The Best Defense
Just five days before the NBA season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA world got a peek into a potential Finals matchup: the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks, anchored by Defensive Player of the Year candidates Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo (the probable MVP), were in the midst of one of the greatest defensive seasons ever. Since 1990, their relative defensive rating of -8.5 (8.5 points per 100 possessions better than league average) currently ranks 3rd out of 876 teams (trailing only the 2008 Celtics and 2004 Spurs). In short, the Bucks achieve this through a defensive scheme that prioritizes both shutting down shots in the paint and challenging those paint shots more than any other team. At the moment, the Bucks only allow 22.3% of opposing shots at the rim, and opponents only shoot 60% on those shots. Both of those numbers are best in the league and are right around 6 percentage points better than league average.
Clearly, LeBron read this scouting report and beat the Bucks by raining threes, right? Actually, he did the opposite: he charged right at their wall, and he snaked his pick-and-rolls.
LeBron Being LeBron
During the game against the Bucks, LeBron made six of his seven shots from 0-3 feet. In this first play, he saw that neither Brook Lopez nor Giannis was on the court leaving Robin Lopez to protect the Bucks’ paint. While Robin isn’t in the discussion for DPoY, he’s certainly no slouch. According to Basketball Index’s talent grades, Robin literally leads the league in “% of shots contested at the rim,” and he ranked as an A- or higher on six of their seven interior defensive metrics. LeBron was undeterred, and he used his strength and ambidexterity to challenge Robin.
At the beginning of the second quarter, LeBron acrobatically avoided Brook’s interior defense through sheer athleticism and body control.
A couple of things to note on this play. 1) Notice how much space Brook gives LeBron after the pick. The Bucks’ defense wants players to take mid-range jump shots especially all-world finishers like LeBron.
2) Ideally, Brook would stay in the charge circle to force LeBron into a tough floater, but, LeBron being LeBron, he would just take off and dunk on Brook. In response, Brook has to step out a couple of feet farther from the basket.
3) For most players, having a wall of Brook/Giannis five feet in front of the basket would deter a layup. However, LeBron takes off with his back foot just inside the free-throw line and glides around Splash Mountain. Unbelievable.
A couple of minutes later, LeBron finds himself facing Brook in his one defensive weak-point: on a switch. LeBron pump-fakes and gets Brook to bite just enough that he can’t recover against LeBron’s powerful first step. Then, LeBron uses his shoulder before his final dribble to clear just a little bit more space for a clean takeoff.
A Quick Detour to Discuss the Bucks’ Defense
To understand the brilliance of LeBron’s secret to beating the Bucks’ defense, it’s necessary to grasp an essential part of how the Bucks guard pick-and-rolls. Check out this play from a game against the Utah Jazz.
Brook Lopez is a fantastic rim defender, but he’s not a very mobile defender in space. To make defending streaking ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, the Bucks drop the player that guards the screener. This means that instead of bringing both defenders up to the pick-and-roll, the Bucks will keep their big man (usually Brook or Robin Lopez) near the rim.
Here, Bojan Bogdanovic has beaten Matthews around the Screen, but Lopez hasn’t moved! Why? Because teams know that pull-up mid-range jumpers are an extremely inefficient shot for most players, and if the Bucks can get the Jazz to settle for one, then they’ve won the possession. Brook is waiting for Bogdanovic to probe for a closer shot.
Finally, Bogdanovic takes a shot, but it’s right in Lopez’s sweet spot! He’s even closer to the rim than when he started, and Bogdanovic has to settle for an inefficient, contested twelve-foot floater.
While that play shows how the Bucks’ drop coverage is supposed to look, let’s see how LeBron figured out how to beat it.
LeBron Snaking the Pick-and-Roll
Okay, I’ve buried the lede long enough.
Later in the game, LeBron and the Lakers used a variation of “snaking” the pick-and-roll to beat the Bucks’ drop pick-and-roll coverage. Chris Paul is the most notable player to master “snaking,” but it has also caught on with many other guards like James Harden.
To counter the Bucks’ defense, LeBron snakes aggressively so that his entire body is in front of his defender. Then, the screener in the pick-and-roll dives down boxout/screen the drop-man on defense. Especially in Milwaukee’s coverage, this provides the ballhandler a ton of space to operate.
Watch the above video. Then take a look at these three images that further illustrate this “Laker Snaker”(??) method.
Even though I’m not sure how legal the end boxout/screen is from Javale McGee, the refs let it go this game with little to no fuss from the Bucks.
LeBron didn’t score with a dunk every time the Lakers employed this trick, but it certainly opened the court for him to finish fairly easily.
In one instance, it didn’t work out as smoothly as the Lakers had hoped, but at the end of the day, LeBron is going to LeBron.
Game of Chess
In a never-ending spiral of moves and countermoves, NBA teams and players are always zagging to find the next bold strategy. The Lakers, knowing that they might have to face the Bucks before claiming this year’s championship, have borrowed other strategies and improved upon them to topple the best defense the NBA has seen in over a decade. However, with many teams feebly attempting to emulate the Warriors’ death lineup, it’s necessary to note that innovation and experimentation are mostly determined by the players on a team. At the end of the day, the true ace up the Lakers’ sleeve continues to be LeBron James.