The Los Angeles Lakers rolled into Boston as a team playing flat on both ends of the floor in the midst of another deflating losing streak. They walked away victorious, though, and mostly because of the play between their guards. Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell combined for 59 points and eight assists, piling on buckets to help deliver a sweet victory to Kobe Bryant in his last game at TD Garden.
The Lakers score the second-lowest points per 100 possessions (97.2, per NBA.com) in the league, and we recently went deep into the numbers behind their horrific offense. What stood out, though, is how effective they are on offense when cutting to the basket, and how rarely they actually played accordingly. It was a very different story in Boston, with the Lakers repeatedly sneaking behind the Celtics' defense for points in the paint.
They used pick-and-rolls as their foundation and off-ball cuts to finish the plays, catching Boston off guard. The Lakers aren't getting much out of players rolling to the basket or popping once they set a screen, but they can squeeze points out of cuts.
Picking out players bursting to the rim is something that complements Russell's abilities as a ball-handler. Pick-and-rolls will almost always force a defense to adjust, but it's how an offense follows up that matters. There needs to be purpose in the actions, not just players waiting for something to happen, and there finally was signs of life Sunday night. In this example, D'Angelo takes a screen from Brandon Bass, then drives into the Celtics' defense:
Russell navigates around Kelly Olynyk and now has open space to operate in. The entire Celtics' defense has shifted their attention to D'Angelo, opening up a lane for Clarkson to dive into. Nick Young spotting up on the weak side provides the Lakers with floor spacing:
Russell pushes toward the paint and jumps up, forcing the defense to commit to him while he picks out Clarkson in traffic with the kind of pass that makes him such a tantalizing prospect. Jordan now has a decision to make: he can either take on the lone defender challenging him in the paint or kick out to Young in the corner, who's wide-open one pass away.
Clarkson not only finishes over James Young, but absorbs contact for the and-one opportunity. Here's the play in motion:
Because the Lakers get so little out of the screen-setting big, using their corral of guards to cut behind defenses might be the best way they can open up the floor for points in the paint and effectively play off each other. Here, Lou takes a screen from Hibbert and drives into the Celtics' defensive pocket. Williams draws the attention of all three defenders in the area and finds Clarkson cutting behind the trio of defenders::
This is also a good example of why Roy Hibbert, despite setting big screens if only because of his giant frame, isn't effective as a roll man. He's not mobile enough to get into the paint in time to make a defense pay, therefore the Lakers need to exploit other areas once they initiate the pick-and-roll.
Clarkson does just that for a two-handed jam:
It didn't take an extraordinary dish to make this work, just a fundamental bounce pass timed with the cutter. A willing passer needs a good cutter to make this work, and D'Angelo's been surprisingly good at finding those openings in a defense throughout the season. He torches the Celtics in these examples:
Please note just how lost Marcus Smart was in the play above:
D'Angelo can create with his court vision and passing and picks his opportunities well, Lou is a threat that from mid-range that can draw the big man away from the rim, and Clarkson's speed and athleticism should create opportunities or turn into points in the paint. It's all about forcing the defense into mistakes, and pick-and-rolls shift the playing field. Even if it's not the ball-handler making the play, it can create that split-second opportunity that leads to a basket.
Here, Russell takes a screen from Hibbert and drives along the perimeter, immediately moving the ball back to the top to Randle while Roy fills the lane:
All it takes is one turn of the head to create an opportunity for Lou to break to the rim. It also doesn't hurt to have Hibbert serving as a moving obstacle course to seal defenders away in the paint:
And that sequence in action, featuring an impressive one-handed sling from Randle:
Positive signs from the Lakers' offense have been few and far between, making it nearly impossible not to be critical of their nightly performances. They took a step in the right direction against the Celtics, executing a game plan that worked and deserve credit for it. Each of these plays started with a pick-and-roll and ended with the cutting player scoring, lining up with the points per possession numbers we went into detail on last week. A little off-ball movement went a long way in making the Lakers look fluid on offense. Let's see if they build on what looks like a successful formula.
Here's a look at the sequences from above in a video breakdown over on our Facebook page: