The Los Angeles Lakers had performed exceedingly well down the stretch of the regular season and through the postseason, especially considering the loss of center Andrew Bynum. In this NBA Finals, however, the Lakers have experienced post-Bynum depression in the worst way, as it is everything Bynum brings to the team that the Lakers are missing as they trail the Boston Celtics 0-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Offensively, Los Angeles has been consistently pushed out of desirable post position, with Pau Gasol often willing to set up four to siz feet off the lane instead of on the second hashmark or lower. Because of this, the spacing of the Triangle offense has been distorted and there are no angles of attack. Bynum's strength and size would be a welcome addition here, as he is more than capable of establishing position in the prime real estate area.
In addition, Gasol has been baited time and time again to attack by facing up and then ripping toward the baseline. The Celtics defense is designed to force the offense in that direction, and Gasol has been more than willing to allow it to happen. In fact, very good things happened for the Lakers whenever Gasol did attack the middle. Again, Bynum would provide the Lakers with an option that is programmed to attack toward the middle of the floor. With his improved post position, Bynum's first progression is to put the ball on the deck toward the middle of the lane to feel the defender. Because Gasol is a face-up player, he has been goaded into the baseline move far too early and often.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Lakers really miss Bynum as a physical presence and on the glass. Without his 7'0", 285-pound frame to clog the middle of the floor and prevent easy baskets, the Celtics have owned the lane. While the Celtics have a strongman in Kendrick Perkins, no such presence exists for the Lakers right now. Countless opportunities for hard fouls and confidence-building toughness are simply not taken advantage of with Bynum absent.
The place Bynum's play is most missed is on the defensive backboard. The Lakers have been punished by the Celtics on the glass in the first two games, and this is the area where Bynum, who was averaging more than 10 rebounds per game this season, would make an immediate and noticeable impact. His ability to get rebounds in traffic and outlet the ball would cue the Lakers fast break and give them easy baskets on the other end, baskets they need against the staunch Celtic defense.
All that said, Andrew Bynum is not walking through that door, Lakers fans. So their Game Two fourth quarter comeback notwithstanding, what can they do to get back into this series? What adjustments can they make to return to the form that made them the second best team of the regular season? Let's take a look at the keys for the Lakers as they return home for Games Three, Four and Five.
The Lakers cannot replicate the skills that Bynum brought to the table. So, their goal will be to compensate in certain areas for that piece not available. In their series with Utah, and their series with San Antonio, Los Angeles proved they are capable of making the adjustments needed against a physical, gifted defense and post-dominated, pick-and-roll-focused offense. It is a simple case, in word if not deed, of accentuating the positive qualities the Lakers possess.
With a lack of physical toughness, the Lakers need to turn this game into an up-and-down affair. If they aren't going to win at arm-wrestling, they need to change the game and make it a footrace. Los Angeles possesses superior run-and-jump athletes, and they must take advantage of it. For them to run, however, they need to create turnovers and control the defensive glass. This has been a weakness for the Lakers all series. They must quicken their response to the ball; use their length and jumping ability and leap for balls. While position is valuable, the Lakers must compensate for their inability to get position by playing above the rim for caroms.
The Lakers defense will take a lot of hits coming out of Game Two, but there were some things that one can take from that game and learn going forward. Primarily, Phil Jackson must look for opportunities to pressure the Celtics more often. While his leash for players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Ronny Turiaf has shortened in the Finals, they need to be used in such a way that maximizes their energy when they are on the floor. As those players enter the game, Los Angeles can extend their pressure up the floor, pester the Celtics ballhandlers, and look for trapping opportunities to make the game move at a difference pace. It will lead to the occasional easier score for Boston, but the net gain for the Lakers will be positive with the selective application of pressure throughout.
On another defensive point, one adjustment that the Lakers can make is their positioning. The Lakers need to do a much better job on closeouts of getting a hand up on shooters while keeping low to protect the drive. Many of their closeouts have been lazy and/or undisciplined, and that has allowed the Celtics to get easy, open jump shots, or allowed them dribble attack angles. A review of game tape will definitely reveal this seemingly small facet of the game, something that can be easily corrected. With some adjustments in this area, the Lakers can control to a greater degree the dribble penetration the Celtics achieve, a key for the series.
Offensively, there are three specific modifications that Los Angeles can make coming home. First, the Celtics ability to defend the pick-and-roll was exposed in parts of the second half. Most teams in today's NBA run a lot of "pick and pop" where the screener moves to an open area for a jumper instead of rolling to the basket. However, the Lakers are a little more traditional in that they send the screener to the rim. This has given Boston some trouble, and as long as the screen user stays aggressive, it will continue to be problematic for the Celtics.
Secondly, there are a few specific options in the Triangle that would be much more beneficial for the Lakers. Because the Boston Celtics have focused their defensive help on preventing penetration from Kobe Bryant on the strong side, they need to create weakside action. To do so, using a combination of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the "pinch post" (the area around the foul line) and Kobe at the top of the key, will yield positive results for the Lakers. On reversal passes, Kobe can pass to the man at the pinch post, then come off his shoulder for a handoff. This is a standard option in the Triangle, it allows for attacks at the rim, and it prevents the help from getting there. In fact, this action in the Triangle is designed to counter precisely what Boston is doing. Expect Los Angeles to make this adjustment.
Lastly, on the offensive end, one thing that has worked for Los Angeles in the fourth quarter of both games is dribble penetration and pitch in the halfcourt. This mimics the kind of offense Boston runs. Because the Celtics do such a tremendous job at helping on dribble penetration, the Lakers must make them pay by continuously attacking off the bounce, then kicking to open shooters or re-penetrators who "circle behind" the attacker. By repeatedly attacking off the dribble, the Lakers will cause the Celtics' defensive help to break down and somewhere along the way the Lakers will get open shots from that attack.
The Lakers, in the final analysis, must increase their physical play. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, in particular, must shed their soft label by Tuesday for Los Angeles to have a chance. They do not need to be dirty or punchy, but they need to use their 7'0" and 6'10" frames, respectively, to attack and intimidate the ease with which Boston has operated. One example of how the Lakers can impact the game physically despite the lack of a well-defined substantial presence is on the offensive glass. They must get their money's worth on fouls and come over the back of the Celtics. Let them know they are present and they will not go quietly. Energy and intensity will be rewarded by the officials and the Lakers will see immediate dividends from such a tactic.
There is no doubt the Lakers have their work cut out for them. This series, however, is close on paper, and considering how the 2008 Playoffs have gone, would it be that surprising to see Los Angeles win Games Three and Four? Whenever the Lakers make the adjustments they need to, and return to the kind of play that allowed them to dominate their previous series these playoffs, they will get back into this Finals. That is the challenge in front of themů now it is time to see if they are up to the test.
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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