There were a number of reasons the Lakers may have put together their best defensive performance of the season in Sunday’s win over the Rockets.
The change in starting lineup would be one most would point to, as Anthony Davis moved to center and Avery Bradley entered the starting lineup. It also could have been been a result of their opponent, widely expected to be one of the worst teams in the league this season.
But head coach Frank Vogel was adamant to point out that the improvement that led to holding the Rockets to 54 points through the first three quarters while forcing them into 25 turnovers was also a product of improved effort and extensive work in the Laker film room.
“Huge growth on the defensive side of the ball, not because of the lineup but because of our work,” Vogel said. “We’ve been really hammering the details with these guys on the areas that we’ve been failing. We’ve had very productive film sessions and they’ve been challenged with things like containment and low man and executing our coverages the right way and finishing possessions, which we did a much better job getting into people. (We were) very relaxed with our boxouts the last few games but all those areas were improved tonight.”
After failing to hold an opponent under 115 points through the first five games, the Lakers limited the Cavaliers to 101 points on Friday before flexing their muscle on Sunday and completely shutting down Houston.
The 25 turnovers are the most by a Lakers opponent since the Warriors had 26 on Feb. 27, 2020. Those two occasions mark the only two times the Lakers have forced 25 turnovers by an opponent since 2010.
“Our communication was really good tonight,” Anthony Davis said. “Our schemes, we followed our game plan to a T tonight. We held a team to 85 points. Besides the last quarter, we did a really, really good job. 15, 20 and 19 in the first three quarters... We were just able to work as a unit, do what we’re supposed to do. But I think our communication was very on point tonight, which helped us with a lot of our coverages where we usually have some struggles.
“But when we’re out there communicating and guys are listening to everyone and making sure that guys are talking and holding guys accountable on the defensive end, we can play really good defense. We’ve kind of been struggling in transition, but we were getting back, loading up, making sure guys saw several bodies and were not just playing 1-on-1.”
Russ says the team has been "moving in the right direction" defensively. Says the team is worried about "creating our own identity" and moving in the right direction while protecting home court.— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) November 1, 2021
That added emphasis on the defensive side of the ball led to 20 fastbreak points on the night, tied for their season-high with Opening Night. For a team that needs to get out in transition as much as the Lakers do, locking in on the defensive end will be critical, according to Vogel.
“Look, when they lock into the defensive side of the ball — at least this group the last few years and the new guys coming into this culture — when they do the little things and the other team is struggling, and we’re flying all over the place and getting out in transition, that’s Lakers basketball. And that’s when we’re going to have the most fun,” Vogel said. “The ball didn’t move as well in the second half, but defensive stops and breaks define our culture, and that’s a fun style to be in.”
Ultimately, the factors surrounding the Lakers contest on Sunday played a role. With Davis at center this season, the Lakers have a 106.6 defensive rating, a figure that would have ranked first in the league last season. The Houston Rockets also sport one of the worst offenses in the league through the opening weeks, sitting at 28th in offensive rating.
But the Lakers need nights like Sunday to both learn and grow as they continue to mold themselves into the contender they’re expected to be. If they can start to lock in defensively and get on the break, then they’ll start playing a very familiar style of basketball.
“It definitely felt like Laker basketball tonight defensively,” said LeBron James. “That’s what Frank has been preaching. We know he’s always on us about defense and protecting the rim, not having turnovers offensively, being efficient sharing the ball and moving the ball. And tonight was a good game for us, and we hope to do it again on Tuesday.”
The good news is that the Rockets will be the Lakers next opponent on Tuesday before a rematch with the Thunder, who rank below the Rockets in offensive rating this season. It’s a very friendly schedule and run of games, all at home, that could help the team get back to playing Lakers basketball.
And, most importantly, winning basketball.
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