The reality of this series is apparent after the first game. The Lakers have a ton of fight in them and are willing to make the effort play in order to keep the game close. However, without Kobe Bryant and with a less than 100% Steve Nash, the team may struggle to score enough points for all those effort plays to matter.
The Lakers tried to feature the same post heavy attack that led them to victory over the Spurs just a week ago, but were less effective this time in making it work. The Spurs fronted, half fronted, and sagged off the wings to make post entries difficult. When the ball did go into the post, the Spurs showed the Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol the second defender almost instantly via dig-downs from the same side wing and from the top of the key. When the Lakers’ bigs put the ball on the floor, help would also come from the weak side. This all combined to gum up the Lakers’ offensive sets and leave the team searching for help from the perimeter in the form of made shots.
Help that, sadly, never consistently materialized. Here is the Lakers’ shot chart from the game:
As you can see, the Lakers were able to effectively score in the restricted area when they got the chance, making 68% of their shots at the rim. They were even able to hit a few shots from right around the FT line area (though still in the paint) when they got pushed back out to the dotted line.
But what they couldn’t do was hit the long jumpers that the Spurs were more than happy to surrender to them. Be it out of the P&R when the Spurs’ bigs would sag down to deny the roll man or simple jumpers off kick-out passes from the post, the Lakers couldn’t make the shots they needed to loosen up the defense. The result was a crowded lane that not only limited post up chances, but also erased the cutting lanes that the Lakers typically want to exploit when they feature their big men on the block.
It’s a shame the Lakers were so poor on offense because their defense was actually quite good for most of the game. Yes the Spurs were able to break the game open late by knocking down some three pointers after making the smart extra pass, but for the rest of day they struggled to penetrate the Lakers’ D and were left clanking the same mid-range jumpers the Lakers couldn’t knock down.
The Lakers shaded Tony Parker expertly on the P&R and funneled him towards help, leaving only the kick out pass to Duncan when he popped to the top of the key. Give Steve Blake a ton of credit in this match up as he did an excellent job of sticking on Parker’s hip and chasing him from behind so he could still contest his pull up jumper. With Parker somewhat under wraps, that left Duncan, Leonard, Green, and Neal left to carry the load — but from the mid-range and deep two part of the floor. These are the shots the Lakers don’t mind surrendering. In fact, their scheme of having Pau guard Duncan and Dwight be the first helper behind the hedge man was a great tactical move that ensured the Spurs would have trouble penetrating the paint, thus leaving them with only outside jumpers to sustain their offense.
The only problem was, Manu Ginobili found his rhythm within this defensive approach and was able to score efficiently and give the Spurs the cushion they needed. Manu’s 18 points on 13 shots (including 3 of 5 from downtown) punished the Lakers in an otherwise defensive stalemate. Without those baskets, who knows how well the Spurs manage this game. But, the fact is, Manu hit them and that’s that.
Heading into game two there are adjustments to be made, but the biggest one isn’t really tactical. The Lakers simply need to start to hit the open shots that are available to them. The Spurs are going to continue to try to take away the post, regardless if those shots fall or not. But if the shots do fall, the Lakers will find themselves ahead (or at least putting up the points they’ll need to not be down by double digits); they will find themselves forcing the Spurs to rethink their defensive strategy.
Of course the Spurs will likely go home thinking the same thing. If they only hit some of those open jumpers, they likely win this game by 20 rather than only 12. And, they have the luxury of looking at those missed shots with a 1-0 lead in the series. Ultimately though, this is why this series was always going to be hard. The Spurs have the wing talent to hit more of those shots than the Lakers do and that proved true in game one. If the Lakers are to even up the series on Wednesday, they’ll need to prove that even with the lesser talent, they can make those shots too.