Three-Pointers: Lakers hide flaws with aggressive defense against Hornets
By Rob Mahoney
The Lakers used defensive pressure to break open a tight game after halftime and coasted past the Hornets 103-87 on Wednesday in New Orleans. Los Angeles scored the first 13 points of the third quarter and outscored New Orleans 30-16 in the period to pull away for its second road victory in seven games. Kobe Bryant also made history in the rout, becoming the youngest player to reach 30,000 points.
• The halftime break offered the Lakers an opportunity to gather themselves and reinforce their specific goals for the game. Among those goals was the victimization of the hapless Hornets. Not many New Orleans players are confident ball-handlers or passers, making the team very vulnerable to swarms of pressure from unexpected directions. Bryant (who had three steals and thrived in transition en route to 29 points) was particularly effective in attacking Hornets players from their blind side, sometimes streaking all the way across the court in his attempts to swipe the ball away. Against most opponents, that kind of gamble would result in the Lakers’ getting burned with a quick pass-out and an open shot. But on this occasion, players such as guards Austin Rivers and Roger Mason Jr. — who were already pressured by their own defenders — struggled to identify Bryant’s gambit before it was too late.
Ultimately, it was the ripple effects of that heavy pressure that doomed the Hornets’ offense. New Orleans’ turnover numbers (12 overall, which on a per-possession basis is actually better than its season average) weren’t at all damning, but the Lakers regularly derailed its play progression by flocking as a team toward the ball. On a given possession, a Metta World Peace tip, the ensuing bobble and a Dwight Howard hedge later, and the shot clock had already begun to close in on the Hornets — forcing them into rushed execution and difficult attempts. New Orleans handled that pressure well in spots, but simply failed to do so consistently against an opponent committed to disrupting its passes and dribbles with active hands.
• Just because the Lakers were able to get some mileage out of aggressive play on the ball doesn’t mean that their defensive woes have somehow been solved. The Lakers held New Orleans to just 97.8 points per 100 possessions and a 45.3 effective field goal percentage, but they also ceded wide open dunk and layup opportunities throughout the first half on rudimentary pick-and-roll sets. They also gave up 31 points on 21 shots to Ryan Anderson, who was the beneficiary of many of the Hornets’ swing passes.
The Lakers’ back-line rotations are still a mess, but the Hornets’ lack of competent shot creation allowed L.A. to take its chances on the perimeter and survive the risk implicit in its style of play. New Orleans has been surprisingly decent on offense this year, having entered the game ranked 13th in points scored per possession. But the Hornets’ personnel allows for only a fairly simple approach, particularly with Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon out of the lineup. Coach Monty Williams has his team running its pet play actions well, but executing simple sets reliably shouldn’t soon be confused with resilient offense. At the moment, the Hornets’ arsenal is dependable — it just isn’t particularly adaptable. Such is inevitable when the entire machine hinges on Greivis Vasquez, who put together a solid 16 points, nine assists and five rebounds but can’t well carry the creative load of an entire team when the Lakers are coming at him in waves.
• Pairing Howard (18 points) with Antawn Jamison (15 points) in the Lakers’ frontcourt (as was necessary with Pau Gasol’s missing his second straight game with knee tendinitis) poses some pretty substantial defensive problems, but there’s no question that it gives L.A. the opportunity to respond to overloads against Howard more quickly. Once an opponent commits to a double team (as the Hornets had to do at times, given Howard’s advantage in the post against Robin Lopez, Lance Thomas and Anderson), the ball zooms to an open shooter before the opponent can fully adapt. It’s a simplistic method of exploiting strong-side pressure, but a consistently effective one. Without having to worry about Gasol’s placement, the Lakers are able to simply work between several solid perimeter options until the opponent’s perimeter scrambling gives way to an open attempt. That not only opens up shots for the Lakers’ role players but also by extension makes everything simpler for Howard. An open Jamison three-pointer might make an opponent like the Hornets think twice before doubling or, worse, hesitate in its double and get caught defending no one at all. That gives Howard either a wide open passing lane or a straightforward one-on-one scoring opportunity, in which he almost always has the upper hand.