The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Toronto Raptors 113-104 on Sunday night, a defeat that could easily be chalked up as just a “trap” game of the kind that every team endures over an 82-game season. One could also theorize that the Lakers were simply “due” for a loss after notching seven wins in a row.
While both are partially the case here, both reasons are also a bit disingenuous considering who their opponent was (the current champions who still have a ton of talent on their roster). Those two explanations also ignore the Lakers’ own weaknesses coming into the game that — up until this point — have been disguised because of their recent success.
Winning often has a habit of shrouding even the most festering warts.
One weakness for the team — who it should be noted are still tied for the best record in the Western Conference at 7-2 — actually hides in plain sight within their biggest strength: Defense.
Like the Death Star’s unfortunately accessible exhaust port, the Lakers’ second-ranked defense in the league also has an exposable flaw — stopping the opposition’s transition game. On Sunday night, Toronto shot two perfectly placed torpedoes to make certain the Lakers knew damn sure found out about their oversight.
Coming into the contest, the Lakers ranked first in the entire league in half-court defense, as they were allowing a stifling 80.8 points per 100 half-court possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Their transition defense on the other hand, has not been as airtight.
On the season, the Lakers rank 28th in their opponents’ transition frequency, and 20th in overall transition defensive efficiency. The Raptors, who rank third in possession attempts that start in transition and first in efficiency in such situations, were a buzzsaw of a matchup even despite playing without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
That was a strength that the coaching staff and the players game-planned for, but still struggled in locking down.
“Yeah they’re the fastest team in the league,” Frank Vogel told reporters after the game. “We knew that coming in.
“We knew we had to execute offensively, and when we didn’t, it was gonna be a runout that we couldn’t recover from,” Vogel continued. “We’ve been showing great effort in transition defense, and getting back in sprints and trying to make recovery plays, but that wasn’t always there for us tonight, and it cost us.”
Although both teams had nearly identical shooting numbers, free throw attempts, turnovers, and more on the night, fastbreak points ended up being a huge swing area for Toronto as they had nearly four times more than Los Angeles (32 vs. 8).
Four of those 32 points unfortunately came within the final minute and change, as the Raptors took advantage of the Lakers falling asleep after two critical misses by Kyle Kuzma (who, to his credit, was the sole player who immediately sprinted back on defense).
“It was a little bit of effort thing where we just weren’t getting back,” Anthony Davis explained in the locker room. “And we know that, and we just gotta be better in that department.”
The Lakers’ effort level that Davis mentioned is another area where the team has waxed and waned through the first nine games. As mostly seen in their slow starts, and the lackadaisically played first halves that have forced them to expend an exorbitant amount of energy in their final frames.
Aspects like missing threes (29.5% as a team on above the break chances) poor shot selection and ill-advised turnovers on the offensive end all play a prominent role in controlling the opposition’s running game. But there are many instances where simply making the concerted effort in getting back on defense helps counteract a good transition team. The Lakers didn’t do that.
“(It) irritates me a lot, because that’s controllable,” said Lakers guard Avery Bradley. “Especially at the end of the game, we have to know that if your guys crash, you have to get back.”
Fortunately, it sounds like many within the team are aware of the issue at hand, and that is almost always the first step in addressing the problem.
“Yeah thats the No. 1 (concern) for us, our transition defense,” LeBron James said Sunday night. “We wanna continue to get better with that, especially against a team like Toronto. We know they play extremely fast no matter who’s in the lineup. You know, 32-8 fastbreak points is the most glaring thing that I looked at, everything else is pretty even.”
In reality, the Lakers are in good shape. Despite the transition issues that have been nipping at their heels, the defense overall has been superb. Still, there are still other areas, like their aforementioned perimeter shooting, bench play and better consistency in their effort level that will need to improve.
Given how well the Lakers have played and how dominant they’ve looked at times, there is reason to feel optimistic that there’s still room for this team to get better over the course of the year. It appears as though the whole organization agrees that transition defense is one area in which they should start, one incremental improvement at time.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.