In a battle between the Los Angeles Lakers’ bad offense and the Portland Trail Blazers’ bad defense, the bad offense won … which means that the Lakers lost.
Prior to the season hiatus in March, the Lakers scored fewer than 93 points per 100 possessions just once, a 108-91 loss in Philadelphia. In their nine games since the restart, the Lakers have scored fewer than 93 points per 100 possessions four times.
Occasion number four — 93 points on 102 offensive possessions — was Game 1 of their first-round series against the Blazers on Tuesday, a 100-93 defeat that has put the No. 1-seeded Lakers in a 1-0 hole. The L.A. offense was ugly early and, with the game on the line, ugly late. The Blazers had the had the league’s worst defense (by a healthy margin) after Christmas (and ranked 20th of 22 teams in the seeding games), and now they have the No. 1 defense in the playoffs with every series having played a game.
9-for-54 — The Lakers’ shooting from outside the restricted area in Game 1.
That’s 17% shooting on looks that weren’t layups or dunks. LeBron James was involved in the struggle, shooting 1-for-6 from outside the restricted area. But at least 13 of his 19 shots were at the basket, and James added 17 rebounds and 16 assists (his career playoff high) to his 23 points.
His teammates shot just as poorly away from the basket without the same overall contributions. Guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Alex Caruso combined to shoot 2-for-16 from 3-point range. Anthony Davis got to the line for 17 free throw attempts, but only eight of his 23 shots from the field were in the restricted area, and he shot 2-for-15 outside it.
This isn’t a new issue. In the regular season, the Lakers ranked first in field goal percentage in the restricted area (69.0%) and 24th in field goal percentage outside it (36.0%). That was the biggest differential in the league.
But over their eight seeding games, that differential (67.6% vs 30.5%) was even wider than it was prior. Tuesday marked the Lakers’ worst shooting game from outside the restricted area this season.
When the Blazers ranked 20th defensively in the seeding games, their opponents’ shooting from the outside was a much bigger issue than their rim protection. For the season, Portland ranked third in opponent field goal percentage in the paint, but 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from the outside. The Blazers will leave shooters open, but against the Lakers (at least so far), that’s not necessarily an issue.
“We created a lot of great looks,” James said after the loss. “We just weren’t able to make ’em fall.”
Key sequence: A fourth-quarter drought
James’ one make from outside the paint, a 3-pointer off a dribble hand-off from Dwight Howard, gave the Lakers a six-point lead with a little more than seven minutes to go.
From there, L.A. would score just once on its next 10 possessions as Portland went on a 14-2 run to take a six-point lead that it wouldn’t give up. While Damian Lillard was draining 3-pointers from 29 and 35 feet out, the Lakers’ only score in that stretch was a Green layup off a turnover in the backcourt.
The first empty possession was an offensive foul on Dwight Howard holding off Hassan Whiteside at the elbow. Two others were trips to the line were Davis and James each went 0-for-2. Green missed a wide-open corner 3-pointer in transition when the Blazers got in front of James.
On three critical possessions, though, the Lakers couldn’t get into a packed paint…
The film: Into a crowd
Here are three trips down the floor from that 10-possession stretch where the Lakers couldn’t get to the basket and came up empty …
Play 1. James gives the ball to Alex Caruso for a side pick-and-roll (with an empty corner) that worked for a Caruso dunk in the first quarter. On that first quarter play, James’ pick got a piece of Damian Lillard, who went under the screen, but didn’t get to the other side quickly enough to beat Caruso to the spot. This time, Carmelo Anthony gives CJ McCollum plenty of space to go under the screen on Caruso (who made just 16 pull-up jumpers all season), Wenyen Gabriel also pinches in from the weak side to stop the drive, and the weak side isn’t spaced as well (Green is creeping inside the arc). Caruso kicks to Davis, who has now missed his last 13 3-point attempts.
Play 2. James runs a pick-and-roll with Howard, but doesn’t drive against Hassan Whiteside’s drop coverage. Whiteside has to eventually leave the paint, prompting Gabriel to sink far off Davis on the left wing to help with Howard. James kicks the ball out to Davis, who has plenty of time and space to shoot before Gabriel closes out. But he passes up the open look (having missed 13 straight 3-pointers), hesitates before driving, and can’t get all the way to the basket. His running hook isn’t his worst shot of the night, but there’s a big difference between Davis in the restricted area (73.5% this season) and Davis elsewhere in the paint (40.1%).
Play 3. Davis sets a drag screen for James to get to the middle of the floor. With Gary Trent Jr. trailing the screen and James engaging Whiteside, Lillard sinks into the paint to help on Davis’ roll to the rim. With an additional shooter (and no Howard) in the game, the floor is properly spaced, but Lillard is able to get back to the corner to run Kentavious Caldwell-Pope off the line. KCP gets by the close-out, but drives into a crowd and gets his shot blocked by Whiteside.
The Blazers will obviously do their best keep the paint crowded and make the Lakers beat them from the outside in Game 2 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). L.A. could play Davis more at the five, so that he has more opportunities to post up or roll to the rim without Howard or JaVale McGee there already. In Game 1, Davis played a little more than half of his minutes at center (with both Howard and McGee on the bench), and the Lakers were a little better offensively in those minutes (40 points scored on 45 offensive possessions) than they were with Davis at the four (31 on 39).
The Lakers will certainly try to run more. They can be relentless in transition, but they registered just 15 fast break points on Tuesday (below their season average of 18.4), despite holding Portland under a point per possession and forcing more live-ball turnovers (11) than any team averaged this season.
With the league’s third-ranked defense in the regular season, the Lakers can certainly win ugly. But they can’t win 16 times over the next two months with their offense as ugly as it’s been over the last three weeks. At some point, they must score more frequently.
“We just got to make shots,” Davis offered after the loss, “be confident in our process and our work.”
Asked if the Lakers might be close to finding their rhythm, James couldn’t offer any assurances.
“I don’t know if I can answer that question,” he said. “If you play the game the right way, make the extra pass, shoot the shots that are there, try to create two on the basketball and you got numbers on the back end on four on three…”
The defensive game plan for the Lakers’ opponents was always going to prioritize protecting the paint, making James and Davis shoot from the outside as much as possible, and forcing the supporting cast to carry some of the offensive load. L.A. had the best record in the Western Conference, but didn’t come to Orlando without an issue or two.
We just didn’t expect one of those issues to look more like a fatal flaw so early in the postseason.
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