After winning 5 of 6 games to push their record to 6-4, the Lakers have lost 3 of 4 to settle back in at .500 (7-7). Their recent skid is mostly about their defensive decline where they’ve surrendered points in bunches by defending poorly at the point of attack in isolation and in the P&R in the two man game while also continuing their trend of fouling shooters too often. The team has still been in games and continues to battle hard through the final buzzer, but the mistakes they have been making defensively have been the difference and need to be cleaned up.
Considering the types of issues the Lakers have been having defensively, tonight’s game against the Thunder and Russell Westbrook offer a difficult challenge. Westbrook’s ability to get downhill and to the rim is among the best in the league. His relentlessness in attacking is unparalleled and he must be accounted for early in possessions lest you want to see him finish above the rim. He will consistently threaten the paint and if the Lakers do not find a way to bandaid their defensive woes, Westbrook won’t just exploit them, he will drive a wedge into the fissure and crack their scheme wide open.
I will be interested in seeing who guards Westbrook tonight. D’Angelo Russell is still questionable with a sore knee and there are reports that, after taking mostly 3 pointers on Sunday while saying he played cautiously, Luke Walton wants Russell playing his normal game or to sit out to let his joint mend. If Russell does play, he might not still guard Russell and instead be put onto Andre Roberson or Victor Oladipo in favor of Nick Young guarding Russ. That’s not an ideal situation for Young, but he offers more size and ability to get through picks. If D’Angelo doesn’t play and Calderon starts, I think Young has to guard Westbrook and the other matchups just fall into place organically. (UPDATE: Russell is reportedly out with his sore knee.)
Regardless, though, the Lakers must be conscientious about their defense and adjust to OKC’s personnel. Oladipo his hitting over 40% of his 3 pointers, but I still think the Lakers must sink into help positions early to deny driving lanes to Westbrook. They must also pinch from the weakside in the P&R to dissuade lobs to Steven Adams and then recover to shooters under control to again avoid the types of blow-byes which trigger more help and the opening of easy passes. In other words, think help early and often and make the Thunder beat you from the outside.
That said, surrendering wide open threes is not the plan. I mentioned Oladipo, but OKC has other players who will threaten from distance. Besides Westbrook, rookie big man Domatas Sabonis is shooting 39% from deep and big man Joffrey Lauvergne is shooting 36% from deep. These two will try to stretch the Lakers out so the bigs must be active in helping, but also smart in closing out against these two in order to force them to put the ball on the floor in order to slide with them and funnel to help.
Offensively, the Lakers must continue to play with pace but do so smartly. OKC has no issues running with any team in the league with Westbrook leading the way. Avoiding turnovers, especially live ball ones, will be important in ensuring OKC doesn’t get easy points in transition. This about balance; the Lakers must attack and look for early offense. Run drag P&R’s, look to penetrate and kick or penetrate to score (especially when Adams is out of the game), but then pull back and run their actions if nothing is there.
With Russell out, Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson become even more important. Clarkson could not find his offense against the Bulls, but he’ll need to do so tonight. I’d like to see him get his mid-range game going as that can often feed the other parts of his offense while keeping the defense off-balance. I would also like to see Williams continue his strong play, especially in the P&R where he can be a dual threat as a scorer or a passer.
In terms of the big men, Julius Randle (who is listed as questionable) is important this game should he play. His ability to play with pace and battle on the glass are important against a team with Adams and Kanter attacking the O-glass. If Randle cannot go, Nance needs to be more assertive in looking for his own offense — taking his jumper with confidence and attacking creases to try and finish at the rim. I’d also like to see Nance get to the foul line a bit more, so diving hard in the P&R should be a focus tonight.
While we’ve discussed needing to take a patient outlook during this rough part of the schedule, this game is sot of important. The Lakers play the Warriors on Wednesday night in Oakland then again at Staples on Friday. It would be nice to get a win in this game before that home and home against a surging Dubs team.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start tim on Spectrum Sportsnet.