Before the Portland Trail Blazers started their first-round series with the Los Angeles Lakers, they were the hottest team in the NBA, posting an offensive rating of 122.5 in the eight seeding games they played. Even before the season restarted, they were among the best offensive teams in the league.
Since the start of the postseason, though, the Trail Blazers have posted an offensive rating of 98, which is the worst offensive rating of the 16 remaining teams. That might have something to do with the fact that they’ve gone up against the team with the best defensive rating in the playoffs so far, the Lakers.
It’s no secret that the Lakers have struggled to find their offense in Orlando, but their defense has been consistent. For example, when the Lakers dropped Game 1 to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday, they held Portland to 100 points, which is something no other team had done since Feb. 4.
A lot has changed in the five months that have passed since the season’s suspension, but LeBron James doesn’t feel like the Lakers never lost that edge on defense.
“From the first day of training camp we wanted to be the best defensive team in the league, so nothing has changed,” James said after the Lakers’ Game 3 win on Saturday. “The mindset has not changed. We’ve had some explosions offensively this year ... But the main thing has always been the main thing, and that’s to defend. And that’s just who we’ve always been.
“There’s going to be games where your offense just doesn’t make shots, just doesn’t play well. You have to be able to defend and give yourself an opportunity. That’s just who we’ve always been. That has not changed from the first day we stepped on the floor of training camp.”
Leading the charge for the Lakers on defense is Alex Caruso. While Caruso didn’t beat out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the starting job during the seeding games, he’s averaged 24.3 minutes per game in the playoffs because of the stellar defense he’s played, particularly on Damian Lillard.
In the 55.4 partial possessions Lillard has been defended by Caruso, he’s shot 41.2% from the field, according to NBA.com. For context, Lillard has shot 63.6% from the field in the 43.1 partial possessions he’s been defended by Caldwell-Pope.
While Caruso was modest about the success he’s had in his defensive matchup with Lillard, he did acknowledge the significance the Lakers’ ability to contain Lillard as much as any team can.
“Damian Lillard is easily the hottest player in the bubble, maybe outside of Devin Booker but in the playoffs for sure,” Caruso said. “ And just overall one of the best point guards in the league, if not up there for best. Obviously you have to be prepared to play defense with five guys going up against him. Just coming off screens, making sure the bigs are up and making sure there is constant pressure on him. Just trying to give him different looks. Because if he gets comfortable, everybody knows what he’s capable of.”
But sometimes even the best defense doesn’t work against Lillard and CJ McCollum, so all the Lakers can really do in situations like that is keep applying pressure and hope a few possessions go their way. So far, it’s worked out for them.
“We’re just trying to stay as aggressive defensively as we can on their guards,” Vogel said. “We have the ultimate respect for their firepower. We’re working really hard. We know what their coverages are and we’re not going to be comfortable ... on the defensive side of the ball while those guys are out there. We just know that we have to really commit to that end of the floor if we’re going to win this series.”
As the Lakers try to rediscover their rhythm on offense, they’ll continue to hang their hats on the defensive end because it’s an area they know they have control over.
“Effort, that’s all it is,” Anthony Davis said. “Defense is all about effort. You have to want to play defense. Everybody in our locker room has taken that challenge especially with [Lillard and McCollum]. We want to be a great defensive team. We don’t want to rely on our offense to win games. We want to do it on the defensive end.”
“It’s time to leave it all out on the court,” Caruso added. “If I see an opening, I’m gonna go cover it up and that’s just kind of the culture of our team. Whenever there’s a play to be made, whoever is there to make it, makes it.”
The Lakers will look to take a commanding lead against the Trail Blazers on Monday. Tip-off is at 6 p.m. on TNT nationally and Spectrum SportsNet locally.