Well, the impact of Ramon Sessions after six games — 14 points and seven assists a night – is right there to confront the observer, but the less apparent affect he can have upon opposing point guards is duly important.
To first deal with the obvious: it’s not hard to notice the impact of Sessions as he darts to the bucket and either finishes at the rim or finds an open shooter, when he uses pick and rolls to get teammates better shots or streak up the court in transition.
“Ramon adds a different element to the Lakers,” said Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. “He’s always in attack mode and you always have to be aware. You usually know what you’re getting, playing against Kobe (Bryant) and Pau (Gasol) and (Andrew) Bynum. But Sessions just adds a whole different dimension for them and makes them a more lethal team.”
And it means something for those trying to chase Sessions around the floor.
Point men Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker play for the two teams ahead of L.A. in the standings, and both relentlessly attack the basket. In the past, such PG’s were able to rest on defense when playing the Lakers … but with Sessions in the mix, Conley detailed why that’s no longer the case.
“They used (Derek) Fisher more as a spot up shooter, so it was easier to get around and roam a little bit,” said the league’s leader in steals. “It makes me have to be less of a gambler, more of a solid defensive player. I could easily get in foul trouble, so I have to be able to adjust to the new scouting report since it has changed for this team.”
L.A.’s coaches know that.
“It puts pressure on the opposing point guard to consistently defend his position throughout the course of a shot clock, where as when a guard is off the ball, there’s an opportunity at times to rest defensively,” said Lakers assistant Quin Snyder. “A lot of those guys need to rest defensively because they’re pushing the ball up the court so fast.”
It hasn’t been 100 percent rosy since Sessions came on board, the Lakers going 3-3 and losing their third and fourth home games of the season. Memphis beat the Lakers with effort on Sunday evening (“We felt like we were more hungry,” per Conley), but the NBA’s best thief (2.44 per game) had only one steal while largely being preoccupied with Sessions, worrying more about from where screens were coming.
“When you’re playing a team that likes to run pick and roll, you have to play guys as a 1-on-1 match up, and not rely on just having your help around the screen,” Conley explained. “You can easily get hit with a screen, caught turning and looking, but we stress to work through that. It’s not different from most teams that run pick and roll, but it’s different for the Lakers from what they were doing.”
Scoring was coming more easily to the Lakers even before Sessions came over from Cleveland, as the team became more comfortable with Mike Brown’s early offensive sets that flow into elements of the triangle and feature several post up options. The concern for L.A.’s coaching staff has been that with buckets less difficult to come by, the defensive effort hasn’t been as consistent as it was to start the season.
In fact, L.A. gave up at least 100 points in four of five nights before the defense showed up to limit Dallas (93) and Portland (96), but then relaxed against Memphis (102). The coaches are worried less about the total number of points being given up, since with the Lakers scoring more quickly there will by nature be more possessions for the opponent to score, and focus instead upon field goal defense. That said, Snyder explained why defense does remain a concern.
“There is a natural tendency for teams with an ability to score easily to feel like they can give a bucket up without it hurting,” Snyder said. “But that’s not what actually wins championships, because defense is something that you literally have more control over from game to game. There are aspects of offense that you can’t control.”
The key to L.A.’s defense is paint anchor Andrew Bynum, who when at his defensive peak can make the paint seem very, very small. He showed as much in the third quarter vs. Memphis, dominating the lane as the Lakers went on a 15-0 run, but took ownership of being less impactful for the rest of the game. He grabbed only four rebounds, just a bit below his 12.3 per game average.
“I need to play better defense, I need to come up with a double-double, get more rebounds,” said Bynum. “The last four games I haven’t had more than ten boards and we went 2-2; I think that shows something.”
Snyder would agree.
“What Andrew is able to do defensively when he’s focused is unique,” said Snyder. “Switching onto point guards, blocking shots from the weak side, rebounding the basketball … he’s our anchor.”
But here’s why the Lakers are feeling pretty good internally: they figure if they add the new options Sessions delivers at both ends to a defense capable of dominating games when playing to its capability, they’ll be exactly where they want to be.