Entering into the 2019-2020 season, much of the talk revolving the Los Angeles Lakers had to do with their offense. Naturally, there was excitement over the endless possibilities that the Lebron James-Anthony Davis duo created.
Would Davis be the most devastating pick-and-roll man in the league because teams were so worried about defending James? Were the rumblings true about James transitioning to point guard? How many times a game would Davis electrify the crowd with a thunderous dunk off of a lob from James?
It’s those kinds of things that had fans and media alike intrigued over the highlight factory that the Lakers were poised to become. As it turns out, while the offense has indeed produced some incredible moments, it’s the defense that has been the Lakers’ calling card.
The only problem is that defense is boring.
There aren’t many highlight reels being blasted onto TV or YouTube of Alex Caruso switching onto three different players in one possession to shut down an opponent’s attack, or Danny Green dropping into the paint to double-team a post player.
In truth, some of the best defensive plays not only go unnoticed, they don’t even show up in the standard box score. And yet, according to basketball wisdom passed down through the ages, defense wins championships.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has focused on the defensive end of the floor from Day 1, and James and Davis bought in, which was crucial. After all, if the 35-year-old James is flying across the floor to contest at the 3-point line, there is no excuse for anyone else not to match his level of intensity.
Now, with the playoffs in full swing, it’s paying off.
Thus far through the first round, the Lakers currently have the best defensive rating in the NBA despite taking on an offensively gifted team in the Portland Trail Blazers. They have used solid fundamentals and natural talent to slow down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who act as the brunt of the Portland attack.
The Lakers, who led the NBA in blocks during the regular season, are making a concerted effort to deny open shots. At the very least, they want every shooter to have a hand in their face when they release their shot.
Currently, no team in the playoffs has contested more shots. It’s no coincidence that the Blazers, who were an offensive juggernaut in the seeding round, are currently last among playoff teams in offensive rating.
The good thing is, for those who love high-flying offense, the game of basketball is not as segmented as it might appear. A good defense often creates fast-break opportunities, where the Lakers (and the highlight reel) thrive.
Accordingly, good scoring opportunities for the Lakers means the opponent’s transition game is stunted by having to take the ball out of their own basket, thus giving L.A.’s stingy defense a chance to get set. Rinse and repeat.
Still, as effective as a good defense can be at creating to an exciting offense, the intricacies often go unnoticed. Much of this is because we naturally gravitate towards watching the ball, but a big part of what makes a team’s defense great is what happens off the ball.
How do they react to screens and rotate, who is communicating, how do they anticipate their opponent’s next move?
Take a few possessions each game and focus on what’s happening off the ball when the Lakers are defending. You will see Kyle Kuzma’s eyes darting all over the floor, anticipating when and where to rotate off of his man.
You might hear JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard calling out screens from the paint, or Green make a calculated gamble to help contest a shot at the rim.
These are the things that we weren’t sure would come back following the suspension of the NBA season for over four months. Chemistry is a fickle thing, and nowhere is it more important than on defense.
Teams can win on the offensive end even if their players aren’t on the same page; such is the brilliance of some of the scoring savants in the modern game. Defense, on the other hand, requires all five on the court to work together.
If one player isn’t in sync with the rest, offenses are good enough to recognize it and attack the weakness.
Fortunately, the Lakers appear to have rediscovered their defensive synergy, and most possessions now have all five defenders moving on a string to counter what their opponent is throwing at them.
It’s a chess match, and a beautiful one if you look hard enough.
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