Lakers Finally Make Frank Vogel Happy About Their Woeful Defense

A saying becomes a cliché for one reason; it’s so often true, it becomes an accepted theory. Sports are filled with them: defense wins championships, great teams always beat great individuals, and such. One of those truisms about the NBA has not worked in favor of the beleaguered Los Angeles Lakers this season. Great teams win the third quarter. The Lakers aren’t the worst team in the NBA in the 12 minutes after halftime, but they’re close.

That’s why coach Frank Vogel took such delight from LA’s performance in its 110–106 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 28. The Lakers went to the locker room with a three-point lead over the Pistons, one of the NBA’s worst teams. But their third quarter set the stage for LA to break an uncomfortable trend.

The Lakers dominated the 3rd quarter against Detroit

In their first 21 games, the Lakers were among the NBA’s worst third-period teams. Entering the game at Staples Center against the Pistons, LA came in with a net rating of minus-14.3 points per 100 possessions in the period. The Lakers had been outscored by an average of 29.6 to 25.8.

Against the Pistons, LA came out with a purpose. It didn’t hurt that the Lakers shot 66.7%. They outscored Detroit 32–22 to open a 13-point lead. The Pistons shot just 47.4% and turned the ball over six times as LA led by as much as 19.

The Lakers maintained the lead, though Detroit got as close as three in the final seconds. Still, it was just the second time all seasons LA led a game by 10 or more points and won without squandering the advantage. Baby steps for a team that has played worse than its 11–11 record would indicate.

Vogel liked what he saw in the period.

The coach called the 3rd the Lakers’ best defensive period

Vogel wasn’t thrilled with the way his team allowed the young Pistons to get back into the game late. But the third-quarter performance was noteworthy, he said, per SI.com:

“I just thought our third quarter was our best defensive quarter. We’ve won five out of eight third quarters coming into {the game], now I guess six out of nine. Obviously, it was a troubled area for us. The Minnesota game was our biggest one, and we knew we had to do better there, so we made the adjustment and have improved there. I challenge these guys to be a great defensive team.”

The Lakers have been better of late, but they are not a great defensive team, far from it. After posting the best defensive efficiency in the NBA in 2020–21, LA is 19th, allowing 108.5 points per 100 possessions. The team has had trouble holding leads, twice blowing huge advantages in losses to the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder.

Vogel is aware of the problem. But he also said it’s part of life in the NBA.

“Every time you get a lead, the other team’s coach is going to try to change the game,” Vogel said. “Obviously, they switched to zone, and they played with a nine-second mindset. They raced it down and shot 3s every time down. We did not do a good enough job defending the 3-point line.

“That’s an area we have to improve on. When we have a lead, we have to take the 3-ball out. There’s way too many breakdowns or short closeouts or playing first-quarter defense when they are looking to bomb 3s. We have to adjust.”

The Golden State Warriors own the 3rd quarter this season

The Lakers turned up the defense in the third quarter and it paid off with a win over the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 28.
The Lakers turned up the defense in the third quarter and it paid off with a win over the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 28. | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

To find the best example of third-quarter dominance, one needn’t look any further than the NBA-leading Golden State Warriors. In the third quarter, the Warriors have a plus-29.0 net rating, outscoring opponents 118.4–89.4 per 100 possessions. If you’re wondering how Golden State ran off that 18–2 start, look no further than the 12 minutes after halftime.

It’s not the exclusive formula to winning, though. There are five teams with net ratings better than plus-10 in the third quarter. Three of those — the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Minnesota Timberwolves — each have 11–10 records. The Phoenix Suns are 17–3 and the Miami Heat 13–8.

But not playing well in the third quarter seems to be more indicative of overall success. There are six teams with net ratings worse than minus-10 in the period.

The Lakers are a .500 team. The rest of the crowd isn’t even close to break-even. The Sacramento Kings are 8–13). The rest of the group includes the Houston Rockets (4–16), Orlando Magic (4–17), the Pistons (4–16), and the New Orleans Pelicans (6–17).

LA is a veteran-laden team with championship experience. But they are integrating 12 new players into their core 15-player group. Only LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker were on the roster at the end of last season. But with more than a quarter of the season gone, the Lakers would be well-served to strip off the “Hello, my name is …” stickers are figure out how to win the third quarter. Otherwise, it might be another short playoff run. That is if they can get there at all.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com.

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