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The Lakers defense looks like it is making the leap

The Laker's defense has been steadily improving over the last several weeks and, after a slew of great defensive performances led them on a run to the IST title, they are showing a potential to be truly special on that side of the ball.

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers: Championship - 2023 NBA In-Season Tournament

Tyrese Haliburton has the ball at the top of the floor and is racing to his right after coming off a screen from Myles Turner, temporarily freeing him from the human tractor beam that is Jarred Vanderbilt’s on-ball defense. In order to try to further free the Pacers’ star point guard, Bruce Brown then sets another screen, this time on Anthony Davis who had jumped off his matchup with Turner, ready to throw help at Haliburton.

After setting that second screen, Brown takes AD with him as he rolls down the middle of the lane, eager to receive a pass to get a shot at the rim as he’s temporarily gotten inside position on the larger Davis. While this happens, D’Angelo Russell hedges off of Brown to impede the path of Haliburton all while Vando continues his pursuit from that original screen Turner set to spring this entire plan into action.

Meanwhile, Haliburton’s rapid processing speed tells him what to do. With Russell below the level of the ball and Vanderbilt not yet recovered, Haliburton raises up in the air for one of his patented jump passes and fires a strike to Brown careening down the paint. Brown makes the catch and raises up to attack the basket, but right as he does, Rui Hachimura, already in help position along the lane line, fully rotates off his man (Obi Toppin) from the left corner to challenge Brown at the rim.

About to be fully engulfed by the much bigger Hachimura, Brown fires a pass to the open man in the corner — Obi Toppin — who Rui had just left.

Toppin is absolutely ready to take what looks to be an open corner three — one of the best shots in basketball — but AD makes it open no more, instantly reading Brown’s pass and rotating to cover for his teammate Rui’s former assignment. Davis sprints and leaps as high as he can, effectively running Toppin off the line and forcing him to drive to the paint... where he is met by his original foe Rui, who left the discarded Brown to reengage on his own man.

Toppin, reading this new rotation, drops the ball off to Brown who, after all that had happened, looked to finally have an open layup.

Mission accomplished then, right? Nah.

Because, as he had just a moment ago to deter Toppin in the corner, Davis rotates to Brown, who, after hearing the ever-lurking footsteps of Davis, hesitated his shot with a pump fake that was not required. And that was all the time AD would need to fully recover to swat Brown’s shot attempt to the waiting hands of Taurean Prince.

I am exhausted just typing all of that out.

So, you can only imagine how the Pacers felt after another well-executed offensive possession in which they made every correct read and set themselves up perfectly for an easy basket that turned into a highlight on AD’s Defensive Player of the Year sizzle reel.

Just another possession where the Lakers’ length, size, tenacity, and discipline defensively snuffed out whatever they thought they had and left them running back on defense with no hope of doing the same when AD and LeBron mercilessly hunted shots at the rim on the other end.

While this sort of defensive play will get lots of attention in the aftermath of an important game that was the center of the NBA’s universe for a single night, it’s not that uncommon for a Lakers team that has been streaking up the ranks of the league’s best defenses of late.

Consider the following....

In the Lakers' first eight games of the season, they had a defensive rating of 113.8, good for 19th in the NBA. At that point, seeing his team too often overpowered at the point of attack and on their own defensive glass, head coach Darvin Ham made a strategic lineup adjustment, swapping out Austin Reaves in favor of Cam Reddish.

This change not only gave Austin an opportunity to absorb more usage offensively as a backup guard but gave the team better defensive balance with more size on the wing and more diverse defensive skill in support of LeBron and Anthony Davis.

Since making that change, the Lakers have played 15 games — not counting the In-Season Tournament (IST) championship game — and their defense has gotten progressively better over that stretch. See below for their defensive rating and rank over that stretch in five-game increments:

  • Last 15 games: 108.4, 2nd in the NBA
  • Last 10 games: 107.4, 2nd in the NBA
  • Last 5 games: 103.1, 1st in the NBA

Further, in the three games since getting Jarred Vanderbilt back — again, not counting the IST title game — the Lakers have a defensive rating of 95.4 and have done a great job of holding their opponents well below their normal offensive output:

  • Rockets for the season 112.8 (20th), Rockets vs. the Lakers — 95.1
  • Suns for the season 116.3 (10th), Suns vs. the Lakers — 105.1
  • Pelicans for the season 113.0 (18th), Pelicans vs. the Lakers — 86.4

And then, against the Pacers, the Lakers put on one of their best performances yet:

In the aftermath of Saturday’s game, Tyrese Haliburton offered a simple summation of the Lakers’ defense and the challenges they posed.

“Every team doesn’t have Anthony Davis and a bunch of 6-8, 6-9 wings so there’s that as well,” Haliburton said. “Just understanding of how different the looks are going to come. This doesn’t have a regular season feel at all.”

The Lakers, of course, aren’t going to play with the same energy or focus possession to possession as they did vs. the Pacers. That game started to take on a playoff-level feel and that sort of effort isn’t sustainable for full games over the course of a long season.

That said, the Lakers, when healthy, do have a level of size, length, and athleticism on the wing that, when backed up by forwards and bigs like LeBron and Anthony Davis — along with Rui and Jaxson Hayes — that can come at teams in waves and put them in situations not a lot of opponents around the league can.

It is often said that good defenses operate on a string, but I like to think of the very best as more of an orchestra tasked with producing a symphony on any given possession. The amount of coordination and execution to pull that off is stunning, where every piece needs to be not only in tune with what is required of them but what is required of everyone else as well.

That kind of depth of understanding does not come along often, but when it does, it can be stifling; it can be oppressive.

And while the Lakers are not totally there, the potential for them to reach that level is within them. Which is music to my ears.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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