The NBA is filled with the best atheletes in the world, however the keys to victory often come on the backs of the small and unathletic men on the bench. No, I am not talking about Derek Fisher. I am talking about the coaching staffs around the association. Each team is armed with not only a head coach, but an entire staff of assistants and scouts. Tonight Mike D'Antoni utilized his staff to their fullest potential and put together a game plan that took advantage of all the weaknesses the Lakers have exhibited all season long. The result was an impressive win over a Lakers team with far more star power.
The Lakers' flaws are no secret. In the backcourt they lack great ball handling skills; on the perimeter they lack shooters to stretch the floor; and in the post they have one of the league's best one-on-one centers who can't handle a double team. The Knicks exploited each of these weaknesses to their full potential tonight. I would call it a brilliant game plan but it isn't like these problems are a secret. Still, the Knicks do deserve credit for executing it to perfection. The problem for the Lakers is there is no easy solution to fix these problems.
The Knicks began the game by face guarding Fisher and forcing the ball to be inbounded to Metta World Peace. The Knicks then sent a double team to World Peace near mid-court and the unexpected pressure resulted in two turnovers by the small forward early on. The Knicks continued to put pressure on the ball, trying to trap the dribbler and force him into a tough position. This strategy, coupled with the Lakers inability to make a shot, helped the Knicks build a large early lead that they would never relinquish. Things were so bad for the Lakers that it wasn't until four minutes into the second quarter that the Lakers finally had more field goals than turnovers.
When the Lakers were able to get the ball into the half-court sets, they found a Knicks team that packed the paint and dared the Lakers to shoot. The Lakers gladly obliged and attempted to build a house of bricks that would make Habitat for Humanity proud. They finished making only 6 of 24 attempts from behind the arc. They were led by Steve Blake's 1 of 8 shooting from deep as he played in his second game since returning from injury. Derek Fisher finished 2 for 7 on field goals, and while only one attempt was considered a three, I believe the other six were all the infamous "toe on the line" variety that he seems to enjoy so much. Metta World Peace couldn't make an open jumpshot either, finishing 0 for 2 from downtown. The Lakers could not make the Knicks pay for keeping the entire team around the paint all night.
The other benefit of packing the paint was that the defense had little distance to travel to double team Andrew Bynum, who has struggled all season with double teams. As TV commentator (and former coach) Hubie Brown noted, Bynum often times takes too long to react to the defense and make his move. Tonight, Bynum struggled with the double teams that were constantly sent his way. He finished with three points in thirty-five minutes, making only one of eight field goal attempts despite most of them being taken from inside of five feet. He also tallied a couple of turnovers when the double team was able to strip him of the ball on the dribble.
The problem that now faces the Lakers is how to fix these key issues. Last year Lamar Odom solved many of these problems. He could bring the ball up the floor to alleviate pressure. He was knocking down threes at a steady clip which spread the floor. He also provided the Lakers with a threat that made teams think twice about doubling Bynum, something the Knicks did not hesitate to do tonight, especially when Bynum was playing with the bench unit. That solution is no longer available to the Lakers.
Despite the wonderfully executed game plan by New York, the Lakers were still very much in the game because of their defense. The Lakers did well defensively, holding the Knicks to 43% shooting, including only 24% from behind the arc. Jeremy Lin continued his unbelievable play as he ran circles around the Lakers point guards while tallying 38 points and 7 assists on a very efficient 13 for 23 field goals. The rest of the team was unimpressive to say the least. The Lakers will almost always be in the game if they play defense like they did tonight, but there is a big difference between being in a game and actually winning the game.
Some of tonight's struggles could certainly be attributable to fatigue. The Lakers just finished a tough and emotional overtime game in Boston the night before. Many Lakers, particularly Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol appeared to be somewhat dead-legged. However, these issues have presented themselves before with a fresh Lakers squad.
It would be hard to imagine a Lakers squad featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum not making the playoffs, but that is a real risk right now. The Lakers are currently only half a game away from slipping out of the top eight in what is a very deep Western conference. If the Lakers are to make the playoffs, let alone contend for a title, they need to find solutions that address the major offensive issues that face this team. Unfortunately the answers to these problems probably do not exist on the current roster as constructed. With limited assets to work with, Mitch Kupchak has his work cut out for him. Until then, it will be up to Mike Brown and his staff to develop game winning strategies.