Game one was a disaster for the Lakers that us fans would just as soon forget. But for the players, there’s a fair amount to glean from that blowout loss. Because with every missed rotation, bad coverage, and offensive miscue the Lakers can take note and do better. To win tonight, they must.
In a vacuum, that shouldn’t be that difficult. Outside of the first 10 minutes of the game, the Lakers didn’t do much right. And while the Thunder deserve credit for capitalizing on those mistakes, the Lakers can turn tonight’s contest into a much closer affair should they simply avoid being so giving on both sides of the ball.
With that said, here are a handful of things to improve on tonight that can lead to the Lakers evening up the series…
*Play the pick and roll and all other screen actions better. In game one, the Lakers did just about everything wrong in covering the P&R. Guards got caught on screens, big men sagged too low against ball handlers turning the corner, and wings over helped trying to compensate. This led to the Thunder getting clean looks at the hoop and the Lakers hanging their heads as the points piled up. In other types of screen actions the Lakers took the same approach and were burned in the same manner. When Durant curled off picks, his man got clipped without recovering quickly enough while big men sagged below the action waiting to be attacked. If you recall Durant’s first quarter dunk over Bynum, that play was set up because Ron was a step slow in recovering and KD used two long strides to elevate while Bynum hung back.
Adjustments here are easy in principle, but will require effort and discipline in executing them. First and foremost, guards must get through screens quicker. Whether chasing over the top or darting underneath, the guard must recover and do so quickly. Second, the big men must play the screen higher. Whether they hedge hard or play it more flat doesn’t necessarily matter as long as they’re higher in the action and ready to defend when the ball comes at them. Hanging back and inviting pull up jumpers in rhythm can lead to the type of onslaught seen on Monday. Third, the defenders not directly involved in the play must be alert and ready to help the helper. When the bigs commit, teammates must have their backs. Wings must drop down to help defend the paint and everybody must gang rebound.
*Cut out the live ball turnovers. The Lakers first possession was a bad pass that was stolen and dunked going the other way. In the first half they’d commit 7 more turnovers that OKC turned into 16 total points. The Thunder posted the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the league during the regular season and hung a 133 rating on the Lakers on Monday. Giving a team with that level of potency extra possessions – especially ones that lead to the easiest types of baskets – is a recipe for disaster. The Lakers must be more careful, but also act with more purpose on offense. Too many Laker turnovers seemed to be the result of over thinking an action or trying too hard for the primary option instead of looking to counters that were more open. The Lakers need to play smart, but loose. If something isn’t there, go away from it and attack another way. The Thunder are a smart defensive team but the Lakers made them look even smarter by not swinging the ball, not attacking off the dribble, and not using a varied attack. That must change tonight.
*Get Kobe moving into attack positions more often, preferably below the foul line. Whether on or off the ball, Kobe was spending too much of his time working 18 feet and out. At that distance his game becomes overly dependent on making jumpers and as the old saying goes – you live by the jumper, you die by the jumper. Kobe must instead work closer to the rim to find his rhythm. I’d love to see some of the cross-screen actions out of their “horns” actions to get Kobe flashing into the post or curling into the paint. I’d love to see him work more stagger screens that bring him to the short corner or get him on the move where he can make his catch at the pinch post with a live dribble. I’d also like to see him operate in the P&R more, especially with Gasol. It’s been a while since the Lakers utilized their Kobe/Pau P&R on a cleared side that forces the rotations that ultimately lead to Bynum being free under the rim. Dusting that action off would be a sight for sore eyes.
*Push the ball more. The Lakers had 0 (yes, zero) fast break points in game one. Against a long team that has strong individual defenders in the half court, that’s something that needs to change tonight. I’m not asking for the Lakers to turn into the SSOL Suns, but they could do well to take a page from the Spurs handbook and push the ball into the front court and look to seize opportunities against a defense that isn’t set. Be it Sessions or Kobe or Ron, advance the ball and look for the cracks in the D. The Thunder are a middling transition D team that likes to crash the offensive boards. Their will be opportunities to run, the Lakers need to recognize them and pounce.
The Lakers can also look to throw the ball ahead to Barnes leaking out after he contests jumpers. Barnes is likely to see a lot of minutes against Harden and Durant who are both fond of taking long jumpers that he’ll be closing out on. When those shots miss, he can lead out. The same is true of Gasol when he contests Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers in pick and pop situations. Many of these actions end with Serge taking 16 foot jumpers from the elbow area, and if the Lakers are gang rebounding the way they’re supposed to be, Pau can afford to run out a few times a game.
Ultimately, Playing 90 possessions against a stout half-court defense will grind any offense down. The Lakers must do more to cash in on the open court chances that present themselves.
*More big to big passing/actions. After the game, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol sat on the bench together discussing strategy. They surely understand that despite having Kobe Bryant on their team, their play will have the largest impact on the Lakers’ chances this series. With that being the case, they must find more ways to work together in order to take advantage of the aggressive play of OKC’s big men. Both Perkins and Ibaka want to get up the floor on defensive coverages. Both also want to be steady helpers at the rim to block and contest shots. This approach makes both vulnerable to smart cuts, quick duck-ins, high-low passes, and offensive rebounding chances. Ball rotations from the Lakers wings will aid in these actions but both Bynum and Gasol must be ready to take advantage when these opportunities present themselves. They can’t be caught standing and watching, nor can they get down on themselves should things not go their way early. They must continue to work and pound away because these openings will materialize.
*Get some bench production. The Lakers don’t possess a natural scorer off their bench. The reserves aren’t called upon to provide instant offense, their job is to support the starters their mixed with and to run the offense in manner that maximizes those players’ games. However, that doesn’t mean L.A.’s subs can play long stretches without looking for their own shots and knocking down the open looks they’re going to get.
I’ve already mentioned the need for Barnes to run out more and try to get some easy baskets in early offense. He’ll also need to rediscover some of his regular season success as a slasher who finishes at the rim after ball reversals. Steve Blake needs to be assertive with his shot and hit some of the open jumpers he’ll be afforded. He can’t have a repeat of game one where he only took a single shot, looking mostly passive in the process. Jordan Hill must also find a way to get some baskets either as a garbage man on offensive rebounds or by taking advantage of the attention drawn by his post partner by sneaking into the paint and getting good looks off quick passes. No one expects these guys to match Harden point for point but being outscored by the 6MOY as a unit (as this trio did in game 1) certainly won’t get it done.
Yesterday the Pacers stole a game from the Heat in Miami in their game 2 match up. Yes the Heat were missing a key player but the lesson remains the same. These games are winnable should you execute well and go hard the entire contest. The Lakers are underdogs; they’re facing a better team. But they have the pieces that can win should they work their plan well. Tonight gives them another chance to do just that.