In conjunction with our tag-team partners at ESPN Los Angeles, each coast has come up with five ways to beat the other team in this year's NBA Finals. To break down the best ways to defeat Kobe, Phil and Co., we welcome Brian Kamanetzky, who covers the Lakers for ESPN Los Angeles.
Check out my look at how to beat the Celtics.
-- By Brian Kamenetzky, ESPNLA.com:
There are any number of ways to lose to the Lakers. The combination of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol tends to keep them competitive in any game. They're capable of piling up points and also locking down at the other end. It's hard to cover Gasol and Andrew Bynum at the same time, and Lamar Odom creates matchup problems around the floor. They move the ball well (most of the time) and don't turn it over. It's hardly an accident they're here.]
Nor are they the same crew as two years back. This season's squad plays at a slower pace, and is more defensively oriented than the '08 squad (though that group was underrated on that side of the floor). As the two regular season games between the Celtics and Lakers proved, these Lakers can play in the mud, too, and grind for 48 minutes.
But all teams have weaknesses available for exploitation. If George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and nine other dudes can empty the vaults at the Bellagio, MGM Grand, and Mirage, then surely there's a blueprint available to defeat the Lakers. Here are five ways to do it, none of which require a Chinese acrobat:
1. Deny penetration to encourage jumpshooting
After watching Kobe nail jumpers like something out of a video game, and seeing L.A. hit a robust-for-them 37 percent from three point range against the Suns in the Western Conference Finals, it might seem counter-intuitive. But if the rest of the season has any meaning, the Lakers long ago established themselves as a poor perimeter shooting team. Only seven squads had a three point percentage worse than L.A.'s 34.1 during the regular season, and the Lakers were pretty ordinary from 16-23 feet, too. But it's not simply a question of jump shots; it's a question of what kind of jump shot. Their offense is most effective when the ball moves from inside-out. When the Lakers get deeper shots off kick-outs from the high and low post or dribble penetration, they're much more effective.
At times, opposing teams have effectively denied entry passes to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, or made it tough for Kobe to set up shop down there. They'll sag off shooters and keep the ball moving around the arc, believing (not without cause) the Lakers would lack the discipline to probe and move until an open look becomes available. Phoenix played zone in part because they knew the Lakers are prone to settle (and because their rotations in man-to-man, until Game 6, weren't very good).
The Celtics don't need to zone up, but the way they load up against the opposition's star players is zone-ish in nature, and far more effective than what the Suns do. It worked pretty well in 2008.
2. Make them foul
L.A.'s defense was very strong this season, and they did a lot of things well. They were excellent at defending the three-point line and limiting free throws. The Lakers led the league in opponent's three point percentage (32.8), surrendered the second fewest trips to the stripe per night (21.7) and were tops in opponents' free throw rate (the ratio of free throws to field goal attempts).
The Lakers just held the prolific Suns to 32.9 percent from downtown in the Western Conference finals, and are at 32.5 percent for the playoffs. Where they have struggled, though, is in keeping teams away from the line, particularly on the road. The Lakers don't shoot many free throws themselves, so teams have been able to gain an advantage on them by getting to the line. While the Lakers had a positive FT differential in their sweep over Utah (+16), they were -55 in the first round against Oklahoma City and -52 against the Suns.
When they defend without fouling, the Lakers are hard to beat. When they don't they're vulnerable.
3. Make Kobe choose
Increasingly, the same can be said for Kobe, and particularly this postseason. Against the Suns, even while averaging over 30 points a game, he still had games with nine, 10, 11, and 13 assists. When he's scoring and distributing, not only is Kobe efficient, but everyone else tends to be as well. (Add in the improved shooting from Derek Fisher Lakers fans begged for all year, and it's easy to see why the team's offense is so much better -- that, and 10 straight against the Jazz and Suns...)
I've never spoken to a scout or opposing coach who thinks Kobe is more dangerous when he's zoned in on only on scoring. Yes, he's capable of making some amazing and potentially demoralizing shots, but at least he'll be the only one making them. Personally, if I had to pick my poison, I'd let Kobe drop 45 and try to limit the other guys. Easier said than done, no question. It's important to be decisive -- there is no recipe for letting Bryant go off quite like a bad double team. In those situations, he's still capable of beating both players with a shot, and almost always makes the right pass.
Pick an approach and commit to it.
4. Expose the bench
The Lakers have little reliable depth. For all the handwringing over Lamar Odom, he's generally been a consistent and versatile playoff performer. Behind him, though, are an assemblage of guys requiring Lakers fans to keep a drink handy. Jordan Farmar is the best natural ball handler and pure point guard, but he can be selfish in his decisions and is questionable defensively. Shannon Brown is a hard worker with incredible athleticism, but is questionable offensively. He struggles running the offense, is prone to poor decisions, and often shoots because he's not comfortable executing options. Sasha Vujacic is just questionable, capable of playing scrappy D and knocking down the occasional triple (when he's not playing a million miles an hour), but also capable of picking up fouls 50 feet from the basket, launching horrid shots, and choosing completely inopportune times to engage in grand Slovenian revenge fantasies.
5. Get over the back
Yes, it's not legal to go over a player's back for a rebound, but a) let's not get bogged down in details, and b) we all know that on different nights different officials will call those plays differently. More than once this postseason Phil Jackson has lamented how early, aggressive play on the offensive glass has disrupted his team's rhythm, whether because of extra opportunities earned by the opposition or because his guys, particularly Gasol, start looking at the officials for calls. Either way, they're less focused on the task at hand.
The narrative about the Lakers' lack of physical toughness is completely overblown. They won a title last year, something soft teams just can't do. The Lakers can play an open style, but have repeatedly shown the ability to grind out tough, defensive wins as well. They won't cower in the face of bullying. But like many teams, they have a weakness for getting caught up in officiating. Trying to make it happen is worth a potential loose ball foul or two.