2020 Playoffs: First Round | Lakers vs. Trail Blazers

Lakers ramp up defensive execution in Game 2 win

L.A. holds Blazers to their least efficient offensive performance of the season

In Game 2 of their first round series with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles Lakers finally made some shots. After ranking 20th of 22 teams in offensive efficiency in the seeding games and opening the playoffs by shooting an unbelievably poor 9-for-54 from outside the restricted area on Tuesday, their offense found a little bit of a rhythm.

But the Game 2 shot chart wasn’t exactly that of the Steph-and-Klay Warriors.

Lakers shot chart, Game 2

The Lakers still cruised to a 111-88 victory to even the series, 1-1. It was the first of the Blazers’ 11 bubble games that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes, and it wasn’t within 20 in the last five. Despite the better-but-still-not-great shooting, the Lakers had a 30-point lead at the end of the third quarter.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit four 3-pointers and Anthony Davis hit three, but perimeter shooting was still a struggle for the rest of the rotation. The Lakers’ 14-for-38 (37%) showing from 3-point range was a little better than league average (36%). Their 7-for-22 (32%) on non-restricted-area 2s was below average (40%).

That was good enough, because the shooting was much worse on the other end of the floor.

The Stat

58 — Blazers points through three quarters.

This was a relatively slow-paced game, but it wasn’t that slow. The Blazers scored those 58 points on 72 offensive possessions, a rate of just 81 per 100. Even with a 30-point fourth quarter comprised mostly of garbage time, this was the Blazers’ least efficient offensive game of the season (88 points on 96 possessions).

In regard to his team’s poor shooting of the last few weeks, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before Game 2 that “the percentages will come around.” But his players didn’t wait for that to happen. Offensively, they didn’t need jumpers because they attacked the basket, scoring 20 of their 27 first-quarter points in the restricted area.

Defensively, the Lakers got after it. Portland had the No. 1 offense in the seeding games, but through the first three quarters Thursday, the Blazers’ shooting numbers (10-for-42 from outside the restricted area) looked like those of the Lakers over the last few weeks. With every series having played two games, the No. 1 offense of the seeding games (122.5 points scored per 100 possessions) is the worst offense of the playoffs (94.5 per 100).

All eyez on Dame

It was clear early on that the Lakers were not going to let Damian Lillard (34 points in Game 1, 18 in Game 2) shake loose. On the Blazers’ third possession of the game, Carmelo Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic set a double-screen a few feet into the frontcourt, and both of their defenders — LeBron James and JaVale McGee were waiting for Lillard on the other side of those screens.

High screens for Lillard

A little bit later in the first quarter, Davis and McGee were downright jumpy in their effort to prevent Lillard from stepping into an open look as he navigated around staggered screens from Wenyen Gabriel and Nurkic.

Davis and McGee react to Lillard

When the Lakers are showing bodies defensively, they’re showing big bodies. A frontline of James, Davis and McGee is tough to see or shoot over. The ESPN broadcast had James mic’d up, and at one point, he told his teammates “We’re built different.”

After the game, James’ explanation for that comment was more abstract: “It’s about our mind set,” he said. But really, the Lakers are built different. What they lack in perimeter playmaking and shooting, they can make up for — to some degree on offense and to a much greater degree on defense — with size and athleticism.

(Lillard left Game 2 with a dislocated left finger and his status for Game 3 remains unknown.)

Here are some more examples of how they defended Lillard and CJ McCollum from the first quarter of Game 2:

Play 1

Caldwell-Pope “ices” a high screen set by Nurkic, keeping Lillard on the sideline. James is initially in position to defend in that direction, but that’s really where McGee (Nurkic’s defender) should be. When James retreats to his man (Anthony), Lillard attacks. But by the time he gets to the paint, he’s met by the 7-foot McGee and the 6-foot-10 Davis.

Play 2

On the ensuing inbounds play, Lillard beats Danny Green back door, but Davis reacts quickly and again meets the Blazers’ star at the rim.

Play 3

McCollum gets nearly the same pick-and-roll treatment as Lillard, with Markieff Morris stepping up beyond the 3-point line. McCollum gives the ball up and Hassan Whiteside takes a mid-range jumper with 10 seconds still left on the shot clock.

Play 4

Though Anthony’s screen is at least 35 feet from the basket, Morris comes up to the level of the screen and stays with the ball until Alex Caruso recovers to double-team Lillard and make him pick up the ball. Anthony is open, but Caruso’s pressure makes Lillard change his passing angle and throw a wraparound bounce pass. That extra half a second allows Morris to get back just in time to prevent a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. The step-back 2 that Anthony settles on is a much better shot for the Lakers.

Play 5

The Blazers don’t bring any screens for Lillard, but the Lakers don’t let him play 1-on-1. Kyle Kuzma leaves Mario Hezonja to zone up beyond the 3-point line and James shades toward the dangerous Gary Trent Jr. Hezonja is open in the corner, but James sees the pass coming and gets his hand on it.

Effort and energy matter

After the win, Davis explained the game plan against Lillard and McCollum:

“Make those guys beat us with scoring 2s. They’re a really great 3-point shooting team and we just try to take those shots away and make somebody else beat us. When they do have the ball in their hands, force them into the 2-point area and live with a contest. If they make it, we tip our hats to ’em. We really want to take away that 3.”

The game plan wasn’t necessarily different than it was on Tuesday. The Lakers just executed it better. Lillard’s first 3 in Game 1 came when Morris wasn’t the right position when Nurkic set a high screen. Lillard also got a layup later in the first quarter when Morris was late with a no-screen double-team and Davis was late to protect the rim.

“When you have a defensive strategy,” James explained, “you have to execute that defensive strategy for 48 minutes or for the minutes that they’re on the floor. And I think we did a great job of that tonight.”

After scoring 28 points in 39 minutes on 8-for-24 shooting in Game 1, Davis scored 31 in 29 minutes on 13-for-21 in Game 2. Asked about the difference in his two performances, he pointed to the other end of the floor.

“There were plays [in Game 1] on the defensive end that I usually make,” Davis said. “I was hesitant in rotations. They were getting a lot of easy layups at the rim, offensive rebounds. And that’s all an effort and energy thing. So I just tried to make the adjustment to play free. I know the reads and I know the rotations that I have to make, and we were all on a string tonight.”

Davis has always had the tools to be one of the NBA’s best defensive players. In his eighth season and playing under one of the best defensive coaches of the last 10 years, he’s got the experience and direction to know where to be and when to be there. When he’s engaged defensively, he’s a destructive force on that end of the floor.

He had just one steal and one block in Game 2, but with his length and activity, Davis occupied the space that the Blazers needed to get clean looks at the basket.

What’s next?

If the Lakers remain this engaged defensively, the Blazers will continue to have a tough time scoring in Game 3 on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Game 2 wasn’t just the Blazers’ least efficient game of the season, it was also the first time since December, 2018 that Portland has been held under a point per possession in two straight games.

The Blazers could see if they can get Lillard better shots by playing him more off the ball and allowing him to attack a defense that’s on the move. His best look on Thursday (the one 3-pointer he made) came when the Lakers doubled a Nurkic post-up and put themselves in rotation, with Lillard side-stepping Caldwell-Pope’s close-out.

Of course, that double was a result of the Blazers playing two centers against an L.A. lineup that had Davis at the five. We might not see that matchup for too many minutes in any particular game, and the Lakers have actually been much better defensively with Davis at the five so far. Through the first two games, they’ve allowed 73 points on 67 Portland possessions (1.09 per) with Davis at the four alongside McGee or Dwight Howard. But with Davis at center, they’ve allowed just 61 points on 81 defensive possessions (0.75 per).

For the Blazers to get another win in this series, Lillard and McCollum need help. Everyone else in the Blazers’ rotation has has combined to shoot 38% in this series.

The Lakers’ offense still hasn’t looked great. But they’ve made the Blazers’ offense, which was ridiculously efficient entering this series, look even worse.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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