The Three Interlocking Problems That Make for the Lakers' Likely Downfall
It would have been difficult for the Oklahoma City Thunder to be any more convincing in their Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. The team that many consider to be the favorites in the Western Conference put up a single-game efficiency differential of +32.6 (points per 100 possessions)—one of most lopsided finishes of the postseason thus far—in a contest that was never all that contested. We're told not to count out any team that has three players as productive and talented as Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol, and yet, in light of its Game 1 dissection, there seems to be no other reasonable conclusion.
If you're startled by this revelation—or by Game 1—you shouldn't be. Los Angeles was at a substantial disadvantage from the start, and based on the volume of this series' opening salvo, it seems fair to look toward the seemingly inevitable. We have no need to bury the Lakers before the Thunder have actually dug their opponent's grave, but that doesn't mean we can't go ahead with the funeral arrangements. I'm very sorry for your loss, but in a week's time, L.A. will be in a better place. If I may, the mahogany is very tasteful—elegant, even.
This—based on all the information we have to date—appears to be the Lakers' time. L.A. is faced with three glaring defensive problems, and though its core trio can still form the foundation of a solid offense, how it'd hope to outscore Oklahoma City without much defensive help is beyond me.
Problem 1: The Thunder are making their shots because they're getting the shots they want.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have a way of getting where they want offensively, and with Russell Westbrook penetrating at will and Metta World Peace unable to stay in front of Kevin Durant, that figures to be a series-long trend.
Oklahoma City has options. Westbrook can drive and dish or finish for himself if the opportunity arises (as it did frequently in Game 1). Durant now has the structure of screens necessary to free himself up against virtually any opponent. The Thunder's three-point shooters did a fantastic job of finding open slots on the perimeter on Monday, and OKC on the whole moved the ball nicely to get looks for its top perimeter shooters. The team looked to exploit Andrew Bynum in the pick and roll, and though Bynum's effort and focus were actually quite solid, he was still a liability due to the mid-range accuracy of Westbrook and Durant.
What reason do we have to believe that the Lakers—who lean heavily on the laterally limited World Peace and the visibly exhausted Bryant to corral OKC's action on the perimeter—can actually limit the Thunder offense? Oklahoma City's effective field-goal percentage in Game 1 was substantially higher than its season average, but even if we factor in some potential misses in the place of makes, that doesn't make the play action itself any less constructive. The important thing is that the Thunder are getting serious mileage out of the basics of their offense, and though the Lakers have some talented players, they seem to lack the specific counters necessary to keep OKC at bay.
Problem 2: Oklahoma City will likely get to the line, one way or another.
Stylistically, the Lakers play incredibly conservative defense. They have that luxury as a team with two seven-footers; such interior length allows L.A. to challenge shots at the rim more consistently and effectively than almost any other team in the league, but in the process, also puts an incredible amount of pressure on Gasol and Bynum to be crisp in each of their rotations and to challenge shots without fouling.
That's a bit problematic considering that due to their speed and savvy, the Thunder posted a higher free-throw rate this season than any other NBA club. Westbrook, Durant and James Harden are all well-versed in navigating the interior of opposing defenses and understand when to apply pressure and when to bait their opponents for contact.
Gasol and Bynum were largely able to stay out of foul trouble in Game 1, but in order to compensate for its weakness on the perimeter, Los Angeles ended up going about a different process to achieve the same end. Durant, Westbrook and Harden still totaled 24 free throw attempts en route to posting a ridiculously high overall free-throw rate, but it was the Lakers' step-slow perimeter defenders that were the primary culprits. Any team that plays against the Thunder is aware of the obvious damage Durant and Westbrook can inflict, and as such, the Lakers did what they could—or thought they could, or in some cases, had to—in order to hinder such prolific scorers.
Unfortunately, that only results in more easy points for the Thunder and exacerbates the Lakers' defensive problems.
Problem 3: The Lakers are unable to take advantage of the Thunder's greatest offensive weakness.
As David Thorpe pointed out on ESPN's TrueHoop TV, the Lakers aren't just the worst in the league at forcing turnovers, but the worst in the league by an almost incomprehensible margin. For more specific context: The statistical difference between the Lakers' and the 29th-ranked turnover-forcing team is roughly the same as the difference between that 29th-ranked team and the league average: pretty brutal.
This is a result of the same aforementioned defensive approach: By lying in wait and not applying much in the way of on-ball pressure, Los Angeles attempts to grind opponents out of possessions by denying them the interior as much as possible. Bynum and Gasol are at the crux of that strategy, as the Lakers aim to employ a resource unavailable to almost every other team in the league.
That's a bit of a shame, as Oklahoma City's biggest offensive weakness is its propensity for turnovers. Any team with even semi-successful ball disruption would be able to push the Thunder into some empty possessions, but that the Lakers are so uniquely limited in this aspect of their defense makes this a particularly unfortunate matchup. The Thunder could falter if given a push, but the Lakers—due to both personnel-related and systemic considerations—seem utterly unable to provide that helpful nudge.
*It's also worth noting that although the Thunder ranked 30th in the regular season in turnover rate, they currently rate as the third best team in the playoffs by that same measure. Much of that has to do with OKC's specific opponents thus far, but they do deserve credit for taking better care of the ball in general.
Each of these three problems is rather substantial in its own right, but when compounded, the Lakers have little room for specific improvement without also experiencing a corresponding deficit.
If Los Angeles were to radically change its defensive approach and attempt to gamble more in order to force turnovers, it would likely pick up more fouls on the perimeter while only stacking pressure on its rotating bigs. If they were to attempt to dial back their perimeter pressure even further in order to pick up fewer fouls, it would be even easier for the Thunder to create quality shots and turn the corner to attack the Lakers inside. If Los Angeles wanted to really limit Oklahoma City's shot creation, then...well, it'd probably need some new players.
It's not entirely hopeless for the Lakers, just decidedly dire. This series could still develop in a number of ways that could make it more competitive, but for the moment, the stencil for the gravestone stands, with etching yet to come.
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