Kobe and the Lakers in the Clutch

J.M. Poulard —  February 11, 2012

So far this season, the Los Angeles Lakers have struggled with their late game execution. And that would be putting it lightly. Opponents have given the Lakers a multitude of different looks with the intent being on forcing the purple and gold to think about when and how to best attack them. The end result has been that Kobe Bryant has often been placed in situations where teams have essentially sat on his every move and at times completely ignored his teammates.

For instance, against the Philadelphia 76ers, Kobe was in terrific rhythm in the first half, scoring 24 points. Mind you, come the second half, they put Andre Iguodala on him and then looked to trap him every time he caught the ball.

When Bryant finally became comfortable and understood the 76ers rotations, they switched things up on him and defended him with Iguodala only. Mind you, once Kobe put the ball on the floor, they sent additional help his way to force the ball out of his hands. On a few very rare occasions after halftime, the Lakers superstar had the opportunity to go one-on-one.

And late in the ball game, this proved to be somewhat problematic for Bryant.

It’s not so much that defenses have confused Kobe in late game situations, far from it actually; but the issue is that the Lakers all time leading scorer is now pressing. With defenses converging on him much faster this season in comparison to previous ones, Bryant’s best opportunities in late game situations typically come once he catches the ball. If he waits any longer, teams are able to load up on the strong side of the court against him to cut off his angles and they can also send either a soft or hard double team at him to get another player to beat them from the field.

The end result has been that Kobe has gotten himself somewhere near the elbows or on the wings from midrange and taken a bevy of contested shots. Normally this would be a win for the Lakers (Kobe often looks like the best pure shooter in the game whether his jumpers are contested or not), but with the added defensive attention and players rushing to contest his shots, Kobe hasn’t been a good marksman from the field.

According to Stats Cube, Bean is converting a mere 28 percent of his field goal attempts in clutch situations (clutch situations are viewed as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points). If we dig a little deeper, Kobe Bryant has shot 8-for-32 from the field on midrange jumpers in the clutch so far this season.

And yet, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-3 in games decided by five points or less so far this season. So what gives?

Often we associate clutch situations with scoring and remain blind to other facets of the game. Thus, Kobe may not necessarily convert his shots at a high rate late in ball games, but he does several other things quite well in the last five minutes of ball games. Indeed, Bryant sports a +12.4 rating because his assists and rebounds increase in these situations. When we project clutch situations to a full game, Kobe averages 8.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game, all the while getting to the stripe 9.1 times. In addition, his offensive rating in late game situations (103.9) is superior than his regular averages so far this season (102.2) and his defensive rating of 92.2 in the clutch is vastly better than the 98.6 he has sported for the season.

The contest against the Boston Celtics Thursday night proved to be a good indicator to the Lakers scoring issues late in ball games. Matched up against Ray Allen for most of the final minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, Bryant was able to get to spots on the floor that he wanted for midrange jump shots, but he missed most of them. Indeed, Kobe only converted 2-of-8 shots in the clutch against the Celtics, with his two makes being arguably the two toughest shots he took in the game. Despite his inability to convert from the field, his team was victorious.

His defense on Rondo proved to be one of the biggest reasons for the win, but the Lakers still needed to score on a few trips to put the game away.

How do the Lakers manage to close out ball games then? Two words: twin towers.

Andrew Bynum is shooting 81 percent from the field in clutch situations so far this season. 81 percent! Logic would dictate that the Lakers should just feed the big man the ball and ask him to operate on the low block and ride him to victory; but that wouldn’t necessarily produce great results.

Bynum has been terrific from the field in late game situations because teams have had trouble keeping off the offensive glass and also because he is usually the benefactor of lob passes from his teammates when opponents choose to double team Bryant. This explains why the Lakers starting center has converted 12-of-13 shots at the rim in clutch situations.

Hence, fans can rightfully complain about Kobe’s shooting percentage with the game on the line, but the truth is that his misses have helped his teammates who now anticipate going after the ball whenever Kobe puts it up. And in a nutshell, this explains why teams have problems figuring out how to defend the Lakers late in ball games even when they are missing shots. Throwing a double team at Kobe essentially allows for a player to get an uncontested shot and it gives the purple and gold the chance to crash the boards; but when Kobe faces single coverage, he has the talent to make just about any shot possible on the court, but should he miss, Bynum and Gasol have proven more than capable to bail him out by crashing the glass (Pau is shooting 4-for-7 right at the rim in clutch situations, but is 0-for-3 from inside the paint but outside of the restricted area).

The Lakers could perhaps execute better in fourth quarters when defenses place an added emphasis on stopping Kobe Bryant, but the truth is that so far the team has gotten by with their current strategy of asking their closer to shut door on opponents. Perhaps he does not always come through, but the team sure seems to do so.

Can this strategy continue to hold up? Tough to tell. But so far it has served the Lakers well if we judge them on the end result; and that’s what makes any change in the philosophy rather hard to commit to. It’s often hard to argue with the methods provided that the end result is a positive one.

And what more positive end result can one ask for than wins?

J.M. Poulard