The Lakers must find a way to diversify their late game offense if they’re going to be successful scoring the ball. Running simple down screen actions for Kobe and/or asking him to create off the dribble isn’t a strategy that will work often enough for it to be the only plan of attack. It puts the Lakers in a position where they’re too dependent on one person to score for their offense to be successful, and beyond that it’s asking him to do so mostly on his own. And while Kobe’s always seemed willing to operate within this type of structure, it’s not the most prudent way of attacking a geared up defense. Of course, missing Bynum surely hurt them as he’s become a very good late game option in the low post. And with his full compliment of players, who knows what Brown calls or what the players decide to run if given the chance. But last night was an example of the Lakers being too predictable. And in the end, that must change or they’ll be too easy to defend on these critical possessions.
The paragraph above was taken from the preview for the Mavs game after the Lakers stumbled down the stretch against the Rockets, losing a double digit lead on their way to a difficult to stomach loss. Losing that type of lead and then dropping the game is rare for the Lakers, but the way their offense performed and the tactics they used to try to score the ball were not.
Too often this year – and in years past – the Lakers have gone to a Kobe-centric offense to produce points. Now to be fair, the Lakers have won a lot of games (and multiple championships) using this strategy and so to knock it completely would be foolish. However, as I implied above, it would also be foolish to only rely on this approach if other options were available.
After that game I decided that the next time the Lakers had a game that was close in the final five minutes that I’d chart possessions, see what the team ran, and look at how successful they were. The Blazers game offered that chance as with five minutes left in the game, the Lakers led by only a single point after Wesley Matthews hit a spot up three-pointer to make the score 87-86 Lakers. Below is what unfolded down the stretch (note: the time remaining is when the Lakers start their possession):
- 4:52 remaining: Sessions brings the ball up the middle of the floor and calls for a P&R with McRoberts. Sessions doesn’t really use the screen and penetrates to his left hand, probing for an opening. Nothing is there and he kicks to Kobe in the strong side corner. Kobe dribbles out, hits Sessions with a pass on the wing, who then enters the ball to Bynum in the post. After Sessions’ man digs down on the post, Bynum passes to Sessions, who steps into what would by a rhythm three-pointer. However, on the weak side of the floor, Barnes saw that his man was ball watching and made a smart cut behind him. Sessions, while in the air ready to shoot the three pointer, hit Barnes in stride and Matt finished an easy lay in against a flat-footed defense. Lakers lead 89-86.
- 4:16 remaining: After the Blazers turn the ball over on their next possession, Sessions grabs the ball and races up court only to find the Blazers had done a good job of getting back in transition. He slows down, waits for his mates to get up court, and then attacks the paint behind Bynum – sort of like a RB following his fullback through the hole – who is diving the front of the rim. Sessions doesn’t find any daylight and pulls the ball back. On his retreat, he finds a trailing Kobe and passes it to him. Kobe then attacks hard off the dribble against his man (who is off balance because he was retreating, then tried to close out on Kobe on the catch) and draws a foul when elevating for a foul line jumper. Kobe makes one of two from the line and the Lakers lead 90-86.
- 3:35 remaining: On the next Blazers’ possession they hit a three-pointer to cut the Lakers lead to one, and Sessions brings the ball up the middle of the floor. He calls for a P&R with Pau, and as before, he goes left, but doesn’t see an opening and passes to Kobe on the strong side wing. Kobe dribbles to his right and Pau comes over and sets another ball screen to try and free Kobe, who then threatens the paint and dishes to Barnes on the right side. Barnes then dribbles hard to the paint past his man trying to close out and dishes to Gasol, who had floated to the left corner after setting the pick on Kobe. Pau shoots a 16 footer from the baseline that misses. However, because the Blazers were in a scramble mode on D, McRoberts sneaks into the paint and taps the ball back high to Kobe, who secures the offensive rebound.
- 3:18 remaining: After the reset, Kobe hit Pau on the mid-left block for a post up. Because the defense had scrambled, the Blazers were cross matched and they rushed a double team to Gasol. Pau read the defense and made the right read – a skip pass to Sessions, who rose up and buried a three pointer that he could step into with zero pressure on him. That make puts the Lakers up 93-89.
- 2:38 remaining: On the Blazers’ next play they forced a switch and had McRoberts guarding Felton. Knowing he could beat Josh off the dribble, Felton attacked the paint, saw Gasol stepping up and shot a floater that missed short. Pau grabbed the rebound and hit McRoberts with an outlet pass up the right side of the floor. Once in the front court, McRoberts hits Kobe on the right wing who then dribbles the ball up high and calls Sessions over to run a 2/1 P&R. Kobe draws both defenders and then passes to Sessions on the right wing. Sessions, who is completely uncovered, attacks the paint hard, draws a defender, and then drops off a great pass to a hard cutting Barnes right down the middle of the lane. Barnes bobbles the pass but finishes a lay in once he controls the ball. Lakers now lead 95-89.
- 2:00 minutes remaining: Kobe brings the ball up the right side of the floor after Crawford hit two FTs to cut the lead to four. Kobe calls Sessions over for another P&R, goes left, and hits Gasol above the three-point line on the right side of the floor. Not in a position to do anything, Pau passes right back to Kobe, who then attacks the middle of the floor but faces a double team at the FT line after coming to a jump stop. Kobe kicks the ball to Pau, who gives the ball to Sessions after he rotated back to the top of the key after the play had broken down. Sessions calls out an action and tries a pass to Kobe at the right elbow that gets knocked away. Kobe chases the ball down, but with the shot clock running down ends up trying to draw a foul when forcing up a three pointer. Luckily, Kobe’s shot hit the front of the rim, bounced straight back to where Sessions was standing, and the Lakers secure the offensive rebound.
- 1:35 remaining: Sessions calls out a play with the ball above the top of the key. He signals Pau to go to the right block and tells Kobe to move from the right wing to the left corner. After Sessions can’t hit Pau in the post, he swings the ball to Ron, who then enters the ball to Bynum on the left block. Felton immediately leaves Sessions to double team and Bynum makes the good, quick pass to Sessions on the right side of the floor. With the D rotating to him, Sessions hits Ron, who then works off the dribble to the FT line and hits a pull up jumper over his man. The Lakers now lead 97-91.
- 1:00 remaining: After a quick P&R got LaMarcus Aldridge a lay in, Sessions brings the ball up the middle of the floor. He finds that the Blazers are in a zone (a D that had bothered the Lakers all night). Facing the two guard Blazer front, he and Pau set up a quick P&R and Sessions dribbles to his right. Pau then sealed the guard he screened, called for the ball, and Sessions hit him a step below the FT line. Pau turned over his left shoulder and hit an easy ten foot jumper over a player he had a twelve inch advantage on. The Laker lead is 99-93 and the Blazers call a time out.
Over the last 49 seconds of the game, the Blazers run a variety of plays to try and get baskets and when most of them fail, they end up fouling the Lakers. Barnes and Kobe take a combined six FTs down the stretch (making four), with a Wesley Matthews three pointer producing the rest of the points this game would see. The Lakers end up winning 103-96.
The final tallies are quite impressive. In the four minutes before it became a foul fest, the Lakers put up ten points on eight “plays” (but only six trips down the floor). On their two misses they grabbed offensive rebounds and on the secondary possessions scored five points. They ran multiple actions, spread the ball around with no single player taking more than two shots, and weren’t predictable in any way.
After the game, the players and coaches spoke about how defenses must now prepare for more diversity from the Lakers. Not only do they have to worry about the actions to get Kobe the ball, the post up actions for Pau and Bynum, and the P&R sets that Kobe runs, but they must also prepare for the P&Rs that Sessions runs and the transition game that he brings to L.A.’s attack. Against Portland, the Lakers showed that the diversity is not just a part of their normal game plan, but part of their crunch time game plan too. And if that continues, the Lakers will be a much better team down the stretch of games and will be more difficult to beat. In other words, watch out.