Kurt Rambis’ pizza is getting cold.
It’s been sitting there, sausage, mushrooms and mozzarella, all but ignored because the Lakers’ defensive coach is on a roll.
The black ballpoint pen is flying as Rambis draws up defensive schemes, scrawling out Xs and O’s on the wax paper that covers a table at an Italian bistro.
He talks about steals, blocked shots and overloading one side of the court. He emphasizes the necessity to jump into passing lanes to intercept skip passes. He talks and draws, and then, finally, he eats. His work is done . . . at least on paper.
It was a given that the Lakers would score gobs of points this season, but Coach Phil Jackson wanted to put a stop to all the points being dropped on them (the team’s defensive rank last season: 18th).
So Jackson gathered his coaches before training camp and told them he was appointing a defensive coach, something he hadn’t done in his previous 18 years of coaching in the NBA.
“We didn’t want to announce it and make a big deal about it like Boston did with their guy,” Jackson said. “But Kurt is real good at this and he’s willing.”
Ah, yes. Boston.
The Celtics’ defensive coach, Tom Thibodeau, made numerous headlines for his shut-it-down success last season, creating a template for championship-caliber teams via an unforgiving defense.
The Lakers could have used such a thing in the Finals, when the Celtics ended the Lakers’ fairy tale by crushing them with Paul Pierce’s slow, methodical, back-'em-down-the-lane style.
It has created a slow burn in the Lakers for, oh, about 164 days since their 131-92 humiliation in Game 6 of the Finals.
The Lakers began working on the new defense during training camp and continue to practice it almost every day. The results have been a boon.
The Lakers (12-1) are third in the league in opponents’ shooting percentage (42.2%), sixth in points given up (92.7 a game), and first in point differential (14.3 a game).
The players have eaten it up, finding an appetite for steals (a league-best 10.4 a game) and blocked shots (6.2 a game, sixth-best in the league) that matches their zest for alley-oop dunks and three-on-one breaks.
“The thought process is that you want to win a championship. In order to beat a Boston, you’ve got to be a better defensive team than Boston,” Kobe Bryant said. “If you want to hoist that trophy at the end of the year, we’ve got to be a great defensive team. That’s the only way to get it done.”
Rambis, in his seventh season as a Lakers assistant coach, had been in Jackson’s ear for a while, pointing out an opportunity to take advantage of the NBA rule changes in 2001 that allowed zone defenses. Jackson ultimately relented over the summer.
“Kurt’s been pestering me for a year or so about doing some things defensively that I was reluctant to do,” Jackson said. “I come from the old school where you play man [defense], and you have that man and that’s your primary goal.”
The Lakers now use a lot of zone principles and try to keep the ball on one side of the court.
They put pressure on the ballhandler to try to force him to a particular side and then often overload the area by sending an extra defender to stand down near the post, essentially shifting the defense from man-to-man to zone.
Skip passes to the undermanned side can hurt the Lakers, but their defense has been quick to jump into passing lanes and create turnovers.
Crucial to their defensive success is extreme pressure on the ballhandler. Without that pressure, the ballhandler can see the court and find open teammates.
“We’ve got guys that have the capability of being a very disruptive defensive team,” Rambis said. “We tried to give them goals to start training camp. They should be among the league leaders in defensive field-goal percentage, rebounds, shot blocks, steals, point differential. If you’re among the league leaders in those categories, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.”
The dramatic changes in personnel since last year’s training camp have definitely helped.
Kwame Brown no longer patrols the middle -- er, tries to patrol the middle -- after being replaced by the younger and longer Andrew Bynum, who is gaining experience and confidence by the day.
Next to Bynum is fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol, who is fairly fluid for his size and is back to his natural position of power forward after playing center in Bynum’s absence last season.
Bryant is an eight-time member of the All-Defensive team. The antagonistic, rangy forward Trevor Ariza is healthy after an injury-marred end to last season.
Word is spreading around the league.
“Their defense is much better than it was last year,” New Orleans Coach Byron Scott said. “I think they learned from the Boston Celtics that you have to play defense to win championships. They really have done a heck of a job just getting after people, closing the lanes down and forcing people to shoot jump shots. When you get by them, you’ve got two 7-footers back there contesting shots.”
Scott saw firsthand what the Lakers could do in a recent game.
The Hornets made only 12 of 43 shots (27.9%) in a stunning first half in which the Lakers led, 51-30, at New Orleans. The Lakers weren’t flawless the rest of the night, allowing Chris Paul to get untracked in the fourth quarter, but the net result was a 93-86 victory in which the Hornets were held 12 points below their season average at the time.
New Orleans isn’t alone.
Last week, Phoenix was held nine points below its season average in a 105-92 Lakers victory. The next night, Denver was held nine points below its average in a 104-90 Lakers victory.
The defense isn’t a work of basketball art every night. Way too many points were surrendered to an injury-depleted Sacramento team in a 118-108 Lakers victory Sunday. They also gave up 54 first-half points to New Jersey before clamping down in a 120-93 laugher Tuesday.
Jackson wasn’t too thrilled with the defensive effort against Sacramento. “I thought we were poor,” he said.
Just the same, the Lakers are aiming for their most notable defensive season since the inception of the shot clock in 1954. They are hovering near the 92.3 points a game they gave up in 1999-2000, the franchise’s lowest defensive average in the shot-clock era.
Jackson adjusted Rambis’ coaching duties before the season in hopes of establishing this type of success.
He typically gives each of his assistant coaches seven or eight teams to vigorously track throughout the season, but he reduced Rambis’ workload to only three teams (Phoenix, Boston and Oklahoma City) to let Rambis concentrate primarily on the Lakers’ defense.
“He has to be prepared for all the games,” Jackson said.
That’s fine with Rambis, 50, who earned four championship rings in the 1980s as a rough-hewn power forward with the Lakers.
“I’ve always enjoyed new opportunities to grow as a coach and the challenges that would come with it,” Rambis said.
The Lakers continue to live and learn as they adapt to their new defensive scheme. It’s hard to argue with the results so far.
Perhaps Jackson summed it up best: “What I like to see is our defense consistently being the hallmark of what we do.”
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
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NBA’s top defensive teams this season
*--* Team Opp. PPG Opp. FG% (rank) 1. Houston 90.6 431 (7) 2. Boston 91.3 403 (1) 3. Charlotte 91.5 455 (19) 4. New Orleans 91.8 450 (16) 5. San Antonio 91.9 446 (11) 6. Lakers 92.7 422 (3) *--*