While it can be informative to look at the regular season series between the Lakers and the Spurs, the fact is that both teams are different than the versions that played in those games. Injuries and other personnel decisions have affected roster composition. Further, the playoffs typically offer tweaks to offensive and defensive sets in an attempt to account for strengths and weaknesses of a specific opponent who won’t be changed until they’re dispatched (or hailed as victors).
Said another way, what we saw in the regular season matters but we should also expect some changes based of who’s available to play and what those players can and can’t do well on the floor. With that in mind, let’s look at this series on both sides of the ball to try and sort out what the Lakers need to do to remain competitive…
When the Lakers have the ball
First and foremost, wether or not Steve Nash plays in this series is a very important variable in how successful the Lakers’ offense can be. With Nash in the fold — assuming his healthy enough to replicate how he played for most of this regular season — the Lakers are much more dangerous on that side of the ball. Nash not only offers expert level shooting, floor generalship, and an on ball creator in the P&R and isolation who can create good shots, but they also lose an off ball threat who’s work as a screener is integral to the team’s success in HORNS sets and also a player who affects spacing simply by being on the floor. There’s a ton of tangible and intangible value with Nash in the mix and that’s magnified even further with Kobe injured.
All that said, whether Nash plays or not the Lakers will need to be a post dominant team offensively. The ball must be worked inside on a majority of their possessions, if only to affect the Spurs’ help defense by forcing them to collapse inside. If there’s one thing we know it’s that Dwight Howard’s combination of quickness, strength, and athleticism can give Tim Duncan problems. In the game from this past Sunday, Howard regularly used his first step to get an advantage on Duncan and then used his strength to get better position so he could finish inside. The Lakers will need to work the ball into Howard in a similar way this series, not just through standard post ups, but by moving him from block to block with screens and on dives to the post out of the P&R to enable him to earn his position. If Dwight can get deep post touches he’ll score on the majority of those possessions and that will influence the Spurs to begin double teaming and fouling him to try and get the ball out of his hands or make him less affective.
Gasol too must be a featured weapon, working against Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner. Pau can offer more versatility than Dwight in that he’ll be stationed all over the floor to try and maximize everything he can bring offensively. When the Lakers go to their HORNS sets, Pau will often be the trigger man up high while the wings set and come off screens. Pau will need to be at the top of his game as a distributor, reading the action in front of him and making the right pass/shot decisions to keep the flow of the offense going. A major key, of course, is his high-low work with Dwight and if the Lakers are to maximize their attack they will need to find a way to keep that action fresh and effective.
That said, just because Pau starts a lot of possessions at the elbow doesn’t mean he has to stay there. In fact, the Lakers offense will be better off if he finds ways to work his way down to the block after starting a set up high. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, but first is to simply turn down the jumper in order to take a hard dribble towards the rim to create a post up chance. The defense is likely to sag off Pau and rather than using that space as a buffer for his shot, he can close it down by attacking and trying to a spot inside of 10 feet. Second, Pau can turn a quick pass or hand-off from the elbow into a P&R opportunity for him to either pop for a jumper or (preferably) dive to the box to get a post touch. The Lakers don’t have a lot of perimeter threats to occupy wing defenders so they’ll need to get creative with secondary P&R actions like this in order to get their big men the ball in positions where they can do damage. Pau’s decision making after starting a possession as a facilitator will be key to make this happen.
Where the Lakers will need to show the most creativity (and get contributions above what was provided during the regular season) is from their crop of perimeter players. Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark and Ron will all need to hit the jumpers afforded to them when the defense collapses on Dwight and Pau. Further, they’ll need to also show some offensive variety in how they attack the defense and not solely rely on hitting outside shots. Jamison and Clark will need to be active cutters, working the creases of the defense when their defenders turn their heads. Ron will need find post up opportunities on weak side duck-ins, especially when one of Pau or Dwight are on the bench. Blake will need to mix in some drives to the rim where even if he misses the shot he’s drawing defenders and enabling offensive rebounding chances. Even Meeks can work as a cutter off the weak side to get shots in the paint and/or attack closeouts with a couple of dribbles and either try to hit a shot in close or kick the ball out to another teammate if the defense slides over to help.
Maintaining spacing and effectively moving the ball against such a disciplined defense will be difficult. Especially since the Spurs will try to take away the ball reversal that can so often lead to the quick post ups the Lakers want to feature as a staple of this Kobe-less offense. However, if the team is assertive with their movement of bodies and aggressive when attacking with the ball, they can, hopefully, create makable shots via the template they used last week.
When the Spurs have the ball
There’s an old saying about slowing a great team that involves “cutting off the head of the snake”. To beat the Spurs, this phrase applies in relation to Tony Parker. The Lakers’ primary goal is to limit his effectiveness. To do so, however, is difficult and requires a team effort. Primary defenders must funnel him away from the middle of the floor and into space where help is readily available. The help must step up early and maintain discipline in order to not give up an angle that allows him to slip by to the rim. When shots go up, they should be challenged without fouling. This needs to happen on every possession of every game.
Understand that even if this takes place, he’s still going to make shots. Parker has a wonderful mid-range jumper that he can make from either side of the floor. He also has a great floater that he’ll use when coming off the P&R or when attacking in transition. But if the help is there consistently and the primary defender is doing his job, he can be slowed. (As an aside, expect to see Darius Morris used as a primary defender on Parker over the course of this series. Morris offers good size and lateral quickness and has had some success on Parker this season.)
Of course, Parker is only one piece of the puzzle. The Spurs’ offense is so great because they not only have great players, but because they run a disciplined system that incorporates magnificent ball movement that picks out the open man more often than not. That begins with Parker, but funnels through every player on the floor at one point or another. Key to this is Tim Duncan’s versatility as both a high and low post presence. One of the Spurs’ pet plays is a high P&R with Duncan setting the screen where he pops to the top of the key area. At that point Duncan can either shoot his jumper, attack off the dribble, or start a dribble hand-off sequence with the wing on the opposite side. When running that secondary hand-off option, the Spurs create another P&R where Duncan rolls to down the lane line and that sets up an open shot for him or a skip pass when the defense collapses. That pass often catches defenses in mid-rotation and sets up open jumpers for players like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard that they knock down with stunning consistency.
For the Lakers to slow this, then, they need to be sharper than ever on their rotations to Duncan at the top of the key and then on the back side after that secondary P&R occurs. The weak side guard (in many cases this will be Meeks) will need to hedge towards Duncan to make him pause on his jumper attempt (enabling his man to recover) and the scurry back to the wing where his man is spotting up ready to either shoot a shot or cut hard to the ball to receive the hand-off. If the Lakers can slow this sequence, they’ll force a reset of the Spurs’ offense and they can run the same action all over again.
Understand, this is what the Spurs do. They consistently test the patience of the defense and look for that key moment when a slight breakdown occurs so they can pounce. Whether that’s from Parker (or Ginobili) creating off the dribble, a quick pass to a shooter (Green, Neal, Leonard, Bonner), or a quick hitting action to Duncan where he can take advantage via post up or on a dive to the rim when the defense is overcompensating, it’s all the same to the Spurs. They want to consistently create a series of hard choices for the defense and then make the right read. All the Lakers can try to do is remain as focused on making the correct choice as often as they can and, in some cases, simply hope the Spurs make a mistake or miss an open shot.
Beyond the system, Parker, and Duncan, the Spurs also have several key role players who will need to be slowed. I’ve already mentioned Leonard, Neal, Green and Bonner as shooters. They must all be marked around the arc and all offer a different dynamic based off who will defend them (especially Bonner who is a classic stretch four and will either be drawing Pau away from the paint or require a smaller player guard him). Another key player who can really hurt the Lakers, however, is Tiago Splitter. In the game last Sunday he broke free for several shots inside the paint that he just happened to miss. He’s crafty in getting into open spaces and has good enough hands to make the difficult catch and still finish inside. He’s developed a nice chemistry with Duncan and can play high-low or block to block with him quite nicely. I don’t expect Splitter to suddenly morph into a 20 point a night scorer, but he can certainly score enough points to shift a game or two in the Spurs way and that’s all it takes to seize control of the series.
It’s safe to say the Lakers will be heavy underdogs in this series, which is a totally reasonable position to take. With Kobe out and with Nash’s availability uncertain, the Spurs are clearly the better and deeper team. That said, the rules of the game don’t change and there are models the Lakers can use to stay competitive in this series. It will take massive efforts from Dwight and Pau on both sides of the ball, perimeter players to hit shots, and for the defense to show more discipline than they have all season. Having all those things go the Lakers’ way certainly isn’t impossible, but it’s not probable either.
That said, this is what the Lakers fought so hard for. For this chance. We’ll see how much they have in them starting on Sunday.