“It was as good as we could’ve played defensively,” Luke Walton declared after I asked him about the team’s extraordinary first quarter effort after the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers, 104-96, on Thursday night.
That probably isn’t hyperbole. The Lakers had more blocked shots (seven) in the first eight minutes of the game than the six points that the Pacers scored, and a defensive rating of 51.7 throughout a dominant quarter that concluded with a commanding 38-15 lead.
Let’s take a closer look at how they did it:
JaVale McGee was the catalyst, blocking or altering eight (!) shots in his initial six minutes and 13 seconds of playing time. Before the game, Walton defiantly proclaimed that he and McGee were excited rather than concerned about facing Myles Turner after similar pick-and-pop centers have given the Lakers issues in recent games, and that proved to be more than lip service. Tyson Chandler then came in and picked up where McGee left off.
Interior defense like that empowers perimeter defenders to be more aggressive, and the young Lakers did much of their work before their man catching the ball, a sign of their growing defensive maturity. Kyle Kuzma has been defending wings with increasing regularity in recent games, a move to his natural defensive position that allows him to be less disastrous on most nights and surprisingly good on occasion.
Kuzma trailed Bojan Bogdanovic around off-ball screens and stayed attached to him on designed plays, forcing Indiana into secondary options. Brandon Ingram took steep recovery angles to stay in front of ball-handlers, wisely leveraging his length by ensuring that his man can’t get to the basket, while also knowing that Ingram would still bother their pull-up jumper if he gets a hand up. Lonzo Ball used his quick hands and athleticism to get deflections and a block, while Josh Hart bodied Myles Turner and jumped passing lanes.
Last night’s first quarter may have been a playoff template for the Lakers. A whole lot of LeBron on offense, while veteran rim protectors give license to young, rangy athletes to be aggressive perimeter defenders. Chandler’s addition has allowed the Lakers to play that way for 48 minutes, and the Lakers’ defensive ceiling is now higher than ever before.