With barely any time to enjoy the Game 7 victory over the Denver Nuggets last Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers had to quickly turnaround and make it to the Chesapeake Factory to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals.
The Lakers may have been suffering from tired legs as well as an overall lack of energy in route to a 29-point shellacking at the hands of the Thunder, but there are still some adjustments that will need to be made in order for the purple and gold to have any type of success against their current opponent.
In Game 1, OKC shot 53 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from 3-point range and attempted 29 free throws. Also, the Thunder outscored the Lakers in paint scoring (48-44) and also managed to score more second chance points (21-11) despite the fact that L.A. had 13 offensive rebounds to their 10.
Combine that with OKC only coughing up the ball four times, and the conclusion is rather simple: the Lakers were outplayed and their defense got exposed as they surrendered a staggering 119 points.
The purple and gold’s defense was in trouble in large part because they were simply not able to contain Russell Westbrook.
The UCLA product submitted one of the best all around performances of this postseason so far as he went off for 27 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals on 10-for-15 field goal shooting. In addition, the Thunder point guard only turned the ball over once.
After seeing Ty Lawson and Andre Miller manhandle Ramon Sessions in the first round, Mike Brown made the business decision of sticking a stronger and taller Kobe Bryant on Westbrook. The idea was simple: the Thunder point guard would have to shoot over Kobe’s outstretched arms, have trouble blowing past him off the dribble and wouldn’t be able to take him down in the block given Bryant’s superior strength.
In theory, the idea was brilliant.
In practice? Not quite.
Scott Brooks put Russell Westbrook in multiple pick-and-roll situations involving Andrew Bynum given his unwillingness/inability to come out on the perimeter and hedge hard to disrupt the timing of the action. Consequently, Westbrook exploded off the screens for jump shots at the top of the key with Bynum retreating to the paint.
Although the strategy was unsuccessful in Game 1, it does not mean that such will be the case for the remainder of the series. Indeed, there is still the possibility of Westbrook missing his jumpers and then becoming a little too aggressive; which is where he usually ends up making mistakes and coughing up the ball.
Nonetheless, Brown’s current strategy might prove to hurt his offense.
With Bryant forced to shadow Westbrook, it means that he will have to often match him stride for stride in transition and also run through multiple ball screens. This may cause the Lakers superstar to progressively wear down as the series unfolds.
Also, it’s worth noting that given all of the pick-and-rolls that OKC ran, Westbrook was able to routinely get inside the paint and create high percentage shots for himself and his teammates. Further exacerbating issues, during a stretch in the third quarter, Blake got stuck guarding the former Bruin and he took him to the post and proceeded to score on him seemingly at will. MySynergySports tells us that in post up situations this season, RW converted 36.3 percent of his attempts; but there he was making buckets over the outmatched Steve Blake Monday night.
With that said, the Lakers might still have a trick up their sleeve: Metta World Peace.
World Peace is physical and strong enough to fight through ball screens from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and recover to muscle Russell Westbrook and frustrate him when he has the ball in his hands. Also, he has the length to contest his shot as well as the quick hands to help knock the ball loose should RW try to split the trap in the pick-and-roll.
Mind you, putting World Peace on Westbrook might force Mike Brown to alter his lineups unless he is fine with Kobe chasing Durant around screens and defending him down the block.
So the option here may in fact be to have MWP, Kobe and Matt Barnes play together at times when James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are on the court together. Barnes could match up with Durant while Bryant would defend Harden.
This would be a pretty big unit for the Lakers and could be a plus on the boards. Offensively though, Bryant would essentially assume ball handling responsibilities and would have to relinquish some of his scoring responsibilities in favor of setting up his teammates.
It gets tricky though when we look at the regular season numbers.
Turns out that the Lakers only used that trio when they went small (as opposed to big, which is what I originally thought), essentially making MWP their power forward. Have a look at the minutes they piled up during the course of the season as well as which players they accumulated them with and their net plus-minus rating projected over 48 minutes according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool:
Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol
Fisher, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol
Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol
Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Bynum
Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, McRoberts, Bynum
The samples are obviously quite small and thus it’s tough to truly draw conclusions from them, but the five-man unit of Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace and Gasol could potentially be an interesting offensive and defensive unit. Brown could potentially unleash it to match up with OKC whenever they decide to play small ball.
In that scenario, Sessions would end up defending Daequan Cook or Derek Fisher.
Offensively, the Lakers would have some semblance of perimeter shooting to complement Gasol’s interior game and with Sessions on the floor, Kobe wouldn’t need to be the primary ball handler, which means he could assume his regular scoring duties.
The other units struggled — and it explains why they played so little — with rebounding the ball, protecting the rock and personal fouls.
And really, these are the options that Westbrook — and to some degree Durant — will force Mike Brown to consider. His speed, athleticism and strength will make him a tough cover for just about every perimeter player on the Lakers, but the opportunity to put World Peace on him might prove to be a great wrinkle to throw off the OKC Thunder.
Let’s just remember that such a move doesn’t happen without consequences in all the other matchups.
Does coach Brown drop that first domino in Game 2?
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.