The Laker defense has been a hot topic ever since they acquired Pau Gasol last year. The offense is one of the league's best, but the defense has ranged from the NBA's best to absolutely awful and usually, somewhere in the middle ever since. The problem with being somewhere in the middle though is that in the playoffs, the Lakers will see few, if any team that can be described as somewhere in the middle. If the Lakers are to bring home a title this year it has to start with four wins over the Jazz and those four wins are dependent on the team's ability to lockdown on the defensive end. As anybody who was watched the Lakers knows, this team will score, but their success depends on their ability to defend. They've proven they can defend at the highest of levels, but can they do it game after game like the playoffs requires? Let's start with their ability to defend for four games...against the Jazz.
Breaking down the Lakers' defense, specifically against the Utah offense for this series is a tricky task because nobody is quite sure what the Jazz personnel will be like in the series and how that will affect the offensive scheme. Utah's offense is led by the sensational PG Deron Williams (19.4 PPG, 10.7 APG) who will no doubt give the Lakers' point guards fits. Outside of Williams though, the Jazz could be in trouble. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur can both give the Lakers issues, but Boozer is not even remotely close to 100% following knee surgery and Okur will be playing with a tender hamstring. The health of those two players, along with that of CJ Miles will go a long ways to determining how much of a threat Utah will be to the Lakers' defense because not only are they skilled offensive players when healthy, but they provide options with regards to the plays and schemes the Utah coaching staff can turn to.
Taking a look at the Jazz' numbers though we see a good, but not outstanding offense.The number in parentheses is their rank amongst all 30 NBA teams.
- Points Per Game: 103.6 points (7th)
- Points Per 100 Possessions: 107.1 points (8th)
- Field Goal Percentage: 47.46% (3rd)
- 3 Pointers Attempted Per Game: 13.7 (26th)
- 3 Point Percentage: 35.0% (T-23rd)
- Free Throw Percentage: 77.13 (13th)
- Adjusted Field Goal Percentage: 50.0% (T-9th)
- Turnovers Per Game: 14.8 (22nd)
- Offensive Rebounds Per Game: 11.5 (11th)
Now we're going to take a look at the Lakers' defense. For all of the flak the Lakers take defensively, their numbers are pretty impressive, with the NBA rank in parentheses.
- Opponent's Points Per Game: 99.3 points (13th)
- Opponent's Points Per 100 Possessions: 101.9 points (5th)
- Opponent's Field Goal Percentage: 44.69% (6th)
- Opponent's 3 Point Percentage: 34.0% (T-2nd)
- Opponent's Turnovers Per Game: 15.5 (4th)
- Opponent's Offensive Rebounds Per Game: 11.7 (T-24th)
- Steals Per Game: 8.8 (T-1st)
- Blocks Per Game: 5.1 (T-10th)
First, it's important to understand the Lakers' defensive scheme. The Lakers employ basic man-to-man principles, with a twist. They use a strong side zone, which allows the Lakers to be aggressive in their trapping. It also allows the Lakers' defenders to roam a bit more off the ball, which allows them to get their hands in passing lanes and create havoc for the offense. This ability to roam should prove extremely effective against the flex offense that Jerry Sloan's Jazz teams have been running for years.
The flex offense has a few basic sets, but has a number of plays that the offense can run off each set and has a number off options within each play. All of those sets, plays and options are possibilities each and every time down court. The Jazz offense will read the Lakers' defense in both scheme and matchup to best exploit the openings. The flex offense uses many screens, especially those along the baseline that try to free players in the corners to come off those screens and find seams in the heart of the defense on a curl. The set out of the flex offense that Sloan is most fond of, and naturally so with a point guard like Williams, is the 1-4 set, which has the point guard high and the four other players along the baseline. This allows Williams to either work one on one or call for the high pick and roll.
The high pick and roll is something that the Lakers will see early and often. While Sloan has always been partial to his flex offense, he's turned to the high pick and roll as the basis for his offense more and more lately, especially once Boozer went down with his knee injury. The high pick and roll is most effectiive because of Williams' ability to hit from the outside and get to the paint obviously, but also because of Okur's ability to shoot from the perimeter. Okur is often involved in the pick and roll and the threat of the pick and pop to free Okur for the jump shot often gives Williams a lane to basket. Even when he's not involved in the pick and roll, Okur is a threat on the pick and roll because he flashes to the corner and is either open or takes a big out of the paint with him. That frees the paint for Williams should he get to the paint or for one of Utah's athletic wings to cut baseline where Williams will hit him for the easy bucket.
Now, before we get into how the Lakers plan to stop the Jazz, we need to address who will guard who? Whether it be Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar, whoever is in the game as the point guard will guard Williams. Kobe Bryant will be tasked with guarding Ronny Brewer and he may have to rethink his roaming. Bryant hasn't shown Brewer much respect in prior games and has roamed more than usual, but Brewer made him pay to the tune of 16.7 points on 54% shooting against the Lakers this year. At the small forward spot it will be CJ Miles if his injured finger allows, if not Matt Harpring. Trevor Ariza will guard whoever starts for the Jazz at the three. Boozer is the Jazz' power forward, but expect Andrew Bynum to guard him and Gasol to guard the Jazz' center Okur. This could go either way, but especially with his knee still working its way back, The Lakers may not want Bynum to spend too much time on the perimeter against Okur. When Odom enters the game you will likely see him guard Okur while Gasol or Bynum sticks Boozer.
What We'll See
So we know what the Lakers like to do defensively and what the Jazz like to do offensively. We'e talked about who will guard who as well, but now we have to take a look at how the Lakers specifically cater their defense to stop what the Jazz are likely to do.
When the Jazz go to their high pick and roll, the Lakers' point guard aren't going to get overly aggressive and go over the screen. Not only do the Lakers prefer to go under the screens on the pick and roll, but they will be more than happy to turn Williams into a scorer. The Lakers will likely hedge a little bit harder than normal when Okur isn't involved in the pick and roll to string Williams out and keep him from turning the corner. This may leave Williams with the chance to make a pass to the paint which will be rather empty so it will be important for the Lakers' defenders off the ball to be aware of off the ball screens while the high pick and roll is going on. That would be a hybrid flex offense set that would act as a three low, two high set with flex offense principles on the base line. Those flex offense principles is where the screens come into play off the pick and roll to create cutters for Williams to find once he clears the hedge on the high pick and roll. He'll have those opportunities because you won't see many doubles on Williams on the pick and roll.
The only place you're really going to see the Lakers double is in the corners. Their defensive scheme encourages ball handlers to go into the corners and it is at that point that they bring the double to trap the ball handler. This forces the ball handler to pass out of the double team under pressure. The Lakers' in their strong side zone are well positioned at this point to force turnovers in this situation. Not only is the ball handler making a difficult pass, but he doesn't have many options to pass the ball to. The strong side zone takes away the chance to hit a dive man with a pass and you don't want to throw the ball cross court so the only option is to toss the ball back up the sideline where an alert defender can get in the passing lane and further complicate things for the ball handler.
This situation could also provide the Lakers with their biggest challenge and it reared its ugly head in the regular season finale. Williams was often the ball handler being forced to the corner, but he gets to that corner so quickly and is so aware of everyone on the court that he has some time to pass the ball before the double puts him under pressure. While the double is on its way, the strong side zone has already materialized. The man on the strong side zone takes care of the dive man, but that takes him to the top off the restricted circle. This leaves a passing lane alone the baseline. On the weakside, the Jazz use their flex offense principles to set a back screen and free a man coming off that screen. The Jazz used that play effectively in the regular season finale for a few easy buckets. If the Lakers are to better defend that play, they need to be much more physical on the weakside. Not only do they have to communicate well so the defenders know where the screen in, but that man guarding the screener needs to get physical with the cutter and delay him. If the cutter is allowed to come off that screen free without and interference from the screener's man, Williams will find him every time for the layup. If Okur is the weakside screener, the Lakers may have to switch on the weakside screen because Okur will pop to the corner while his man is getting physical with the cutter.
The Laker have the players to stifle the Jazz' offense. The Utah offense has not been nearly as potent since Boozer's injury and Williams has had to pick up the slack. The problem is that the Jazz need Williams to be a distributor, not a scorer. As the Salt Lake Tribune mentioned the other day, the Jazz are 3-6 this year in games Williams scores 30 or more points. The problem for the Jazz is tha with Boozer not quite 100%, there is no need to double anywhere on the court or draw defenders to a certain place on the court. That allows the defense to play tight man-to-man everywhere on the court and the Jazz aren't an overly athletic teams so they can't explot it. The Lakers will likely do to Williams what they've done to Steve Nash and Chris Paul in the past. Williams can beat their point guards all he wants, but he's not going to see a lot of help unless it's a layup. If Williams is open from 10 feet or 15 feet, the Lakers will leave him there, even if his man has been beat. If he wants to turn the corner off of the screen, the Lakers will let him without trying to cut him off with a help defender. The goal for the Lakers will be to keep Williams' assist total at five or below, regardless of how many points he scores.
The one thing that could be in the Jazz' favor is their home crowd. Energy Solutions Arena (it really should still be the Delta Center) is one of the loudest arenas in the NBA and the Jazz have used that to their advantage in the past. The flex offense has a lot of off the ball movement and screens, which requires communication from the defense to ensure they know where the screens are coming from and whether or not they are switching. The noise in the arena will make it tough to cummincate and as a result, the Lakers' defense could have a few "breakdowns" defensively in Salt Lake City that are just crowd related because they cannot hear.
If the Lakers are committed to that thinking, their strong side zone and to playing defense in general, the Jazz will have trouble. If Utah can knock down the three point shot at a far higher percentage than they did during the regular season, but that will be their best chance of winning. When committed, the Lakers' defense can shut down the Utah offense and force Utah to win the game from behind the arc. I doubt that will happen and I doubt the Jazz will put up big numbers, meaning the Lakers should be in very good shape.