Frank Vogel's coaching this season has been subtle. The 34-8 Lakers don't need a Rick Carlisle-type barking play-calls from the sideline, nor do they need a Phil Jackson clone playing mind games in the locker room. A team this talented and this cohesive can mostly take care of itself, so Vogel has trusted his players in almost every decision he's made as a coach.
Anthony Davis wanted to play power forward, so he built a team that relied on size rather than hid from it. LeBron James likes to control his offenses, so Vogel didn't force him to start alongside another point guard.
It's never quite as simple as it sounds. Coaches have just as much ego as players. They like to tinker and control, to be responsible for success rather than just enabling it, even if the former often gets in the way of the latter. Vogel's greatest triumph this season is that he has never once done that. He's empowered his roster to such a degree that his presence is nearly forgotten. He didn't draw one Coach of the Year vote during, and he probably won't get any when the real votes are announced in June either. Vogel is coaching so well that people don't seem to realize that he's coaching at all.
That should make Saturday's 124-115 victory over the Houston Rockets all the more satisfying for Vogel, because more than any other game this season, it was his adjustments that ultimately won the game for the Lakers.
Russell Westbrook ran roughshod over the Lakers in the first half. He scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, but those numbers don't even do him justice. He imposed his will on the Lakers physically, and they were left utterly clueless. They tried to combat his early success by throwing Alex Caruso, typically an excellent point-of-attack defender, on him. Westbrook responded by bullying him for two straight quarters.
Caruso is one of the NBA's more aggressive defensive guards. Typically, that drives opposing point guards mad, but Westbrook is the rare opponent who is unfazed by anyone's energy or athleticism because he can always exceed it. He did that quite a bit, but also used it to his advantage, forcing Caruso into a couple of overplays that resulted in easy buckets.
Vogel needed a different kind of defender for this matchup, someone hefty enough to hold his own close to the basket and long enough to sag off of Westbrook without giving him an easy runway. His solution? Kyle Kuzma, a 6-8 power forward.
Kuzma is hardly known for his defense, but to suggest he has no utility on that end of the floor would be unfair. When the Lakers played Brandon Ingram at shooting guard last season, Kuzma was usually tasked with defending the best opposing wing so that LeBron wouldn't have to. He acquitted himself quite well in the process. Kuzma is long, athletic and fundamentally sound on the ball. Where he struggles is off of it, as his instincts for navigating screens and chasing shooters leave much to be desired. Westbrook, being largely stationary off of the ball, posed none of these problems. So Vogel unleashed his unconventional adjustment, and it worked beautifully.
Westbrook was held to 2-for-6 shooting in the third quarter while turning the ball over twice. Kuzma played off of him, daring him to shoot jumpers, but when he drove, he used his size to effectively funnel him into a rim-protector.
The amount of force Westbrook needed to use to try to overwhelm Kuzma physically proved counterproductive.
Westbrook used garbage time to inflate his numbers, but his real impact on the game was neutralized. Westbrook is one of the NBA's preeminent game-plan destroyers. When he's on, he's so physically imposing that he usually can't be schemed against. Yet it took Vogel only two quarters to crack the code.
There is no cracking the James Harden code. All a defense can do is make him uncomfortable and avoid stupid fouls. The Lakers struggled to do both early on. They tried to defend him one-on-one with yet another defensive aggressor in Avery Bradley. All this led to was seven early free throws on unnecessary fouls like this.
The Lakers switched up the assignments in the second half to keep Harden off the line. After playing quite a bit in the first half, Caruso and Bradley were largely benched in the second. Instead, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drew the bulk of the playing time. Their size gave them more leeway on Harden, affecting shots without necessarily playing as physically. The result? Harden didn't draw a personal foul for the first 17 minutes of the second half.
But defending Harden isn't as simple as playing him conservatively. Backing off Harden entirely just trades free throws for threes. So Vogel tried to confuse him with soft doubles.
Doing so hardly stopped Harden, but it forced him to think. He shreds hard-doubles as a passer, but splitting the difference this way gives the second defender time to scamper back into place while providing a meaningful deterrent on drives and shots. As with Westbrook, Harden used garbage time to inflate his numbers. But the team numbers prove the effectiveness of Vogel's strategy. The Rockets scored 65 points in the first half, but only 17 in the third quarter and 29 in the first 18 minutes of the second half. The game was over by the time Houston started scoring again. With his best defender sidelined, Vogel concocted a strategy that stifled the NBA's third-ranked offense.
That's something he doesn't have to do all that often. The Lakers are so good with their base scheme and personnel that opportunities for Vogel to flash such effective mid-game adjustments are rare. But they are going to be necessary in the postseason crucible, and on Saturday, Vogel reminded all of us that he's more than capable of playing chess with any coach in the NBA.