When you watch an NBA game and already know the outcome, you get to look at what happens in the contest in a bit of a different light. In the case of the Lakers/Rockets game, I already knew that the Lakers had beat the Rockets 109-101 when I hit the play button on my DVR this morning. So when I started to watch the game I wanted to look for some of the little things that went into the win. I mean, when you watched the game, it was obvious that the Lakers size advantage was too much for the Rockets to handle. It was also obvious that Kobe, Fisher, Farmar, and Brown were making a good percentage of their jumpshots – an act that makes our offense very difficult to contend with because of the freedom it gives Gasol to operate on the block in single coverage. What was also clear was that early in the game the Lakers played to the Rockets pace, getting into an up and down game where the Rockets speed – boy is Brooks fast – could keep them in the game. And it was also evident that when the Lakers started to force the Rockets to go up against a set half court defense that the open jumpers were no longer wide open and they started to fall with less regularity. That’s how a 34 point first quarter turns into an 11 point second quarter. These are pieces of big picture analysis. I was looking for the little things. And what I saw were some subtle adjustments to the Lakers offensive sets.
In the preview for this game, I mentioned that I’d like to see the Lakers initiate their offensive sets more on the weak side with Kobe in the post. I thought that by setting up the offense on the weak side with post entries to Kobe, the Lakers could then swing the ball back to the strong side and get Gasol going easier against a rotating defense. Well, it turns out I got half of what I wanted. What I mean is the Lakers did set up their offense a lot more on the weak side by going into the post. However, it was Gasol that was on the block and not Kobe. This was offensive wrinkle #1.
The three screen shots above are from early in the game. It was obvious that Lakers wanted to get Pau the ball, but the wrinkle (as stated above) is that he’s not in the hub of the Triangle. Instead, Pau gets isolated on the weak side where he has more space to work and can see the double team coming (if it does) more easily. On these three possessions Pau got the first bucket of the game on a beautiful drop step baseline with a lefty hook finish (#1), another layup finish (this time with the foul) on a drop step baseline (#2), and then executed a nice pass to a flashing Odom underneath (after Kobe set a nice back screen on LO’s man that freed up LO to move down to the box) when all the Rockets defenders got caught watching that resulted in an Ariza foul on LO(#3). Many times this season, the Lakers have been using Kobe as the trigger man on the weak side post. Kobe’s quite capable on the block and at the pinch post and putting him in this position gives the Lakers a distinct advantage against most defenses as Kobe can either score or make the right read very easily to make a good pass. However, putting Pau in this position accomplishes two things. First is that Pau is also quite capable in these positions as he has a refined low and mid post game from which he can score or set up his teammates quite easily. But second, is that this gives Pau the “touches” that help this offense run smoothly. This allows Kobe to work off the ball and occupy defenders and their attention while one of our most efficient scorers works on the ball. Plus it gives Kobe (and our other guards/wings) a chance to to get his shots more within the flow of the offense. An adjustment like this, while minor, is a win-win.
The second wrinkle that I saw when watching the game was a return of the multitude of screen actions that are built into the Triangle. Before this road trip started, it was reported the Phil and the coaches put an extra emphasis into three point shooting in practice. After watching last night’s game, it looks like the coaches may have also put a greater emphasis on setting screens.
This play started with Kobe initiating the offense with a post entry into Pau. Many times this season when the ball goes into the post, the Lakers wings (in this case Kobe and Fisher) run double clear out cuts in order to allow Pau to isolate on the post. But, in this example, after passing to Pau, Kobe fakes a scissor cut off Pau’s shoulder and instead pins Fisher’s man as Fish circles up to the extended wing to receive the pass. On this specific play, Fisher missed the jumper, but I liked that we didn’t run the same old action and instead set a solid screen to get a player a good shot.
In the above screen shot, Fisher brought up the ball and then immediately swung the ball to Artest. Now, look at the screen that Pau is setting for Kobe on the weak side block. This is the type of screen action that has been missing a lot this season. The typical action on this play would involve Artest passing into Odom or running a P&R with LO all while Fisher and Pau set a double down screen for Kobe for him to circle back to the top of the key for a pass and jumpshot. Instead, we get Kobe flashing to the front of the rim on a fantastic hard pick by Gasol.
One of the other wrinkles was a return of the high P&R. I’ve been a critic of the high P&R because I think the Lakers have used it as a crutch too often this season and that it has not been as successful for them as a standard play. And in recent weeks, we’ve actually seen the Lakers use this play less in favor of starting out our sets through the sideline Triangle initiation or with Kobe on the weak side pinch post. But against the Rockets last night, the Lakers went back to the high P&R and it was quite effective. Especially on plays where the ball handler would draw the second defender and then execute a nice drop pass to the rolling screen man. Below is a perfect illustration of how the Lakers used this play last night:
Look at the screen that Pau gets on Kobe’s man. Then see how Kobe is able to turn the corner and get into the teeth of the Rockets defense while Pau rolls to the basket. As Kobe stops and pivots to shoot his jumper every Rocket defender is frozen and Pau is right at the front of the rim ready to receive a pass for the easy lay up. The Lakers successfully ran this play several times last night with benefitting with several layups. But one of the reasons this play worked is because the Lakers didn’t depend on it time after time after time or as a bail out play when they didn’t feel like running their sets. Does this mean that I want to see the Lakers go back to a steady diet of P&R’s? No, but I wouldn’t mind them starting to mix it back in – especially at times when so many of our other offense sets are working.
As the Lakers head towards the playoffs, it’s important that they start to execute their offense better. The best way to do that is to diversify their sets and keep the defense off balance where they can’t key in on Pau in the hub of the Triangle and Kobe isolated on the wing. The Lakers won’t always be successful with the little wrinkles that they throw out against the opposition, but they sure were last night. Against the Rockets, the Lakers had an offensive rating of 117.2 on 65.2% true shooting. Granted, the Rockets are a middle of the road defensive team and were severely overmatched by the size the Lakers could trot out (even Mbenga was easily breaking free for easy shots against that undersized front line). But by using more options within the offense, especially those that create two man games between Kobe and Pau are a great place to start that get our offense going.