It was not a pretty game, but you do not climb the standings with style points. The Lakers bounced back after a disappointing opening night loss to beat the Jazz 95-86 on Friday night. I’ll take it…especially when you consider how the win came about.
There’s a lot of different angles to approach this game from, but I think the simplest is that this is the type of defensive performance the Lakers are capable of. When you look at this roster, there’s not an abundance of defensive talent, but there are a handful of players at key positions who possess very specific skill sets that can impact a game.
We saw this vs. Utah with Avery Bradley using his strength and length to give Mike Conley problems, Danny Green’s ability to navigate on-ball screens and excellent timing/instincts to contest shots to stay relatively connected with Donovan Mitchell, Alex Caruso’s feel for help defense and hustle to rotate to disrupt the Jazz’s P&R attack from off-ball, and LeBron James’ overall size and smarts to work well on and off the ball in both is own matchups and ones where he was tasked with switching.
And then, of course, there was Anthony Davis. I will not act as though I have seen all of Davis’ career, but I would imagine this is the type of performance which has many claiming he can be the best defensive player in the league. Davis showed the entire package: smarts, athleticism, size, length, and effort. He blocked shots (5 in all), contested shots all over the floor, stayed in front of guards off the dribble on switches, and wreaked havoc in passing lanes to disrupt angles + get deflections and steals. Davis did absolutely everything defensively and when that’s the case just covers up so much for this team and allows them to play with more aggressiveness on the perimeter.
Davis did most of his damage playing center after Frank Vogel changed the starting lineup in the 2nd half, removing JaVale and inserting Caruso in his place. This single adjustment changed the tenor of the game and led to the Lakers seizing control of what was, to that point, a slugfest of a game.
During the game Vogel was asked about why he made the change and said (I’m paraphrasing), that he swapped JaVale for Caruso to get another ball-handler on the floor to supplement LeBron and moved Davis to C to get Gobert out of the paint defensively to open things up offensively. There were the defensive benefits I highlighted above, too, but Vogel couldn’t have been more correct about how this lineup adjustment helped his offense.
With Davis at C and Caruso playing PG, the Lakers were able to effectively get into more of their offense and advance through more actions within their sets. We saw many more sets where LeBron started off the ball in HORNS sets with Caruso initiating, which led to more interplay between Bron/AD after plays had already developed. We also saw more plays where even if LeBron initiated, Caruso’s ability to run secondary P&Rs led to actions where LeBron did not have to carry such a burden to create so much at the point of attack.
And then, of course, there was the return of the LeBron/Davis P&R and how effective it could be. In the first half, when the Lakers went to this action they ran into similar issues they did vs. the Clippers. The Jazz, like the Clips, trotted out a switchable PF (Jeff Green) to guard Davis and started Joe Ingles on LeBron while Gobert guarded JaVale. With this setup, the Jazz switched Green onto LeBron, put Ingles on Davis, and then Gobert lurked in the paint behind it all. This alignment clogged the paint for LeBron drives and kept Gobert in helping range of postups by Davis.
With Davis at C, however, Gobert got put into P&R actions with LeBron as the ball handler. The Jazz do not want Rudy switching this action, they want him in drop coverage. LeBron vs. drop coverage is a difficult proposition for defenses — as explained in my game preview. LeBron is able to turn the corner, threaten the rim and then make a shot/pass determination based on how much the defense commits. On plays where the center never really helps, LeBron will attack the front of the rim. On the plays where the center stays with him on the drive, LeBron will pass, and the result will likely be a dunk:
The Lakers, then, started to look more of what we thought the Lakers could look like this year. They flashed a high ceiling on defense and showed enough variation with their stars to be able to hurt a really good defense, too. That combination will be very difficult to beat on any given night especially vs. non-elite teams.
Ultimately, like the Clippers on opening night, this was only one game. I think it’d be silly to jump to too many conclusions off this game just as I thought it would be silly to do the same after that first loss. The Lakers have a ways to go, not only in terms of getting everyone healthy, but as this game showed they’re still very much trying to sort out rotation questions and make determinations on the best way to attack teams depending on matchups and scheme.
Friday night was encouraging, though. Vogel made a mid-game adjustment that paid off schematically which helped them win the game. The defense played well and the offense got opened up some more. These are small, but meaningful steps. Onto the next one…but first, some notes:
- LeBron James is still pretty good, huh? 32 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds. 12-22 shooting, 7-8 from the foul line. He looked much more comfortable shooting his jumpshot, but also really benefited from the extra driving space in the 2nd half with Davis at center. I do not expect him to score like this every night, but I think if he’s playing more PF with only a single big man on the floor and has shooting around him, he’s going to be dangerous in and around the paint. Also, props to him for going to the post as much as he did in the 2nd half. The Lakers did a smart thing by using Davis as a post entry passer on a few possessions, drawing Gobert out of help positions so LeBron could work without that type of size coming to help. It really worked out well and I hope to see more of that in future games.
- Troy Daniels is getting much more playing time than I thought he would and he’s an interesting player to root for as a regular rotation guy. First, he truly is an unreal shooter who has the respect of the defense. He hit 4 of his 8 three pointers on the night, 5 of his 9 shots overall, and scored 15 points. He’s clearly a threat; his spacing and shotmaking can really boost the offense. Daniels, however, is not a good passer, not a good dribbler, and not a good defensive player. He’s particularly poor at post entry passes which is tough when you have Davis and LeBron on your team and one of the ways they’ll draw defensive attention and open up perimeter shooting is via post ups. Daniels is the epitome of a 1-trick pony. But, damn, what a trick it is when he’s making corner 3’s look like a layup.
- I understand the Dwight Howard skepticism, I truly do. But, if you don’t see that he’s playing well and helping this team, you’re likely more interested in making jokes or not watching closely. He continues to be in the right place more often than not defensively, he works hard on the offensive glass, he runs the floor hard, and he brings a physicality on both ends of the floor that this team lacks. It’s early, I know. A preseason and a couple of regular season games is not a big sample. But he’s doing a lot of little things well and those little things add up.
- On the flip side, JaVale is not playing well. He wasn’t just taken out of the starting lineup in the 2nd half, he got pulled from the rotation entirely in favor of Davis and Dwight. I’m not ready to give my theory as to what’s going with him in his current role, but if this keeps up, I’ll have some thoughts on it soon enough.
- KCP cannot hit a shot and he needs to figure this out soon or I wonder how much playing time he’ll get when Kuzma returns. KCP is working hard on defense and he found better matchups and was more effective vs. the Jazz than opening night vs. Kawhi. That said, the Lakers cannot pay him $9 million a year to be a bench defender who can’t make shots. They could have signed Corey Brewer at the minimum and gotten this same type of player profile (and that’s no shade at Brewer — I like him!).
- Caruso needs to play. His defensive rotations were top level and he showed just enough on offense as an initiator and guy who could make the right reads to be useful on that end. Were their mistakes? Yes. Did those mistakes outweigh his usefulness? Not in the least bit. It’s time to find some minutes for him and they’d preferably come with LeBron and/or Davis on the floor.
That’s it for this one, ya’ll. See you on Sunday.