Get the ball out of Jalen Brunson’s hands.
Show him multiple bodies, don’t show him the same defense over and over again, blitz him on pick-and-rolls when the center comes into the play, and if you have the luxury of a high-IQ player like LeBron James on the roster, let him roam freely on the defensive end.
Oh, and send the double off the perimeter player who poses the least threat to score the ball.
It’s the game plan the Los Angeles Lakers used in their 113-105 victory at Madison Square Garden on Saturday to give the Knicks their first loss in 10 games and just their third defeat since Jan. 1.
And it’s a tactic opposing teams can replicate in an attempt to stifle the super-scoring first-time All-Star guard so long as OG Anunoby, Julius Randle and, to a lesser extent, Quentin Grimes, continue to miss time due to injury — though not every team has the personnel to rise to the occasion the way James’ Lakers did on Saturday.
The Lakers doubled teamed Brunson more than 30 times at The Garden. They held the Knicks without a field goal from the 7:25 mark of the fourth quarter until Donte DiVincenzo hit a step-back, nine-foot jump shot to make it a seven-point game with just under 40 second left in regulation.
Brunson finished with 36 points and 10 assists on 15-of-31 (48.4%) shooting from the field, but seven of those points came in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter when the Lakers had already built a lead that had proven insurmountable.
The Lakers held Brunson scoreless for such a long period of time because they had a healthy respect for his ability to turn a game in crunch time.
“Jalen is playing at more than an All-Star level this year. We know he’s the head of their snake, but we just tried to wear him down throughout the fourth quarter,” James said after the game. “He can beat you — and we’ve seen that in a lot of the fourth quarters of Knicks games this year where he’s erupted in the fourth quarter, so try to keep multiple bodies, keep changing the defense, don’t show him the same pitch, and I think that helped out a lot.”
The Lakers were calculated with how they double-teamed Brunson in the fourth quarter. For example, they oftentimes chose to double off of Josh Hart, who is struggling from three-point range this season, instead of DiVincenzo, who has emerged as a reliable scorer in games Anunoby and Randle have missed due to injury.
Hart finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and a steal but shot 5-of-16 from the field.
The Knicks attempted 20 more field goals than the Lakers, out-rebounded them on the offensive glass, 18-3, and only turned the ball over seven times.
They took 100 shots and only made 41. Good things happen when the ball is in Brunson’s hands, but without Randle and Anunoby, things can get choppy if the ball is forced elsewhere.
“We said earlier at shoot around we were gonna double team him. That was gonna come in a few different forms, whether it was our five man, our big guys blitzing off traditional pick and rolls, and then when he would try to get in space, they would set the small-small screens, guys coming back off the small,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said after the game. “So the attention to detail, guys staying disciplined, we had a few hiccups here and there in terms of fouling, but for the most part, guys were solid.”
Before he had a chance to watch the game sinema, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said he was pleased with how his team handled the Laker defensive pressure.
The Lakers doubled Brunson the entire game, and Brunson trusted the pass — but players not named Brunson or DiVincenzo shot just 16-of-47 or 34% from the field.
This is what can happen when an already depleted team meets a defense with the intent of getting the ball out of the star guard’s hands.
Brunson now has 32, 29, 40 and 36 points in each of the four games both Anunoby and Randle have missed due to injury. Anunoby is day-to-day with inflammation in his right, shooting elbow, and Randle is expected to miss an extended period of time after dislocating his right shoulder.
“They were just sending two defenders whenever there was any action that was happening,” Brunson said. “I was either trying to get around it or just hitting the roll man to make the play, relocating and finding a way to still be impactful. I think we made good plays throughout the game, just not enough.
“We were fine. We were in the game, we were making plays, we were missing shots. I trust my teammates in those situations. I’m happy with what we did. Obviously we can get better with what we do, but I’m happy with what we did.”