The adage “Defense wins championships” rings true across all sports, especially in a frenetic game like basketball. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it may take a little more than that for them to win their 18th NBA title.
The Lakers may have advanced to the playoffs after slipping past the Golden State Warriors in a thrilling 103-100 win, but the victory also showcased the struggles LA has faced throughout the 2020-2021 season.
Los Angeles was able to limit Curry’s offensive prowess early in the game but could not generate anything offensively as they went down by as many as 13 points. The rest of the Warriors did their part while Steph tried to find his spots, with the offensive contributions of Andrew Wiggins and Kent Bazemore putting the defending champions to the test. If not for Alex Caruso’s 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting, the Lakers would have been in a deeper hole than the 55-42 halftime deficit they faced.
Los Angeles eventually found their offensive rhythm in the second half as both LeBron James and Anthony Davis went for a combined 14-for-22 from the field and tightened up their defense to earn the victory over Golden State. With the win, they took the seventh seed and earned the right to face the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Davis finished with a team-high 25 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, while James worked his way into a triple-double of 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. He also knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer with 58.2 seconds left in the game despite being poked in the eye by Draymond Green a few possessions earlier.
The for the Lakers moving forward will be to rediscover the offensive flow they had enroute to their 21-6 start earlier in the regular season. Their title defense looked virtually unstoppable at the time, yet injuries and some COVID-19 related disruptions derailed what looked like a promising run. Of course, all teams experienced their own struggles from the two aforementioned circumstances, but it was particularly nuanced in Los Angeles’ case.
Losing Davis, James, and even Dennis Schroder for certain stretches of time exposed the lack of playmaking in the squad. Openings that were previously there with a healthy lineup now disappeared and opposing teams capitalized on this.
The dearth in offensive depth within the Lakers was also revealed especially when the roles of the remaining players were magnified. Those who thrived in spurts or in limited roles could not maintain the momentum once their minutes were extended in the absence of their team’s stars. The drop in Los Angeles’ offensive production in the absence of their franchise stars was quite drastic, as their offensive rating dropped to 109.9, which ended up being 24th in the NBA.
Adding to the Lakers’ troubles was the fact that the season was shortened to 72 games, removing more opportunities for recovering players to recover their offensive rhythm. James and Davis both missed at least 27 games and even they found it hard to work their way back into their pre-injury form in limited time. The extra 10 games that would have been afforded to them during the typical 82-game season would have helped them ramp up their activities heading into the postseason. In the end, head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the staff had to juggle managing the health of their squad with keeping their postseason hopes alive. Thankfully, it has worked out well so far.
With Los Angeles now boasting a full (though not 100 percent healthy) lineup, the ball movement will be much crisper and openings that were previously shut down will now return. Of course, having an elite playmaker in James and a generational talent in Davis helps too.
Having Vogel as head coach has made the Los Angeles Lakers into a consistently elite defensive team, but this season has revealed that their vulnerabilities lie on the offensive end. With a few days to rest and recover, the team will have to get back to the drawing board and put more attention to the offensive sets they would need to run to ensure that they don’t fall into deep holes that will likely be harder to get out of in the postseason.