Lakers, Suns Face Off in Final Game Before All-Star Break
By: John Lu
After struggling through much of December and January, the Lakers have played better as of late. Their recent stretch re-introduced glimpses of the promising style of basketball what was played throughout the first 20 games of the season, when the team exceeded expectations on their way to a 10-10 record.
In the last game before the All Star break and the trade deadline, the Lakers will face off against the Suns for the third time this season. In the season series between the two Western conference bottom-dwellers, the two teams have split the first two meetings – the Lakers winning the first 119-108 and losing the second 115-119. In these two games, the Suns starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker averaged a combined 51.5 points and 11 assists per game on 57.6% true shooting. The Lakers will need to formulate their game plan around containing these two to maximize their chance of winning.
Devin Booker Shooting the Three
Why it Worked: Booker has shot extremely well in 2017 – averaging 44.4% and 38.2% from long distance in January and February, respectively. Part of the reason behind his high three-point percentage is his teammates’ ability to find him for open shots beyond the arc. On the season 78.1% of his three-point makes were assisted.
In this play, Bledsoe brings the ball up and Tyson Chandler sets a screen on his man about 40 feet away from the basket as the ball crosses half court. This high screen and roll action allows Bledsoe to accelerate and easily get by John Henson (#31 on the Bucks) with a left-to-right crossover. As he penetrates into the paint, all five Bucks defenders collapse onto him, leaving both Booker and T.J. Warren wide open behind the three-point line. Bledsoe makes the correct read and swings the ball out to Booker. Splash.
How to Adjust: The high screen and roll action puts the Bucks’ defense in a reactionary situation and Booker’s defender unnecessarily helps on Bledsoe’s drive – allowing Booker to be wide open at the three-point line. It’s imperative for Booker’s defender to be disciplined to minimize the amount of open three-point looks for him.
In closeout situations, the defender must try to run Booker off the three-point line. On the season, he is shooting a suboptimal 37.8% from 10 feet to the three-point line and has yet to show the ability to efficiently create offense for others (averaging 3.6 assists and 3.0 turnovers per 36 minutes with 15.9% AST% and 12.4% TOV%). As a result, Booker’s defender should aim to attack him on the three-point line and force him to try to make a play for others.
Bledsoe on the Drive
Why it Worked: Bledsoe’s offensive game is best when he drives into the paint. For the season he is finishing around the rim at 61.4% while averaging career bests in both free throw attempt rate and free throw percentage (0.434 and 84.9%, respectively). In addition, he is also very capable of creating offense for others as the defense closes in on him (31.2% AST% and 14.7% TOV% this season).
In this play, the Suns again run high screen and roll. Unlike the other play, Chandler’s defender is not in position to hedge high and allows Bledsoe to accelerate and drive directly into the paint. Jameer Nelson gets caught on the screen and loses the angle to cut Bledsoe off. As a result, he steps around Nelson for a layup at the rim.
How to Adjust: It would be best for the defense to prioritize containing Bledsoe on the drive and force him to settle from the perimeter. On the season he is shooting just 35.9% from 10 feet to the three-point line and 32.5% beyond it. His outside efficiency is very pedestrian compared to his ability to finish at the rim or create open shots for others. Limiting Bledsoe’s penetration opportunities also minimizes kick outs to open teammates at the three-point line. Therefore, putting a quicker or longer perimeter defender (Clarkson or Russell) on him and having the big man hedge higher in screen and roll situations will help to curtail Bledsoe on the offensive end.
Exploit the Suns’ Perimeter Defense
Why it Worked: The Suns are the third worst team in the league in terms of defensive efficiency at 109.4 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks run a baseline loop play for Jason Terry. Although the two screeners make minimal contact with Booker, he still missteps around the Henson screen and forfeits an angle for Terry to catch and drive into the paint. While all this is happening, Bledsoe does not bother to apply any pressure on the passer, allowing him to accurately deliver the ball to the cutting Terry without concern for a deflection. As Terry drives into the teeth of the defense, he has options to either dish to Henson in the paint, Giannis at the three-point line, or to take the shot for himself. Booker has no choice but the commit the foul.
How to Adjust: The Lakers would be wise to run plenty of off-ball action against the poor Suns defensive backcourt. Bledsoe is averaging a career worst -0.5 DBPM while Booker has always been a negative defender at -2.9 DBPM. The Suns clearly have both communication issues and individual technique deficiencies on the defensive end and running motion off-ball plays will definitely open up offensive opportunities for the Lakers. Russell this season has shown the ability to make correct reads in these situations and the whole team will benefit by putting him at the trigger position.
Notes: The Suns and Lakers are two of the fastest teams in the league in terms of offensive pace – the Suns 4th at 101.8 possessions per game and the Lakers 6th at 100.6 possessions per game. At the same time the two teams are among the league’s worst in defensive efficiency – the Suns at 28th at 109.4 points per 100 possessions and the Lakers 29th at 110.1 points per 100 possessions. As a result, this game should be a high scoring affair. Over the past three games (excluding SAC), D’Angelo Russell has averaged only 5 field goal attempts while playing 23.3 minutes per game.