Putting the ball in the basket. It’s what this game is about. The last time I checked, the team with the higher score wins the game so being able to perform this simple act is quite important. Yesterday, we looked at the Thunder’s offense and some of the match ups that will play a major role in the outcome of this series. Today, we examine the Lakers offense and how to best attack the Thunder.
First a few numbers – over the course of the season, the Thunder were the 9th ranked defensive team in the league (in terms of points per 100 possessions) and were 7th in opposition turnover rate as well FG% against. They’re a scrappy bunch that relies on solid defensive principles where rotations are ritualistically executed and close outs are almost always performed. However, that defensive fervor died down towards the end of the season and the Thunder started to rely much more heavily on outscoring their opponents to win games. When you have Kevin Durant that’s not necessarily the worst approach but for a team that made its mark for most of the season on stopping the opposition that change is important as the post season begins. Will the Thunder be able to recapture some of that lost defensive focus and intensity? Against a Lakers team that has some definitive match up advantages, they’ll need to.
Offensively, the biggest advantage that the Lakers have is with Pau Gasol. Going inside into the big Spaniard will be imperative if the Lakers look to sustain any offensive success. The return of Andrew Bynum (whether completely healthy or not) means that Pau can slide back to power forward and a match up with Jeff Green (at least at the start of games). Nothing against Green, but he’s not a defender that’s built to battle the diverse attack that Pau possesses. Green is only 6’9″ and isn’t a tremendously long player. He’s got very good quickness, but his lack of height and reach is something that looks very appetizing to a 7’0″ player with arms like a condor’s wings. As Kurt told me simply and succinctly:
(Pau) is going to be covered by the 6’9″ Jeff Green, who can’t handle him in the post and who Gasol can shoot over at the elbow. Not only is Gasol hot lately, not only has the offense always flowed better when he was the focal point, but also he is the Lakers big offensive mismatch. Exploit it.
So, the Lakers need to go inside to Pau, that much is clear. But what is the best way to do this? Typically, Pau operates in the hub of the Triangle where the initial options of this offense begin. We often see the Lakers start their sets with the sideline initiation where the ball handler passes to the player at the extended wing and then cuts to the (Joel Myers sponsored) short corner. These two wing players form the Triangle with the big man that is either already at or flashing to the strong side low post. However, now that Bynum is back, I’d actually prefer that the Lakers set up in a weak side set where after the pass is made to the player on the extended wing the initial passer cuts to the opposite side corner so that the wing man and the post player can play in a two man game. And I want to see Pau sitting at that weak side low block. This will give Pau a chance to operate in isolation earlier in the clock and do so in space. This puts Pau in the advantageous position of not having strong side defenders digging down on him while also allowing him to use his full arsenal against his defender. For example, when Gasol makes the catch at the post in this weak side formation, he can go to a straight post up move and shoot his jump hook with either hand. Or he can turn and face to shoot his jumpshot (which he’s been making consistently for weeks). Or he can turn and face and use an attack dribble to get to the rim. And not only does this open up all these different options, but it also allows Pau to easily see the double team coming from the opposite side of the court while also opening up the lane for all the screen actions that exist when the three players that create the Triangle on the opposite side start their motions. There are just too many good options out of this weak side initiation with all of them exploiting the Lakers natural advantage of Gasol vs. Green.
But obviously, Pau is not the only offensive weapon for the Lakers. There’s that guy that wears #24 as well. The key though, in this series, is for Kobe to recognize that he is being guarded by one of the better wing defenders in the league and to play with his head and not be driven by pride or by ego. Kobe knows he can be successful against this team and it would be easy for him to look at his earlier successes against OKC (look at his point totals in the first three games) and ignore the 11 point stinker he threw up against this team in late March. But, he instead needs to focus on where the biggest advantages lie – on the interior – and play a style that aligns with this reality. This isn’t to say that Kobe can’t look for his own shot or be aggressive. One of the main reasons that the Lakers are as dangerous on offense as they are is because of the threat of Kobe; the opponent’s knowledge of what he’s capable of doing when he has the ball in his hands. That said, his aggression must be selective and his shots (at least the majority of them) need to come within the flow of the Lakers’ sets where he is working off the ball and running Sefolosha off screens and slashing to the basket. This will allow him to be efficient and effective while also still using the principles of the offense to help himself and his mates.
From a team wide perspective there are also some important keys that the Lakers need to be aware of. First is that they need to take care of the ball and limit their turnovers. The Thunder prey on careless offenses and use their athleticism in the open court to get easy baskets when you give away the rock. Second is that the Lakers size advantage exists not only on the low block, but on the offensive glass as well. When Pau and Bynum get deep post position, the help will come and that will open up lanes to crash the offensive boards. I’d love to hear at least three or four references to the Lakers playing ‘volleyball’ on the glass in each game. Third, the Lakers can’t get complacent on offense and go away from what works. That means don’t run the pick and roll just because it’s there and don’t jack up early shots in transition just because that is the shot that is available. Work the Triangle and do the little things; the correct things that win possessions and thus win the game.
In the end, this series can end up being a lot closer than it (probably) should be if the Lakers don’t diligently look to work their favorable match ups. The Lakers size, smarts, and experience can be the difference between a short series or long and hard fought one. As Magic Johnson said so often, it’s winning time. Will the Lakers take the steps necessary to ensure that they come out on top? The roadmap is there, they just need to follow it.