Lakers point to defense as the biggest area to correct
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson quickly veered from praising the Lakers' attitude and consistent ball movement into criticizing the defense. Lakers guard Derek Fisher tactfully deviated from talking about his late-game heroics in the team's victory Wednesday over the Sacramento Kings into discussing how the Lakers need to improve on defense, which has conceded more than 100 points in four of the five games. And when the Lakers play Friday night at Staples Center against the Toronto Raptors (1-3), it'll be another test of whether they've corrected their defensive lapses.
"It's about penetration," Jackson said. "It's about getting to the basket and into the paint. We have to start sealing that off a little bit better."
Jackson surely provided the correct diagnosis, but the next question is how to solve it.
With Lakers center Andrew Bynum expected to remain sidelined until around Thanksgiving, Jackson noted that his size and shot-blocking ability disrupts the passing lanes, intimidates players against driving inside and adds another big body on help defense. As quickly as Kobe Bryant rehabilitated his surgically repaired right knee, Jackson believes the next step involves Bryant converting onto the defensive end the same mobility and quickness that's yielded a team-leading 25-point average. And even if coach and player accounts reveal satisfaction with newcomers Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, they don't have the same chemistry that the team's core has demonstrated.
Still, the numerous times the Lakers have allowed drives to the lane remain puzzling. They have length in forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. They feature lock-down defenders in Ron Artest and Barnes. And managing to recover and provide help defense points to execution rather than having to understand rotations.
"Screen-roll is the play du jour for every team we match up against, and keeping these fast, quick guards out of our lane so they're not causing problems for us by creating foul situations and rotations that open up three-point shooting," said Fisher, who's often been a victim of that play. "Those are the things we have to really focus on. We have to close our lane, and not having Andrew in there makes a big difference for us in terms of size and length around the basket."
The Lakers displayed plenty of such sequences in five games. Against Houston, Barnes over-extended his defense on Houston forward Chase Budinger, who beat him backdoor for a reverse dunk. Later on, Bryant, Gasol, Artest and Odom all caved inside to cut off Houston guard Aaron Brooks from going baseline. That forced Artest to rush out to contest Luis Scola's jumper at the free-throw line. After Scola's miss, Rockets guard Kevin Martin slid in front of Gasol for the putback. In the fourth quarter, Scola used his shoulder to create separation on Gasol and then weaved in for a right-handed layup. Odom slid in to help and cut off penetration, but it did very little.
It became the same story over and over again. Against Phoenix, Suns forward Grant Hill drove the lane past Odom, met Gasol on help defense and then pulled up for an easy jumper. Later, on a fast break, Phoenix guard Goran Dragic spun his way past Blake on the perimeter, and the help-side defense from Ratliff and Shannon Brown did little in stopping Dragic converting on the layup. In the second half, Suns center Robin Lopez ran a screen-and-roll on Fisher for Phoenix guard Steve Nash. Fisher went past the screen to keep up with Nash, but Gasol still switched on him. That left Lopez open to receive Nash's pass as he rolled to the basket. Later in the quarter, Suns guard Jason Richardson posted up on Fisher and met a weak double team from Odom as he then drove left for a bank shot. With Bryant guarding Richardson in the corner later on, Odom and Fisher slid to Nash when he received the ball. But that caused Odom to fall behind in stopping Phoenix forward Hedo Turkoglu from hitting a three-pointer at the top of the key.
The Lakers entered this past week unable to correct their mistakes. When Golden State guard Monta Ellis cut through on a give-and-go, Brown ran into the screen and Gasol didn't bother to help. When Memphis guard Rudy Gay cut to the far-side perimeter, Artest overextended himself and gave Gay an open lane to the basket following Darrell Arthur's bounce pass. And against Sacramento, Jackson estimated Kings guard Tyreke Evans exploited the Lakers in the lane five or six times, including when he burned both Odom and Gasol for a right-handed layup and zipped past Barnes, Gasol and Derrick Caracter for an underhanded reverse layup.
There are plenty of other sequences, but it still shows the same problems.
"Defensively, I'm not real happy with where we're at right now," Jackson said. "But those things will happen at this time of the year."
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Photo: Memphis center Marc Gasol tries to drive past Lakers center Pau Gasol during the Lakers' 124-105 victory Tuesday at Staples Center. Credit: Kirby Lee/U.S. Presswire