Nuggets shot 21-54 in the restricted area in game one (38.9%) and only scored 44 points in the paint. For a team that relies so heavily on getting points in the paint to win games, this was a problem. A big, big problem.
But it wasn’t their only one.
In the first half, the Nuggets tried to double team both Bynum and Gasol in order to force the Lakers’ hand on offense. Recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to guard both LA big men one on one, they resorted to sending the extra defender at them on the catch. When Kobe caught the ball below the FT line and put himself in a threatening position, the Nuggets sent an extra defender at him too. However, this strategy backfired somewhat as the Lakers’ trio made the simple passes out of the double to their role players. And, those role players hit shots.
In the first half, Devin Ebanks hit 5 of his 6 shots for 12 points. Working mostly on the weak side, Ebanks was the recipient of good passes and, seemingly prepared to take them, he knocked them down. But Ebanks wasn’t alone as Steve Blake also benefitted in that first half. When Blake subbed in for Sessions, he too found himself wide open as defenders rotated off him to shift towards the Lakers’ main threats. The result was Blake making 3 of his 6 shots (all from behind the arc) for 9 points. Those 21 points represented nearly have the Lakers halftime total and ensured that the Nuggets would have to re-examine their approach in the 2nd half.
And when they did start to single cover the Lakers’ big three more, they went to work in their match ups. In those final 24 minutes, Pau hit 5 of his 10 shots for 11 points. Working mostly from the elbow area, Gasol flashed great skill and finished in a variety of ways. A pull up jumper after his man gambled for a steal; a right handed dunk after getting a step on his man after a power dribble; a left handed sweeping hook over two defenders that he banked in – all shots initiated from the elbow. He’d even hit a three pointer to show off his range.
Not to be outdone, Kobe also went to work in the final two quarters scoring 23 points on 14 shots after going only 2-10 in the first half. Post game, Kobe acknowledged that he’d taken some bad shots in that first half (he noted that he’d hunted contact and fouls rather than looking for good looks) but in the 2nd half he’d simply gone back to basics to find his rhythm. And, really, that meant working his low post game. Seven of Kobe’s nine second half makes came in the the restricted area, mostly on deft moves involving fantastic footwork that allowed him to shake his defender and get right to the front of the rim. On one possession he’d face up and drive for the finish. On the next two he’d back his man down, spin or step through, and then get a lay in or a short jumper. On another he’d curl off a pick, make the catch, then ball fake before going up for the uncontested shot.
But, in the face of Kobe and Pau’s brilliance of mixing play making for others early with strong scoring later in the game, the key to this game really was the defense. Bynum’s presence emboldened the rest of his teammates to also be more aggressive. The ball was pressured on the wings. Guys played great position D but also used active hands to deflect and disrupt, forcing 6 steals (4 by Barnes). And, as a team, they stuck to the game plan of slowing down the tempo and turning Denver into a half-court team that would have to rely on outside jumpers to win. The result was one of the more disciplined games the Lakers have played on that side of the ball all season with the statistics bearing the fruit of their efforts.
Of course, the adjustments will now begin but thankfully they’re mostly needed from Denver’s side. After the Lakers claimed game one, it will be on George Karl to find a way to solve the tempo issues his team faced while producing shots inside that aren’t challenged by Bynum. And, from the Lakers side, we’ll see if they can keep up this effort and focus. I’ll say one thing though, I’d much rather be up after one game than behind and the team looking to build on success rather than searching for it. Today, that team – the one in the driver’s seat – is the Lakers.
*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com