In his excellent preview of the Western Conference Finals, Basketball Prospectus author Kevin Pelton indicates that the Lakers defense of Spurs guard Tony Parker will be critical in determining a winner.
The big challenge for the Lakers will be defending Parker running the pick-and-roll. When these teams last squared off in the postseason, the Lakers could simply go under picks and sag into the paint against Parker. Now, Parker is too dangerous when allowed to shoot off the dribble to make that a reasonable strategy. In Fisher, the Lakers have a physical defender against Parker who can body him up and try to push him away from the screen. Still, Parker averaged 20.7 points and shot 56.5% against the Lakers in the regular season; finding a way to slow him down with a big man showing hard against the pick-and-roll or even trapping Parker to get the ball out of his hands will be key.
Coming into the series, the Lakers had some major decisions to make regarding how they would limit Parker's penetration, particularly off ball screens and in transition. With the Spurs' abundance of outside shooting threats and offensive rebounders, any penetration from Parker and subsequent help rotations from Los Angeles defenders would lead to easy opportunities for San Antonio. Because Parker is one of the most adept scorers in the lane in the league, a team that does not contain him flirts with disaster.
Early in Game One, every strategy the Lakers employed worked poorly. Parker penetrated almost at will. Los Angeles used mostly aggressive tactics early, using the big man defender to step out on Parker and attempt to string him out on top ball screens. On ball screens set on the wing (at or around the foul line extended out beyond the three-point arc), Derek Fisher stepped up on top of the screen, forcing Parker back to the baseline. Both of these situations happened early in the game, and both resulted in Parker penetration and a made shot. The Lakers appeared a step slow in their defensive rotation and recovery early, allowing Parker to turn the corner and find an easy opportunity.
With his confidence flowing, Parker read the next two ball screen situations beautifully as well. Fisher jumped under the screen. In most situations, the read for Parker is to take the long jump shot. However, he put Fisher "on a string," bringing him around the screen once, and then re-used the screen. The second time, instead of jumping back under, Fisher followed Parker, giving him a lane toward the basket. This time, the Lakers' help defense was better, and Parker made a difficult pull-up. Parker's play was strong in the first half, as he finished 6-of-10 from the field for 12 points to go along with five assists and four rebounds. This was a nightmare situation for the Lakers, whose problems guarding Parker during the regular season seemed to extend into the post-season.
The second half of the game, though, was a very different story. Unlike some coaches, Los Angeles lead man Phil Jackson does not make huge changes to game plans, whether it is in the game itself or between games. His belief in his players and his system, however unbending, is paramount. In the second half of Game One, the Lakers made no huge adjustments to their defense of Parker. Instead, they focused and executed their original game plan more effectively, and it resulted in success.
Jordan Farmar, eager to redeem himself after a poor series, spent more time guarding Parker during the third quarter. While Farmar had major problems in the Western Conference semifinals in his defense of Utah's Deron Williams, Parker does not present the same kind of trouble. Parker is quick, with excellent footwork, balance and body control. Farmar also possesses those qualities, albeit to a lesser degree. This allowed Farmar to anticipate Parker's decisions better, which gave him more opportunities to cut off angles of attack.
Most of Parker's trouble in the second half, however, came not from what the Lakers did to him defensively, but rather what the Spurs did offensively. As their offense went into a funk in the middle of the third quarter, San Antonio turned to Duncan in the post on almost every possession, slowing the game down and trying to ensure their opportunities would result in a scoring chance. This turned Parker into more of a catch-and-shoot player, and while he had been hot in the first half, it was not the same story in the second half. Parker was just 1-for-7 for six points after intermission, with only one assist. While a portion of Parker's shooting woes can be attributed to tired legs, more of it can be credited to the style of offensive play the Spurs employed during that half. Coupled with a more focused defensive effort, Game One went to the Lakers.
Coming into Game Two, there was little doubt that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would implore Parker to be more aggressive seeking driving lanes than he was in the second half of Game One, rather than relying on jump shots. His ability to penetrate into the heart of the Lakers' defense would be critical. The ball screen game, which was so effective for the Spurs in the first half of Game One, would be re-implemented with an eye toward keeping the Spurs multi-dimensional attack alive.
At the start of the second game, Parker showed a desire to be aggressive off the bounce. He refused two side ball screens, dribbling away from the screen on the attack. This allowed Parker to avoid the help defenders from the Lakers, in particular the hedging defender of the screener. The Spurs looked to Duncan early and often in the post, usually off of an entry from the wing and cut-through by Parker. This made Parker a corner jump shooter, as he was in the second half of Game One.
On a number of side ball screens, the Spurs tried to spring Parker for quick baseline penetration. However, the Lakers were well prepared for this tactic, as they corralled Parker, pushing him toward the corner. The Lakers trapped the side ball screens aggressively and successfully on two of the three possessions they attempted to do so. The Spurs did not return to this strategy during the first half.
In the second quarter, San Antonio made a more concerted attempt to get Parker catch-and-attack opportunities. The plan worked well in the sense that it did give Parker more penetration chances. The Lakers' combination of Fisher and Farmer elected to push Parker toward the baseline as much as possible. This tactic limited Parker's attack angles and pass openings. By forcing Parker this way, Los Angeles eliminated the vast majority of his options and caused the Spurs to slow their offense. In response, Gregg Popovich turned back to his tried-and-true traditional option: Duncan in the post. Unfortunately for Parker, this strategy turns him into a corner jump shooter, and the San Antonio offense ground to a halt.
The Lakers came out focused and intense in the second half, both on the defensive and the offensive end. In the first few plays it was obvious San Antonio wanted to get more middle penetration for Parker. However, the length and athleticism of the Los Angeles Lakers stifled Parker. In fact, the effect on Parker was so pronounced that the Spurs elected to put the ball more in the hands of Ginobili, with varying levels of success. Throughout the second half, the Lakers made Parker's penetration a non-factor, so much so that he did not even look for his own offense. This was a recipe for disaster for the Spurs, and once San Antonio packed it in with eight minutes remaining, the game was over.
Why have the Lakers been so successful so far this series? The primary reason is their successful defense of Tony Parker. They have kept him out of the lane, eliminating his playmaking capability and making him a non-factor. Though Duncan is playing well, he is getting no help, and since the Lakers are selective in their double-teams, the open shots that were present for the Spurs against other opponents are not there without Parker's penetration to create them.
To get Parker back on track, and subsequently get their championship hopes back in gear, the Spurs have three mandates for Games Three and Four. First, San Antonio needs to get him additional opportunities in transition. During those times, the Lakers defense is at its most susceptible, as it is unsettled. It is possible to neutralize their length and athleticism advantage when they are on their heels. Next, setting their ball screens higher on the floor, angling them so Parker can get a look at attacking the lane, will help him penetrate the defense rather than getting strung out. Here, Parker can take a lesson from Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets. Paul is constantly attacking off the screen, does not allow himself to get strung out, and finds ways to get into the lane by flirting with the screen constantly until an opening presents itself. Finally, the Spurs must find ways to create more movement in their offense, preventing the Lakers from keeping them on one side of the floor. The more the floor is locked up, the less effective a player like Parker is--and the Spurs cannot afford him to be less effective.
Coming into this series, most looked at the Los Angeles offense as the thing to watch. However, their defense has become the most impressive thing about their two wins in this series. In Games Three and Four, do not expect anything new from the Lakers defensively. Phil Jackson does not fix things that aren't broken. However, how well they prepare mentally and tactically for the adjustments the San Antonio Spurs will undoubtedly make in the way they utilize Parker will be the difference maker for the remainder of the series. If they continue to keep Parker bottled up, expect more of the same. If not, the Spurs can get right back into the series very quickly.
Expect the defending champions to make the adjustments they need to. However, the Lakers are making many a believer in their defense. Couple that with the most explosive offense remaining in the playoffs, and you do see all the indications of a championship run in their future.
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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