Lakers vs. Spurs Playoff Preview: Looking at Offense and Defense

Darius Soriano —  April 19, 2013

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.

Darius Soriano

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21 responses to Lakers vs. Spurs Playoff Preview: Looking at Offense and Defense

  1. Question: What will be the mindset of Laker management, Laker fans, & Kobe if this team led by Gasol & Howard actually reach the 3rd round? I know it’s easy to say “we’ll deal with that if it happens” or “that will never happen”. But it’s something to consider. Makes you wonder what you’re actually rooting for.

    Things that make you go hmmmm…….

  2. Big City: Interesting. I have been in a state of depression of late as you can imagine. However, I always root for the Lakers no matter what. The concern I had in the area to which you refer is already past. The Kobe injury may actually prevent a possible big decision by the FO. The KB prognosis ranges from “ready for the opener” all the way to “career ending”. So let’s take a middle of the road approach and say he is back 1/2 way through next year. He won’t want to end it on a halfseason, and he won’t want to end it elsewhere either. His injury would hold down a Cuban or other party from throwing crazy money at him, so he retires a Laker after a couple more years – which is a good thing. We had already made up our mind on DH and we are going to try to retain him. Pau – we could trade for the right deal, but I think we keep him too unless someone really wants him and doesn’t make us take baggage. The only one who was possibly on the bubble, pending the results was MD, and Mitch already gave us the answer (Mitch did not wait for the final results or the jury to come in). So I don’t think the results change the future plans of the Lakers, so all parties can cheer vocally !

  3. i heard jeanie bus is the new lakers governer. does this mean she has a higher rank than Jim bus?

  4. kobe going down allowed our guys to be relaxed if that makes any sense. the expectations especially after buss’s death put so much baggage on everyone but now u can see d howard being carefree and smiling as well as the bench players play w more confidence knowing that they will get court time regardless.

    it contributes to them playing more to their nature which will coincide with mda’s philosophy of ball finding energy.

    also i think this injury can push kobe into pg mode nash as backup change pace pg against scrubs groom howard and give kobe extra years by redefining his eliteness in assists instead of pts.

    and imagine the friggin narrative as kobe the ball hog finally gets it and becomes an elite pg who assists his team to championship? the media will just create a lot of stuff out of this…

  5. re: the previous thread…. I personally don’t make anything at all of MK’s ostensible ‘vote of confidence’ towards MDA. What was he supposed to say: ‘We’ll make a decision in the off-season’? ‘We’ll see how the playoffs go?’ ‘We would like to keep him, but if Dwight refuses to resign if MDA remains here, then I guess we’ll have to fire him, even if that’s not our first choice?’

    If MK expresses any uncertainty whatsoever, MDA then is asked about his job before and after every game and that becomes the story throughout the playoffs. That’s bad for everybody– the team, MDA personally, Dwight in particular, ownership. Don’t forget Mike Brown got a big vote of confidence right before he was given the axe.

    My personal sense is that MDA has earned another year due to his masterful job of working through adversity all season and culminating in a Rocky-like run in which we won an incredible series of games (GS, @ POR, SA, HOU) against enormous odds. That said, resigning Dwight is priority #1 and if he wants MDA gone, I guarantee you whatever Mitch says in April will have little bearing on what will ultimately happen.

    After a difficult first half of the season in which the Lakers were not just injured but also often played with a terrible sense of entitlement – it was like rooting for Goliath at times – I’ve really been impressed, emotionally invested and even moved by their play down the stretch. I don’t think we can hang with the Spurs, but to have made it this far with a lineup in which a Blake-Meeks-AJ triumverate sees big minutes is an incredible accomplishment. MDA deserves a lot of credit for achieving surprising success under unthinkably difficult circumstances.

    A humble request: for the playoffs, can we avoid silly derogatory nicknames? Rare indeed is the post that refers to ‘Jodie Reeks’ or ‘Pringles’ or ‘Jimmy Boy’ or ‘Mitch Kupcake’ that contains otherwise substantive content. It’s certainly not my call, but I think it would be one way of elevating the discussion…

  6. Injury: Nash had his first full practice today and is ‘hopeful’ for Sunday. Hill had a limited practice today but has not been cleared for contact drills. It seems like he’s close, but not sure if that means Game 2 or Game 5.

  7. Great analysis. I think Jamison and Clark could prove critical as X factors this series, both on offense and defense. Obviously, Dwight, Pau, and Blake have to play lights out, but the Lakers will really need to get that something special from others.

    Can’t wait — let’s go Lakers!

  8. No more name calling. Lakers showed real heart since Kobe went down. Mike did finally make the adjustments to give them a chance.

    That being said, the experts are giving them no chance. I believe they do have some chance if Parker remains slowed or is re-injured. I feel if we see more Steve and Steve at the guards they can make it a series. Sorry but Jody was the worst shooter of the top 8 players and those who know the game could see how often he got lost or back doored
    on defense.

    If Metta, Nash, Morris and Clark can contribute they can make this a 7
    game series and that is more then I expected a month ago. As for MD if you listen to his non-comments and his agents comments you all must realize it will come down to Dwight or MD. That us a no brainier.

    Good luck Lakers. Shock the world and love to see Griz stop the Clips.

  9. This is simple, if Kobe didnt played the minutes he played during that stretch, would the Lakers be in the playoffs today? NO. Sorry but it was necessary.Every game was a playoff game.

    =========

    So are you saying riding Kobe till he couldnt walk anymore just to make the playoffs was necessary?

    I always thought the this 4 HOFer lineup was a 2 year project and not a one year “all in” thing. And from what I remember, Miami got it all together in the second year and not the first year.

    It’s a damn shame that the coach (boo!!!) was so careless in handling a super-car-like player in Kobe. If only he learned to drive the super car better and managed it better so the engine wouldn’t break.

    Whose to say we couldn’t win a championship in year 2. Dwight, Pau and Kobe finally figured out how to play with each other. Add an athletic wing in the offseason and this team would give Miami chills in south beach.

  10. i honestly believe in this team…at least i believe they can beat the spurs and if the grizzlies can take out the clips i think we could make life tough for memphis too…the lakers showed ugly, man like grit the past 10 games…if they keep playing that way we will be a pain in the ass for everybody…defense, defense, defense

  11. Jayz: The front set the precedent 5 games in. Firing a coach 5 games in tells everyone your in win now mode the 2 year plan immediately went out the window. Mitch said he expressed concern to Kobe about his minutes and Kobe said Lakers need to make the playoffs and he’s not coming out. D’Anotni could’ve done a better job monitoring Kobe’s minutes but when he tells a Laker exec what’s going to happen there’s nothing a coach can do after that. Miami made the finals their first year and got rolling after 20 games. They got it together their first year a finals loss doesn’t mean they weren’t great right away.

  12. Sid,

    We get it; you don’t like Kobe, and you want him gone, via Amnesty. And, as always, your analysis of anything Kobe-related is compromised by your emotions.

  13. The ‘talking heads’ pretty much give the Lakers no chance and the reason they say is, “Look at the numbers; they are a terrible defensive team.”

    This is where people who simply look at stats to define their opinion simply miss the boat much of the time. First, the Lakers who finished the season bear little resemblance to the Lakers who played the first 50 games. Second, largely newly formed teams always change over the season to reflect more familiarity with each other’s styles. Third, grit rarely makes an appearance in a box score.

    To have a real feel, a person has to watch the team over the arc of a season and look at how all the little things are coming together. The Spurs are rightly favored in this matchup and the odds are not as close as those of the Clips/Griz – that is entirely fair – but writing off this team, when they have as many players who have produced over time as they do, is fools gold.

    This team is the junkyard dog and of that I am proud. You may beat us, but you will definitely bear scars of the fight you were in.

  14. Most people are saying that the Lakers will win 2 games; some are saying 3.

  15. I agree with lil pau on the Kupchak statement; I don’t think it means much. If the Lakers get wiped out in 5 and look bad, and/or then Howard is negative about MDA, the team will probably have a new coach.

  16. A lot depends on two things 1) are the spurs banged up, so that Manu and TP are rendered relatively ineffective or has the mediocre play of the Spurs over the last 10 games simply been about resting them so that they are ready to blossom now? because with Diaw and Sjax already out, and if Manu and TP are at less than 100% this is really a much different team than the one that dominated the first 60 games of the season, and 2) Nash. Even me as a big fan am concerned that either a) he will need a period of time to get back to being effective, which could really create a problem if that leads to blow outs in games 1 and 2 and b) Are they going to suffer re- inserting Nash, having created a nice chemistry with Nash out (his first 6 games missing, and then a different chemistry again in the last 2 games) like they did when Pau came back recently after injury in the Washington game, creating a bit of a lull in game 1 and 2? Alternatively, is it possible all these factors contribute to a game 1 loss, but having got through some of that are they set for a W in game 2?

  17. By the way, over the last 20 games, the Spurs are 10-10, with a net scoring differential of approximately -2.5. In all these most recent years, they have been very good at simply absorbing injuries with hardly a blip on the radar screen. I don’t recall them ever going through an extended period with such mediocre results in recent years, and their current Hollinger ranking is as low as I can recall seeing it, in some time.

    Does this mean they are exceptionally vulnerable? to an extent yes, but I don’t think there is any reason to get overly optimistic as a result of this, just yet. The lakers bring in their own challenges. Just haven’t seen an analysis, yet, that fully acknowledges these facts. It also shows that more than ever they seem very dependant on the health of Manu and TP.

  18. Warren Wee Lim April 20, 2013 at 6:02 am

    Alot of people here are so convinced that Phil Jackson is just waiting for MDA to step down or get fired. Some people suggest that the Playoffs will make or break MDA. With no Phil waiting on the door, who do you hire? The best guy out there is Mike Brown, remember him?

    If Phil was indeed available (I seriously doubt this from the start) can anyone guarantee that we would have been a #2 seed instead of #7?

    All in all, I am tired of this MDA bashing. Even on things where he is not the reason for, or the cause, he gets the blame. Nothing he can do can ever be right. Even if we go all the way to round 3.

    Prediction time: Lakers in 7. Seriously.

    Things have a very funny way of unfolding. For many seasons it has been Pop > MDA. MDA will now get his unique chance and I do not think he will let this pass him by.

  19. Warren

    I think most people have misinterpreted Phil latest statement. He said he wants to get back into basketball. If he were to come back here it would be director of basketball operations, the position he was rumored to be offered in possible Seattle franchise.

    I also doubt he would have changed the fate this year. More Pau
    maybe, less Nash and more Kobe control. None of those equate to top 2 or 3. Fault lies more with FO. This was not the right mix or bench from day one. Barnes over Meeks, younger point guard over over Nash and a different offensive system might have moved them to
    5th or 6th seed. Phil is not coming back to coach. Mike’s future is in the hands of Dwight. A 2nd round run with Dwight the star and Mike has a chance, out in one and Dwight will control his and Mike’s future.

  20. It is funny how after 2 games, people think Kobe is not needed. The Lakers have zero chance against the Spurs if Tony Parker is healthy. Lakers can’t guard point guards. In fact, the return of Nash makes that position even worse. Also, Jodie Meeks always follows a stretch of good games with horrendous games. I have zero confidence going in. Lastly, we didn’t win our last game against the Spurs cos we were better, we won cos the Spurs missed so many open shots (from close and outside).