Among the myriad problems for the Lakers in Friday's 108-103 win over Toronto was their ability to handle the moments in which the Raptors threw a 2-3 zone defense their direction. Suddenly, the league's most efficient offense got a little loose. The Lakers posted only 22 points in the quarter (their third lowest quarter this season, which is actually very impressive after six games) thanks in part to questionable shot selection. Of their 22 field goal attempts, eight were three's. Only two dropped, leading to open floor opportunities for the Raptors, who piled up 11 fast break points and 16 points in the paint, overall.
"I thought they fed quite well off their zone defense," said Phil Jackson, "And we complied and took a lot of three's inside that."
Teams routinely throw zones at the Lakers, because (at least for a while) they tend to work. Certainly the Suns had some success zoning up L.A. in last year's Western Conference Finals, helping extend a series that might otherwise have been shorter. So why do zones give the Lakers so much trouble? "It's just the focus," he said. "It's about making sure penetration happens. So easy to get the ball moved around in the perimeter and say "I'm open" that's a three and shoot it, when you haven't really got the initial penetration with the ball that has to happen to create defensive misalignment."
Interestingly, Derek Fisher had a different spin on what goes wrong.
"We really believe in playing the game from the inside out. Things get a little off and a little weird if we're not getting the ball inside to Pau and inside to Andrew, and years back inside to Shaq," Fisher said Friday night. "So when a team goes to a zone and we're not able to get that penetration through getting the ball inside, things get a little off kilter. If we were a team that didn't mind shooting 30-plus three-pointers a night, I bet you we'd look a lot better in a zone. But that's not our DNA. We're not as apt to start shooting quick shots that are open in a zone, we're actually trying to force that action and still get it inside even though they're packing it in."
Possession to possession, they're both right.
Sometimes they settle, sometimes they force the ball. In either case, the Lakers are essentially taking a shortcut rather than working through the full steps of their offense, which is exactly what zones encourage. Like most teams, once they see enough of it the Lakers adjust to the zone and tend to thrive. At the NBA level, they're deployed to change a team's rhythm, show a new look, and temporarily alter the proceedings. Sometimes, one strong stretch is enough to swing a game, as it almost was last night for Toronto in the second quarter.
The inherent difficulty involved in defending the Lakers encourages teams, particularly weaker ones, to toss out the zone for stretches, turning those moments into a referendum on L.A.'s discipline as a group. Some nights they'll pass, others they won't. This will hardly be the last time the subject comes up, and I suspect they'll figure it out more times than not. Once they do, defensive improvement is likely to follow. So often, there's a tendency to view offense and defense as islands rather than interconnected, but Friday's game provided a great example of the ways in which offensive execution impacts the ability to defend effectively, just as generating turnovers or fuels production at the other end.
Solving a problem in one area can fix a problem in another.