Archives For NBA Playoffs

The Los Angeles Lakers will play Game 7 on Saturday night at Staples Center against the Denver Nuggets, in a series that many thought the purple and gold would be able to close out in five or six games.

George Karl has managed to get the best out of his players, getting them to play their game and at the pace that he wishes while it’s tough to say that Mike Brown has gotten his team to consistently execute their game plan.

Throughout the season, the word around the league has been that Kobe Bryant had no business leading the league in shot attempts when he had the two most skilled big men in the NBA playing on his team. Surely, a player of Bryant’s stature would understand that feeding his twin towers would go a long way towards determining the fate of his team and quite possibly his legacy; or so it was said.

This series against the Nuggets has shown something different to many of Kobe’s detractors.

Bryant is averaging an impressive 31.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 44.9 percent field goal shooting in six games against Denver. The Lakers superstar is also averaging 26 field goal attempts per game, which many would argue is too much.

Indeed, Andrew Bynum has voiced his displeasure about a lack of touches during the postseason and with good reason. A big man that is that dominant on the block needs to get a lot of looks at the basket especially when he gets deep post position. Mind you, the Lakers’ starting center has struggled in this series when faced with hard double teams. Instead of allowing the big man to dictate which post move he can use to score on the block, Denver has simply forced Bynum to think with the ball in his hands, and well so far that has proved to be beneficial to the Nuggets.

Pau Gasol on the other hand has struggled. His willingness to assert himself offensively comes and goes, and even at times when he has had the mindset to be an aggressive player, he has failed to produce with his scoring opportunities.

Which obviously brings everything back to Kobe.

If we take a quick look at his plus-minus ratings for the series when on the court and off the court, here’s what we will find:

On the court +/- rating: -3.2

Off the court +/- rating: +3.8

Clearly the problem is Bryant, and they should just bench him the rest of the way right? Not quite.

The Denver Nuggets have actually outscored the Los Angeles Lakers in this series, which means that a player averaging a heavy dose of minutes for the Lakers would surely see his plus-minus rating have negative figure — L.A. is minus-3.1 with Bynum on the court — and that’s the case for Kobe. The Black Mamba has played in 237 out of a possible 288 minutes. That means that Bryant is spending 8.5 minutes per game on the bench.

Hence, it’s not surprising that his plus-minus rating is “bad” per se.

Know what is surprising though? The Lakers may need Kobe to go iron man in Game 7.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been shaky at best when Bryant has gone to the bench in this series against Denver. According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, in six games, the Lakers have converted 38.3 percent of their field goals and 20 percent of their 3-pointers when Bryant has been on the bench. To put that into perspective, the Charlotte Bobcats converted 41.4 percent of their field goals this season and 29.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. You know, the same Bobcats team that now holds the worst winning percentage in NBA history.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The Lakers commit more turnovers and generate less assists while Bryant rides the pine. NBA.com tells us that if we project the Lakers’ numbers over 48 minutes without Kobe, the Lakers would be averaging 87.2 points per game in this series.

Indeed, with Gasol struggling from the field — he is only converting 41.4 percent of his shots — and Bynum’s production being limited with double teams, it sure seems as though the Lakers’ best option at this point is Kobe Bryant.

His playmaking and scoring is a great recipe for success; and given the adjustments made by the Nuggets, the onus may fall on his shoulders to bail the team out.

The wildcard in all this of course is Metta World Peace.

His defense, shooting and scoring on the block will give the Lakers a wrinkle they haven’t had throughout the course of the series, but then again how many possessions can one hope to run through World Peace?

For all the talk about Kobe relinquishing some of the scoring burden, isn’t it fascinating that Game 7 might come down to him having to score more than most anticipated?

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

Yes. Yes, they are.

The way playoff series’ evolve is one of my favorite part of the second season. The way game plans get tweaked with adjustments countering adjustments and both sides playing chess on a 94′ x 50′ piece of hardwood captivates me as a fan. There are few things better than watching the players, in the moment and over the course of every successive contest, react and adjust as the game within the game shifts like the colors in a kaleidoscope.

And this series, while disappointing to me on countless fronts, has provided all the requisite twists to be an entertaining one. The Lakers have gone from clearly in control to the cusp of elimination in a free for all scheduled for Saturday night. How they’ve gotten there has a lot to do with the Nuggets, but the Lakers also have their issues to sort out that are mostly of their own making.

Mainly, the game has slowed too much.

When this series started I was banging the “Lakers must control the tempo” drum as loud as any other person analyzing the match up. Making sure the Lakers played the game at their pace was as important, to me at least, as any statistical output you could name. And, after the first two games, the Lakers played exactly the way I would have wanted them to in that regard while cruising to two wins. They pounded the paint through post ups and offensive rebounding chances, got back in transition while making the Nuggets jump shooters, and worked patiently through most possessions in a precise, clinical manner. I felt validated.

However, as the series has progressed the Nuggets have turned the Lakers’ want to play a half court game against them.

By walking the ball up the court, the Lakers are using precious seconds of the shot clock to set up their half court offense. A half court offense that is increasingly more stagnant due to the Nuggets defensive approach of sagging off all shooters and treating the area inside the three point line like a safe zone from a nuclear blast. The Nuggets have become more than content to let the Lakers initiate their offense with 15 seconds left on the clock and look for post up chances that lead to nothing but a kick out pass after a hard double team or a swing of the ball around the perimeter as post entry angles are cut off. All those passes lead to are jumpers in the half court; jumpers that the Nuggets are more than happy to cede because they lead to run out chances of their own, igniting the open court attack they thrive on to produce points.

Plus, in the process of slowing the game down, Ramon Sessions’ game has been neutered. This walk it up style has turned him into a chained cheetah who only gets to let off the leash to run around in a caged in back yard. He’s relegated to walking the ball up and put into half court possessions 65 times a game where he can’t use his speed or quickness often enough. Sessions has been relegated into a spot up/pull up jump shooter and that’s never been the strength of his game. He’s still good enough to get some baskets at the rim, but can anyone honestly say he’s had an impact on this series?

But accommodating Sessions isn’t exactly the key to winning a series. That, of course, is getting sustained high level production out of the Lakers’ bigs. As mentioned earlier, though, that’s simply not happening right now. Bynum and Gasol no longer get easy baskets. On nearly every possession they’re surrounded by defenders who are looking to disrupt every move they hope to make. Sure, the Lakers can tweak their half court sets (please, please do this Mike Brown) by incorporating more screen actions. Plus, better and quicker ball movement can help get them the ball easier without passing angles being as easily disrupted. The bigs can also help themselves out by making their moves quicker after the catch rather than holding the ball and waiting for the second (and third) defender to interfere. But getting the ball via rim-runs and other quick hitting actions in early offensive sets can only aid them in getting on  track.

This is a point that can’t be stressed enough because Gasol and Bynum need to get on track. At this point it’s more than fair to say that they’ve both had long stretches where they’ve checked out mentally/stopped trying as hard as possible (and that’s putting it nicely). Last night Bynum showed some effort on the glass but close to none when protecting the paint in help situations (where he’s needed just as much as on the glass). Gasol was even worse in that not only did he not rebound well, he didn’t defend well either. When you combined with their “efforts” in transition defense, the Lakers bigs were actively hurting the team.

And while I’m not trying to excuse how they’ve played (re-read that again, please), I do understand that the way the series has evolved must be frustrating for Gasol and Bynum. Pau’s only clean looks come from jumpers and Bynum hasn’t had more than one or two in a single game  since game 2. And while I’m fully of the mind that neither should let their offensive frustrations bleed into the defensive responsibilities, I think we can all agree that it is. Neither are contesting shots the way they need to, rebounding with any sort of physicality (a lot of Bynum’s 16 were stand still rebounds), or running back on D with any sense of urgency.

As much as we’d like it to be, possessions aren’t compartmentalized in an NBA game. What happens on one side of the floor affects what happens the next time down on both sides of the ball. And at this point the Lakers bigs look they’ve been beaten down not just because the Nuggets are working hard and playing them physically, but because the strategy on how to get them going hasn’t really changed with the results, predictably, being the same as well. Again, I make no excuses for the Lakers bigs. But if the wings aren’t making shots and they keep facing the same hard doubles and shaded passing angles every possession for 3 straight games, something is going to give. And, with that frustration reaching a crescendo, it’s been their effort.

There are a lot of things wrong with the way the Lakers are playing right now. And it would be disingenuous for me to claim that one simple fix like speeding up the game is going to turn the series around. But, again, the pace is now too slow and it’s making what should have been a Lakers’ strength – their big man play – neutral at best. Adjustments will need to be made to their half court sets to partially off-set some of the double teaming. The Lakers wings making shots would help a great deal too. But, at this point, the Lakers must also start to take advantage of the Nuggets in the open court and get easier shots.

With only one game left, long term strategy to beat Denver is out the window. The result from this one game will be the difference between advancing and an even longer summer vacation. The Lakers must do everything they can to win. And, from where I sit, that means speeding up the game some.

The Nuggets have a defensive game plan that’s taken full shape now. They want to sag in the paint to disrupt post up chances and dare outside shooters to beat them. Be it Bynum or Gasol, the tactics are the same – barely guard perimeter players not named Kobe and make them bury the shots that they’ve struggled all year to hit.

For example, below is a still from the 2nd quarter. The Lakers have gone to their bench unit with Pau Gasol operating as the main offensive weapon. He’s surrounded by Jordan Hill, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Ramon Sessions. The offensive set starts well enough with Blake bringing the ball up and Matt Barnes setting a back screen on Al Harrington to try and free Gasol in the post:

But while the Lakers are trying to free Pau, look at where JaVale McGee has positioned himself. Jordan Hill is trying to clear to the weak side, but there’s McGee standing right in the passing lane of where Pau will be in a split second.

With that option gone, Blake has no choice but to swing the ball to Barnes (who pops to the top of the key after setting his screen) and then in an effort to move the ball on, Barnes swings the ball to Sessions. After the catch, Sessions initiates a P&R with Hill to try and get something going to the basket:

Look how the D is playing this action, however. McGee isn’t hedging at all and is inviting Sessions to shoot a jumper. But, for good measure, Afflalo is sagging off of Barnes and denying lane penetration just in case Sessions still tries to attack McGee. At this point, Sessions does the prudent thing and moves the ball onto Barnes who is wide open. When Barnes makes the catch, he sees that Gasol is open in the post and delivers a quick hitting pass into the Spaniard so he can try to get a shot up against the smaller Al Harrington:

But immediately after Barnes makes his entry, Afflalo digs down to the post to take away the middle. Also, look at Andre Miller cheating off of Blake in the corner to dig down should Pau try to go baseline. At this point, the best play is for Gasol to kick the ball back out to Barnes. And, with the shot clock ticking down, Barnes shoots a three pointer that misses.

Of course, Gasol isn’t even the main Lakers’ post threat these days. That label belongs to Andrew Bynum. Below is a sequence from late in the 1st quarter. This action starts with Barnes bringing the ball up and dribbling to the right wing. Once there, he dribble exchanges with Kobe and looks for the post:

Look where Andre Miller is, though. He’s already backed off of Barnes to try and discourage the post entry. Barnes then makes the pass to Kobe who passes the ball right back to him. This is a direct signal that the ball needs to go into the post and Barnes again looks to feed Bynum:

But look where Miller is now. Understand, Barnes has a live dribble here. He can do anything with the ball that he pleases. But, looking to execute the plan, Barnes does enter the ball to Bynum who promptly gives the ball right back to Barnes (who slid more towards the corner to create a better passing angle). But, with no where to go with the ball, Barnes passes the ball back out to Kobe:

After Gallo got his hand on the pass, Kobe recovered the ball and had to attack with the shot clock winding down. He drove hard to his right hand but this is what he saw:

At this point, Gallo is shading him right, McGee is in front of Bynum, and Miller has again left Barnes to cut off Kobe’s driving angle. The result is Kobe kicking to a wide open Barnes:

Barnes takes the open shot afforded to him and misses.

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This is what the Lakers are facing on every single offensive possession. They want to get their big men post touches and the Nuggets want to take them away. When the ball does get entered, dig-downs are coming from the ball side wing and on other possessions coming from the weak side. The players getting cheated off the most are Barnes and Ebanks (when he’s in the game) as they’re the Lakers that shoot the worst from range.

At this point, counters are in order. After the game Pau spoke of using “different actions” to try and get the ball into the post and not just walking the ball up the court and trying to make a post entry right away. He called that “predictable” and he’s 100% right.

The Lakers need to move the ball more, cut and screen more, and then look for quick duck ins from their big men where they can catch the ball on the move or sliding into position where they’re more of a threat to score. By incorporating more ball and player movement before post entries are made, it should also afford the Lakers that extra beat of time they need to make a quick move to try and get a basket. Cross screens can also be utilized both in “horns” actions and in more simple sets that don’t involve the double high post look to begin a possession.

The bigs can also change ends faster while the Laker PG’s look to advance the ball more quickly. Rim-runs can be a good way to get the bigs more touches and shots close to the rim, especially against a D that isn’t yet set up fully. Remember, during the regular season the Nuggets surrendered the most points per play in transition situations, according to My Synergy Sports. The Lakers can run effectively against this team while not getting fully sucked into the type of up and down game that the Nuggets want.

In the end, though, the Lakers shooters must make the Nuggets pay. Barnes, Blake, Ebanks, and Sessions will continue to get open shots around the perimeter and they must knock some of them down to at least make the Nuggets think twice about ignoring them on D. I fully expect the Nuggets to continue to shade towards the Lakers big three but made shots will turn that strategy into a losing one, rather than what the Lakers saw last night.

Yesterday’s game 4 win gave the Lakers the road win they sought and put them only a single win away from advancing to round two. The game was hard fought, but like the Lakers have done all season, they made several key plays down the stretch to helped seal a game that could have gone either way. Both star and role players had their hand in the win and as Steve Blake said in a rare trip to the podium post game, game 4 was a total team win.

And since today is a day off and we’ll be right back at it tomorrow for what could be the clinching game, here are some leftover thoughts from yesterday’s thriller:

*In order to win a game there are individual factors and team factors that must go a team’s way. A list of the former include things like Bynum’s intensity and effort on defense or Kobe’s ability to score efficiently. These things matter a great deal and I think it’s fair to say that should several of those variables go the Lakers’ way, they have an excellent chance of winning. However, it’s the team factors that often mean the most over the course of an entire series.

Against the Nuggets, the pace/tempo/flow of the game has been the #1 variable the Lakers need to mark on their side of the ledger. In game 4 there were only 85 possessions (averaged) for both teams and that’s about 11 possessions fewer than the Nuggets averaged during the regular season. That number is skewed somewhat by the Lakers grabbing so many offensive rebounds (more on that later) but the fact remains, the Nuggets didn’t get as many possessions as they’d like and that’s a big win for the Lakers.

However, what I also noticed is that one of the key ways the Lakers attempt to slow down the game is by dragging out their own offensive possessions. They walk the ball up. They make multiple passes into the post, back to the wing, and around the perimeter. They’re not stalling, but they are searching for good shots all while using up the shot clock. The problem is, by using the shot clock, the Lakers put themselves behind the proverbial 8 ball on countless possessions because they find themselves searching for a good look against the ticking time bomb of the 24 second clock staring at them. Kobe took 25 FG’s yesterday and 7 of them were with 5 seconds are less on the shot clock. He made only 2 of them.

My point in all this is that the Lakers must find a way to not only slow the game down, but also work their offense to produce quality looks at the same time. Striking this balance can be a difficult one and it’s why I don’t always put a lot of stock into pure shooting percentages. Sometimes executing the game plan means lower quality looks are the ones that will be available.

*Jordan Hill’s emergence as the 3rd big has been fantastic for the Lakers in a variety of ways. He has the ability to play good defense (especially in the P&R) and his work on the offensive glass has been stellar. I went back and watched all 7 of his offensive rebounds from yesterday’s game and a common them came up: he simply knows how to position himself in the paint and is not scared to go out of area to grab a loose ball. On one rebound in particular he positioned himself on the left side of the basket waiting for the ball to come off the rim to that side. However, when ball came off the rim it bounce to the right side. At that point Hill took his two steps towards the ball, batted it against the hands of the Nugget trying to secure it, then vacuumed the ball up into his own mitts to secure the ball.

It was a relatively minor play in the scheme of things but at the end of the night it counted as one of his team high 11 rebounds. And that’s the thing with Hill when you watch him on tape. He’s consistently doing the little things and at the end of the day they all add up to a strong contribution. For the playoffs his offensive  rebound percentage (the % of Oreb’s he’s grabbing while on the floor) is 20.7%. Said another way, one out of every five Laker misses ends up in his hands when he’s on the floor. The Lakers don’t win yesterday’s game without him.

*Fans (myself included) have bemoaned the Sessions/Blake back court duo for as long as Brown has gone to it. Advanced metrics tell us this pairing isn’t that effective – especially on the defensive end as one of the PG’s is often forced to guard a bigger, stronger player. However, yesterday this pairing held their own. In the 20 minutes they shared the court the Lakers had a plus/minus of +1 and their efficiency differential was a +3.9. These aren’t world beater numbers by any means but they’re the type of numbers the team needs to put up when Brown goes to this pairing.

Of note here is that the main reason Brown has (seemingly) gone to this lineup as often has he has is because the Lakers aren’t getting much production from wing players not named Kobe. Matt Barnes has had a bad shooting series and Devin Ebanks, while having some good moments, has had minimal impact adding little to the table while also taking little off it. Not having a clearly better option means that Blake will be in the mix for those spare minutes at shooting guard. Some nights it won’t pay off, but last night it did. Until Ron gets back, however, this is the roller coaster we ride.

*Speaking of Blake, there’s probably not a player I feel better for when he plays well. He’s probably the Laker that fans like to point to first as the guy that doesn’t play up to standard and is often labeled as the weak link on the team. And while on many nights that’s true, it’s never due to lack of effort. He works hard on D and consistently tries to make the right play on O. He’s scrappy and isn’t scared of the big moments. That doesn’t always translate to good play, but when it does I’m happy for him because he’s one player that can never be chided for lack of trying. For me, those types of players have always been easiest to root for.

*I’m not big on commenting about the refereeing but yesterday’s was…interesting, to say the least. I thought the refs called a fairly uneven game that made it difficult for players from both teams to adjust. In the first half contact in the paint was allowed to the point where shoves in the back went largely unpunished only for weaker contact on the perimeter to be whistled. In the 2nd half, the whistles got tighter on paint contact but almost served to overcompensate as several touch calls were made early in the 3rd period. I’m usually of the mind that it’s on the players to adjust to the way that a game is being called but yesterday was one example where I wasn’t (too) mad with either side complaining about the calls made/not made because it wasn’t nearly as consistent as you’d hope it would be in a playoff game.

Well, that was fun.

A year after a playoff home opener in which they were brutally craved up by Chris Paul and after a(nother) regular season in which a double-digit leads made frequent cameos but were often unable to carry a show, on Sunday the Lakers physically dominated an overmatched foe in a manner that was expected, but conspicuously absent for much of the campaign. In what can only be called an ideal playoff opener, the Lakers, powered by an aggressive defense and some timely outside shooting, opened up an early double digit lead and – with the exception of a couple of barely perceptible blips – cruised to a 103-88 Game 1 victory over the Nuggets.

The Lakers were sparked by an glorious (or terrifying, depending our your perspective) defensive performance from Andrew Bynum (an NBA playoff record 10 blocked shots and the Lakers’ first postseason triple-double since Magic in 1991), sustained by a trio of outstanding postseason debuts and some timely long-range strike form Steve Blake, and capped by a blinding barrage from Kobe Bryant (9-of-14 after halftime, including 14 straight Laker points in 4:31 of the fourth quarter). Lest you forget, Pau Gasol was in attendance as well, looking every bit the part of “world’s most skilled big,” with 13 points (including a 3-pointer), 8 rebounds, 8 assists and a pair of blocked shots of his own. It was an all-around solid playoff opener, setting the tone for what should be a fairly businesslike – if more competitive – series.

This is not to say that ‘Drew will swat 11% (!!) of Denver’s shot attempts from the sky, Jordan hill double-doubles (10 and 10, with 4 offensive boards) are the new norm, nor that Devin Ebanks ought to be blindly penciled in for an ultra-efficient 12 (5-of-6 FG, 2-of-2 FT) each night (incidentally, the Lakers’ third playoff debutante, Ramon Sessions, turned in a completely replicable 14, on 6-of-11, and 5 assists). It would also be foolish to ignore the fact that, while Bynum impromptu block party dramatically dented the Nuggets’ composure in the paint (per Hoopdata, just 48.8% on shots at the rim and 13.4% from 3-9 feet out), the Lakers’ perimeter defenders did an atrocious job of keeping Denver out of the paint. The Nuggets attempted a whopping 54 shots from within nine feet, 39 of those from point blank range, more than half those by non-bigs Danilo Gallinari (5-of-8 at the rim), Andre Miller (4-of-8) and Al Harrington (0-of-4). If the Lakers are unable to prevent penetration into the lane – and remember, strong, speedy Ty Lawson was a non-factor on Sunday – in addition to probably making more than half of their shots at the rim, it’s possible that the Nuggets will be aided by a bit of gamesmanship from coach George Karl, whose postgame comments included a barb about Bynum’s “illegal” defense. Don’t be surprised if ‘Drew is clipped early with a Defensive 3 Seconds call, and forced to slightly alter his approach.

Additionally, as Karl himself suggested in the huddle – and as anyone that watched Sunday’s game will attest – the Nuggets entered Game 1 neither properly engaged mentally nor committed to pushing the breakneck pace that has been their calling card all season. A stronger showing from the starting backcourt (Lawson and Arron Afflalo shot a combined 6-of-22 and missed all five of their 3-point attempts), Al Harrington and Andre Miller (who actually had a great all-around game off the bench, with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists) combined to hit more than a third of their shots and continued efficiency and activity from the starting frontcourt of Gallinari (7-of-14, 19 points) and the Manimal, Kenneth Faried (4-of-8, 10 points, 8 rebounds and so. much. energy.) ought to make Game 2 a more competitive affair.

With all of that said, however, the blueprint with which the Lakers can look to exploit their advantages over an undersized opponent remain very much in place. With a commitment to pounding the ball inside to Bynum, Gasol and Kobe, controlling the tempo and turning the Nuggets into a halfcourt team on offense and limiting turnovers (a season-long bugaboo; they had just 11 in Game 1), Game 2, while more competitive, should mirror Game 1 in its result. Prior to the playoffs I’d predicted a six-game Lakers victory in this series. I now have a tough time seeing the Nuggets pushing this matchup past five games.

Following The Blueprint

Darius Soriano —  April 30, 2012

Before yesterday’s win over the Nuggets, the last game the Lakers played and won was a week before against the Thunder. That game was interesting for a variety of reasons – the elbow, the double overtime, and the fact that Blake, Ebanks, and Jordan Hill all played down the stretch over more celebrated options. After that game, I was engaged in a conversation via twitter about the model the Lakers used to beat the Thunder; about whether or not the approach the Lakers used was sustainable.

I replied that the Lakers model to get wins is normally independent of opponent.

What I meant by that was that the Lakers have real weaknesses and they’re the same against every team. Just as the Lakers have real strengths that are (mostly) the same over every team. In order to win any game versus any opponent, the Lakers must try to maximize those strengths while limiting those weaknesses. It’s pretty simple in concept while also, sometimes, being difficult in practice.

Fast forward to yesterday and we saw the Lakers execute their game plan to perfection on both sides of the ball.

On offense that meant pounding the ball inside and forcing the Nuggets to show how they’d defend the Lakers’ superior post players. Bynum, Gasol, and Kobe all got chances to operate below the free throw line to test the D. Early on, the Nuggets double teamed these players and, true to the plan the Lakers passed out to open teammates who then took (and hit) open shots. As the game evolved and the Nuggets couldn’t force the turnovers or missed shots off those double teams, they played more single coverage and the Lakers stars made them pay. Kobe and Pau went off and Bynum was able to sneak into the creases of the D where he received good passes or carved out position on the glass for put backs and offensive rebound chances.

Defensively, the Lakers forced the Nuggets to be a halfcourt team. With the game’s tempo slowed, the Lakers set up  their D in a way that funneled ball handlers to Bynum with the results being a historic night of rejections and the Nuggets’ O then becoming more perimeter oriented. Jumpers were taken but missed their marks. Inside shots that weren’t sent away, were either taken over the outstretched arms of challenging bigs or hurried in an attempt to avoid them entirely.

This formula may sound Nuggets’ specific, but it’s not. Mike Brown was hired as a coach that would inspire the Lakers to play better defense. In his first press conference, he spoke of making crisp rotations and challenging every shot. He spoke of getting back on D, and making the opponent grind out points. Early in the year, the Lakers did just that, riding their defense to some of the wins that helped position them as the 3rd seed in the West.

In the 2nd half of the season, though, that defense faltered. Rotations were late if made at all. Shots went unchallenged as ball handlers turned the corner without impunity, stepping into makable shots. Fingers were pointed, heads hung low, and frustration mounted. Post game comments were filled with phrases like “we just didn’t get it done” and “we simply saw the same old, same old” when talking about the defense.

Yesterday, that changed though. Andrew Bynum reclaimed the paint. The wings pressured the ball. Rotations were back to early season form with shots getting challenged all over the floor by every Laker playing.

This is the blueprint the Lakers need to follow. It’s what their coach teaches and it’s what their players know to work. After all, in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won rings playing this same exact way. The coaches have changed. As has some of the personnel. But those that remain, remember it clearly.

During a break in yesterday’s action the production director cued up some tape. It was a mic’d up segment from a Nuggets’ huddle. George Karl was imploring his guys to go harder; to execute the plan he’d installed to beat the Lakers. He told them that with the way they were playing, he couldn’t tell if the game-plan needed tweaking as they weren’t executing it.

The Lakers don’t have such issues. At least not really. They know their path to winning is mostly independent of opponent. They know that they need effort and attention to detail on defense. They know that they need focus and precision on offense. These things have been true all year. What hasn’t been, is them doing it on a night to night basis.

With the playoffs here, that’s what needs to change; that’s the adjustment Mike Brown’s team needs to make. If they can simply bring it nightly, they’ll have more success than failure. No guarantees, just the best chance to win. Game one was a good place to start. A chance to duplicate comes tomorrow.

 

If the Lakers are going to go as far as their defense takes them, today they offered a statement that they hope to go very far in this post-season. In beating the Nuggets 103-88, the Lakers held the Nuggs to 35.6% shooting from the floor and an offensive efficiency of 95.7 (or nearly 14 points per 100 possessions lower than their yearly average). The Lakers got back in transition, turned the Nuggets into a perimeter team, and contested all shots both at the rim and on the wing. Simply put, they were dominant on that side of the floor.

And it started with Andrew Bynum:

Yes, Andrew Bynum recorded 10 blocks, tying an NBA playoff record in the process. And when added to his 10 points and 13 rebounds, he put up the first triple double in Lakers’ playoff history since Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals. The big fella was simply a terror today and his effort to contest, block, and alter shots were the difference for this team on the defensive side of the floor. To put some statistics to the dominance, the Nuggets shot 21-54 in the restricted area in game one (38.9%) and only scored 44 points in the paint. For a team that relies so heavily on getting points in the paint to win games, this was a problem. A big, big problem.

But it wasn’t their only one.

In the first half, the Nuggets tried to double team both Bynum and Gasol in order to force the Lakers’ hand on offense. Recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to guard both LA big men one on one, they resorted to sending the extra defender at them on the catch. When Kobe caught the ball below the FT line and put himself in a threatening position, the Nuggets sent an extra defender at him too. However, this strategy backfired somewhat as the Lakers’ trio made the simple passes out of the double to their role players. And, those role players hit shots.

In the first half, Devin Ebanks hit 5 of his 6 shots for 12 points. Working mostly on the weak side, Ebanks was the recipient of good passes and, seemingly prepared to take them, he knocked them down. But Ebanks wasn’t alone as Steve Blake also benefitted in that first half. When Blake subbed in for Sessions, he too found himself wide open as defenders rotated off him to shift towards the Lakers’ main threats. The result was Blake making 3 of his 6 shots (all from behind the arc) for 9 points. Those 21 points represented nearly have the Lakers halftime total and ensured that the Nuggets would have to re-examine their approach in the 2nd half.

And when they did start to single cover the Lakers’ big three more, they went to work in their match ups. In those final 24 minutes, Pau hit 5 of his 10 shots for 11 points. Working mostly from the elbow area, Gasol flashed great skill and finished in a variety of ways. A pull up jumper after his man gambled for a steal; a right handed dunk after getting a step on his man after a power dribble; a left handed sweeping hook over two defenders that he banked in – all shots initiated from the elbow. He’d even hit a three pointer to show off his range.

Not to be outdone, Kobe also went to work in the final two quarters scoring 23 points on 14 shots after going only 2-10 in the first half. Post game, Kobe acknowledged that he’d taken some bad shots in that first half (he noted that he’d hunted contact and fouls rather than looking for good looks) but in the 2nd half he’d simply gone back to basics to find his rhythm. And, really, that meant working his low post game. Seven of Kobe’s nine second half makes came in the the restricted area, mostly on deft moves involving fantastic footwork that allowed him to shake his defender and get right to the front of the rim. On one possession he’d face up and drive for the finish. On the next two he’d back his man down, spin or step through, and then get a lay in or a short jumper. On another he’d curl off a pick, make the catch, then ball fake before going up for the uncontested shot.

But, in the face of Kobe and Pau’s brilliance of mixing play making for others early with strong scoring later in the game, the key to this game really was the defense. Bynum’s presence emboldened the rest of his teammates to also be more aggressive. The ball was pressured on the wings. Guys played great position D but also used active hands to deflect and disrupt, forcing 6 steals (4 by Barnes). And, as a team, they stuck to the game plan of slowing down the tempo and turning Denver into a half-court team that would have to rely on outside jumpers to win. The result was one of the more disciplined games the Lakers have played on that side of the ball all season with the statistics bearing the fruit of their efforts.

Of course, the adjustments will now begin but thankfully they’re mostly needed from Denver’s side. After the Lakers claimed game one, it will be on George Karl to find a way to solve the tempo issues his team faced while producing shots inside that aren’t challenged by Bynum. And, from the Lakers side, we’ll see if they can keep up this effort and focus. I’ll say one thing though, I’d much rather be up after one game than behind and the team looking to build on success rather than searching for it. Today, that team – the one in the driver’s seat – is the Lakers.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

Over the years, one of the mantras of this site has been that the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them. If they work hard and focus on getting stops by playing together they can harness their talents and perform at a high level. If they point fingers, slack on rotations, and fail to work as a unit they’ll be shredded. This year, we’ve seen performances that sit on both poles of this spectrum so neither would surprise these playoffs. That said, they’ll need to be more like their early season defensive selves if they hope to make a deep run.

The Overview
The Nuggets are a team built around speed and tempo. They want to play fast and they want their opponent to join them. They played at the 2nd fastest pace in the league this year and that led to them leading the league in points per game. That said, their ability to score points isn’t just based off playing fast. They were 3rd in offensive efficiency on the season, were 2nd in field goal percentage, and first in free throws attempted. They also led the league in shots taken at the rim, taking a shade over 34 shots a game at point blank range. Plus, they’re a good ball movement team, leading the league in assists.

Beyond these numbers though, there are areas in which the Nuggets aren’t as strong. They’re only 24th in 3 point field goal percentage and 22nd in FG% on shots from 16-23 feet. They do try to do a good job of laying off these shots, ranking 13th and 30th in shots attempted from these distances respectively, but the fact remains that they’re not a good deep shooting team and any game plan should focus on trying to persuade them into taking these shots more frequently (especially long two pointers).

What are the other keys to slowing them down? Glad you asked…

Transition Defense
Denver is the most efficient transition team in the league scoring 1.2 points per play every time they attempt a shot on the break. Ty Lawson is a coast to coast threat and he’s more than comfortable working rim to rim on the break and finishing. Off this ability he’s also able to pick out teammates filling the lanes or running to the three point line. Andre Miller offers the same threat. And while he’s not the road runner that Lawson is, Miller is savvy in the open court and extremely smart in choosing his spots on when to attack the rim in the open court. Plus, with his bigger frame, he’s more of a threat to knock off his man with a strong move while advancing the ball and use that step gained to get deep into the paint and compromise the D.

With this being the case, the Lakers getting back on D, building a wall, and then marking shooters is the single most important defensive principle in the series. The guards must be ready to sprint back once a shot goes up and the SF and two bigs will need to balance chasing offensive boards with getting back to the paint to offer that second line of defense against the advancing ball. This really will be a team effort and a lot of it will depend on floor balance and awareness. With Kobe likely doing most of his damage below the foul line and Sessions having a chance to be assertive by getting into the lane, others will need to make sure they’re in position to transition back. This means a heavy burden will be on Ebanks, Barnes, and one of the bigs to be the first men back. If the Lakers find themselves on the wrong end of 3 on 2’s consistently, the Nuggets will have made this series into the one they want to play.

Pick and Rolls, Pick and Pops
The Nuggets though, aren’t one of the best offensive teams simply by playing a full court game. When they’re operating in the half court, they’re also quite dangerous running their sets. They’re mostly a pick and roll team and use several options off this action to get good shots.

First and foremost is Ty Lawson using the pick to free himself up to get the shots he wants. He’s adept at turning the corner to finish in the paint or stepping back and knocking down the jumper. So, special attention will need to be paid to him to make sure he doesn’t find his rhythm. My preference is that the Lakers go under picks and make him shoot long jumpers rather than fighting over picks and giving him the opportunity to turn the corner or split the hedge to get into the lane.

But Lawson isn’t the only threat. Denver loves to space the floor with shooters so that Lawson (and Miller) can use the threat of his own offense as a way to set up shooters. Gallinari and/or Afflalo will often camp in the strong side corner to make helping more difficult. So, when the PG threatens the paint either shooter offers a release valve to put up an open jumper. Meanwhile, whoever isn’t in the corner is rotating up the opposite sideline looking for a skip pass as the defense rotates to help in the paint. Help that is necessary because Faried, Mozgov, and Koufus are all threats diving down the lane after setting screens. Faried and Mozgov are two that will need attention because they can finish in the paint, even in traffic.

The play that has hurt the Lakers most, however, is the pick and pop in Denver’s small lineups. Al Harrington, particularly, has been a thorn in the Lakers’ side averaging over 18 points a game in their match ups. When Al comes in, he instantly starts to run pick and pops with the PG where he’ll set the screen and then float to the wing where he can get off a three pointer before the help comes. When the Lakers start to adjust by running at him or playing him closer, he’ll then use his solid first step to either drive at his man or threaten the drive and then turn the play into a mid-post set where he’ll attack an off-balance defender. Gallinari can also do many of these same things, so he too can be a problem in the P&P. The Lakers rotations will need to be crisp and on time to deal with these two when they stretch the floor after setting picks. Whether that means Pau and Jordan Hill recovering or one of their teammates rushing to wing isn’t as important as they working to get the job done.

Slowing the Wings
Denver’s offense is free flowing and that means their wings have a lot of freedom to attack whenever they see an opening. This puts a fair amount of pressure the Lakers’ perimeter D – especially with them weakened with Ron suspended and Barnes banged up.

Kobe will have his hands full dealing with Arron Afflalo who has really turned up his game lately. In his last 20 games, Afflalo is putting up 19 points a game while shooting the ball extremely well (52.5% from the floor, including 45.6% from three). He’s become more than a corner three point shooter, working some in the post and using a refined mid-range game to score efficiently from all three levels of the court. This is one series where Kobe can’t play “free safety”, roaming off his man to help his teammates. He’ll be guarding a primary offensive threat and his attention must be on his man.

The same will be true of Ebanks who will be facing Gallinari. While Gallo hasn’t had a good year (and has been even worse against the Lakers) facing a less experienced defender at the start of games may give him some confidence. Devin will need to keep him deep on the perimeter and not give up the types of easy baskets that can get him going. That means contesting shots but not getting blown by after ball fakes and using his good length to make the shots Gallo takes a bit more difficult.

The other main threat is Andre Miller. The savvy vet is part PG part SG for the Nuggs who often use him as a hammer against second units that don’t have the personnel to deal with his unique game. Against smaller PG’s, Miller is quite capable of going into the post and either getting good looks or forcing help and then picking out a teammate for a good shot. Against bigger guards, Miller will use his deceptively good first step to get his shoulder by his man and then use his strength to keep him at bay and finish in the paint. Meanwhile, the Lakers don’t really have a good option to play him. If the Lakers go to a small back court either Blake or Sessions will have to deal with Miller. If the Lakers go big, Barnes, Ebanks, or Kobe offer better defenders but that then removes  them from chasing one of Denver’s other wing threats.

In Conclusion
This is a series where the Lakers ability to defend in transition will be the biggest key. If they can get back and effectively protect the paint while not surrendering open three pointers, Denver will be forced into half court offense. And while they can be effective there, if the Lakers sag off and force the Nuggets into long two pointers and contested three pointers, their offense can be sufficiently stalled. This is also a series where the Lakers bigs will need to be at their best in help situations. Denver’s pick and pop actions will spread them thin but they’ll need to overcome that by rotating well to stretch PF’s while also still protecting the paint against Denver’s penetrating PG’s.

Understand too that Denver doesn’t have true post up threats so this should free Bynum to be more assertive on D and impose his will on the Nuggets by contesting shots and controlling the glass. If Drew brings his hard hat on that side of the floor, the Lakers should be in very good shape. Then, if he’s supported by Pau and Hill while Kobe, Ebanks, and Barnes do their jobs on the wing the Lakers should be able to keep Denver below their averages. Which, in this series, should be enough as the Lakers offense should be able to score on the other end.