The Nuggets have a defensive game plan that’s taken full shape now. They want to sag in the paint to disrupt post up chances and dare outside shooters to beat them. Be it Bynum or Gasol, the tactics are the same – barely guard perimeter players not named Kobe and make them bury the shots that they’ve struggled all year to hit.
For example, below is a still from the 2nd quarter. The Lakers have gone to their bench unit with Pau Gasol operating as the main offensive weapon. He’s surrounded by Jordan Hill, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Ramon Sessions. The offensive set starts well enough with Blake bringing the ball up and Matt Barnes setting a back screen on Al Harrington to try and free Gasol in the post:
But while the Lakers are trying to free Pau, look at where JaVale McGee has positioned himself. Jordan Hill is trying to clear to the weak side, but there’s McGee standing right in the passing lane of where Pau will be in a split second.
With that option gone, Blake has no choice but to swing the ball to Barnes (who pops to the top of the key after setting his screen) and then in an effort to move the ball on, Barnes swings the ball to Sessions. After the catch, Sessions initiates a P&R with Hill to try and get something going to the basket:
Look how the D is playing this action, however. McGee isn’t hedging at all and is inviting Sessions to shoot a jumper. But, for good measure, Afflalo is sagging off of Barnes and denying lane penetration just in case Sessions still tries to attack McGee. At this point, Sessions does the prudent thing and moves the ball onto Barnes who is wide open. When Barnes makes the catch, he sees that Gasol is open in the post and delivers a quick hitting pass into the Spaniard so he can try to get a shot up against the smaller Al Harrington:
But immediately after Barnes makes his entry, Afflalo digs down to the post to take away the middle. Also, look at Andre Miller cheating off of Blake in the corner to dig down should Pau try to go baseline. At this point, the best play is for Gasol to kick the ball back out to Barnes. And, with the shot clock ticking down, Barnes shoots a three pointer that misses.
Of course, Gasol isn’t even the main Lakers’ post threat these days. That label belongs to Andrew Bynum. Below is a sequence from late in the 1st quarter. This action starts with Barnes bringing the ball up and dribbling to the right wing. Once there, he dribble exchanges with Kobe and looks for the post:
Look where Andre Miller is, though. He’s already backed off of Barnes to try and discourage the post entry. Barnes then makes the pass to Kobe who passes the ball right back to him. This is a direct signal that the ball needs to go into the post and Barnes again looks to feed Bynum:
But look where Miller is now. Understand, Barnes has a live dribble here. He can do anything with the ball that he pleases. But, looking to execute the plan, Barnes does enter the ball to Bynum who promptly gives the ball right back to Barnes (who slid more towards the corner to create a better passing angle). But, with no where to go with the ball, Barnes passes the ball back out to Kobe:
After Gallo got his hand on the pass, Kobe recovered the ball and had to attack with the shot clock winding down. He drove hard to his right hand but this is what he saw:
At this point, Gallo is shading him right, McGee is in front of Bynum, and Miller has again left Barnes to cut off Kobe’s driving angle. The result is Kobe kicking to a wide open Barnes:
Barnes takes the open shot afforded to him and misses.
This is what the Lakers are facing on every single offensive possession. They want to get their big men post touches and the Nuggets want to take them away. When the ball does get entered, dig-downs are coming from the ball side wing and on other possessions coming from the weak side. The players getting cheated off the most are Barnes and Ebanks (when he’s in the game) as they’re the Lakers that shoot the worst from range.
At this point, counters are in order. After the game Pau spoke of using “different actions” to try and get the ball into the post and not just walking the ball up the court and trying to make a post entry right away. He called that “predictable” and he’s 100% right.
The Lakers need to move the ball more, cut and screen more, and then look for quick duck ins from their big men where they can catch the ball on the move or sliding into position where they’re more of a threat to score. By incorporating more ball and player movement before post entries are made, it should also afford the Lakers that extra beat of time they need to make a quick move to try and get a basket. Cross screens can also be utilized both in “horns” actions and in more simple sets that don’t involve the double high post look to begin a possession.
The bigs can also change ends faster while the Laker PG’s look to advance the ball more quickly. Rim-runs can be a good way to get the bigs more touches and shots close to the rim, especially against a D that isn’t yet set up fully. Remember, during the regular season the Nuggets surrendered the most points per play in transition situations, according to My Synergy Sports. The Lakers can run effectively against this team while not getting fully sucked into the type of up and down game that the Nuggets want.
In the end, though, the Lakers shooters must make the Nuggets pay. Barnes, Blake, Ebanks, and Sessions will continue to get open shots around the perimeter and they must knock some of them down to at least make the Nuggets think twice about ignoring them on D. I fully expect the Nuggets to continue to shade towards the Lakers big three but made shots will turn that strategy into a losing one, rather than what the Lakers saw last night.