December 25th, 2009: Cavaliers (22-8) vs. Lakers (23-4)
Pace: Cavaliers 93.1 (28th) vs. Lakers 97.4 (6th)
Offensive Efficiency: Cavaliers 107.4 (8th) vs. Lakers 105.1 (13th)
Defensive Efficiency: Cavaliers 100.3 (5th) vs. Lakers 96.4 (1st)
As you can see from the stats above, the strengths and weaknesses of these teams aren’t quite what conventional wisdom would have you believe. The Cavs have long been regarded as a defense-first team, while the post-Gasol Lakers have always been an offensive juggernaut. This season, however, the Cavs are actually a little better offensively than the Lakers, but the Lakers have the league’s best record thanks to the league’s best defense.
So instead of devoting a lot of time to how the Cavs might be able to stop the Lakers when the Lakers have the ball, I’ll just do a cliff notes version: Try and goad Fisher or Artest into taking jumpers, especially off the dribble, keep Bynum out of ridiculously deep position and hope he misses his first one or two short shots, hope the Lakers don’t feed Pau too much, sag off Lamar Odom, and pray that Kobe doesn’t do that thing Kobe does. That’s about it. Of the five best post players in the league, I think that three of them play for the Lakers, so interior defense will be a priority.
Now for the more interesting side of the ball, here’s a breakdown of how the Cavs’ offense matches up against the Lakers’ excellent D, with all data courtesy of Hoopdata.com:
Zone 1: At The Rim
Here’s the oddest thing about how the Lakers play defense. Even though the goal of almost every NBA offense is to get shots at the rim, the Lakers allow more shots at the rim per game than any other team in the league, and still manage to have the best defense in the league.
There are two reasons for this. First of all, the Lakers are extremely good at defending shots at the rim; only the Cavs and Celtics allow a lower field goal percentage on close shots than the Lakers’ mark of 56.7%.
Second, and even more important, the Lakers don’t foul. They only allow 25.6 free throw attempts per game, which is tied for the lowest mark in the league. Since the only shots more efficient than shots at the rim are free throws, the Lakers allowing more contested shots at the basket rather than giving up fouls is a good strategy on paper, and it’s certainly been working for them thus far.
On the Cavs’ side of things, the Cavs actually attempt a below-average amount of shots at the rim per game, but are excellent at converting those opportunities when they get them; only Atlanta and Boston converts a higher proportion of its shots at the rim. The Cavs are only slightly above-average when it comes to drawing fouls, so they shouldn’t expect all that many free throws against the league’s most disciplined team in terms of fouling.
The bottom line in this zone is whether the Cavs will attempt to work the ball and utilize their finishing ability against the Lakers’ allowance for opposing teams to get shots at the rim, or get discouraged after missing a few contested layups without getting a whistle and settle for jumpers.
Zone #2: <10 feet
The Lakers are the best team in the league at defending this zone, only allowing an opposing field goal percentage of 34.6% on non-layup shots inside of 10 feet. Cleveland is above-average from this zone, but should probably stay out of it against the Lakers, whose length makes little baby jumpers and floaters extremely difficult to convert.
Zone #3: 10-15 feet
The Lakers are actually slightly below-average at defending this area, but the Cavs are the worst team in the league from 10-15 feet, making only 34.1% of their shots from that area, in no small part because this range is LeBron’s Achilles heel at this point of his career. So basically, midrange jumpers are going to be a bad idea come Christmas day.
Zone #4: 16-23 feet
And to go back, the Cavs are slightly above average from 16-23 feet, but the Lakers are the best team in the league at defending 16-23 foot shots, allowing a field goal percentage of 35.8% on those shots. So, just to put a bow on this section, the Cavaliers are the worst team in the league from the one midrange zone the Lakers are not the best team in the league at defending. Awesome.
Zone #4: Three-Point Baskets
Here’s where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object a little bit. The Cavs come into Christmas day as the best-shooting team in the league from beyond the arc, and the Lakers are the best team in the league at defending it, having given up some of their extreme trapping behavior for more reasonable rotate-and-react schemes, as Kevin Pelton recently noted.
And while threes are a fickle mistress and always tricky to predict, as randomness can often dictate who’s going to hit more threes in a given contest, I actually see one ray of hope that might tilt the three-ball probabilities in the Cavs’ favor a bit.
The most amazing thing about the Cavs’ three-point prowess this season isn’t that they make their threes at such a high percentage, but that they take a higher proportion of their threes off the dribble than any team in the league other than Washington, with more than a quarter of their three-point attempts coming off the bench. Most of that is because LeBron James and Mo Williams are excellent at shooting threes off the dribble, which good defensive rotations don’t have an answer for. If LeBron and Mo can drain a few threes of the bounce like they’re capable of, they might be able to kick-start the Cavalier offense, get the formidable Laker defense a bit out of whack, and open some things up.
So basically, the Cavs’ best hope for success against the Lakers could be to look for the drive, be aggressive going to the hole and make the extra pass instead of trying to draw contact, and go for the three-pointer instead of trying a midrange jumper over the Lakers’ long defenders.
There’s an extremely high likelihood that things will end up playing out differently on the court than it looks like they might on paper, but that’s as close as I can get to figuring out a way to crack this formidable defense.
Other random notes:
-Lots of Delonte and not that much AP, please. AP’s best skill is his ability to make catch-and-shoot threes, and as was discussed the Lakers rotate to cut off the three better than any team in the league. Also, Delonte will make Kobe work much harder at both ends of the court than AP will, which is all you can really game-plan to do against Kobe.
Kobe will be able to post Delonte and shoot over him, but Delonte will fight for every inch and play him physical, keep him from blowing by him on the perimeter and either getting to the line or getting his teammates involved, and you have to give something up against Kobe, even if that something is as formidable as Kobe’s post game.
-The Lakers’ weakness is definitely their bench. If Shaq or Andy can get somebody into foul trouble (Shaq by forcing defensive fouls, Andy by getting a few loose-ball fouls and charges), it could be huge.
-The Mo Williams/Derek Fisher matchup is one the Cavs are absolutely, positively going to have to leverage, because past that there aren’t a lot of promising matchups for them.
-Bottom line, the Cavs are going to need to roll on all cylinders and maybe a few new ones to beat the Lakers in their house, but if they can get pumped and do it i could give them a lot of momentum for the next few weeks and maybe even into the playoffs.
-I feel silly spending this much time on previews because what happens during the game will almost certainly be stuff I didn’t come anywhere near predicting, but hopefully this was fun and got you in the mood for some holiday ball. Merry Christmas, campers, and be sure to join me in the Daily Dime Marathon Christmas Day Chat tomorrow.