Lakers' 98-80 Game 6 victory over New Orleans featured strong defensive effort
Sure they can dissect film, mimic opposing team's tendencies and run pick-and-roll sequences until it's drilled into their heads. But part of the practice time also entails running the triangle offense, which operates without the traditional point guard and stresses off-ball movement and balanced spacing. Add the Lakers' veteran-laden roster, and it becomes the main area to try to exploit against them, a dicey scenario when they matched up with the New Orleans Hornets in the first round.
But if the Lakers' 98-80 Game 6 victory Thursday over New Orleans taught us anything besides the fact the defending champs survived their first-round series in six games and face the winner of Portland-Dallas in the West semifinals at Staples Center on Monday, it's that the matchup featured an evolution in how they guarded the pick-and-roll and eventually succeeded.
"It's been our weakness in the past," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told reporters in New Orleans. "We learned a lot about it in the series and we got better."
That learning exercise reached its ending point in Game 6 where the Lakers largely depended on their defense to secure the victory and earn them three days of rest and practice time before the next series. The Lakers held Hornets guard Chris Paul to 10 points on four-for-nine shooting, 11 assists and five turnovers, a severe dropoff to the series average of 24.4 points on 55.9% shooting and the triple-double effort he posted in Game 4. The Lakers limited the Hornets to a 30-for-70 clip from the field (42.9%) and blocked six shots, including two each by Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. And they scored 18 points off 14 turnovers.
But it's not so much the stats that made the Lakers' defensive effort impressive so much as to how they played it.
In one first-quarter play, Hornets forward Aaron Gray set a high screen on Derek Fisher, but there Bynum stood in the lane to shut off Paul's baseline drive, Kobe Bryant inched over in case help was needed and Ron Artest stood inside the paint. So instead of driving into all that traffic, Paul redirected the offense. Fisher immediately went back to defending him before finding Willie Green on the far perimeter, but the Lakers demonstrated their strong defensive rotations once again. Bryant angled himself to give Green the baseline, noticing Lamar Odom was waiting for him to drive while Bynum stood ready in the paint, an appropriate presence considering the sequence ended in Bynum blocking the shot.
The effort remained so stingy that the Lakers' 40-34 halftime lead marked the lowest combined point total for the fewest points in the series. But that was OK. Without discrediting Bynum's dominance (18 points in eight-for-13 shooting and 12 rebounds), Odom's team play (14 points on five-for-10 shooting and eight rebounds) or Bryant's aggressiveness (overcoming a six-for-16 clip with a 10-for-10 mark from the stripe en route to a 24-point effort), but the Lakers secured the first-round series because of their defense, a mind-set that will be needed to win a third consecutive championship.
The reasons point to what plagued them in the regular season. Their 8-0 start featured the Lakers as a new version of the Phoenix Suns, leading the league in scoring and creating a belief they simply could outscore teams. That formula lasted for about a month before reality set in, with defenses playing tougher, fatigue kicking in and shooting percentage dropping. That soon prompted Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person and Jackson to tweak the team's defensive scheme, which emphasized funneling drivers into the lane so that the Lakers' frontline could shut them down in the paint. So it was only fitting on a night Bryant didn't shoot well from the field and Gasol was non existent in the first half, the Lakers relied on their defense.
That performance looked nothing like it did at the beginning of the series where the Lakers appeared so overly fixated with switching on Paul that Gasol guarded him one-on-one in three separate plays. Bryant's insistence to guard Paul in Game 2 helped "cut the head off of the snake" as Lakers reserve Matt Barnes had put it, but with Bryant then spraining his left ankle in Game 4, the Lakers could no longer rely on that strategy. Hence, Game 6 where the Lakers tightened the area for Paul to operate and force his teammates to carry the load. As the final seconds ticked away, Paul looked frustrated sitting on the bench.
"We got up and were up on every screen and roll," Bynum told KCAL-9's John Ireland in his courtside interview. "We didn't let Chris Paul come off and dictate too much and they didn't hit shots tonight."
The result: the Lakers move on to Round 2 with a stronger defensive foundation.
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Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom draws a charging foul against Hornets power forward Carl Landry during Game 6 on Thursday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times