EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The impetus for the Lakers air-it-out session last Saturday in Orlando was how poorly the team felt it was performing on the defensive end, particularly how they were having problems defending the pick-and-roll.
Any improvements Los Angeles has made in stopping the screen-roll will be put to the test Friday in Phoenix against one of the most proficient pick-and-roll teams in the league.
"Phoenix is a tough team to play defense against," Kobe Bryant said after Thursday's practice. "Screen-roll, they run a great deal of it. They run it differently than other teams in terms of having four shooters space the floor and guys that can pick and pop, so it will be different than even what we're used to usually defending."
The last time the Lakers played the Suns, a 118-103 Phoenix win on Dec. 28, Steve Nash had his way with L.A., racking up 13 assists while making three of the Suns' 12 3-pointers.
After the loss Bryant said that the Lakers were confused about their defensive rotations. Part of it was because Los Angeles was without Ron Artest, as the forward was in the midst of a five-game absence because of a fall on Christmas Day, but the confusion also occurred because Nash puts the defense in a quandary whenever he runs the pick-and-roll with a teammate like Amar'e Stoudemire, for example.
What do you do? Go over the screen to cut off Nash's ability to get a shot off, knowing that he shoots 50.6 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from deep? Then Nash puts it on the floor and Stoudemire, all 6-10, 249 pounds of him, rolls to the basket looking for a lob or a bounce pass as he cuts through the lane. Stay under the screen and allow Nash the shot? Switch when the screen comes and leave a big man on Nash and hope he doesn't get burned off the dribble or that Nash doesn't feed it to Stoudemire for an easy 15-foot jump shot that he'll get a clear look at because a smaller guard will be on him?
"You have to pay attention to him camping out behind picks," Bryant explained. "As a result, you wind up having of go over the top, a lot of chasing him and things like that and you open up to his penetration and passing angles. That's what shooting ability does."
It also sticks a defense at the intersection of Rock and Hard Place.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that he doesn't want his team to spend too much energy trying to stop the two-time league MVP in Nash that it forgets about the rest of the Suns.
"We're going to try to not to get two guys occupied on the ball carrier and leaving these guys open for either layups or 3-point shots," Jackson said. "That's really one of the issues and the keys to our game."
The Lakers catch a bit of a break because Phoenix's starting center Channing Frye, who had 14 points and hit two 3-pointers the last time the teams met, will be out of the lineup serving a one-game suspension for a punch he threw against Indiana.
Still, Nash's presence puts a lot of pressure on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to try to stay with the crafty point guard out of certain screen-roll situations. If the two 7-footers won't have to worry about showing on Nash and closing out on Frye at the 3-point line, they'll still have to worry about showing on Nash and backpedalling in the lane to cut off scoring opportunities for Robin Lopez in the paint.
"Because of the size of a lot of players involved in screen-roll, a lot of teams scale down," Jackson said. "Our strength is our 7-foot guys. So, they try to attack us, bring our bigs away from the basket and make them have to work extra hard and wear them out chasing the ball around & We're not as good as some teams [at defending the screen-roll], but we feel like we're improving as a basketball team. I thought that Drew did as good a job as he's done in a long time in screen-roll defense Tuesday night versus Toronto."
In the second half against the Raptors, Bynum helped create multiple steals for his team by doubling the ball when Toronto ran a sideline pick-and-roll and causing the ball carrier to throw errant passes trying to elude his length that were picked off by his Lakers teammates and converted into fastbreak scoring chances.
"What you like to do in screen-roll defense ultimately is to be able to switch at all positions and if you do that, then you got 7-foot guys playing 6-3 guards that are capable of shooting 3-point shots," Jackson said. "So there's a level where you say at some point, you have to switch."
The Lakers aren't going to start playing championship-style basketball again at the flip of a switch, but improving their screen-roll defense is one way to start moving in the right direction.