We took an extensive look at defending the Thunder a bit earlier, but if the Lakers are going to compete in this series they’ll need to find a way to score. During the regular season the Lakers shot a shade under 40% over their three match ups, a success rate they’ll need to go up over this series if the Lakers want to hang tough.
Achieving this will not be easy, however. The Thunder have assembled a group of defensive minded players that match up very well with their Laker counterparts. Perkins, Ibaka, and Sefolosha are all plus-defenders that just happen to play the same positions as the Lakers big three. When you add in Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder have the size, length, and athleticism to slow down any offensive attack.
All that said, the Lakers – especially after the Sessions trade – were one of the elite offensive teams in the league. And regardless of any individual defensive prowess of the players they’re facing, the Lakers have elite skill players that can create shots for themselves and their teammates when utilized correctly.
Here’s some keys to making sure it can happen…
*Take advantage of single coverage
The Thunder aren’t a team that wants to commit the second defender. As I mentioned, they have strong individual defenders at the key positions (wing and both big men spots) to slow any team’s attack. So, the Lakers will need to beat single coverage when they see it, or at least compromise it enough where the help instincts of the Thunder defenders take hold.
This starts with the Lakers post players. Kendrick Perkins is a fantastic one on one post defender. His low center of gravity, natural strength, and long arms make him a challenge to move and an obstacle to shoot over. Andrew Bynum, however, is a monstrously massive man. Bynum may not be able to bury Perkins under the rim, but he will be able to get the ball 10 feet and in and then use a couple of power dribbles to get into the range where his jump hook becomes a viable weapon. If the Thunder are intent on letting Perkins operate on an island against ‘Drew, these moves must be dusted off the shelf (Bynum hasn’t seen single coverage since stretches of game 2 vs. Denver) and put to work. Bynum will need to park himself at the left block, use a rhythm dribble or two, and then preferably use his left hand hook shot after drop stepping baseline. This shot allows him to turn away from any help coming from the middle (which is where Ibaka will be planted) but also allows him to use his softer touch from that side (while also setting himself up for his favored step through move along the baseline).
Pau must also get aggressive with Ibaka but will need to use a varied attack. Ibaka isn’t nearly the one on one defender that Perkins is, but his shot blocking ability and timing to contest shots is extraordinary. So, Pau will need to use all his tricks and craft to get Ibaka into positions on the floor where he uses his want to challenge shots against. Pau can work the elbow in the Lakers’ horns sets and shoot his jumper but must also use his first step to try and attack Ibaka off the dribble to close the distance between the two and then go his post moves. If Pau dribbles hard to his right and and then slows to set up a back to the basket move, he will find good looks. Pau can also use straight post up actions to set up his own jump hook and turnaround jumper, but must use some fakes to get Ibaka second guessing on when and how the shot is going up. Lastly, Pau must take advantage of Ibaka’s desire to be a help defender. On many possessions Ibaka will leave Pau to help on a player threatening the rim and it’s these moments that Pau can dash into open space to either get off a jumper, dive for a shot at the basket, or hit the offensive glass when a shot goes up. Pau can’t be a bystander when he’s helped off of, he must be assertive.
Kobe will also see a lot of single coverage and the Lakers must utilize his ability to work off the ball to take advantage of it. Sefolosha does a good job of guarding Kobe in isolation from the top of the key and the wing, but can be taken advantage of in sets similar to the ones the Lakers used against Denver to knock Afflalo off his scent. Pin downs, cross screens, and stagger options can all be used to get Kobe going towards the basket or curling into position to shoot mid-range jumpers in rhythm. Kobe will obviously still have to isolate a fair amount, but if he’s finding a rhythm in these alternate sets he can build some momentum in his game to work from a standstill.
Another way to get Kobe going is in forcing switches so he can work against smaller defenders. In part one of our series preview, I mentioned that Kobe should guard Westbrook on D. Well, one of the benefits of that is the potential to force cross matches in early offense. If Kobe can make Westbrook stick to him in transition defense, offensive sets where Kobe gets to the low and mid post to isolate become that much more effective. Give me Kobe backing down the smaller (though still strong and athletic) Westbrook over the bigger, longer Sefolosha all game and I’ll take my chances with him getting looks at the basket.
*Get Sessions going to the rim.
Over the course of his short tenure with the Lakers, we’ve seen that Sessions can be an impactful player. However, if he’s relegated to shooting jumpers and can not find daylight to attack off the dribble his utility diminishes. The Thunder are likely to take a cue from the Nuggets and sag off Sessions to make him prove he can hit jumpers. And, while I want him taking some of those shots in rhythm and without hesitation, I also want him to force the issue a bit more. When he comes off picks he needs to use his speed look to turn the corner more decisively. When he’s in the open court he needs to threaten the defense a bit more and probe to see in an opening is there.
By no means am I saying he needs to compromise the Lakers desires to control the tempo, but he does need to test the limits of what the defense is giving him and what he can force upon them using his natural ability. Again, the Thunder are not likely to devote more than a single defender against any single Laker. Sessions should see opportunities to attack off the dribble and use his in-bewteen game to get off shots in the paint or create looks for teammates when the Thunder rotate. If the Lakers are to get the points they need, Sessions will need to make an imprint on some of these games. And while his job may be the hardest – balancing the team’s needs to control the flow while also being aggressive looking for his own shot is not easy – he has the ability to excel if he’s dialed in. At the end of the Nuggets series he wasn’t there. He’ll need to be now.
*Get creative on screen actions.
Sessions/Kobe pick and rolls; Pau/Bynum pick and rolls; cross-screens for big men coming to the ball side post; pin downs for Gasol to free him coming to the elbow; Ron/Gasol pick and rolls….I can on and on but you get where I’m going. All of these actions have been used throughout the season to help generate offense but the Lakers haven’t incorporated all of them into single game plans yet these playoffs.
I don’t expect to see all these varied actions in a game one. They may not even all be used in any single game period. But, the Lakers have these sets in their back pockets and they mustn’t lose sight of the fact that some variety in how they use on and off-ball screen actions will greatly aid them getting the points they need. Again, the Thunder bigs are willing helpers and actions like the ones listed will put them in compromising positions where they’ll either have to make a choice. Any split second of hesitation can be the difference between an open shot or the need to move the ball on to a teammate, especially on a team with the athletes OKC possesses.
- The Lakers must punish small lineups and/or weak defenders. When Durant is playing PF and he’s guarding Gasol, the Lakers need to feature him in the post. If he’s guarding Jordan Hill, he must be bullied under the hoop and forced to rebound his position. When Derek Fisher is in the game, he must be attacked in isolation (hopefully it’s Sessions doing the attacking). The same can be said of Cook. The Thunder will try to maximize their offensive output by tilting lineups towards their skill and shooting. The Lakers must counter by going more rugged and making these guys work on their less preferred end of the floor.
- Nick Collison is a second unit defender to watch out for. He’s great at fronting the post and is willing charge taker. When he’s matched up with Gasol, the Lakers must recognize quickly that the front is coming and look to exploit it with high-low actions between the bigs. If Hill is at the FT line, he need only throw the ball to the square and let Pau use his length to go get the ball. Also, because Collison will look to take charges, the Lakers must be willing passers when the penetrate the lane. Collison is looking for contact and must leave his man a beat early to position himself. Drop off passes and little lobs will be open when he’s helping.
- It’s been implied, but here it is implicitly: ball security matters a great deal in this series. The Thunder are long athletes that will challenge passing lanes. They’ll try to block shots at the rim. They’ll pressure ball handlers to try and force errant passes. The Lakers must not get turnover happy because those miscues will turn into points going the other way. Few teams change ends like the Thunder and if the Lakers don’t take care of the ball, they’ll see that fact for themselves first hand.
- It seems so obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the Lakers must make some three point shots this series. Steve Blake was hot in game 7. Ron hit a couple of deep threes as well. Barnes will need to join them and Sessions will need to show that he too can hit the open jumper. While the Lakers offensive plan is to work for good looks and exploit OKC from 18 feet and in, hitting shots from 22 feet and out will help create the spacing needed to execute that plan.