A few key differences separate Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, who is fancied during happy times as the Magic center’s potential equal. But one general disparity is this: No opponent game-plans around exploiting a Howard weakness on defense like it does with Bynum.
For the second straight postseason, a Lakers opponent armed with an elite mid-range shooter — the Thunder this season, the Hornets last season — designed much of its offense around the idea that it could produce relatively easy mid-range shots by attacking Bynum on various pick plays. The Thunder were confident that Bynum would hang back rather than step out to challenge Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and that both players — especially Durant — could get clean looks from 15 feet.
The mid-range shot is the worst shot in basketball, a low-percentage attempt that produces few free throws or offensive rebounds. Most teams that shoot a lot of them are bad offensive teams. But it’s a shot every team must have in its arsenal, especially against an opponent like the Lakers, who have two elite wing defenders and two 7-footers capable of blocking everything at the rim.
The Thunder are one of the few teams with the personnel to exploit this mid-range weakness in an efficient way. They have one deadly shooter (Durant), another star fast becoming deadly from that range (Westbrook) and a center — Bynum’s opposite number — who can serve as the final screener on lots of different play types. This stuff destroyed the Lakers their 119-90 loss in Game 1 on Monday. It resulted in some communication breakdowns and a few mid-stream strategy changes in the second half — the kind of defensive chaos that hurt the Lakers against Chris Paul and the Hornets last season and ultimately undid them amid a hail of wide-open shots against Dallas in the second round.
The attack began right away, and, notably, it did not begin with a pick-and-roll:
This is classic Thunder, with Durant running around a thicket of screens, the last of which center Kendrick Perkins sets with a little nudge into the chest of Metta World Peace. Right away, we see Bynum’s de facto strategy is to hang back:
That’s not a bad strategy on its own or even against most teams; there aren’t many near-7-footers who can hurt you in just about every way possible on this kind of play. And Bynum doesn’t miss blocking this dunk by all that much. But the strategy puts an enormous amount of stress on World Peace to somehow prevent Durant from turning the corner, with the alternative (and also unappealing) possibility of Kobe Bryant crashing off Westbrook on the left wing to attack Durant. Perhaps the Lakers will have Kobe or point guard Ramon Sessions do more of this in Game 2.
Here’s a variation on the same theme from later in the first quarter, with Durant curling off a Perkins pick on the left side:
Bynum comes out more — he’s working hard, not loafing — but Durant is still able to catch the ball just inside the foul line and get a fairly clean look. Ideally, a defense would like to make Durant catch the ball a few feet deeper.
The Thunder also attacked Bynum in this way on regular pick-and-roll plays. Here’s one from the second quarter in which Durant is able to get well below the foul line before meeting any opposition from Bynum:
And here’s a pull-up from the third:
Again, you can see Bynum is working hard here, but that he also appears uncomfortable. He chases Perkins out pretty aggressively as Perkins prepares to set his pick, abruptly stops at the foul line and begins backpedaling against Durant’s drive. Bynum’s feet are moving like mad, but he’s not getting a lot of effective work done; the backpedaling prevents him from getting his full momentum into his challenge of Durant’s shot.
Here’s another pick-and-roll from the second quarter in which Bynum makes an honest effort to strike some balance between sagging back and jumping out on Durant:
As you can see, Bynum comes out well above the foul line to contain Durant:
But Bynum is clearly out of his element. He bites on a mean left-shoulder juke from Durant, and Bynum just doesn’t have the speed or agility to recover from that kind of setback against a scorer as quick as Durant.
Nothing was working for Bynum or the Lakers, and so in the second half, they tried having Bynum hedge aggressively on the pick-and-roll as if he were Kevin Garnett or Chris Bosh (or Howard). It didn’t quite work:
Bynum actually does pretty well here to prevent Durant from turning the corner completely on Sessions. But sending Bynum that far outside forces his big-man partner, Pau Gasol, to defend both Thunder bigs as Bynum’s man (Nazr Mohammed) rolls to the rim. It takes the Thunder two quick-hitting passes to exploit the gap — not an easy thing to pull off — but they do it.
The Lakers also experimented with a zone, a rarity for them, and there will be games when Westbrook and even Durant miss more of these mid-range looks. That’s the thing about long jumpers, even relatively open ones: Sometimes they don’t go in.
That’s why it’s important to understand that this problem does not mean Bynum is a bad defensive player. If your biggest issue is a vulnerability to mid-range jumpers against star mid-range shooters, that’s about the least-harmful flaw you can have. Bynum is a beast of a post defender when he’s engaged, he changes piles of shots at the rim and he’s one of the best defensive rebounders in the league. The Lakers gave up about 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Bynum was on the floor during the regular season, per NBA.com. And Bynum can make up for his down days on defense by scorching opponents in the post when the Lakers have the ball; he looked pretty darn powerful early in Game 1 against the Thunder on the block.
But he has weaknesses on defense, and unfortunately for the Lakers, they have run into two teams well positioned to attack those weaknesses. The Nuggets used Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Al Harrington to run Bynum to death in transition during the first round, and though Bynum’s effort in getting back was blatantly lacking at times, he was also at a speed disadvantage that no amount of effort was going to overcome. In this round, with the Lakers working as big underdogs to begin with, the Thunder have gone at him the same way Paul did in raining mid-range jumpers on Los Angeles in last year’s first round.
The net result: In eight playoff games, the Lakers have allowed 109 points per 100 possessions with Bynum on the floor and 98.9 when he has been on the bench, per NBA.com. That’s roughly the difference between the league’s fifth- or sixth-ranked defense and one that would have ranked last in the regular season.
That gap is not all on Bynum, obviously. The Lakers’ point guards have been mostly awful on defense, and World Peace, a fierce defender who shares lots of minutes with Bynum, missed the Lakers’ first six playoff games because of a suspension. Bynum also doesn’t get quite as much time as Gasol against backups because the Lakers typically turn to Gasol to play the early minutes of the second and fourth quarters, when opponents often have a few starters resting. I’m not sure how dramatically that plays into Bynum’s horrid on-court/off-court numbers in the playoffs, though, since Denver’s backups often outplayed the starters.
Bynum isn’t going to change between Game 1 and Game 2 of this series, and you can expect the Thunder to milk this kind of action until the Lakers find a way to contain it. What does Mike Brown have in the bag?