Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Kobe guarding Westbrook, the Lakers bigs coming up even larger than their combined 14 feet of height, and the overall dominance of a nearly 30 point victory, was the return of the Lakers actually running the Triangle Offense. Over in his behind the box score, Kelly Dwyer said exactly what I was thinking:
What made it watchable for me was the return of what the kids call the “triangle offense,” and what the fogeys like me call “the triple post offense.”
The ball went inside, first. There were cutters off the ball, off the apex, and there were screens and then curls off those cutters. My sinuses are getting sneezy just thinking about it. It was glorious to see. There’s a reason we thought this team could win 70 games this year, and the ball movement we saw on Tuesday night is the reason why. It was gorgeous.
Gorgeous indeed. I wish I had some visual examples to share, but since I don’t the written word will have to do. In a way, what I saw in game 5 reminded me of the adjustments of what we saw from game 5 of the Denver series in last seasons’ post season run. Not the same adjustments, mind you, but subtle changes that led to much better execution of the Lakers’ offensive sets. Changes that when executed with the precision and focus that the Lakers did last night can be overwhelming to even a stingy defense like OKC’s. Below are a few of the things that were markedly different from the previous games in this series:
1). Spacing and Timing. The Triangle is an offense that, at it’s heart, is built off of two distinct principles – spacing and timing. Against the Thunder, both have been disrupted all too frequently. The Lakers spacing has been thrown off by the Thunder’s bigs fronting the post and their sagging perimeter defenders that have subsequently cut down the passing angles that LA’s wings have to make their entries into the bigs. The timing of the Lakers offense has also been thrown off for these reasons. Too often the Lakers wings have been holding the ball and looking for the post entry. They’ve been wasting their dribble and moving without purpose when they’re handling the ball. This has made the Lakers pressure releases non-existent and crippled the other players’ off the ball movement in a manner that rendered the weak side cuts and motions nearly useless. Last night, though, we saw a return of better spacing and much improved timing. Why? Several reasons, really, but mostly because of a better use of the dribble. In game five, the Lakers wings used their dribble with purpose. Nearly every time Kobe or Fisher or Ron put the ball on the floor it was get into a seam and make the defense react. This action with the ball caused defenders to shift and slide with the result being better passing angles to the open perimeter players and post players that slid into the gaps when their defenders moved over to show help. These open passing angles jump started ball movement. Which in turn made the player movement that much more meaningful. This all came together and added up to a return of crispness to the Lakers offense where the choreagraphed nature of the Triangle displayed itself in all its beauty. On one play in particular, a play that started with a dribble drive led to an open (and converted) Artest three pointer that saw four Lakers touch the ball in less than a 5 second span. We honestly have not seen that type of ball movement since the Utah game where Kobe sat out with his ankle injury. That was February 10th. Today is April 28th. Yeah, it’s been a while.
2). Early offense. During the regular season the Lakers played at the 13th fastest pace in the league (middle of the pack). Last year, when they were one of the best offenses in the league, the Lakers played at the 5th fastest pace. I’m not chalking up the Lakers decline in offensive efficiency this season solely to this factor, but I do believe it made a difference. I think it also contributed to the improvements we saw on offense last night. And it started with our bigs getting up the floor. Though we haven’t seen much of this lately, the Lakers have two of the better running 7 footers in the league. They’re not Karl Malone’s out there, but both Bynum and Gasol can get up court relatively quickly and get into the post for quick set ups on the block. And last night, that was exactly what happened. As I mentioned in the recap to game 5, the Lakers only allowed 14 offensive rebounds on the 53 missed shots of the Thunder. On those possessions where the Lakers secured the ball, they pushed the ball up court and looked inside as early as possible. And because the Lakers bigs were running the floor, this set up early offense opportunities for easier post entries and finishes at the basket. After several successful possessions using this tactic, the Thunder were forced to collapse on defense and protect the paint even more than normal. This then set up our second big man running in a trail position to recieve passes on dives at the free throw line because once our first big had the ball all of the attention was on him. How many dunks did our bigs get on plays just like this (or on variations of them)? Five? Six? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that it was a welcome sight to see our bigs get some easy buckets on the secondary break just becasue they were getting up the floor quickly.
3). Ron Artest in the post. Doug Collins may refer to his coaching of Michael Jordan a lot, but he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to analyzing some of the finer points/X’s and O’s of the game. And last night he mentioned several times that Artest got several post touches and said that this was an adjustment for the Lakers. I couldn’t agree more with him on this point. For a lot of this series, Ron has been relegated to a spot up shooter. You’d see him, typically on the weak side wing, just standing there waiting to receive a pass so he could fire up a long jumper. However, when a guy is shooting less than 20% from behind the arc, it may be time to change up his role a bit. The beauty of the Triangle is that it’s an offense where every player is nearly interchangeable. So, just like you see Pau sometimes making post entries from the extended wing, you also see our guards get post up chances (mostly Kobe). So, it was nice to see Ron get some chances on the block that allowed him to create for himself, but also for his teammates. Ron tied for second on the team with 5 assists last night and he looked much more comfortable operating from the post on the chances that he got. Remember what Phil has said many times before about the Triangle – it’s the post players roles that are easiest to learn and it often takes more time for the perimeter players to find their comfort level. Well, then doesn’t it make sense to get Ron (a player that has experienced a bit of a steep learning curve in this offense) some touches in a place where less reading and reacting is going on? I think it does and it paid off last night.
And besides these three points, everything was just done a bit better than it has been recently. The screens were better, the cuts were harder, the passes were more precise, and the catches were made cleaner. Every Laker player seemed focussed and intent on executing the offense in a manner that maximized his personal and the team’s success. That said, one game does not a season make. If the Lakers expect to win game 6 on Friday, they’ll need a recommitment to this same level of execution and attention to detail. Sure, they’ll need their defense to be as strong as it has all series (they’ll also need to plan for whatever adjustments the Thunder make to Kobe guarding Westbrook), but if they hope to pull out the win, they’ll also need to score the ball. They’ll need to run the offense. So, this can’t be a one time thing; it can’t be a fleeting effort. Because if the Lakers can play with the urgency and desire to run its sets, they’ll be moving on to the next round after Friday’s game.