Do or Die Time for the LakersThe Lakers are already facing long odds in the NBA Finals and if they lose game three to the Celtics tonight the only question will be when--not if--a 17th NBA Championship banner will hang in Boston. Home court advantage has seemed to mean more in this year's playoffs than ever before but the Lakers cannot fall into the trap of believing that simply returning to L.A. will solve their problems; in order to beat the Celtics they will have to have a sound game plan and they will have to execute it well. They must play better half court defense, they must be tougher and more physical on the glass and their bench players must make some kind of impact offensively and defensively.
I have repeatedly mentioned one element that I think should be a bigger part of their half court offense: a screen/roll play involving Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy pointed out during game two that the Celtics have struggled to defend that action and late in the fourth quarter we even saw the Lakers successfully run a screen/roll with Bryant and reserve center Ronny Turiaf.
Why is this play so effective? In general, a well executed screen/roll is difficult to defend, particularly if the two main offensive players who are involved are smart and skilled; no matter how the defense reacts, there is a counter that should lead to a high percentage shot. For instance, say that the defense tries to anticipate the screen and trap the guard before the screen is set; the screener can then "slip" the screen and dive to the hoop uncovered and the guard can either feed him the ball or pass to a teammate who then passes quickly to the screener as he cuts to the hoop. We have seen this happen several times in games one and two: Gasol moves toward Bryant as if he is going to set a screen, reads that the defense is overplaying Bryant and dives to the hoop, "slipping" the screen instead of setting it. As ABC's Mark Jackson noted during game one, Larry Bird and Robert Parish ran that play for years. One of the prettiest plays in game two was when Gasol slipped to the hoop, Bryant passed to Lamar Odom in the paint and Odom shuffled the ball to Gasol for an easy dunk.
The Celtics are cutting off Bryant's driving lanes by tilting their defense toward him. It is asinine to suggest that Bryant should simply put his head down and drive to the hoop, because Boston's defense is specifically set up to stop him from doing that (side note: if Bryant in fact started to do this, those same critics would then say that Bryant is selfishly forcing the action instead of running the offense). The best way to punish the Celtics for how they are playing defense is to get the other offensive players in motion and force the Celtic defenders to make quick decisions and rotations. Having Gasol set a screen for Bryant is an excellent way to do this; with Gasol rolling to the hoop, Odom lurking on the weak side and two good perimeter shooters spacing the court, the Celtics would have to pick their poison. However, it is very important to state that the primary reason that this play is effective for the Lakers is that Bryant is impossible to guard in a screen/roll situation because he has no weaknesses as an offensive player: he can shoot the three pointer, he can shoot the midrange jumper, he can split defenders and get to the hoop and he can make a variety of passes from many different angles. Bryant's offensive versatility is just one reason why Van Gundy and Jackson agree that Bryant is the best player in the NBA. As Jackson recently said, "It's hard to make a case for another guy when the other guy himself says Kobe is the best." Someone asked Van Gundy who the second best player is and Van Gundy replied, "LeBron James is number three. There is no number two." It is amusing to hear some writers and fans act like there should be some big debate about who the best player in the NBA is, because if you talk to coaches and players around the league most of them will say that Bryant is the best player.
Most offensive players have weaknesses or tendencies that the defense can exploit. For instance, LeBron James is a suspect outside shooter who often is looking to pass the ball in screen/roll situations, so in the 2007 NBA Finals the Spurs played off of him, daring him to shoot jumpers and sagging into the passing lanes; this resulted in James shooting a poor percentage (.356) and committing a lot of turnovers (5.8 per game) as the Spurs swept his Cavs. The Celtics essentially defended James the same way in this year's Eastern Conference Finals, with the same result: poor shooting (.355) and a lot of turnovers (5.3 per game) by James as the Celtics beat the Cavs in seven games. After falling down 2-0 to the Hornets, the Spurs finally realized that the best way to defend Chris Paul is to stay at home on his shooters and force him to be a scorer.
Neither of those approaches will work against Bryant: he will punish a soft, sagging "LeBron" defense by burying jumpers and, needless to say, forcing the league's deadliest scorer to score is not a good idea. Therefore, what the Celtics have done when Gasol sets a screen for Bryant is have Gasol's man and Bryant's man trap Bryant to try to discourage him from shooting the jumper or driving to the hoop. Someone else is then supposed to rotate to Gasol and the other two defenders have to guard three players. Bryant has shown that he can defeat this type of defense several ways: sometimes he splits the two defenders and shoots a pullup jumper or gets all the way to the hoop if the other defenders are spread out in their rotations; sometimes he strings out the two defenders and then hits Gasol with a pass for an easy score; sometimes he passes to Odom and then Odom has an easy pass to a wide open player, either Gasol on the move or a shooter on the weak side. Even if the Celtics do everything that they are supposed to do the Lakers can still get a good, open shot if they are patient and precise. The Lakers ran this screen/roll several possessions in a row in the third quarter of game two and they scored every time, quickly cutting into the Celtics' lead, but then they lost their discipline: Vladimir Radmanovic made two bad plays on possessions in which Bryant never even touched the ball, then Radmanovic made a couple poor defensive plays and Boston's lead quickly ballooned. If the Lakers run this play five or six possessions in a row it will be very demoralizing for the Celtics because they won't be able to stop it and they will be inbounding the ball after made shots instead of getting out in transition after defensive rebounds. In order for this play to work it is important not only that Bryant and Gasol make good reads but also that the other Lakers position themselves correctly and are ready to shoot or make the extra pass if they end up getting the ball.
Gasol is the perfect player to be the screener in this scenario because he is a mobile 7-footer who can catch, finish, pass and shoot; this versatility enables him to roll to the hoop after the screen or fade to an open area to shoot the jumper. He can also reverse the ball to an open man if the defense rotates to him. Bryant clearly understands that this action is a good one for the Lakers, because I have noticed several occasions when he waved off whatever the Lakers were originally doing and motioned to Gasol to come up and set a screen. During the third quarter of game two, Van Gundy praised the Lakers for abandoning the Triangle in favor of running the sideline screen and roll with Bryant; he also advocated posting up Bryant and isolating Bryant but I think that the screen/roll play is more effective than trying to post up Gasol or Bryant. The Celtics do a good job of swarming the post and rotating to shooters and other than two or three good moves by Gasol early in game two the Lakers did not get much out of their efforts to post players up. When the team is properly spaced, the screen/roll really stretches out the Celtics' defense and creates gaps that can be exploited.
Prior to game two, I listed three keys for the Lakers to win and three keys for the Celtics to win. The Lakers shot better than .450 from the field and kept their rebounding deficit to less than 10 but those two keys were canceled out by their abysmal failure in the third area: instead of holding the Celtics to sub-.450 shooting they allowed Boston to shoot .529 from the field. Successful execution of the screen/roll play can help in all three areas: it will raise the Lakers' field goal percentage and by doing so it will cut down on the Celtics' easy scoring opportunities in transition and the resulting improvement in overall floor balance should help the Lakers on the boards.
Not surprisingly, in game two the Celtics did well in the three key areas that I mentioned: Paul Pierce seemed to be fully healthy and he was very productive, the Celtics got a lot of easy points in the paint--particularly by reserve Leon Powe--and they slowed the Lakers' transition game to a crawl for most of the night. The Lakers' late run skewed a lot of the final numbers but the Celtics built up their big cushion because of Pierce, points in the paint and limiting the Lakers' transition game.
The same keys will be vital for both teams in game three. I expect the Lakers to execute their offense more crisply, to play with more energy and to get their first win of the series, probably by double digits.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM