It’s a pose once made famous by Bobby Orr or Pete Rose. You hardly ever see the all-out sprawl on the basketball court.
But that thought didn’t seem to stop Dennis Schröder as he dove once, then twice for a loose ball against the Denver Nuggets and out-hustled Jamal Murray for a play clock violation on Thursday night. After he slid onto his belly and dropped his head once the buzzer sounded, he got quick pick-me-up from none other than his head coach, Frank Vogel.
“Any time a player dives on a floor for a loose ball in front of his coach, that’s gonna excite the coach,” Vogel said with an approving grin. “We definitely look for that kind of hustle, Dennis fits in to our identity of being a really hard-playing dude.”
The dive wasn’t a critically important possession. It didn’t trigger the Lakers’ comeback that led to the 114-93 victory – in fact, the Lakers didn’t even score on the extra possession that Schröder helped create. But it fit neatly into the character the Lakers are trying to build: a defensive-minded, effort-focused group that has taken strides in three consecutive wins since Vogel adjusted the lineup.
There’s the bottom line: Since tightening the rotation, the Lakers have been downright stingy while holding opponents under 100 points in all three games. In that stretch, they’re allowing the fewest points (95.7 ppg) and have the second-best defensive rating (100.7) in the league, despite playing three opponents who all rank in the top half in league offenses, with Denver most recently checking in at No. 5. Thursday night was the first time All-Star big man Nikola Jokic and company had been held below 100 points this season.
For the season, the Lakers are holding opponents to a league-best 104.4 points per 100 possessions. Their highly-touted defense last season finished at 106.1 for third-best in the NBA.
But that’s also been accompanied by electric moments such as Schröder’s dive. The Lakers were also charged by a handful of Kyle Kuzma’s plays, from his blocked shot on Michael Porter Jr. to when he took a charge from JaMychal Green. Talen Horton-Tucker stepped in front of an in-bounds pass, only to score moments later.
While they haven’t always broken the game wide open in and of themselves, the collective accumulation of those energy plays are representative of what the Lakers believe they are. For years, Schröder’s knock has been that he isn’t a sound defensive player. Even though his numbers aren’t indicative of a game-changing impact, his teammates universally suggest that his hustle has an intangible effect.
“He’s making big plays for us,” Anthony Davis said. “He’s picking up 94 feet. Everywhere his hands are on the ball. He’s finding the right guys on the offensive end. So he’s doing everything for us.”
Ostensibly, some of the changes have been made for offensive reasons. Markieff Morris had a rough shooting start to the season, and veteran wing Wesley Matthews was inconsistent. With more time given to Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker, there’s been more play-making on the floor for the Lakers in the last few games ever since a disappointing loss in Detroit that sparked Vogel to make the change.
But with the Pistons coming to Los Angeles on Saturday night, the Lakers have shown defense can sprout from surprising sources. Kuzma, for example, has become one of the Lakers’ most dynamic defensive players, and his rebounding and shot-blocking are on the rise even as his scoring has leveled off.
Kuzma attributes some of this performance to finding increased comfort and confidence in his fourth season. Vogel said he’s seen it come from a sense of “peace” in his role and tapping into energy.
“Him playing as hard as he does, crashing the boards every single time, running the floor every single time, working his tail off on the defensive end, that’s part of our identity,” he said. “Guys don’t always have that ability to play hard like that naturally. Sometimes you have to pull it out of people, but you don’t have to pull it out of Kuz.”
The stellar play of the last week still leaves Vogel in a difficult position, as he considers how to keep Matthews and Morris, two key veterans, engaged while they haven’t played any minutes. Both had extended practice sessions prior to Thursday’s game, but scrimmaging and drills only take experienced players so far. Sooner or later, Vogel acknowledged, they’re going to want to play.
The Lakers want to preserve the defensive intensity they’ve stumbled upon, but spread around the minutes into their depth. And the next week with less intense games at home could be an opportunity for them to see just how effectively they can toe that line.
“When you have guys like ’Kieff and Wes that are really good players, they fit our culture, they represent who we want to be on the floor with the toughness, the selflessness, the play-hard mindset and just a lot of veteran savvy,” Vogel said. “We’ll continue to look at it on a game-to-game basis so we’re keeping our weapons sharp.”
FLAT OUT INCREDIBLE!! That’s TUFF DENNIS THE MENACE! https://t.co/nQUUkTYuXr
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 5, 2021