Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers gave up 118 points in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. It was the most points they had allowed up to that point, and the fourth time they had allowed a team to score more than 110 points. That didn’t sit well with Anthony Davis.
“We didn’t play a lick of defense,” Davis said after the game. “Our defense was shit tonight. We didn’t play one lick of defense and guys did whatever they want. (The Spurs) came into this game very comfortable.”
While they didn’t look much better on that end in their game against the Chicago Bulls the following day, they played some of their most inspired defense of the season in their win against the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
In the first half of Sunday night’s contest, the Lakers held the Rockets to just 46 points, which, at the time, was 14.3 points less than Houston’s season average. The Rockets ended the game with 102 points, which was 12.3 points less than their season average.
Davis led the charge for the Lakers defensively, posting a team-high defensive rating of 81.8 and recording three blocks, which was a season-high for him. Of note, Davis has recorded three blocks in each of the last four games he’s played. In other words, he’s not just talking the talk; he’s also walking the walk, and Frank Vogel thinks that’s a testament to the the defense-first mentality the Lakers built last season.
“To have your best player, or one of your best players, when they’re upset it’s not about the offensive end, which, so many times that happens: when you have one of your top guys, he’s not happy with their shots or things like that,” Vogel said. “When one of your best players, one of your two captains — your leaders — loses a game and the first thing on his mind is that we weren’t good enough defensively, that’s special, and that’s a big reason why we did what we did last year and have a great chance this year.
“We talked about it the next day, we praised it; the fact that our group was angry and edgy after that loss, and our coaching staff the next morning was angry and edgy after that loss. We have high standard for ourselves, so I definitely welcome and encourage that.”
Davis wasn’t just talking to his teammates on Thursday, though. He also said it to hold himself accountable. He knows what he’s capable of on the defensive end, and he wants to ensure he’s doing everything he can to make the Lakers an elite defensive team. That means performing on the court, but to him, it also means speaking up and acknowledging the team’s problems.
“I only speak the truth,” Davis said. “They look at me as one of the leaders on the team; me and LJ. If I feel something, I’m going to say it... I’m going to say what I feel if I know it’s going to help the team, and it was the truth. It’s not like I was fabricating it. It was the truth. We were really bad defensively, and have been bad defensively.
“Even though it’s a young season and we just are starting to learn each other, we still can control the defensive end. I’m not sure if what I said to the media got back to the guys but I feel like we picked it up tonight and, like I said, we’ve got to build on it.”
That display of leadership earned him praise from his fellow captain, LeBron James, who confirmed that Davis’ message got to the locker room.
“He can voice any opinion that he would like, any fact that he would like, for our ball club because one thing about him is when he says it, he’s going to say it to himself as well,” James said. “He holds himself accountable, so when he hold us accountable, we hold him accountable, he holds himself accountable and vice versa.
“AD can say whatever he wants because it’s all for the betterment of our team and we respond to that. We thought it was right on point and we was able to finish that off with a very good defensive game in Chicago, even though we didn’t score the ball like we accustomed to, and then we followed it up with another defensive game.
“We heard him loud and clear.”
Following their win over the Rockets on Sunday, the Lakers are ranked third in defensive rating, which is where they finished last season. If they finish third again this season, most people would consider that a success, especially when you consider how many defensive-minded players they lost in the offseason. But the Lakers aren’t most people.
“Our goal is to be the No. 1 defensive team in the league,” James said. “And it’s going to take our film sessions, it’s going to take our shootarounds, it’s going to take the practices when we do get an opportunity to get on the floor and then the games, to continue to work those habits.
“We added five new guys to our rotation this year, pretty much, in Trezz, Dennis the Menace, Wes, Marc and also Talen. We’re all getting accustomed to one another, getting down to our rotations and what we want to build, how we build out from the paint to the perimeter, but we want to be the best defensive team in the league and tonight was a good start to that.”
How do they plan on building on their defense going forward? Slowly and carefully, according to Vogel.
“We haven’t really adjusted much, to be honest,” Vogel said. “We’re really just getting everybody together with the schemes, you know what I mean? The new guys are learning what we’re doing. We finished up last year defensively differently than the way we started. We grew throughout the year with our package and arsenal of different schemes we could throw at different teams, and I think the biggest challenge this year is to not over-complicate our schemes in these early, regular season games.
“It’s easy — especially against a team like Portland or Houston, who we played multiple games against in the playoffs last year — to go to all of your plan B, plan C, plan D types of coverages, but there’s a risk of being too complicated for a one game regular season type of night. We’re striking that balance, but I feel good about what we’re doing on that end of the floor.”