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Pick-and-Spacing the Lakers Part II

by Couper Moorhead

Comparisons between the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers and the 2010-11 Miami HEAT were never fair to the team from the west coast. The HEAT entered that season young, healthy and with the same head coach throughout their early growing pains. The Lakers lost their starting point guard right off the bat, dealt with injuries to both of their star big men and changed head coaches – forfeiting a month of training camp and preparation – before some casual sports fans likely even realized the NBA was back.

From an outside perspective, the Lakers, with all that talent, deserved not only the benefit of the doubt but the benefit of not being pigeonholed into a tidy little storyline. But now months into the season with little progress made, there is one thing the HEAT from two seasons ago had early on that this Lakers team still lacks: an identity.

From day one, Erik Spoelstra knew what type of defense his team was going to play. The HEAT’s first training camp on the Florida panhandle was spent largely on teaching a team that had been almost completely remodeled how to cover a pick-and-roll and when to cross the painted area to provide help. The offense would evolve over the course of months and years, but he was always willing to remind observers that this so-called superteam was going to earn its keep by preventing the other team from scoring.

Through the first two months of that season, even after a 9-8 start in November, the HEAT were the third-ranked defense in the league. Offensive chemistry would come and go, but as long as the team was defending, there was no crisis.

We can’t say for sure what Mike D’Antoni’s vision for this team is or how often he’s had to make alterations to that vision given recent injuries to Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, but what we can say is that in two games against the HEAT – spaced just a few weeks apart – the No. 18 defense in the league has executed two completely different defensive game plans.

The true heart of any strategy for Miami lies in the team’s approach to pick-and-rolls. Are you going to aggressively pressure the ballhandler, as the HEAT regularly do? Are you going to emulate the Chicago Bulls and try to corral ballhandlers around the free-throw line with a mobile big man while cutting off the corners? Are you going to just pack the paint and have all help defenders wait with a foot in the paint while your center prepares to defend the rim?

In the first game between these teams, on January 17, the Lakers employed a strategy that, at least superficially, loosely resembled the brilliant designs of Tom Thibodeau. As the defender of the man setting a screen, Howard and Gasol would wait around the free-throw line as the main line of defense while the two baseline defenders, assigned to Miami’s shooters in the corners, would often sit well outside the paint.

Basically, not wanting to give up efficient shots to one of the league’s most efficient offenses, the Lakers would temporarily put Howard and Gasol on an island and ask them to handle LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. So whenever one of Miami’s scorers came off a screen, they saw a floor that looked something like this, with little opportunity for reinforcement should Howard or Gasol be conquered:

On one hand, this strategy worked. The HEAT, a team that takes almost nine corner threes per game, attempted just two (possibly three, there is a discrepancy in the database here). Just as the Bulls minimized the HEAT’s most lethal weapon, so did the Lakers. But at what cost?

Well, on the other hand, the Lakers surrendered 68 points in the paint while James and Wade combined for 66 points on 45 shots. And the HEAT won by nine.

Howard was far more up to the task in that game than Gasol was, however. While he lost containment occasionally and still wasn’t moving as swiftly as we all know he is capable of, Howard was still a plus defender in that game compared to Gasol, who was repeatedly blown by for layup after dunk after layup. With Gasol playing center it was not a sustainable strategy, but the logic was sound with Howard – especially if he gradually regained his powers, so to speak.

A few weeks later, the main principle of taking away the corner three at all costs has seemingly – at least in the context of this matchup – been scrapped.

Instead of turning the corner off picks and engaging a single big man defender in the paint, James and Wade regularly encountered multiple bodies in their path. Defenders would help down from the top of the key, from the wing and from the weakside (sometimes even the strongside) corner.

As a result, the corners were open for business:

This time, the HEAT scored a more acceptable 46 points in the paint while attempting 14 fewer shots than on Jan. 17 in the same zone.

As you might expect, the ‘but’ here is that Miami also attempted nine corner threes, making three, and won by ten.

The Lakers’ scheme didn’t only apply to situations where Howard was defending ballhandlers. In the following late-game possession, when the HEAT broke out their ultimate weapon of the James-Wade pick-and-roll, Miami gets Shane Battier a look in the corner with enough time to test for wind speed.

Before Wade has made his move off LeBron’s screen, the Lakers have two help defenders with a foot in the painted area while Steve Nash plays Mario Chalmers tightly at what will become the strongside corner (once the ball crosses the center of the court) – a common defensive tactic. With Metta World Peace not being a center that can wait in the paint for an action to develop, he steps out in front of Wade in an attempt to slow the play down.

Typically, World Peace might try to recover onto James and allow Kobe Bryant to fight his way back to Wade, but when James beings his roll to the rim the switch is called. The only problem is that Bryant is still behind James, so it’s up to either Howard or Earl Clark to jump in James’ way. Howard does so, leaving Bosh open on the wing, but in the process Clark tracks James’ catch in the paint as well, turning his back entirely to the corner.

James now has a few choices: he can force a shot where he is, he can hit Bosh with a short pass or attempt a riskier pass over the top of defenders to Battier.

James chooses Bosh, and with Bryant drawn into the paint with James, Clark is left to closeout on the possible jumper.

As efficient of a mid-range shooter as Bosh is, he knows the value of a corner three as well as anyone else (having developed the range to take them himself) and makes the simple swing pass to Battier. The Lakers, with their four nearest defenders pulled into the paint, have no chance to contest the shot and the HEAT take a ten-point lead.

When the HEAT get the ball to James in the paint, the chances are they are going to score at least a point on that possession. That’s just how adept James is at not only scoring, but at recognizing defensive shifts and finding the weak spot. It’s an impossible situation for any defense, but the above possession illustrates how focused the Lakers were on the paint, with defenders routinely abandoning their posts if there was even the slightest chance they would be needed near the rim.

Those decisions, whether they were the result of systematic changes or freelancing defenders overcompensating for the fact that Howard is clearly not operating at 100 percent, cost the Lakers in this game. But it’s the stark contrast between the decisions made in February and January contests that, while logical on their own, paint the picture of an opponent adjusting to the HEAT and, in the process, searching for its own identity.