Through two games – one great win, one terrible loss – we’re starting to learn some things about these Lakers. Some of those things, we already had hints of from the preseason. This team will compete until the final buzzer regardless of the scorer, they’ll have their issues defensively, they will be very reliant on the three point shot offensively.
Other things, are coming into focus a bit more. There really is a great contrast of styles between some of the different units Mike D’Antoni deploys. The starting group is a methodical bunch while the reserves are more chaotic. The starters aren’t using as much pick and roll as a primary action, instead relying on more motion based sets with ball reversals and dribble hand-offs key to getting players the ball on the move. The reserves, however, are using the P&R a fair amount with Jordan Farmar teasing the action multiple times within any given possession to try and create a scoring chance for himself or a teammate.
These differences in styles between the units will be key to how this team performs over the long haul of a season. Much like a change of pace running back in the NFL, the shift in approach between these groups can get a team off guard, knocking them off balance enough to produce an exploitable hole. If the team can find a consistency in rotations and in performance from the key drivers of these lineups, they can find success in any given game, just as we saw against the Clippers. If the principal players fall short, the results can be disastrous – like against the Warriors.
This concept, though, isn’t brain surgery. The Lakers need their better players to play like it most nights for them to win. They can have fluctuating performances from some guys on some nights, but to hang in games (and ultimately win them) the players the team depends on to be the pillars of their respective units must do well.
Against the Spurs, then, you can imagine what this means. The key guys – Gasol, Nash, Farmar, Young, and Jordan Hill – must all find a way to provide production that will resemble what we hope will be their regular season norms.
For Gasol and Hill, specifically, it’s important to note that Tim Duncan has already been ruled out with Boris Diaw slated to start in his place. So, while Tiago Splitter will likely shift over and handle defensive duties on the Lakers primary big men (at least when he’s in the game) he is not the defender that Duncan is. Pau will need to work more to establish the post than he did against the Warriors and set the tone for the team’s offense. Hill, meanwhile, should look to continue to attack the basket as the dive man out of the P&R while also looking to attack the offensive glass with his usual vigor. Missing Duncan will (hopefully) mean that the Lakers big men can do more work around the rim with less resistance, though Splitter and back up big man Aaron Baynes will try to ensure that’s not the case.
On the perimeter, Nick Young is facing the stiff defense of Kawhi Leonard, but even with that being the case he will need to find ways to be effective. During the preseason, Young was able to hit shots and showed good aggressiveness by attacking the paint when coming off screens and when working isolation, but hasn’t been doing the same in the regular season. It would be nice for him to get back to that. Young’s scoring punch will be needed, especially considering the potency of the Spurs attack.
Young must be joined by strong outings from Nash and Farmar too, though. Nash remains less than 100% physically, but he needs to maintain his aggression and not just look to be a set up man all the time. Against the Clippers, I compared Nash to a “bus driver quarterback” in the Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson mold but he’ll need to be more than that tonight (and during the season). He must look for his own shot and try to turn the corner more in the P&R, even if it means throwing his body into big men who hedge to try and obstruct his path. Farmar, too, must remain aggressive, though that’s less of a concern considering his mindset. What I’m really looking for from Farmar is a nice mix between shooting his jumper and getting to the rim. With Duncan out, more action going towards the hoop would be nice.
Defensively, the key to slowing the Spurs remains slowing Tony Parker. The Spurs run him all over the court both as a ball handler and when working off it, so whoever is tasked with chasing him will have his hands full. That said, Steve Blake has had some good defensive games against Parker, so having him shadow TP while also having every other defender actively knowing where he is will be key to making his life harder. If Blake can contest his jumpshot while angling him towards help off the dribble and when coming off screens, the Lakers will just have to live with the results.
With Duncan out, Leonard becomes a more important player to limit and that will require a strong level of awareness for where he is at all times. Leonard isn’t a big creator of his own shot, but knows how to free himself up and get into open space. This allows him to get off his jumper in the corner and gets him open when slashing to the rim for attempts in the paint and when chasing offensive rebounds. Young will really need to be on his toes defensively and keep tabs on his man better than he showed against the Warriors.
Even though the Spurs are clearly the better team coming into this game, the fact that Duncan is out and the game is in Los Angeles gives the Lakers an opportunity to get a nice win. Coming out of this contest with a 2-1 record, considering the slate they’ve faced, would be a good accomplishment for a team looking to surprise this season. Here’s hoping their seize this chance.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.