In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
While you were watching Courtney Lee miss at the buzzer and the Los Angeles Lakers going on to win Sunday's Game Two of the NBA Finals in overtime, I was busy covering the Seattle Storm's Opening Night win over the Sacramento Monarchs. I had ESPN's Gamecast open during the game, along with Twitter, which meant I got real-time reaction to what was going on but had no chance to break things down myself.
Last night, I was able to get to the copy of Game Two on my DVR, and I wanted to focus on one aspect of the Lakers' defense that was prominent in the analysis of the game I saw--how they defended the Orlando Magic's go-to play, the pick-and-roll. I charted every pick-and-roll Orlando ran in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game Two to see what the Lakers are doing to limit the effectiveness of the play that has been so devastating for the Magic all season long.
Of the 29 real possessions Orlando got in that span (discounting the final possession of regulation and a couple that came after the Lakers had taken a six-point lead late in the extra session), 20 of them included pick-and-rolls, including a few times when the Magic used on-ball picks twice in the same possession.
Overall, these possessions were slightly more efficient for Orlando, which scored 22 points on 20 possessions (a 110.0 Offensive Rating) as opposed to seven points in nine possessions without pick-and-rolls (77.7). In part, then, we have to credit the Lakers with playing good defense regardless of what the Magic called. Pau Gasol's defense on Dwight Howard in the post especially stood out, as Gasol forced multiple turnovers when Orlando went directly to Howard down low.
In part, playing close attention to the Magic's pick-and-roll game added perspective in the problems it creates for opponents. A subtle aspect of this is how Stan Van Gundy generally runs the pick-and-roll with Rashard Lewis in the paint and has him pop out to the three-point line as the roll man occupies the basket. Most defenses want their other big man to come over and provide help against the big man who sets the screen when his own defender is slow getting back after helping cut off the drive. The couple of times Lamar Odom did so against the Magic, Lewis was able to get open looks from the perimeter, including one that he converted for a three-pointer midway through the fourth quarter.
Returning to the main topic, with just over two minutes left in overtime, the Lakers put on a clinic in stopping two different pick-and-rolls. First, on the left side, Howard screened for Hedo Turkoglu. He made little contact, however, and Trevor Ariza was able to get over the pick with relatively little resistance. Gasol hung around just long enough to make sure Ariza was OK before finding Howard and keeping him from establishing post position. Howard decided to screen again for J.J. Redick, picked up by Odom in a scramble situation. This time, the pick freed Redick, but Gasol's hedge forced him to pass back to Howard. Derek Fisher read the play like the veteran he is and stepped in from his help position on the weak side at the edge of the key to intercept the pass and go the other way. Not only did that produce a key stop in a one-point game, it also turned into two free throws for Fisher.
The biggest reason the Lakers have had success against the Orlando pick-and-roll game, so far as I can tell, has been Ariza. In addition to fighting Turkoglu up the court when the Magic's swingman was serving as point guard, Ariza did an excellent job of navigating the screens set against him, getting through them and quickly re-establishing defensive position in front of Turkoglu.
When the Lakers got themselves in trouble defending the pick-and-roll, it was often because Gasol was a little too aggressive in providing help when Ariza had the situation under control. For example, with 3:19 left Howard was able to get a three-point play--his only made field goal during the fourth quarter and OT--when Gasol effectively trapped Turkoglu off the pick-and-roll, leaving smaller defenders to contend with Howard. That was the only time in the stretch that Orlando got the classic pick-and-roll finish, the ballhandler feeding the roll man for a score.
Ariza and Gasol did well enough defending the pick-and-roll that help defense was rarely needed. When it was, the Lakers showed off their ability to recover and close out defensively, a staple because of the aggressive way they provide help from the weak side. This was most clear with 5:43 left in the game, when Turkoglu drove and tried to lob a pass back out to the perimeter. Kobe Bryant, in offering help, was still able to leap to intercept the pass before it got to its intended destination.
What is odd about the credit the Lakers are getting for defending the Magic pick-and-roll is the fact that the pick-and-roll has been a problem for the Lakers defensively throughout the season. However, their issues have largely been against quick point guards running the pick-and-roll. Most of the stretch I watched, Orlando did not have a true point guard on the floor, and even after he returned, starter Rafer Alston did not initiate a single pick-and-roll. Here is where a healthy Jameer Nelson, playing in rhythm, could make a major difference for the Magic. Having Ariza defend Turkoglu is a much more favorable matchup for the Lakers. Ariza's defensive effort is a key reason the Lakers have a 2-0 lead in the series.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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