Before the season started, the Los Angeles Lakers had all of the makings of a good defensive team.
Their roster featured a three-time All-Defensive teamer in Anthony Davis, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard and an All-Defensive teamer in Danny Green. They also had a head coach with a reputation for coaching elite defensive teams in Frank Vogel. However, there was no guarantee that all of the pieces would come together, or that the rest of the team would buy in on that end.
Now, the Lakers are eight wins away from winning their 17th championship, and their defense has played a big role in their success.
The Lakers ended the regular season campaign with the third-best defensive rating (106.1) in the NBA. They’ve stayed in that third spot in the postseason, but their defensive rating has improved from 106.1 to 105.4 despite the fact that one of their most important defensive players, Avery Bradley, decided not to join the team in Orlando.
Additionally, they have the second-best defensive rating of the six remaining teams in the playoffs. Since the Toronto Raptors were eliminated last week, only the Boston Celtics have a better defensive rating (101.9) than the Lakers.
Defensively, they’ve been wildly impressive, and their motivation to be great on that end of the floor started with a challenge at the beginning of the season.
“From day one, Coach Vogel and the coaching staff said that we need to be the best defensive team in the league, and we took that to heart,” LeBron James said on Saturday. “We had some good months, we had some great months, we had a couple weeks where we were not that good defensively, but we’re hitting our stride at the right time, and that’s the postseason. I think for us we want to get better and better throughout this postseason run so far, and we want to continue that in the next round.”
In recent years, James has been criticized for not trying on the defensive end, and some of that criticism was warranted. This year, he’s been one of the Lakers’ best defenders, and that statement’s been especially true in the postseason, where he’s posted an overall defensive RAPTOR of +4.9, which combines his box defensive rating and on-off defensive rating. James’ overall defensive RAPTOR is the third-highest rating of any of the remaining players in Orlando, according to FiveThirtyEight.
The player with the best defensive RAPTOR in the playoffs? Anthony Davis.
Davis has been one of the most valuable defensive players in the NBA this season (some would even argue the most valuable) but his value to the Lakers specifically has shined through in the postseason, where he’s been able to show his defensive versatility in multiple positions.
Through 10 playoff games, the Lakers posted a defensive rating of 101.4 with Davis on the court and a defensive rating of 113.7 off of the court. His point differential of -12.3 is the highest point of anyone on the team. Alex Caruso is second with -10.1.
Whether it’s been against the burly Portland Trail Blazers or the shifty Houston Rockets, Davis has been the Lakers’ defensive anchor, and he knows he’ll have to continue thriving in that role if they’re going to be the last team standing.
“You hear it all the time but defense wins championships,” Davis said. “And in order for you to close out a series against a high-powered offensive team like Houston, who was able to basically score whenever they want, especially with the 3-ball, you’ve got to be able to lock into your game plan on defense and get stops.
“That’s been the main thing that I’ve learned: that no matter how you play offensively, you’ve got to able to execute defensively, what you go over, especially against good teams. And the two teams we’ve played so far in Portland and Houston have been great offensively, especially here in the bubble. Next series, whether it’s the Clippers or Denver, they’re two other offensive threats, so our biggest focus is going to be locking in defensively and letting that lead the way.”
The Lakers’ opponents will only get tougher from here on out, but Frank Vogel is confident that his team will continue to impress on that end because of the work they’ve put in throughout the season, both physically and mentally.
“I’m just really proud of our whole team, beginning with our captains,” Vogel said. “But top to bottom, our whole roster’s commitment to the defensive end. We played against the hottest player in the bubble, Dame Lillard, in the first round. This team (the Rockets) is unique and has one of the most high power offenses in history in the league. James and Russ, both MVP-level players. Great 3-point shooting support system.
“We really, really committed to the defensive end,” Vogel continued. “From the beginning of the season our group has really committed to that end of the floor and it’s paying off right now.”
It’s no secret that the Lakers have struggled to get their offense off of the ground, but they’ve been able to push through their series because of how dominant they’ve been on defense. Hopefully it’s enough to carry them through their last two as well.