Archives For NBA Playoffs

Photo credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Game one was a disaster for the Lakers that us fans would just as soon forget. But for the players, there’s a fair amount to glean from that blowout loss. Because with every missed rotation, bad coverage, and offensive miscue the Lakers can take note and do better. To win tonight, they must.

In a vacuum, that shouldn’t be that difficult. Outside of the first 10 minutes of the game, the Lakers didn’t do much right. And while the Thunder deserve credit for capitalizing on those mistakes, the Lakers can turn tonight’s contest into a much closer affair should they simply avoid being so giving on both sides of the ball.

With that said, here are a handful of things to improve on tonight that can lead to the Lakers evening up the series…

*Play the pick and roll and all other screen actions better. In game one, the Lakers did just about everything wrong in covering the P&R. Guards got caught on screens, big men sagged too low against ball handlers turning the corner, and wings over helped trying to compensate. This led to the Thunder getting clean looks at the hoop and the Lakers hanging their heads as the points piled up. In other types of screen actions the Lakers took the same approach and were burned in the same manner. When Durant curled off picks, his man got clipped without recovering quickly enough while big men sagged below the action waiting to be attacked. If you recall Durant’s first quarter dunk over Bynum, that play was set up because Ron was a step slow in recovering and KD used two long strides to elevate while Bynum hung back.

Adjustments here are easy in principle, but will require effort and discipline in executing them. First and foremost, guards must get through screens quicker. Whether chasing over the top or darting underneath, the guard must recover and do so quickly. Second, the big men must play the screen higher. Whether they hedge hard or play it more flat doesn’t necessarily matter as long as they’re higher in the action and ready to defend when the ball comes at them. Hanging back and inviting pull up jumpers in rhythm can lead to the type of onslaught seen on Monday. Third, the defenders not directly involved in the play must be alert and ready to help the helper. When the bigs commit, teammates must have their backs. Wings must drop down to help defend the paint and everybody must gang rebound.

*Cut out the live ball turnovers. The Lakers first possession was a bad pass that was stolen and dunked going the other way. In the first half they’d commit 7 more turnovers that OKC turned into 16 total points. The Thunder posted the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the league during the regular season and hung a 133 rating on the Lakers on Monday. Giving a team with that level of potency extra possessions – especially ones that lead to the easiest types of baskets – is a recipe for disaster. The Lakers must be more careful, but also act with more purpose on offense. Too many Laker turnovers seemed to be the result of over thinking an action or trying too hard for the primary option instead of looking to counters that were more open. The Lakers need to play smart, but loose. If something isn’t there, go away from it and attack another way. The Thunder are a smart defensive team but the Lakers made them look even smarter by not swinging the ball, not attacking off the dribble, and not using a varied attack. That must change tonight.

*Get Kobe moving into attack positions more often, preferably below the foul line. Whether on or off the ball, Kobe was spending too much of his time working 18 feet and out. At that distance his game becomes overly dependent on making jumpers and as the old saying goes – you live by the jumper, you die by the jumper. Kobe must instead work closer to the rim to find his rhythm. I’d love to see some of the cross-screen actions out of their “horns” actions to get Kobe flashing into the post or curling into the paint. I’d love to see him work more stagger screens that bring him to the short corner or get him on the move where he can make his catch at the pinch post with a live dribble. I’d also like to see him operate in the P&R more, especially with Gasol. It’s been a while since the Lakers utilized their Kobe/Pau P&R on a cleared side that forces the rotations that ultimately lead to Bynum being free under the rim. Dusting that action off would be a sight for sore eyes.

*Push the ball more. The Lakers had 0 (yes, zero) fast break points in game one. Against a long team that has strong individual defenders in the half court, that’s something that needs to change tonight. I’m not asking for the Lakers to turn into the SSOL Suns, but they could do well to take a page from the Spurs handbook and push the ball into the front court and look to seize opportunities against a defense that isn’t set. Be it Sessions or Kobe or Ron, advance the ball and look for the cracks in the D. The Thunder are a middling transition D team that likes to crash the offensive boards. Their will be opportunities to run, the Lakers need to recognize them and pounce.

The Lakers can also look to throw the ball ahead to Barnes leaking out after he contests jumpers. Barnes is likely to see a lot of minutes against Harden and Durant who are both fond of taking long jumpers that he’ll be closing out on. When those shots miss, he can lead out. The same is true of Gasol when he contests Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers in pick and pop situations. Many of these actions end with Serge taking 16 foot jumpers from the elbow area, and if the Lakers are gang rebounding the way they’re supposed to be, Pau can afford to run out a few times a game.

Ultimately, Playing 90 possessions against a stout half-court defense will grind any offense down. The Lakers must do more to cash in on the open court chances that present themselves.

*More big to big passing/actions. After the game, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol sat on the bench together discussing strategy. They surely understand that despite having Kobe Bryant on their team, their play will have the largest impact on the Lakers’ chances  this series. With that being the case, they must find more ways to work together in order to take advantage of the aggressive play of OKC’s big men. Both Perkins and Ibaka want to get up the floor on defensive coverages. Both also want to be steady helpers at the rim to block and contest shots. This approach makes both vulnerable to smart cuts, quick duck-ins, high-low passes, and offensive rebounding chances. Ball rotations from the Lakers wings will aid in these actions but both Bynum and Gasol must be ready to take advantage when these opportunities present themselves. They can’t be caught standing and watching, nor can they get down on themselves should things not go their way early. They must continue to work and pound away because these openings will materialize.

*Get some bench production. The Lakers don’t possess a natural scorer off their bench. The reserves aren’t called upon to provide instant offense, their job is to support the starters their mixed with and to run the offense in manner that maximizes those players’ games. However, that doesn’t mean L.A.’s subs can play long stretches without looking for their own shots and knocking down the open looks they’re going to get.

I’ve already mentioned the need for Barnes to run out more and try to get some easy baskets in early offense. He’ll also need to rediscover some of his regular season success as a slasher who finishes at the rim after ball reversals. Steve Blake needs to be assertive with his shot and hit some of the open jumpers he’ll be afforded. He can’t have a repeat of game one where he only took a single shot, looking mostly passive in the process. Jordan Hill must also find a way to get some baskets either as a garbage man on offensive rebounds or by taking advantage of the attention drawn by his post partner by sneaking into the paint and getting good looks off quick passes. No one expects these guys to match Harden point for point but being outscored by the 6MOY as a unit (as this trio did in game 1) certainly won’t get it done.

———————

Yesterday the Pacers stole a game from the Heat in Miami in their game 2 match up. Yes the Heat were missing a key player but the lesson remains the same. These games are winnable should you execute well and go hard the entire contest. The Lakers are underdogs; they’re facing a better team. But they have the pieces that can win should they work their plan well. Tonight gives them another chance to do just that.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  May 16, 2012

The Lakers had a nice first quarter in Oklahoma City to kick of the second round. That the team faded badly coming off a grueling seven-game series should surprise nobody, and that’s taking nothing away from the Thunder. They were squarely on their game and Russell Westbrook would not be denied. The resulting chatter, much of it outside the Lakers’ cyber beltway, painted a more forgone conclusion. The reality however, is that we’re not quite there yet.

The Kamenetzky Brothers at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers have a confab with Royce Young from the True Hoop network’s Daily Thunder blog. That’s a whole lot of free advertising, right there, by the way.

This is a couple days old but still brilliant, Zach Harper at HoopSpeak on MWP’s mind games.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register asks if it’s time for another classic game from Kobe?

Actuarially Sound at Silver Screen and Roll, puts out the call for more effort.

Interesting story in Yahoo Sports courtesy of Jeff Latzke from the Associated Press, about Kobe’s philosophy on taking charges.

Mark Heisler at Sheridan Hoops takes a serpentine turn through L.A.’s two parts of the elite eight.

In other tangentially related news, Mark Medina from the L.A. Times reports that Devin Ebanks was fined $25,000 for taking his shirt off and Andrew Bynum was fined $15,000 for not talking to the media. Okay, you know what? The players shouldn’t have called off their lawsuit. They should have just cleaned out the league for every penny.

***

The Lakers are a team that much of the blogging intelligentsia loves to hate. There are facile reasons why, but I suspect the resentment and causal links run far deeper than my limited attention span allows. Still, I don’t mind taking pot shots. Let the best of six series begin.

– Dave Murphy

The Westbrook Dilemma

J.M. Poulard —  May 16, 2012

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:

Lineup

Minutes

+/-

Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

12

+24.4

Fisher, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

11

-17.1

Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

7

-36.4

Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Bynum

4

-36.0

Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, McRoberts, Bynum

3

-70.6

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.

The Lakers have struggled these playoffs to find any sort of rhythm. After 8 games they’re 4-4, have a negative scoring margin, and negative efficiency differentials. And while countless words have been devoted to (literal) front line issues like Bynum’s inconsistent effort and Pau’s up and down play, there’s another key Laker that hasn’t been performing up to a suitable standard.

Ramon Sessions first playoff experience hasn’t been very good so far. In 254 minutes of action he’s shooting 36.8% from the field, only made 4 of his 21 three pointers, is 2nd on the team in assists to Kobe (while assisting on fewer than 20% of the baskets while he’s on the floor), and posting a single digit PER (9.8). These numbers represent a staggering decline from his regular season production. Said another way, in these playoffs, he’s shooting worse and has a lower PER than Steve Blake while only dishing out .8 assists more per game than the man that backs him up.

Needless to say, the Lakers need more from Sessions and they need it quickly. Sessions issues seem multi-faceted, however, so improving on his play is going to take a concerted effort.

Throughout his career and in his first 15 games (or so) with the Lakers, Sessions was asked to run a team where he’d be a key factor in every offensive possession. He was given the freedom to push the ball up the floor to seek his own shot, then pull back and run multiple P&R’s in order to try and create off the dribble if there wasn’t a clear alley to the rim. He had the green light to be as aggressive as he saw fit with very few consequences for a quick or poor shot.

When he first came to the Lakers, this approach was a breath of fresh air. His blazing speed and ability to turn the corner in isolation or P&R sets gave the Lakers an added dimension they’d lacked with Fisher or Blake running the offense. Simply put, Sessions was a creator while the Lakers’ other PG’s were initiators.

As the season advanced, though, Sessions was asked to pull back. His teammates started to make comments about playing at a slower tempo to accommodate the pace Gasol and Bynum are most comfortable playing at. He was shifted to the starting lineup and then had more mouths to feed, integrating his on-ball style with Kobe while still running a post-centric offense. More and more he was running half-court sets that didn’t involve P&R’s for himself, but rather sets that asked him to either initiate an action via a pass to Gasol that flowed into him being a screener and a stop up shooter or for him to keep his dribble high while Kobe ran off picks to get free for a catch and shoot jumper or an isolation.

And in the playoffs, it’s been more of the same. Against Denver, controlling the pace and tempo was seen as the Lakers biggest key to controlling the series. Denver didn’t have the size to play with the Lakers bruising style and the Lakers didn’t have the speed or depth to play the Nuggets’ up and down game. So, the Lakers focused on playing a half court game where each possession would be milked while probing for the best possible shot. Getting the ball into the post was the priority. As the Nuggets double teamed the bigs and left the Lakers’ wings open to shoot jumpers, the Lakers didn’t adjust by taking those looks (Sessions included) but rather tried harder to infiltrate the low post via entry passes through crowded windows.

In the process of turning down open jumpers and playing at a slower pace, Sessions’ game seems so far removed from what it was just a couple of months ago he’s nearly unrecognizable as a player. Yes, he’ll still have a nice drive to the rim on a possession or two and a handful of times he’ll run some P&R’s that involve him and a big man in which he tries to penetrate the D and create a good look for himself or teammate, but these aren’t primary sets for the Lakers.

And so far against the Thunder – granted, it’s only been one game – things haven’t changed. Sessions isn’t attacking and creating, he’s barely even probing and feeling out the D. Instead he’s mostly walking the ball up, looking to get the Lakers into their sets, and then either screening for a teammate or drifting around the perimeter where he becomes a spot up shooter. These simply are not Sessions strengths.

At this point, though, turning things around isn’t as clear cut as it may seem. The Lakers could play faster and could incorporate more actions that play to Sessions’ strengths – classic P&R’s and cleared out sides for isolations for starters. But by committing more to Sessions would they be taking away possessions from their big three? Would a change in style that suits Ramon better stand in opposition to what Gasol and Bynum inherently prefer?

The answers to these questions aren’t straight forward. What is, however, is the fact that the Lakers must find a better balance in style that helps Sessions find his game. Because right now he’s not the upgrade the Lakers traded for; he’s not the same player he was in those first weeks of his Laker career. And to beat the Thunder – or just make this series closer than it has been so far – that’s the player they need.

The turnaround time for the Lakers has been short. Just the day before yesterday they left everything they had on the floor in defeating the Denver Nuggets for the chance to play tonight. Meanwhile, the Thunder have been waiting patiently – and likely enjoying watching whoever they’d face go through the grinder of a full 7 game slate.

And while we’ve talked offense and defense, tonight’s contest may come down to some of those other variables. Are the Lakers too fatigued? Have the Thunder been resting too long? Will Ron’s elbow be on the mind or Harden or Ron and affect either of their games? It will surely be on the mind of the crowd who usually don’t need anything extra to whip them into a frenzy but will have it anyways.

One thing is for sure, tonight will be as much about strategy and execution as it will be about harnessing the energy in the building while maintaining composure. Whichever team can win both sides of that equation will likely win this all important first game.

And make no mistake, tonight is important. Many only give the Lakers a chance to take this series should tonight’s contest tilt in their favor. The longer they go without a win in this series the fewer games they have to win four times, this is just simple math. And when facing a team as good as the Thunder, creating a more margin for error in chances that are already slim is imperative. For the Thunder, home court advantage is often the difference between winning and losing a series. Even though everyone sees them as the superior team, everyone thought the same thing about the Lakers the last series and we all saw how valuable playing the final game of that series at home meant to them.

So, tonight it begins. The boos for the visiting Lakers will be deafening. The Thunder’s skill and readiness will be on full display. The Lakers, though, have some experience and fortitude on their side as well. The time for talking about it is pretty much over, however. Ready or not, this thing gets going tonight and the players will decide who’s ready.

So, as we sit back and watch the game from our couches or desks, listen to it on the radio, or just follow the self updating boxscore, try to enjoy yourself. The Lakers are the underdog – as it should be. Enjoy that freedom from expectations and dig in. Also enjoy this series preview from Meir 21. If you weren’t ready before, you’ll surely be after this:

We took an extensive look at defending the Thunder a bit earlier, but if the Lakers are going to compete in this series they’ll need to find a way to score. During the regular season the Lakers shot a shade under 40% over their three match ups, a success rate they’ll need to go up over this series if the Lakers want to hang tough.

Achieving this will not be easy, however. The Thunder have assembled a group of defensive minded players that match up very well with their Laker counterparts. Perkins, Ibaka, and Sefolosha are all plus-defenders that just happen to play the same positions as the Lakers big three. When you add in Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder have the size, length, and athleticism to slow down any offensive attack.

All that said, the Lakers – especially after the Sessions trade – were one of the elite offensive teams in the league. And regardless of any individual defensive prowess of the players they’re facing, the Lakers have elite skill players that can create shots for themselves and their teammates when utilized correctly.

Here’s some keys to making sure it can happen…

*Take advantage of single coverage
The Thunder aren’t a team that wants to commit the second defender. As I mentioned, they have strong individual defenders at the key positions (wing and both big men spots) to slow any team’s attack. So, the Lakers will need to beat single coverage when they see it, or at least compromise it enough where the help instincts of the Thunder defenders take hold.

This starts with the Lakers post players. Kendrick Perkins is a fantastic one on one post defender. His low center of gravity, natural strength, and long arms make him a challenge to move and an obstacle to shoot over. Andrew Bynum, however, is a monstrously massive man. Bynum may not be able to bury Perkins under the rim, but he will be able to get the ball 10 feet and in and then use a couple of power dribbles to get into the range where his jump hook becomes a viable weapon. If the Thunder are intent on letting Perkins operate on an island against ‘Drew, these moves must be dusted off the shelf (Bynum hasn’t seen single coverage since stretches of game 2 vs. Denver) and put to work. Bynum will need to park himself at the left block, use a rhythm dribble or two, and then preferably use his left hand hook shot after drop stepping baseline. This shot allows him to turn away from any help coming from the middle (which is where Ibaka will be planted) but also allows him to use his softer touch from that side (while also setting himself up for his favored step through move along the baseline).

Pau must also get aggressive with Ibaka but will need to use a varied attack. Ibaka isn’t nearly the one on one defender that Perkins is, but his shot blocking ability and timing to contest shots is extraordinary. So, Pau will need to use all his tricks and craft to get Ibaka into positions on the floor where he uses his want to challenge shots against. Pau can work the elbow in the Lakers’ horns sets and shoot his jumper but must also use his first step to try and attack Ibaka off the dribble to close the distance between the two and then go his post moves. If Pau dribbles hard to his right and and then slows to set up a back to the basket move, he will find good looks. Pau can also use straight post up actions to set up his own jump hook and turnaround jumper, but must use some fakes to get Ibaka second guessing on when and how the shot is going up. Lastly, Pau must take advantage of Ibaka’s desire to be a help defender. On many possessions Ibaka will leave Pau to help on a player threatening the rim and it’s these moments that Pau can dash into open space to either get off a jumper, dive for a shot at the basket, or hit the offensive glass when a shot goes up. Pau can’t be a bystander when he’s helped off of, he must be assertive.

Kobe will also see a lot of single coverage and the Lakers must utilize his ability to work off the ball to take advantage of it. Sefolosha does a good job of guarding Kobe in isolation from the top of the key and the wing, but can be taken advantage of in sets similar to the ones the Lakers used against Denver to knock Afflalo off his scent. Pin downs, cross screens, and stagger options can all be used to get Kobe going towards the basket or curling into position to shoot mid-range jumpers in rhythm. Kobe will obviously still have to isolate a fair amount, but if he’s finding a rhythm in these alternate sets he can build some momentum in his game to work from a standstill.

Another way to get Kobe going is in forcing switches so he can work against smaller defenders. In part one of our series preview, I mentioned that Kobe should guard Westbrook on D. Well, one of the benefits of that is the potential to force cross matches in early offense. If Kobe can make Westbrook stick to him in transition defense, offensive sets where Kobe gets to the low and mid post to isolate become that much more effective. Give me Kobe backing down the smaller (though still strong and athletic) Westbrook over the bigger, longer Sefolosha all game and I’ll take my chances with him getting looks at the basket.

*Get Sessions going to the rim.
Over the course of his short tenure with the Lakers, we’ve seen that Sessions can be an impactful player. However, if he’s relegated to shooting jumpers and can not find daylight to attack off the dribble his utility diminishes. The Thunder are likely to take a cue from the Nuggets and sag off Sessions to make him prove he can hit jumpers. And, while I want him taking some of those shots in rhythm and without hesitation, I also want him to force the issue a bit more. When he comes off picks he needs to use his speed look to turn the corner more decisively. When he’s in the open court he needs to threaten the defense a bit more and probe to see in an opening is there.

By no means am I saying he needs to compromise the Lakers desires to control the tempo, but he does need to test the limits of what the defense is giving him and what he can force upon them using his natural ability. Again, the Thunder are not likely to devote more than a single defender against any single Laker. Sessions should see opportunities to attack off the dribble and use his in-bewteen game to get off shots in the paint or create looks for teammates when the Thunder rotate. If the Lakers are to get the points they need, Sessions will need to make an imprint on some of these games. And while his job may be the hardest – balancing the team’s needs to control the flow while also being aggressive looking for his own shot is not easy – he has the ability to excel if he’s dialed in. At the end of the Nuggets series he wasn’t there. He’ll need to be now.

*Get creative on screen actions.
Sessions/Kobe pick and rolls; Pau/Bynum pick and rolls; cross-screens for big men coming to the ball side post; pin downs for Gasol to free him coming to the elbow; Ron/Gasol pick and rolls….I can on and on but you get where I’m going. All of these actions have been used throughout the season to help generate offense but the Lakers haven’t incorporated all of them into single game plans yet these playoffs.

I don’t expect to see all these varied actions in a game one. They may not even all be used in any single game period. But, the Lakers have these sets in their back pockets and they mustn’t lose sight of the fact that some variety in how they use on and off-ball screen actions will greatly aid them getting the points they need. Again, the Thunder bigs are willing helpers and actions like the ones listed will put them in compromising positions where they’ll either have to make a choice. Any split second of hesitation can be the difference between an open shot or the need to move the ball on to a teammate, especially on a team with the athletes OKC possesses.

*Miscellaneous notes

  • The Lakers must punish small lineups and/or weak defenders. When Durant is playing PF and he’s guarding Gasol, the Lakers need to feature him in the post. If he’s guarding Jordan Hill, he must be bullied under the hoop and forced to rebound his position. When Derek Fisher is in the game, he must be attacked in isolation (hopefully it’s Sessions doing the attacking). The same can be said of Cook. The Thunder will try to maximize their offensive output by tilting lineups towards their skill and shooting. The Lakers must counter by going more rugged and making these guys work on their less preferred end of the floor.
  • Nick Collison is a second unit defender to watch out for. He’s great at fronting the post and is willing charge taker. When he’s matched up with Gasol, the Lakers must recognize quickly that the front is coming and look to exploit it with high-low actions between the bigs. If Hill is at the FT line, he need only throw the ball to the square and let Pau use his length to go get the ball. Also, because Collison will look to take charges, the Lakers must be willing passers when the penetrate the lane. Collison is looking for contact and must leave his man a beat early to position himself. Drop off passes and little lobs will be open when he’s helping.
  • It’s been implied, but here it is implicitly: ball security matters a great deal in this series. The Thunder are long athletes that will challenge passing lanes. They’ll try to block shots at the rim. They’ll pressure ball handlers to try and force errant passes. The Lakers must not get turnover happy because those miscues will turn into points going the other way. Few teams change ends like the Thunder and if the Lakers don’t take care of the ball, they’ll see that fact for themselves first hand.
  • It seems so obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the Lakers must make some three point shots this series. Steve Blake was hot in game 7. Ron hit a couple of deep threes as well. Barnes will need to join them and Sessions will need to show that he too can hit the open jumper. While the Lakers offensive plan is to work for good looks and exploit OKC from 18 feet and in, hitting shots from 22 feet and out will help create the spacing needed to execute that plan.

 

This is the series the Lakers aren’t supposed to win. The Thunder are younger and more athletic. They have star power at the top of their roster and a deep bench to compliment them. They’re hungry, determined, and a team that’s been on the cusp for long enough that they’re now primed for a deep run. If you’re a betting man, the Thunder is the way to go; they’re the chalk in this equation.

So, the Lakers should just forfeit right?

Since we know that’s not happening…

The Lakers aren’t supposed to win, but they surely can. It will take several things working in their favor – even more so than in other series based off OKC’s stature as one of the elite teams – but we’ve known that since the last few weeks of the regular season where we all started looking ahead to playoff match ups. The fact remains, however, that while there are several factors in this match up that distinctly favor the Thunder, the Lakers have some things going for themselves as well.

In that vain, here’s our roadmap for what the Lakers can do on both ends to try and take this series or in the very least, make it as competitive as possible. Our first part deals with the Thunder’s offense…

* Tempo, tempo, tempo.
Just like the Nuggets series, much of the Lakers success will depend on keeping the Thunder out of transition situations where their superior athleticism can shine through for easy baskets. In the Thunder’s two regular season wins they scored 21 and 25 fast break points, while in their lone loss they only scored 18 (and that was in a double OT game). The Lakers must change ends well, build a wall on defense, and keep the Westbrook/Durant/Harden trio from getting shots at the rim against a defense that isn’t yet set. Much of this will depend on a patient offensive approach by L.A., but even more so about keeping floor balance and maintaining discipline as the Thunder look to break out. The Thunder want to play fast (5th fastest pace in the league  this year), but they won’t always force the issue the way the Nuggets did; they won’t just fire up shots in transition to avoid playing half court basketball. If the Lakers can make them set up and run their O, they can experience some success.

That said, guarding this team in the half court will not be easy. In their starting lineup, Durant and Westbrook offer individual challenges for whoever guards them.

*The three headed perimeter monster.
The assumption is that Ron will guard Durant whenever they share the floor and, as in year’s past, the formula remains the same for dealing with the league’s leading scorer. Ron must body him off the ball to make his catches as difficult as possible. Outright ball denials will be nearly impossible, but making him catch the ball at a standstill or when going away from the basket should be the ultimate goal. KD is brilliant curling off screens and getting into positions where he’s an immediate threat so Ron will not only need to try to knock him off his preferred path, but will need help from his teammates to obstruct passing angles until he can recover.

But KD will get the ball and once he does is when the next effort begins. Durant is such a skilled scorer because his jumper must be respected well beyond the three point line. He’s more than capable of knocking down the deep jumper both off catch and shoots and off pull ups, so Ron will need to crowd him off the catch and respect his pull up while also not getting beat off the bounce with KD’s improved handle. Preferably, as a guideline, I’d like to see Ron force KD left and play him for the pull up jumper when going in that direction while playing him to drive all the way to the rim when going right. Of course KD’s attack is more varied than this but this is a good place to start. Ron will need to use his quick hands to bother Durant’s handle and then his length to contest shots off the dribble.

As for Westbrook, it remains to be seen if Kobe gets full time defensive duty but I’d hope that he does. Westbrook has a speed advantage over every potential Laker defender but will not have a size and strength advantage over Kobe like he will over Sessions or Blake. And it’s those latter two qualities that allow him to turn drives that could be 15 feet pull up jumpers into shots in the paint that compromise a defense. This can’t be stressed enough: the Lakers lose this series easily if Westbrook is an efficient scorer and he’s most efficient when playing at the rim. During the regular season Russ didn’t shoot well (overall) against the Lakers in any area of the floor but he shot his best percentage at the basket and was at 40% or lower from every incremental distance farther from the hoop. The Lakers must turn him into a jump shooter and the best way to do that is to put size on him, go under screens, and then recover back to challenge his pull up J. The deeper the jumper the better but his disrupting his rhythm is the most important factor here. As he showed in the 2nd match up vs. the Lakers, he can get hot from any spot on the floor once he starts to feel it so the real key is to not let him find that groove.

Of course, if slowing Westbrook and Durant was all you had to do to beat the Thunder the Lakers wouldn’t be in such a tough spot. James Harden probably offers the most difficult challenge defensively because his game is the most unorthodox and his effectiveness comes in a variety of ways. He’s a tremendous P&R ball handler, will look to set up his teammates when he’s over played, can score off the jumper or going to the rim, plus is a lefty that always finds a way to get to his dominant hand with crafty Euro-steps and crossovers. Harden is OKC’s most natural playmaker and will be the focal point of their second unit. Who the Lakers put on him is just as important as how the Lakers defend his myriad of offensive moves and, as of now at least, I’ve no clue who the best option is.

Kobe has shown that he struggles when Harden goes to a P&R heavy attack because of the way he uses angles when coming off the pick. Kobe often switches these screens because Harden is great at using an angled dribble to get to a spot on the floor where recovering is more difficult. Barnes is similar to Kobe in this regard. The best option then, becomes Ron but he can’t guard Harden and Durant at the same time. How this plays out is one of the bigger keys to the series because if Harden becomes pedestrian, the Thunder become overly dependent on the the Russ/KD duo. This isn’t a *bad* problem for most teams but I’ve long thought that as great as those two are – and they are GREAT – they’re also the types of players that thrive doing what they do best and start to struggle when those things are taken away. The fact they can get those things going so often is one of the reasons they are so great but I digress. Harden, though, does many things well and can show a defender 10 different looks on 10 different possessions, each one a part of a wide-net arsenal. While KD and Russ will get the accolades, this series could turn on how effective Harden is.

*Miscellaneous factors:

  • While most of what the Thunder do is based off the above players, we mustn’t forget the little things that make this team successful. The Lakers must be aware of Ibaka on pick and pops. He’s the guy that can score 16 points on 12 shots, all of them open jumpers/dives to the rim as the defense scrambles around the perimeter trying to slow the big name threats. Serge’s range is good to 18 feet and his athleticism aids him in attacking the paint and scoring off O-Rebs and simple cuts.
  • Kendrick Perkins must also be accounted for, but in a different way. He’s going to set bone crushing screens (sometimes illegal ones) to try and free his guys up. He’s a key cog in that players don’t get open without him knocking defenders away. The Lakers bigs must help on these picks by hedging well (when they’re on ball) and by giving space for guys to fight through (when they’re off the ball). The bigs must also position themselves where they can be helpers on passes when guys want to curl into the paint or flash into open space off these screens.
  • Thunder wings not yet named (besides Thabo) are in the game to shoot open three pointers. Fisher, Cook, and Ivey can all hit the three ball. They’ll camp weak side, wait for attention to go to their more heralded teammates and then stab you in the liver with a dagger three pointer. The Lakers must make all of these guys put the ball on the floor and finish off the dribble. As Lakers’ fans we’re all quite familiar with Fisher’s ability to hit playoff three pointers. He and his pals must be turned into two point shooters that finish while being harassed.
  • The Thunder will go small. Durant will play some PF and the Lakers will need to guard him with a capable defender when this happens. Rather than counter with a small lineup, I’ll be interested in seeing if the Lakers simply put one of their big men (Hill, Gasol) on one of the aforementioned wings and hope that their superior length can be enough to close and contest.

The Nuggets hangover can last for a few hours longer, but not much more than that. Round two awaits and with that our focus shifts. We’ll have an extended series preview coming a bit later but for now, a few thoughts, questions, and observations heading into the second round versus the Oklahoma City Thunder…

  • The Thunder are sort of a hulked-up version of the Nuggets. They have the same speed and athleticism, but also offer the star power that the Nuggets lacked. At pretty much every position (at least in the starting lineup and in their 6th man), the Thunder offer a more quality alternative to the Nugget team the Lakers just needed 7 games to defeat. Be it Westbrook/Lawson, Gallo/Durant, Faried/Ibaka, or even Mozgov/Perkins the Thunder bring an upgrade.
  • Will the Thunder employ the same double-teaming strategy the Nuggets did on the Lakers’ big men? They have the horses in Perkins and Ibaka to single cover Bynum and Pau and during the regular season they rarely doubled L.A.’s bigs. Will that trend hold?
  • James Harden is going to be a problem for a variety of reasons. Who guards him when he shares the court with both Westbrook and Durant is one of the major concerns going into this series. I mean, if Kobe is going to guard Westbrook (which seems like the best strategy to slow him) and Ron guards KD (ditto), does that mean Sessions guards Harden? Blake? Do the Lakers go to an unconventional lineup just for defensive purposes?
  • Last night, on twitter, Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) said “This Thunder series will be where the Lakers really regret dumping Lamar.” After that Andrew Ungvari (@drewunga) replied to him “Just as long as it’s not one where they really regret dumping Fisher.” I agree on both counts, though I’m not going to stress over things that can’t be undone. Both players are gone – though we’ll get to see plenty of Fisher starting on Monday.
  • Has Devin Ebanks played himself out of the rotation? With his last couple of performances, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
  • Will Matt Barnes find more creases in the defense to slash to the rim? He’ll need them because being relegated to a spot up shooter diminishes a fair amount of his utility on offense.
  • Earlier I spoke of the Thunder’s starting bigs but they also have two very good reserve big men in Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed. Jordan Hill will need to continue his solid play to ensure that Gasol and Bynum don’t get worn out dealing with a foursome of bigs that will come in waves while always being fresh.
  • That said, just because they have the bigs doesn’t mean that OKC won’t go small. KD at the 4 will offer an interesting dilemma for the Lakers in terms of matching up. Asking Pau or Hill to cover Durant is asking for trouble. However, the hope would also be to make KD work on defense, trying to punish him in the post and make him work on the glass so he can’t run out as easily. So, going small to match up might not be the best solution. This will be one of the many games within the game that will occur in this series.

These are just some of the things that are on my mind this morning. There are countless other variables, though. What’s on your mind; what are the things you’re looking forward to? Let me know in the comments.