Before yesterday’s win over the Nuggets, the last game the Lakers played and won was a week before against the Thunder. That game was interesting for a variety of reasons – the elbow, the double overtime, and the fact that Blake, Ebanks, and Jordan Hill all played down the stretch over more celebrated options. After that game, I was engaged in a conversation via twitter about the model the Lakers used to beat the Thunder; about whether or not the approach the Lakers used was sustainable.
I replied that the Lakers model to get wins is normally independent of opponent.
What I meant by that was that the Lakers have real weaknesses and they’re the same against every team. Just as the Lakers have real strengths that are (mostly) the same over every team. In order to win any game versus any opponent, the Lakers must try to maximize those strengths while limiting those weaknesses. It’s pretty simple in concept while also, sometimes, being difficult in practice.
Fast forward to yesterday and we saw the Lakers execute their game plan to perfection on both sides of the ball.
On offense that meant pounding the ball inside and forcing the Nuggets to show how they’d defend the Lakers’ superior post players. Bynum, Gasol, and Kobe all got chances to operate below the free throw line to test the D. Early on, the Nuggets double teamed these players and, true to the plan the Lakers passed out to open teammates who then took (and hit) open shots. As the game evolved and the Nuggets couldn’t force the turnovers or missed shots off those double teams, they played more single coverage and the Lakers stars made them pay. Kobe and Pau went off and Bynum was able to sneak into the creases of the D where he received good passes or carved out position on the glass for put backs and offensive rebound chances.
Defensively, the Lakers forced the Nuggets to be a halfcourt team. With the game’s tempo slowed, the Lakers set up their D in a way that funneled ball handlers to Bynum with the results being a historic night of rejections and the Nuggets’ O then becoming more perimeter oriented. Jumpers were taken but missed their marks. Inside shots that weren’t sent away, were either taken over the outstretched arms of challenging bigs or hurried in an attempt to avoid them entirely.
This formula may sound Nuggets’ specific, but it’s not. Mike Brown was hired as a coach that would inspire the Lakers to play better defense. In his first press conference, he spoke of making crisp rotations and challenging every shot. He spoke of getting back on D, and making the opponent grind out points. Early in the year, the Lakers did just that, riding their defense to some of the wins that helped position them as the 3rd seed in the West.
In the 2nd half of the season, though, that defense faltered. Rotations were late if made at all. Shots went unchallenged as ball handlers turned the corner without impunity, stepping into makable shots. Fingers were pointed, heads hung low, and frustration mounted. Post game comments were filled with phrases like “we just didn’t get it done” and “we simply saw the same old, same old” when talking about the defense.
Yesterday, that changed though. Andrew Bynum reclaimed the paint. The wings pressured the ball. Rotations were back to early season form with shots getting challenged all over the floor by every Laker playing.
This is the blueprint the Lakers need to follow. It’s what their coach teaches and it’s what their players know to work. After all, in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won rings playing this same exact way. The coaches have changed. As has some of the personnel. But those that remain, remember it clearly.
During a break in yesterday’s action the production director cued up some tape. It was a mic’d up segment from a Nuggets’ huddle. George Karl was imploring his guys to go harder; to execute the plan he’d installed to beat the Lakers. He told them that with the way they were playing, he couldn’t tell if the game-plan needed tweaking as they weren’t executing it.
The Lakers don’t have such issues. At least not really. They know their path to winning is mostly independent of opponent. They know that they need effort and attention to detail on defense. They know that they need focus and precision on offense. These things have been true all year. What hasn’t been, is them doing it on a night to night basis.
With the playoffs here, that’s what needs to change; that’s the adjustment Mike Brown’s team needs to make. If they can simply bring it nightly, they’ll have more success than failure. No guarantees, just the best chance to win. Game one was a good place to start. A chance to duplicate comes tomorrow.