Lakers need to improve everything

Originally Published: June 14, 2004
By Dr. Jack Ramsay | Special to ESPN.com

The Los Angeles Lakers have to improve everything if they hope to win Game 5 and send the NBA Finals back to L.A. for Game 6. It is possible, but it has to be done with great effort over three high-quality games if the Lakers hope to win the series.

This Los Angeles team has never faced a challenge in an NBA Finals series like the one the Detroit Pistons are presenting right now. That has been disconcerting for the Lakers, but judging by what L.A. coach Phil Jackson and his players are saying they feel they can win one in Detroit and head home for another game. And if that happens they feel they can win two games in Los Angeles and claim the NBA championship.

Kobe Bryant
APKobe's 13 missed shots in Game 4 increased the strain on the Lakers' transition defense.
Defensive diagnosis and cure

The Lakers did a better job defending the Pistons in Game 4 but still gave up 21 fast break points while scoring only five of their own. They were also outrebounded 45-38 and shot just 42 percent from the floor, a very bad combination when the defense is struggling.

Los Angeles also continues to get beaten on screen-and-roll plays. The Lakers seem to be using different strategies during the course of a game, with Shaquille O'Neal sometimes showing out high on the screen and sometimes not, while the man being screened going both over and under the pick at various times. Consistency in defending that play will go a long way toward stabilizing the team defense.

The Lakers are also getting hurt when Detroit shooting guard Richard Hamilton runs curls, especially on the same side of the floor as Rasheed Wallace. Hamilton will use Wallace as a screener along the baseline, causing Wallace's defender to jump out on Hamilton and opening an opportunity to get the ball to Wallace in the post. From there it can go back to Hamilton for open looks from the outside.

The last thing Los Angeles needs to fix is its half-court defense. The Lakers are getting beaten for layups on penetration and there is no excuse for that. Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince all got to the basket in Game 4 and L.A. has to hustle more to stop that.

Offensive diagnosis and cure

The Lakers were much better getting the ball to O'Neal in Game 4, who got in better position down low and was very efficient on his way to 36 points. It is Kobe Bryant who needs better shot selection, because an 8-for-25 shooting night is just not a good enough percentage from him. That is a sure sign he has not gotten good looks and is taking too many deep shots with a hand in his face.

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That is just the kind of shot from the edge that can trigger the Detroit fast break. Los Angeles seldom gets beaten in transition after the have had the ball in the post, so better half-court execution and floor balance will limit those opportunities for the Pistons, who simply have more foot speed than the Lakers.

Jackson has also talked repeatedly about the disparity in free-throw shooting -- Detroit attempted 19 more free throws than Los Angeles in Game 4 -- complaining that the Pistons are forcing the Lakers into the penalty much too early. But when asked about the possibility that Detroit was simply going to the basket harder than L.A. Jackson emphatically denied that and pointed to several good looks for Shaq and Kobe around the rim.

It is the rest of the Lakers, though, who are hurting Los Angeles in that area. Derek Fisher and Devean George are not players who will get penetration, and at this late stage in his career neither is Gary Payton. It is imperative that Bryant drive the ball more because if he continues to shoot jumpers he and O'Neal will not get the 20 combined free-throw attempts the Lakers need from them.

Karl Malone's status is uncertain for Game 5 but he played sparingly in Game 4 and was not effective, leaving a physical void no one stepped up and filled. Slava Medvedenko and Brian Cook have not done that at all in this series, although Cook has not gotten a lot of minutes, and while Luke Walton is probably the Lakers' best bench player, he is not an imposing physical presence in the middle.

Because of that, Jackson may consider going to a smaller, quicker lineup to get down the floor and challenge the Pistons more effectively when they do run after missed baskets or turnovers. With Payton and Fisher in the backcourt and Bryant at small forward, the 6-8 George could provide length and quickness that would help take some pressure off O'Neal in the paint.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Legendary coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsay served as lead game analyst for The NBA on ESPN Radio. He also contributed to ESPN.com and ESPN The Mag.

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