Russell Westbrook set the tone for the Lakers on Monday night in how they wanted to attack Rudy Gobert. And he did it quite loudly.
One of Westbrook’s best plays of the season — and best dunks of his career — meant many things to the struggling Lakers. In a macro sense, it was a statement that this team, on the heels of a humiliating loss to the Nuggets, were not going to lay down and quit on the season.
But in a micro sense, the dunk was evidence of how the team was going to attack Rudy Gobert, one of the league’s best rim protectors and defenders. The Lakers weren’t going to be deterred by the big man in the middle of the paint on Monday, and it set the tone on a night when the Lakers picked up likely their best win of the season.
“Our phrase is ‘You have to go smart or go strong’ against Rudy,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “If you take anything weak up to the basket, he’s going to swat it away. You have to attack the basket with aggression like that or make a smarter play with a shot fake or an extra pass or dump off or something like that. Both of those things are acceptable for us in terms of how we want to attack him at the rim, and Russ made a hell of a play.”
While no other Laker attacked Gobert with quite as much verve and ferocity as Westbrook did in that moment, the message was sent, and the team never shied away from Gobert on the night, highlighted late in the contest by Stanley Johnson.
The team’s fourth-quarter comeback featured a heavy dose of Johnson — who is on a 10-day contract — actively targeting the three-time Defensive Player of the Year on both ends of the floor. In fact, with Johnson playing the best game of his Lakers career, the team turned to a two-man game of Johnson and LeBron James, with the former handling the ball in the pick and roll.
“It was really just a way to attack Rudy that LeBron identified that we used as an action in the fourth quarter,” Vogel said. “Stanley made some great plays handling in the pick and roll, which is not something we’ve done with him, but the more he’s with our program and with our team, we’re learning more of what he can do.”
With the floor spaced out and Johnson playing center, the Lakers forced Gobert and the Jazz into an unfamiliar situation of having Gobert as the defender of the player with the ball in a pick-and-roll. The result was a handful of possessions where Johnson scored off James screens in that fourth.
Next possession, same thing. LeBron sets the screen, this time they switch but Clarkson is over-aggressive, Johnson blows by him, Gobert is glued to LeBron and can't get to the rim in time and Johnson with a nifty little finish. pic.twitter.com/TQvOyecYRh— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) January 18, 2022
“It was just trying to put everybody in a position to be successful, and reading the game in between the game while the game is going on. I knew ways that we could be successful offensively by putting guys in different positions on the floor,” James said after the win of why he suggested that action. “Guys responded very well to what I saw, and we were able to get a big-time win.”
Johnson was the first to note that the late-game attacking of Gobert was an in-game adjustment from James, and said it was part of what led to his big night.
“LeBron’s a smart player,” Johnson said. “I think if you’ve watched basketball the last couple of years, some teams have had success with smaller guys like me attacking him off the bounce, and the thing for me is playing with energy. I can’t be a stand-still statue. I have to get deflections, I have to play, I have to get myself in the game, I have to make myself useful because that’s where I excel on the defensive end.”
Over the course of the game, Johnson went 4-5 from the field with Gobert as the primary defender, turning the ball over once while not being blocked. On the season, teams are shooting 63.3% at the rim when Gobert is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, while only 25.8% of opponents even take shots at the rim against Gobert.
On Monday, 41% of the Lakers shots came at the rim, and they shot a tick above average against Gobert at 66.7%. But even if they only had moderately better success at the rim, the first of those figures shows the team was deliberately going out of their way to attack Gobert on the night.
It was a very targeted gameplan, and one the team executed at a high level for an important victory on Monday. It’s impossible to tell with these Lakers, but it was also the type of win that has sparked teams to winning runs in the past. If it has that type of impact on this Lakers season, this might be a game we look back on for more reasons than just laughing at the audacity of the ways the Lakers targeted Gobert, and then freely admitted they did so afterwards.