As he begins his season-long quest toward building the Lakers back up to prosperity, coach Byron Scott has narrowed his focus on one specific thing.
Defense. Defense. Defense
He has devoted most of his training camp drills toward that end of the floor. It has become noticeable that his players have suddenly talked about that concept even when discussing other parts of the game. Scott has even said he wants his team to finish at least among the NBA’s top 15 in total defense after finishing last season near the bottom in almost every statistical category.
Yet, as the Lakers discovered in their 98-95 victory Monday over the Denver Nuggets in San Diego, the team’s enhanced physical presence correlated into a lot of whistles. The Lakers may have held Denver to a 38.7 percent clip from the field. But the Lakers tallied 34 fouls and awarded the Nuggets 44 free-throw attempts.
“We have to do a much better job playing defense without fouling,” Scott said.
Yet, both Scott and Kobe Bryant predicted that goal will not happen right away. In fact, they believe the Lakers will go through inevitable growing pains while referees adjust toward how they play. Scott anticipates that opponents will shoot around 37 free throws per game in at least the next three or four exhibitions, including when the Lakers host the Golden State Warriors Thursday at Staples Center.
“Once we get that established, the referees will know we’re going to play a physical brand of basketball,” Scott said. “Then some of those things will go away.”
But not everything.
The Lakers still only outrebounded the Nuggets, 45-43, and conceded 13 offensive boards. Denver also shot 8-of-16 from three-point range. Scott also reported that his weakside defenders took an awful long time toward rotating on help defense once Denver beat them at the top of the key on pick-and-rolls, leaving the Nuggets with plenty of room to operate on middle penetration.
Hence, why Scott graded the Lakers’ preseason opener with an A for effort and a C+/B- for actual execution.
“We want to be a physical defensive team. Sometimes you have to play that way and have refs understand you play that way,” Bryant said. “Then the rep becomes that you’re a physical team and you put bodies on bodies. It might be a little ugly and might have a lot of fouls. But that’s the style we want to play.”