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LAL - NOH Game Two Preview: Don't Adjust, Execute.

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Tonight's matchup is the Lakers' first chance to redeem themselves for a Game One stink-fest in which nobody except Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest can be proud of the way in which they played. The game featured mediocre to poor execution of the offense; namely due to the pivotal player in the Triangle (pun not intended), Pau Gasol, playing like a roll of Charmin double-ply; and failing to assert himself whatsoever; coupled with sloppy passing, particularly in the first quarter where it resulted in five turnovers. However, the offense was running beautifully compared to the defense, which was just pathetic. Once again catalyzed by Pau Gasol's ineffectiveness in guarding the paint; but with plenty of significant contributions in the negative from other players; particularly a lack of effort by guards in fighting through screens; and poor execution of defensive sets in general; the Lakers were outscored in the paint and allowed the Hornets to score an obscene 1.21 points per possession.

Credit must go to the Hornets, who executed their offensive with as close to perfection as humanly possible, led by Chris Paul's gargantuan 33-point, 14-assist, 7-rebound performance and highlighted by a grand total of three team turnovers for the entire game for the Hornets. However; it goes without saying  they owe much of this to the Lakers, who failed to effectively pressure ball-handlers and were completely ineffective in protecting the paint, allowing an unheard of 52 points in the paint for the rather undersized Hornets.

Looking at the past game, it seems relatively easy to start calling 'outlier' on many of these numbers. Sure, the Hornets are unlikely to continue to score nearly half their points in the paint for the entire series. Sure, Aaron Gray isn't often going to outplay Pau Gasol. Chris Paul probably won't average 33/14/7/4 for the entire series (though he does have the will, and does have the talent peak to do so, it's just near-impossible to do consistently). But that's all on the Lakers. They allowed Chris Paul to effortlessly cut through their paltry attempts at 'defense', they allowed him to orchestrate a mediocre (19th in the League in Offensive Rating, according to offensive squad missing its leading scorer into scoring 1.21 points per possession with only three turnovers to boot. Pau Gasol allowed Aaron Gray to outplay him. The Lakers, as a team, collectively crapped the bed.

Normally, the theme of the playoffs is adjustments, adjustments, adjustments. If your opponent beats your defensive scheme, adjust in the break between games to present something new; if you struggled to score in one game, switch up your offensive playbook for the next; the stereotypical Playoff cliche. But that doesn't apply here, because, quite simply, the Lakers have nothing to adjust on. It's not that they ran their plays and the Hornets out-executed them; or manipulated their plays against them. No, the Lakers didn't even bother to run their sets properly, instead attempting to wing it through a Playoff game. Whether that be due to overlooking their opponent, a lack of form after their sloppy finish to the Regular Season, or simply bleary eyes due to the Sunday matinee game is a topic for another time; but the end result is evident: it's not that the Hornets executed better sets than the Lakers, it's that the Lakers didn't execute their sets. But don't take my word for it, here's Chuck Person's take, via ESPN LA:

"We didn't execute properly with our coverages. Our whole team was a little lethargic. Late in determining what their actions were, and recognizing it and getting to our proper spots defensively. You've got to recognize what's happening then apply what you've learned, and we didn't,"

There, he's talking about the pick-and-roll defense, the play upon which the Hornets, namely Chris Paul, killed the Lakers for many of their points. However, the outlook in this regard is not entirely bleak, as this isn't schematic. The main reason for which the screen-and-roll vivisected the Lakers (other than Paul being one of the best lead guards in the League) was the switches in which the hedging big man, due to a combination of a late hedge and weak attempts to fight through the screen on the part of the guard, was stuck on an island guarding the Hornets' ball-handler. That was never the plan, as is stated in the same ESPN LA article linked above:

Those plays where Pau Gasol found himself on an island against Paul? Not supposed to happen. "That's something we'd like to eliminate," Phil Jackson said. "We can do that."

In closing on the subject of defending the pick-and-roll, when the Lakers did execute their PnR defensive scheme effectively, the Hornets only hit approximately 30% of their shots according to Person.

The other roots of the Hornets' offensive efficiency included their lack of turnovers and relatively efficient scoring from role players generally not relied upon for offensive contributions. Both of these factors are once again centered around Paul's skill; but their probability of repeat can still be reduced. Chris Paul is the type of player who cannot be guarded in the same manner on a consistent basis, in the space of a few possessions he can 'solve' most defensive schemes and start breaking them down to either earn himself a good shot or set his team mates up in position to score. As such, the Lakers need to throw multiple looks at him, a la what they did to Dwight Howard in the '09 Finals. Many credit Pau for his defense on Dwight in that series, but whilst he must be given a lot of credit, often underlooked is the contribution of the coaching staff to the effective defense on Dwight. Howard rarely got the same defensive look twice, with quick doubles coming from the perimeter, catching him off-guard and forcing turnovers. Forcing turnovers is less of a possibility with Paul, and doubling him can be very risky, but it is something that can be attempted from time-to-time, particularly when Andrew Bynum is on the floor to play defensive linebacker.

Role players are exactly that, role players; and to expect them to consistently provide something that is not within their role is unrealistic. Aaron Gray will not score in double-digits if the Lakers actually run back in transition D and put a body on him, nor can Marco Bellinelli, Willie Green and Jarrett Jack be relied upon to consistently make contributions mirroring that of what they did in Game One if they are properly defended. Often, the Laker defensive scheme allows for one opposing player to gain open looks (generally in the 15-20 foot area, if the defense is in accordance with their primary principle of giving up midrange shots in lieu of the paint and arc) in the game. Generally, this is a little-used role player who is not generally a major scoring option. This has burned the Lakers in the past, generally when they nominate a jump shooter for this role and the jump shooter gets hot. Considering this, I would be in agreeance with Andy Kamenetzky in nominating ex-Laker Trevor Ariza for this role, who's one of the most inefficient players in the League for the number of shots he takes, and a player who has little midrange game to speak of, taking 10 shots a game whilst shooting 40% from the field and 30% from deep, numbers that drop even further when facing the Lakers. Last game he went 2-for-13, so why not let him shoot more?

Something that wasn't an issue last game was offensive rebounding, and indeed rebounding in general. Whilst Pau had a subpar night on the boards, Artest made up for it with 11 rebounds of his own, and Andrew returned right to form, at least in the field of rebounding. As such, the Lakers out-rebounded the Hornets 41 to 33 and only allowed a grand total of four offensive rebounds. This didn't cost the Hornets as they had even less turnovers, allowing them a net positive in terms of possessions when the two areas are combined, as opposed to the Lakers who had four more turnovers than offensive rebounds. If the Hornets return to their average of roughly 13 turnovers per game, their lack of offensive rebounds will cost them. However, it's wholly possible that the Lakers allow a significant number of offensive rebounds in the next meeting of the two teams, with their focus being on defending Paul causing their bigs to drift away from their men. To negate this, work on the defensive boards must be a team effort, as it was in Game One, with everybody focusing on boxing out for the rebound.

Offensively, it's the same old story. The Laker ball movement needs to be more crisp, which will only be effective if the player movement is equally crisp. Crisply passing the ball around the perimeter without the players moving only works if there's a numbers advantage your way or if you're playing college ball. Players need to move into positions from which they can score, whether it be a big man establishing position or a cutter diving to the hoop. Simultaneously, other players need to keep moving to pressure the defense and keep the spacing even. The Triangle should be ever-flowing, so as to maximise then number of potential options available. Also, for the offense to be successful, Pau Gasol needs to be able to establish himself in the post so as to initiate the Triangle, and the Laker perimeter players need to be able and willing to make the entry pass. In conjunction with this, Lamar needs to take more shots; as asides from Kobe Bryant he is the only dribble penetrator on the Lakers, and him doing so would reduce pressure on Kobe whilst exerting extra pressure on the defense and enabling more 'flow' in the offense. In terms of bench offense, Steve Blake's return should help with that in that he generally guides the ball movement for the bench, but unless Lamar improves from last game's performance the bench will continue to suck.

Another ever-present issue in the Laker offense during periods of malaise is time management. The Lakers' inclination to almost always walk the ball up the court and show no urgency in their initial passes costs them exponentially in that it dramatically reduces the time they have to effectively run their offense. It often takes ten or even up to twelve seconds to make the initial entry pass into the post, signalling the initiation of the offense. This leaves only eight to ten seconds to actually attempt to manufacture a good shot out of the offense, before panic sets in, leading to rushed passes which may often result in turnover, or ultimately a bail-out shot from Kobe. If the Lakers start getting into their offense eight seconds or earlier into the clock, it dramatically increases its complexity, as the Triangle is literally teeming with so many options that an extra four seconds could open up dozens of extra possibilities.

It seems that lack of focus was more of an issue than lack of effort in the Lakers' game one loss, and whilst there are myriad potential reasons for that lack of focus, they are irrelevant. Quite simply, such lack of focus, regardless of cause, cannot happen again. Not this series, where the Lakers have already thrown away one game in what many people were dubbing a potential sweep; nor any of the other series in which the Lakers will play provided they get past the Hornets, as no opponent they play will be as easy, allowing such a large margin of error as the Hornets. Whether or not the Lakers need to change their game plan is a moot point, as quite simply their game plan hasn't been properly executed with anywhere near the degree of consistency needed to properly analyse and evaluate it. First execute the game plan, and see if it works. Then make any necessary adjustments.

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