Yes. Yes, they are.
The way playoff series’ evolve is one of my favorite part of the second season. The way game plans get tweaked with adjustments countering adjustments and both sides playing chess on a 94′ x 50′ piece of hardwood captivates me as a fan. There are few things better than watching the players, in the moment and over the course of every successive contest, react and adjust as the game within the game shifts like the colors in a kaleidoscope.
And this series, while disappointing to me on countless fronts, has provided all the requisite twists to be an entertaining one. The Lakers have gone from clearly in control to the cusp of elimination in a free for all scheduled for Saturday night. How they’ve gotten there has a lot to do with the Nuggets, but the Lakers also have their issues to sort out that are mostly of their own making.
Mainly, the game has slowed too much.
When this series started I was banging the “Lakers must control the tempo” drum as loud as any other person analyzing the match up. Making sure the Lakers played the game at their pace was as important, to me at least, as any statistical output you could name. And, after the first two games, the Lakers played exactly the way I would have wanted them to in that regard while cruising to two wins. They pounded the paint through post ups and offensive rebounding chances, got back in transition while making the Nuggets jump shooters, and worked patiently through most possessions in a precise, clinical manner. I felt validated.
However, as the series has progressed the Nuggets have turned the Lakers’ want to play a half court game against them.
By walking the ball up the court, the Lakers are using precious seconds of the shot clock to set up their half court offense. A half court offense that is increasingly more stagnant due to the Nuggets defensive approach of sagging off all shooters and treating the area inside the three point line like a safe zone from a nuclear blast. The Nuggets have become more than content to let the Lakers initiate their offense with 15 seconds left on the clock and look for post up chances that lead to nothing but a kick out pass after a hard double team or a swing of the ball around the perimeter as post entry angles are cut off. All those passes lead to are jumpers in the half court; jumpers that the Nuggets are more than happy to cede because they lead to run out chances of their own, igniting the open court attack they thrive on to produce points.
Plus, in the process of slowing the game down, Ramon Sessions’ game has been neutered. This walk it up style has turned him into a chained cheetah who only gets to let off the leash to run around in a caged in back yard. He’s relegated to walking the ball up and put into half court possessions 65 times a game where he can’t use his speed or quickness often enough. Sessions has been relegated into a spot up/pull up jump shooter and that’s never been the strength of his game. He’s still good enough to get some baskets at the rim, but can anyone honestly say he’s had an impact on this series?
But accommodating Sessions isn’t exactly the key to winning a series. That, of course, is getting sustained high level production out of the Lakers’ bigs. As mentioned earlier, though, that’s simply not happening right now. Bynum and Gasol no longer get easy baskets. On nearly every possession they’re surrounded by defenders who are looking to disrupt every move they hope to make. Sure, the Lakers can tweak their half court sets (please, please do this Mike Brown) by incorporating more screen actions. Plus, better and quicker ball movement can help get them the ball easier without passing angles being as easily disrupted. The bigs can also help themselves out by making their moves quicker after the catch rather than holding the ball and waiting for the second (and third) defender to interfere. But getting the ball via rim-runs and other quick hitting actions in early offensive sets can only aid them in getting on track.
This is a point that can’t be stressed enough because Gasol and Bynum need to get on track. At this point it’s more than fair to say that they’ve both had long stretches where they’ve checked out mentally/stopped trying as hard as possible (and that’s putting it nicely). Last night Bynum showed some effort on the glass but close to none when protecting the paint in help situations (where he’s needed just as much as on the glass). Gasol was even worse in that not only did he not rebound well, he didn’t defend well either. When you combined with their “efforts” in transition defense, the Lakers bigs were actively hurting the team.
And while I’m not trying to excuse how they’ve played (re-read that again, please), I do understand that the way the series has evolved must be frustrating for Gasol and Bynum. Pau’s only clean looks come from jumpers and Bynum hasn’t had more than one or two in a single game since game 2. And while I’m fully of the mind that neither should let their offensive frustrations bleed into the defensive responsibilities, I think we can all agree that it is. Neither are contesting shots the way they need to, rebounding with any sort of physicality (a lot of Bynum’s 16 were stand still rebounds), or running back on D with any sense of urgency.
As much as we’d like it to be, possessions aren’t compartmentalized in an NBA game. What happens on one side of the floor affects what happens the next time down on both sides of the ball. And at this point the Lakers bigs look they’ve been beaten down not just because the Nuggets are working hard and playing them physically, but because the strategy on how to get them going hasn’t really changed with the results, predictably, being the same as well. Again, I make no excuses for the Lakers bigs. But if the wings aren’t making shots and they keep facing the same hard doubles and shaded passing angles every possession for 3 straight games, something is going to give. And, with that frustration reaching a crescendo, it’s been their effort.
There are a lot of things wrong with the way the Lakers are playing right now. And it would be disingenuous for me to claim that one simple fix like speeding up the game is going to turn the series around. But, again, the pace is now too slow and it’s making what should have been a Lakers’ strength – their big man play – neutral at best. Adjustments will need to be made to their half court sets to partially off-set some of the double teaming. The Lakers wings making shots would help a great deal too. But, at this point, the Lakers must also start to take advantage of the Nuggets in the open court and get easier shots.
With only one game left, long term strategy to beat Denver is out the window. The result from this one game will be the difference between advancing and an even longer summer vacation. The Lakers must do everything they can to win. And, from where I sit, that means speeding up the game some.