Lost in the story lines about LeBron James’ blockfest and Playoff Rondo’s reemergence is how coach Frank Vogel’s changes in the Lakers’ style of play may have transformed not only the team’s offense but also their defense.
The irony is the Lakers basically stole a page from the Rockets’ playbook on how to optimize small ball at both ends of the court. That’s a surprising and unexpected move from a coach who’s steadfastly resisted change all season. Frankly, it’s a welcome better-late-than-never move by a coach who has frustrated Lakers’ fans and pundits with his stubborn insistence on playing big and unwillingness to embrace changes in style of play. Until now.
Offensively, the Lakers for the first time this season embraced the style of small ball the Rockets play with various 5-out sets with all five offensive players positioned behind the arc and the paint open for drives and cuts. This was the perfect counter for the Rocket’s paint packing defense as it opened up lanes for LeBron James to attack the rim, isolate and overpower PJ Tucker in the post, or find players like Kyle Kuzma cutting to the rim.
While the Lakers have played small ball with Anthony Davis at the five a third to half of the time this season, Frank Vogel has always preferred to play more traditional 4-out sets with AD in the post rather than 5-out sets. But once JaVale McGee left the game in the first quarter, the Lakers clearly focused on keeping the paint open for players to attack the rim, cutters to slash, and LeBron James rather than Anthony Davis to post PJ Tucker.
While turning the ball over too often and failing to push the pace limited the impact of the Lakers’ strategy to play all five players behind the 3-point line, the 5-out sets took their toll as defenses ramped up in the second half. Taking better care of the ball, the Lakers reduced their turnovers from 10 in the first half to just 5 in the second half and pushed the ball to score 8 fast break points in the second half versus just 2 points in the first half.
More importantly, the Lakers were able to combine critical defensive stops with clutch baskets on the offensive end in the fourth quarter by spreading the floor with 5-out sets to prevent the Rockets from packing the paint. Every team’s strategy against the Lakers is to clog the lane so playing 5-out is a significant weapon for the Lakers to add to their repertoire when they meet the Clippers in the next round and whomever they meet in the Finals.
Emulating the Rockets’ small ball style on defense was maybe even more important than mimicking them on offense. One of the big surprises of these playoffs has been the sudden transformation of the Rockets’ defense. Nobody expected going small would turn the Rockets into one of the best defensive teams in the bubble playoffs but it did. The Rockets showed speed, quickness, and athleticism combined with power trumped height.
Last night, we saw a similar transformation in defense for the Lakers as Frank Vogel for the first time benched McGee to start the second half and committed to double teaming Harden and challenging every 3-point shot. This was a bold and dramatic move for a head coach who’s always believed great defense started with protecting the rim but it paid off as the Lakers held the Rockets to just 38 points and 4 of 16 from deep in the second half.
Playing a scrambling small ball style of defense in the second half limited the Rockets from raining threes and forced them to attack the paint which the Lakers countered with intimidating rim protection and 5 blocked shots. What makes the Lakers’ small ball rim protection with LeBron and AD so intimidating is its range, mobility, and explosiveness compared to more traditional shot blocking centers like JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
The Lakers speed, quickness, and athleticism dominated the Rockets’ offense with a defensive rating of 84.4 and shut down James Harden in the second half, limiting him to just 12 points on only 3 of 7 from the field. Yesterday, the Rockets were disparaging the Lakers’ defense and saying there was no way they could stop them. Houston had not lost a game this season when they shot over 40% from three. Until the last two games.
The repercussions of changes head coach Frank Vogel made to the Lakers’ offense and defense could go beyond how the Lakers play the rest of this series against the Rockets and transform how they may play going forward. I’ve always believed great competition creates great teams and the Lakers may owe the Rockets a debt of gratitude for showing them how playing small can not only make them a better team offensively but also defensively.
Frank Vogel finally committing to and changing how the Lakers play when going small may have unlocked the key to winning the championship. The Lakers suddenly may have a powerful new weapon in their arsenal.