Breaking Down What’s Gold and What’s Fool’s Gold as LA Draws Even

Key adjustments, some spectacular individual performances, and a defense to stump them all.

LA propelled themselves to a victory with a strong 4th quarter defense and several great individual performances, after taking Houston’s best punch in Q3.

But the box score doesn’t tell you the whole story. We’re here to break down exactly what happened and why it happened. There was a full game within the game, and a lot more went according to expectations than you might expect from a casual watch.

 

The Lakers’ Offense

Post/Iso Offense vs Paint Packing

A big point of emphasis of mine entering the series and particularly for smaller Laker lineups was combating paint packing for when LeBron and AD isolate. There are some juicy matchups to attack with Houston defenders, but their paint packing means that LA isn’t attacking one on one. Instead, they’re needing to fight through multiple players and have scored less efficiently.

And as I’ve covered several times, LA has tended to see a far less packed paint when using their big man lineups, due to the lob threats they have standing in positions that can only be defended from the lob by defenders getting into their bodies (rather than stepping over to help). The Laker spacing may look worse, but LA has better functional spacing since the defenders are more spread out.

Against smaller Laker lineups, Houston will pack the paint and zone up and scramble to recover to shooters on skip passes and pass outs. They’ve had success with that for months, and it’s helped lead them to the 4th most efficient post defense among all NBA teams.

Here were the results in game 1:

 

Correction: there were 6 possessions for the big lineups, not 9. And 1.33 PPP, not 1.25.

In game 2, Big lineups saw a packed paint 75% of the time on a small sample of 4 possessions, with 2 of the 3 also seeing open lobs that weren’t thrown. LA scored 2 points on the one unpacked possession, and 2 points on 3 possessions when the paint was packed. On LeBron perimeter isolations there was more packing, particularly his top of key & corner isolations face packed paint.

Small lineups saw a packed paint 81% of the time in 26 chances. When unpacked, LA scored 16 points on 8 possessions, 2.0 points per possession. Absolute dominance. When it was packed, and despite some awesome shooting from AD, we saw only 13 points on 15 possessions (0.87 PPP) along with 3 pass outs for no advantage and 1 pass out to a good shot.

We saw three different tactics used a combined 5 times to unpack the paint in small and micro ball lineups. Three times, LA had cutters go through the paint from the top, with the cut coming from the man in the way of LeBron/AD going middle. Once we saw twin pin-in flare screens for corner shooters as LeBron isolated from the top of the key. And once we saw a cut through the lane paired with a baseline runner in Alex Caruso.

So over those first two games, big lineups (AD + McGee/Dwight) saw a packed paint 50% of the time and smaller lineups saw a packed paint 83% of the time. An unpacked paint saw dominant efficiency, and LA’s stars struggled vs a packed paint (as they did against Portland). Get true one on one matchups for our key players and they’ll cook.

We also saw LA try a couple tactics to open the paint up, but that volume has been fairly low compared to the volume of possessions attacking in these situations. Raise how often we have cutters and off-ball screening and LA will see their efficiency raise even higher.

 

Attacking Houston’s Switching

LA showcased a number of methods to go after the switching and small defense Houston deploys. I counted just under 10 open lob attempts in game 1 that weren’t taken in slip situations, and we saw several more missed lobs in this game. LeBron and Rondo have been the primary culprits.

Here, McGee even calls for the lob. This is one of the isolations where Houston did pack the paint against a big Laker lineup, which gives up this exact look for LA:

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Houston can’t defend LA’s big lineups when AD or LeBron isolate as long as their efficiency against unpacked paints is as dominant as it is and they’re also willing to make those lobs. That’ll lead to complete collapsing to take away both options, opening up wide open 3s on the perimeter.

One slip that was used in a ball screen situation was to Markieff Morris. He isn’t a lob threat and the angle was poor for Caruso to throw the ball in, so he passed ahead to LeBron to then make the nice entry pass to the slipping Morris for the bucket.

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We also saw LA run a set play after a timeout that featured an off-ball flex screen set by AD, who then turned and sealed his new defender behind him. This led to a good scoring opportunity since AD was between his new defender and the basket, and his big frame made that an easier seal than if Rondo/Caruso were to try this technique.

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One play from game 1 that resulted in an AD look I’d deem unstoppable by PJ Tucker was this slipped off-ball screen.

We saw a similar look in game 2, this time for McGee and right at the start of the game, indicating it was in the gameplan as a point of emphasis and LA recognized that have that advantage to push:

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Kyle Kuzma, who had an excellent game from a cognitive and effort standpoint, also slipped a staggered screen and had a good look here but didn’t get the ball. Rondo’s man sagging off made it a harder potential pass, but it was the right idea from Kuz:

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Slipping off-ball screens provides LA with opportunities to pass to cutting bigs from better angles than ball screens and from a triple threat position rather than while dribbling. I’d like to see more attacks like these moving forward.

 

Pushing Pace

Whether it be actual transition or just pushing to create secondary breaks against a defense not set, Rajon Rondo and the Laker team as a whole did a great job pushing the pace. LA used lobs, ran their lanes well, and effectively utilized kickbacks to create open 3s. This fairly easy but smart (un underutilized) technique is how Rajon Rondo generated several of his assists in game 2. Here’s what they look like:

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The offensive player penetrating just a tad, ideally toward the defender of another offensive player, draws that defender towards them. Then kicking the ball back out to a shooter whose man is now out of position create open 3-point looks.

 

LeBron as a Screener

One tactic LA that we’ve covered before (and covered for Harden in the pre-series writeup) is using LeBron’s immense scoring gravity to LA’s advantage by having him set ball screens for others, which often leads to no hedge from LeBron’s man and thus no immediate front line help on a Laker drive.

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The Laker Defense

The star of this game to me wasn’t Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo, or any individual Laker. The 3-2 zone LA deployed, which you might also hear referred to as a 1-2-2, absolutely changed this game. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Set Play: Rip Handoff

For the diagram and film, check out the pre-series article. I’ll just note that Houston has run this a ton, and LA has given Houston switches each time to defend it. Houston has scored well in those situations. I’d consider being more aggressive to destroy the play completely, as I outlined in that pre-series article.

 

Big vs Small

If you’ve followed any of my work recently, you know how much I’ve preached for LA using big lineups (AD + McGee/Howard) to mirror Harden’s minutes. For more on that, check out my pre-series work.

Put concisely, my thesis was that bigger lineups would 1) slow Houston’s offensive engine, 2) provide more spacing for LA’s offense, and 3) help LA win the offensive boards to give LA a bigger possessions edge. Fewer open 3s, fewer free throws, fewer shots at the rim, less foul trouble, rebounding dominance, and an unclogged paint is an equation for Laker dominance in this series.

I want to quickly note that AD at center is something I’ve wanted more of this year. It can have a huge positive impact for LA against a number of teams. But for this series, I saw sticking with LA’s dominant size and emphasizing their air superiority as the best path to victory.

My pre-series notes detailed how LA could use zone-like principles to keep rim protection in place with off-ball switching, and went over specific rotations that would put that rim protection in legal guarding position and have the rest of LA’s players rotate in a way to take away open 3s if Harden were to drive. I considered zone defenses, but deemed that a likely waste of my time to elaborate on based on Vogel’s defensive approach and how LA could dominate using those other principles and their big roster.

Here’s what those rotations looked like:

 

In game 2, that turned into a modified version where LA tried to leave the man at the top of the key open and bump down to cover the wing and corner while having back pressure from the ball handler’s man, making that pass back to the top of the key open, but very difficult to execute. I love this.

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After seeing defensive possessions that ended up with Rajon Rondo and KCP needing to be rim protectors, LA made the switch to what I’d been hoping for. Here’s what that looked like pre-adjustment in game 1:

 

And here’s a look at some of that off-ball switching. Watch LeBron and Rondo communicate, point, and switch spots weak side.

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But in game 2, LA had a stretch when James Harden was off the court that Rondo | Caruso | LeBron | Kuzma | Morris almost never missed. Seriously, check this out:

I’ll note that this group played almost all of the minutes Harden sat in this game. I like this, since I’d consider this a Micro lineup. I talked pre-game about how mirroring Harden’s minutes with big lineups and using micro lineups in non-Harden minutes would help the Laker bigs actually rest while keeping the worst rim protecting lineups far away from being exposed by Harden’s penetration.

 

But that lineup’s success (apparently) led to Dwight Howard not getting minutes for the game. JaVale McGee hurt his ankle, so he didn’t replace any of those Dwight minutes.

This led to small ball Laker lineups for extended periods of time. This concerned me greatly, as you might expect.

And my fears materialized. The Laker small ball defense playing man to man was torched from an efficiency standpoint over an extended period, gave up an insane amount of open 3s (and a high % of makes along with that), allowed lots of shots at the rim made at a high rate, and was fouling often.

It was a disaster. Even if you thought LA gained a boost to their offense by having a smaller lineup, it would be hard to make up what they were losing defensively. Racing an offense scoring almost 2 points per possession for long stretches at a time isn’t a race you can win.

And that led to Houston chipping away and taking the lead against LA, which extended well after the big Laker lineup with JaVale McGee in gave up a quick 3/3 shooting on open 3-pointers for a quick -9 stint to open the 3rd quarter.

LA then revealed a 3-2 zone. This worked well for several reasons:

  1. It put multiple defenders in the face of potential drivers from the top of the key
  2. Houston’s offense is mostly stagnant, features no post threats, and has little cutting. Because of that, normal vulnerabilities of a 3-2 were of less worry for LA.
  3. You can’t just put 3s up against a 3-2 zone just from passing around like you can try to do against a 2-3 zone.
  4. Along with that last point, a 3-2 zone aligns well against a 5-out offense
  5. This defense kept LA’s less mobile defenders out of positions where they could get switched onto Harden or Westbrook in isolation after a pick and roll. This helped Morris tremendously, who looked horrible defensively last game (and this game) playing man to man defense.
  6. LA communicated excellently. Even without audio, you can see the constant pointing, heads on swivels, lively feet, and an overall togetherness of the squad. It was awesome to see.
  7. Oh, and Houston didn’t have a clue how to attack it. Westbrook turned the ball over a handful of times trying to drive through the strongest point of the zone (the top of it). It was a mess.

This led to results. Fewer shots at the rim, a lower field goal percentage on shots at the rim, fewer open 3s (and a lower percentage made), a high turnover rate forced, and overall elite efficiency.

Here’s how LA’s three defenses fared in game 2:

Small/Micro Zone Big Man Defense Small/Micro Man
Points/Possession 0.73 0.94 1.13
Possessions 15 18 71
% of 3s Open 38% 88% 89%
3PT Results 38% 50% 41%
TO Rate Forced 27% 11% 15%
Paint Shot / Poss 0.20 0.22 0.24
Paint FG% 33% 25% 65%

The big man defense had an efficiency edge over the small ball man to man defense due to the much lower percentage of shots made at the rim. This helped to overcome some bad luck against 3-point shots taken, which were open about as often as the small ball man to man defense but went in at a much higher rate.

Here’s what some of that rim defense looked like for LA with their big lineups.

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But let’s look bigger picture. Here’s how that data looks for the series as a whole, and with Dwight and McGee’s big man (when playing with AD) data together. If you’re curious, the Dwight lineups performed quite well but in tiny volume. Him as the lone big isn’t the way to go. But out there with AD (as I’m recommending), LA had success.

Small/Micro Zone Big Man Defense Small/Micro Man
Points/Possession 0.73 0.98 1.10
Possessions 15 53 122
% of 3s Open 38% 68% 89%
3PT Results 38% 42% 38%
TO Rate Forced 27% 15% 13%
Paint Shot / Poss 0.20 0.32 0.34
Paint FG% 33% 41% 63%

The zone still looks the best, but on that larger sample we see the big lineups playing man to man differentiate further through allowing fewer open 3s, as a direct result of limiting Harden’s isolation penetration. And speaking of which, I should go back at some point and log paint touches, to show how that driving was leading to good offense for Houston even if the eventual shot didn’t come from there (and thus wouldn’t show up on this chart).

To recap, bigger was better. We expected this. If you saw LA’s box score numbers and raw lineup data and are assuming man to man small ball defense can carry LA, that’s fool’s gold. But when Vogel had one big out and the other inexplicably not playing, a zone defense saved the day for a small ball defense that had been getting destroyed. That’s true found gold by Vogel that kept LA from going down 2-0 in this series.

But watching live it’s hard to parse out effectiveness of small ball defense man vs zone. So I wasn’t surprised to see people point at tiny sample single game +/- numbers for McGee last game despite it conflicting the film itself, or not noticing when zone was or wasn’t played. I hope this clarified some of those points. This zone defense was a critical piece to the 2nd and 4th quarters of this game.

I have concern moving forward with McGee potentially being out for future games and with Dwight’s minutes not solidified. Man to man defense playing small will not cut it when Harden is in the game. When he’s out of the game it’s fine, but LA will need more of this zone (and other tactics) to slow down Houston when Harden does play and LA shows him a feast of driving with their small lineups.

I anticipate Houston will enter game 3 with a better game plan to attack the 3-2 zone, so I’d bet we don’t see it give up 0.73 points per possession moving forward. I’d roll it out again when playing small on Tuesday, then adjust depending on how good those adjustments are from Houston. If it’s giving up a shot profile that’d still be better for LA than their man defense playing small, and they won’t commit to playing big (which I’d still advocate for as a good option), sticking with it even if less effective would be the move.

We might also see other creativity from LA on defense to muck things up and switch up looks. But it’s not just about doing something different. The different looks need to be smart looks. Big man defense and 3-2 zone, and man with smart trapping, consistent off-ball switching to preserve rim protection, and rotations either as I recommended or what we saw a glimpse of in game 2 would work. Playing 2-3, running a 1-3-1, or a box and 1 logically don’t match up well against Houston’s personnel. With only a day in between games, I’d be surprised if Vogel has another surprise for us. But mixing up the three looks I described above can shed points from Houston out of confusion

And speaking of confusion, shoutout to LA for having a couple possessions where they switched from zone to man mid-possession. This is something I’ve done with teams I consult with and don’t tweet about too often (can’t give away all my secrets lol), but have advocated for in the past publicly and was happy to see done.

There are other creative and smart tactics we could see from LA that we likely won’t see, due to their lack of recognition/use in the basketball world, that I won’t describe. One in particular seems like a natural fit. But no need to give away other more private tactics of mine. However, I’ll be sure to break them down for you if LA does use them.

Another note I want to make is how the use of this zone, along with when Harden sat and Westbrook couldn’t get the offense going at all (mostly against this zone), impacted +/- values for a number of players on both teams. As did that crazy stretch with Morris hitting everything. Single game +/- data is noisy for a reason. It’ll tell us results, but for real analysis we need to understand why these results happened to get a better feel for what’s repeatable and what’s noise.

 

Double Teaming

The other defensive tactic we saw from LA was double teaming. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it got turnovers, but it mostly didn’t work. This is fool’s gold in my eyes, but can still be a weapon LA uses at times if done smartly.

Hard doubles (1.07 PPP) worked more than soft doubles (2.0 PPP), but overall LA gave up 1.44 points per possession on the 25 possessions they sent double teams at the Houston offense. There’s a space to use them, and I’d say one time would be when you have a player standing way out of the way and not as offensive threats, like we see in the second tweet here.

Another time would be when it’s danger zone time for LA, which is something I made up right now to describe when LA has a single-big defensive lineup and AD is on-ball, at the top of the key, or in the strong side corner (the 3 areas his rim protecting is negated) and we know Harden is likely to drive.

I still don’t love it, but it’s at least different. With how volatile this is, from getting turnovers and transition looks the other way to giving up open looks at the rim or on corner 3s, you’ll naturally have little runs here and there for different teams by using it. I like it occasionally along with possessions of stunting from Laker defenders to make Harden think they’re coming (but not come) and potentially get uncomfortable.

We also saw a couple possessions where LA didn’t double but played in the gaps to deter a drive from Harden. Doing so at the end of a game, for example, is a situation he might be less apt to pass out of. Or when offensive players aren’t in positions to score.

I like it situationally and sprinkled here and there as a changeup, but I don’t think this is a long-term solution to be used consistently for LA with hopes of not giving up open 3s.

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Rajon Rondo

The last big topic I’d like to cover is Rajon Rondo. He’s someone that can be an x-factor for LA depending on his play. During the regular season, we seemed to get “Rondo games” every dozen games or so where he’d look like he looked 6 years ago (legitimately good). But on the whole, at his age he’s less of a sure thing for the Lakers.

That doesn’t mean he can’t add value. On a team with almost no playmaking talent, he can be a key facilitator like he was last night. His assists weren’t spectacular, and he even missed a high number of would-be high quality assist chances, but he’ll find teammates and create offense for LA nonetheless.

He and Caruso are similar in their weaker pick & roll facilitation once you get past the first couple reads. He’s better than Caruso, but the Rondo of old was making these skip passes when they were available with great timing and precision. Rondo this season has been less able to do that.

But I don’t want to get too negative. Rondo is a high IQ player, in these sorts of ways, that makes plays like these to help LA win games:

His kick back assists to Morris today weren’t anything spectacular, but they were the right play. And LA doesn’t have any other role players that can keep a live dribble, push pace to find easy offense, and get the ball to scorers like he can. Even if he benefitted from some of his steals being passed directly to him and from some extra +/- magic from the zone defense

And speaking of the zone, Rondo played a key role in making that menace work. Constantly talking, pointing, and keeping LA’s players in synch can’t be underrated for a defense like that. He was a true leader in that regard and quarterbacked that defense that played a gigantic role in helping LA win game 2.

The picking up full court is mostly gimmicky in a lot of situations and is more activity than impact, but we saw Rondo last night get an on-ball steal on Harden for an easy bucket on the other end and with some consistency keep Houston from crossing half court before ~17 seconds. I’m fine with it as long as it’s not resulting in fouls or blow bys and he’s slowing Houston down even a second or two every possession. Any steals from it are gravy.

Offensively, Rondo can also be a liability off-ball. His lack of 3-point gravity means we see plays like these, where his man completely leaves him and disrupts the play elsewhere:

These have a real impact and make life hard for LA offensively. It takes consistent countering of this to remedy the situation. We didn’t see much of that in game 1, but in game 2 at least a couple times we saw LA turn to using him as an off-ball screener to take advantage of his man playing so far off of him. It didn’t yield anything here, but more volume of doing this will lead to easier offense for LA.

That lack of gravity was why I was unhappy when Rondo was put back in towards the end of the game. In those situations, we know LeBron is going to have the ball in his hands. Earlier in the game, I can understand wanting him more off-ball to lighten the load (or even better, playing Rondo when LeBron is out). But when offensively we know he’ll be in a role emphasizing none of his strengths and amplifying his lack of gravity, I’d prefer Caruso, Green, KCP, or Kuz in for him.

If his quarterbacking of the zone is what’s keeping it as effective as it is, then I’d reevaluate. But any Rondo discussion should properly consider and weigh what he brings (and doesn’t bring) on both ends of the court.

Overall, he’s not a perfect player. He’s not who he once was. He hasn’t even had an average impact for years. But he does some little things that benefit LA, particularly with their roster construction, and is in a position this series where he can quarterback a zone defense and be engaged with his rotations in the opposite way we’ve seen from him in man defense.

With his current skill set, Rondo is a player that can have a high or low magnitude of either positive or negative impact in this series based on his roles and his fit within the offensive scheme and defensive scheme. It’ll be important for LA to recognize this, and do their best to maximize positive impact and keep him out of situations setting him (and LA) up for failure.

Adjustments

In game 2, we saw LA adjust with their 3-2 zone and more off-ball switching defensively, and offensively through doing a better job unclogging the paint for LeBron and AD. We saw more aggressive LeBron and pushing the ball to get easier early offense. We also saw more doubling, which had mixed (and overall poor) results but at least switched up the looks LA gave Harden.

For game 3, I’d hope LA cuts the fat in their play so far this series and sticks to either their big lineups or their zone in Harden lineups and micro ball or small ball vs non-Harden minutes. Expect adjustments from Houston to attack the zone. It’s harder to tweak a zone than it is a man to man defense, so how LA reacts will be interesting.

Offensively, we saw the right approaches to unpacking the paint in small ball lineups. VOLUME will be the key to sustained success there. Lobs and regaining air superiority is another point of emphasis I’d have for LA, since they’ve already had a ton of good slip looks for their lob threat bigs but just not gotten them the ball. It’s there already. Use it. When playing micro this is an option that comes off the table, but using slips can still work if you approach them like we saw earlier in this article with the pass ahead to get a better angle of entry.

Playing more 5-out can remedy some of these spacing issues, as can having LeBron on-ball and using AD in the lob threat spot if you want LeBron to isolate.

Ball movement will also be important this series. Houston’s defensive rotations aren’t too good once you can collapse their defense and then get them moving around. Westbrook in particular (similar to Rondo) will miss rotations when he’s the 2nd or 3rd man that needs to rotate over.

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