Just one week ago, I wrote an article about what the Lakers would have to do to get back into the series. The Lakers are back in the series--more or less--but now have a bigger chore than just making things competitive. Rather, they must find a way to do what no team has ever done: comeback from a 3-1 series deficit and win the final two games of a finals series on the road.
Winning two games in a hostile environment like the TD Banknorth Garden will be no small feat, but this Los Angeles team might be, to paraphrase Phil Jackson, just immature enough to make it happen. Over the last few games, there have been times when the Lakers have managed to play well, whether it be during their quick starts in Games Four and Five, or down the stretch in that same Game Five. Part of what the Lakers need to do to be successful in Game Six, and perhaps stretch the series to Game Seven, can be pulled from those positive stretches in the previous games. However, with their backs against the wall against the best team in the league, the Lakers will also need to look to some specific adjustments.
Boston's defense is so good in the halfcourt that many pundits are calling for Phil Jackson to abandon the Triangle Offense and go to more isolation sets. Those people are forgetting that Cleveland's isolation sets did not help the Cavaliers score against the Celtics. Instead, Los Angeles must abandon the precision of slow, plodding offense and push the pace. In both Games Four and Five, part of L.A.'s quick start has been an aggressive transition offense that takes advantage of unsettled situations. This is the one place that the Lakers have an advantage over the Celtics, as their defense is based on exact rotations and helpside presence, and a fast-breaking offense can move into position before the defense is set.
Early in the offense, prior to settling into the Triangle, the Lakers should look to ball-screen action. When they get tentative and their offense stagnates, Los Angeles looks for ball screens late in the shot clock. This only brings a second defender toward the attacking offensive player, typically Kobe Bryant. However, by bringing the ball screen early in transition offense, the Lakers can attack prior to Boston prepping any of their trapping or hard-hedge tactics. In fact, in many cases, they might force a switch, which would lead to Bryant attacking the rim.
Because the Lakers offense is largely based on passing, Boston's success is largely due to their ability to disrupt the passing lanes and prevent the Lakers from moving the ball quickly. This leads to a lot of standing and watching teammates, and because only Kobe can create shots for his teammates, the Lakers often look flat and tentative. To compensate, the Lakers must do more of what was successful against the San Antonio Spurs. Against the Spurs, every Laker was consistently aggressive off the bounce, and they managed to integrate the passing and spacing of the Triangle offense with more drive-and-kick opportunities. This tactic could prevent the Celtics from keying on stationary offensive players and create more attack lanes for every Laker, including Bryant.
Finally, the Lakers must produce second chances on multiple possessions. With the series in the balance, Los Angeles must generate new ways to score against the vaunted Boston defense. One way is to send more than three players to the offensive glass on every possession. While this is a dangerous maneuver in some ways, as it exposes the Lakers to Boston's fast break, there is little recourse. The Triangle naturally sends three players to the offensive rebounding area. Typically, Los Angeles has a fourth player get back to the space between the circles and a fifth back to halfcourt on most shots. However, sending a fourth player to the front of the rim would put additional pressure on the Celtics, who might be without one of their better rebounders in Kendrick Perkins. Not without risk, this strategy can come with a high reward if that fourth player puts such strain on the Boston defense that they cannot adjust.
The Lakers were largely successful in defending the Spurs' side pick-and-pop action in the Western Conference Finals. However, their ability to guard high ball-screen action against an offensive player as big, versatile, and strong as Paul Pierce is has been a bugaboo for Los Angeles during this series. If they have any hope of defeating the Celtics, the Lakers must find an effective method of defending this ball-screen action. Because Garnett is such a capable outside shooter, L.A. cannot afford to trap the ball-handler. Their typical soft-hedge and fight over technique has also proven ineffective. Instead, in Games Six and Seven, expect the Lakers to find a way under the screen, daring Pierce to shoot the long jumper off the dribble but preventing him from wreaking havoc in the lane. Again, defense in the NBA is all about making choices, and at this point, with their proverbial "backs against the wall," the Lakers have little choice but to attempt the high-risk solution.
Also, the Lakers cannot be afraid of using Bryant early and often as a defender on Pierce. Foul trouble is a potential problem, but with their playoff lives on the line, there are few other options available. At the very least, the Lakers must avoid using Vladimir Radmanovic on Pierce, as that tactic has simply not had any positive results whatsoever. Perhaps sliding Lamar Odom over to Pierce and moving the 6'10" Radmanovic to either Garnett or the remaining post player (Perkins or Leon Powe) would also have some encouraging net effect. At this point, the Lakers must try a variety of strategies to accomplish the impossible.
A final tactic that Los Angeles should look to employ is to extend their defense against the Celtics whenever Rajon Rondo is not on the floor. Because the Lakers have been effective at using Kobe to roam defensively instead of guarding Rondo, Boston has countered by using Sam Cassell and Eddie House in larger roles. Both are shot-makers and neutralize the tactic that Los Angeles utilized against Rondo. However, both have deficiencies when forced to handle the ball against consistent, solid and insistent pressure. Cassell turns into a scorer first and a distributor second, which can be effective in the short term but not as much in the long term. House is limited in his ability to change speed and direction with fluidity, and he is more likely to throw the ball away against great pressure. Whenever Rondo leaves the game, expect some more full-court defense looks from the Lakers, whether it is their aggressive trap or simply hard, man-to-man on-ball pressure. This approach could disrupt the Celtics offense and give Los Angeles the chances they need to extend the series.
More than anything, the Los Angeles Lakers must find a way to win. How ugly it is does not matter, as getting to a Game Seven must be their only consideration. In getting there, the Lakers must figure to use any means necessary, and must be willing to augment their typical offensive and defensive attack in order to be successful. Phil Jackson has won nine championships, and he will undoubtedly be prepared for tonight's elimination game. Expect the Lakers to perform more intensely--more passionately--tonight, and expect some noticeable changes to their strategy. If they can come out on top, they will have a chance to make history. These are the kind of moments that a player like Bryant and a coach like Jackson live for. They will make whatever changes are necessary, and they will be prepared. Don't count the Lakers out yet--there is still a miracle to be had.
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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