The Breakdown: Keeping Afflalo From Kobe

Phillip Barnett —  May 3, 2012

After two games in Los Angeles, the Lakers are heading out to Denver to play a Nuggets team that is sure to make some adjustments being down 2-0 in the first round. The Lakers earned their 2-0 advantage after a historic night from Andrew Bynum, some deft passing from Pau Gasol, unexpected, good play from both Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill, and a strategical adjustment of their own.

In three games against the Denver Nuggets during the regular season, Kobe really struggled to find any kind of rhythm. He shot 27.5 percent against Denver in the regular season, easily his lowest shooting percentage against any team this year. In the first half of Game 1, the trend continued as Kobe shot a mere two-for-10 on a bevy of contested jump shots over Aaron Afflalo. The Lakers ran a series of isolation and P&R sets that ended with Kobe taking shots over the outstretched arms of Afflalo, with a lot of the possessions ending just like the following video.

What you’ll notice here is that the Lakers run a couple of 1-2 P&Rs to try to either create a switch or to get Ramon Sessions in the lane. The latter prevails, and that’s a mini-victory for the Lakers. However, the ball is kicked out to Pau, who kicks it to Kobe and the possession ultimately ends in the same way that they tried to prevent with the original pick and roll at the beginning of the possession. We saw a lot of this in the three regular season games (not just in P&R situations, but in their “Horns” sets and premeditated iso sets). What resulted from these possessions were a lot of shots from Kobe outside of his sweet spots, and the shots where he likes the ball were contested by one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.

(Kobe shot chart against Denver in three regular season games)

Kobe is best when he’s 15-feet and in, and he took about 52 percent of his shots from that range during the regular season, but with Afflalo draped all over him, (Note: Shot chart includes possessions not being guarded by Afflalo) he only shot 28 percent from that rang. Now compare that with what he’s done in the playoffs.

(Kobe shot chart against Denver in two post-season games)

The shot distribution is similar in terms of shots inside and outside of 15 feet (about 53 percent from 15-feet and in compared to 52 percent in the regular season), but in the playoffs, he’s shooting just over 60 percent, 32 percentage points higher. To increase Kobe’s efficiency, the Lakers have made a couple of minor tweaks in how they run their Horns and P&R sets to get Kobe away from Afflalo on as many possessions as possible.

For much of Kobe’s career, the Lakers offensive philosophy has been geared around getting him to his spots, and letting him operate from the possessions in which he’s been the most successful. However, against the Nuggets this season (and a few other teams), just getting Kobe to his spots hasn’t produced the results we’ve become accustomed to seeing, and that’s largely due to the defensive prowess of certain defenders and the trend of increased attention to team defensive schemes over the last four or five seasons. This series, we’ve seen one of the most ventured efforts in trying to get Kobe in situations away from a particular defender than I’ve seen in his career — and it’s worked for the most part.

What we’ve seen to get Afflalo off Kobe are a quite a bit of 1-2 P&R actions to get the Nuggets point guard switched onto Kobe (like they attempted in the video above). In this particular set, Sessions brought the ball up to the wing on the left side with Kobe posting up Afflalo near the pinch with Bynum/Gasol/Ebanks all on the opposite side.

What the Lakers did different here than what they did in the first set is Sessions dumped the ball into Kobe, then they ran the P&R. With Kobe handling the ball, he’s more of a threat to shoot off the screen than Sessions is, and Lawson is forced to stay with him (compared to Afflalo letting Sessions go after he comes off the screen that Kobe set for him earlier). Kobe does a great job not rubbing shoulders with Sessions, but rubbing shoulders with Lawson as well. With the switch created, Kobe kicks out to Sessions and reposts with Lawson guarding him instead of Afflalo.

After the entry pass, Sessions clears out along the baseline, taking Afflalo with him. Now Kobe is isolated on a smaller defender and attacks him immediately. Without Afflalo’s strength and length, Kobe is able to attack the rim and score over a late Kosta Kufos (even with the contact).

With the small tweak in the P&R, the Lakers are able to manipulate the number of high percentage shots Kobe takes by deciding who defends him instead of where he’s being defended. Watch it in real time.

Another tweak the Lakers have made is one within their Horns sets. I’ll let Darius give you a brief overview of the Horns offense:

Basically, in a normal horns action, both bigs are at the elbows, the weak side wing is below the FT line near the three point line, the strong side wing is in the same position but on the ball side and the PG brings the ball up. Typically, Sessions will enter to Pau at the right elbow and go screen for the strong side wing. On the opposite side, the big man will screen for the weak side wing. Then, both wings come off picks either curling into the paint or flaring out looking for a pass from Pau. This set has been mildly effective all year and has been one of the go to actions for the Lakers to get Kobe the ball.

Typically, Kobe has been the wing on the strong side with Pau with Artest/Barnes/Ebanks on the weak side receiving the screen from Bynum. However, the Lakers have moved Kobe to the weak side with Bynum and changed Sessions’ action after entering to Pau, and the Nuggets have had issues trying to defend this.

The set starts off the same with both Bynum and Pau at their respective elbows, but after Sessions throws his entry pass, he goes down the lane to set a cross screen for Kobe. As Sessions cuts down the lane, Bynum is also going down the line to set a down screen for Kobe. Now, instead of consistently coming off a down screen from Sessions on the ball side, he has an option to either take the screen from Sessions and cut across to the opposite block or to take the Bynum screen for either a curl or catch-and-shoot situation around the elbow – both good situations for the Lakers.

On this play, Kobe takes Sessions screen and cuts across right behind Kufos, who is focused on Bynum. Danillo Gallinari is the weak side defender on Ebanks, and is much too far away to contest anything around the rim by the time Pau releases the pass from his hands and Kenneth Faried is focused on defending Pau. Since Afflalo trailed the screen, he’s much too late to defend the pass and Kobe ends up with an easy dunk. Had Afflalo jumped ball side, Kobe would have likely taken Bynum’s down screen for an open jumper around the free throw line. Kobe’s ability to read and react the way Afflalo is defending him has given the Nuggets fits in trying to keep Kobe out of the box score.

More from Darius:

The thing I like most about how the Lakers are trying to get Kobe open is the fact that they’re simple actions that are difficult to defend based off how they utilize his varied skill set. In the “horns” sets where the point guard cross screens for Kobe, they have Kobe working off the ball (where he’s quite good at getting separation) and moving him into positions where he can do the most damage. His ability to seal his man and use his strength to hold him off is something he does quite well. He’s savvy, knows how to hold his ground, and then can typically finish inside even while in traffic. Plus, by giving him the option to come to the elbow area and/or curl into the lane off Bynum’s screen, it’s moving him to a spot on the floor where he can either shoot a FT line jumper or further compromise the D by getting deeper into the paint. These options force the D to make hard choices by either playing the basket cut or the curl and put multiple defenders into the action where miscommunication can occur more easily.

Watch it in real time.

Coach Mike Brown has gotten a lot of the blame for the Lakers losses this season, but he hasn’t gotten enough credit for being able to make adjustments in a lot of the Lakers wins this season. Compared to the first 10 to 15 games of this season, the Lakers look like a completely different team on the offensive end, and a lot of it has to do with what Brown and his staff has done to accommodate the individual talents of the guys on his roster. Toward the end of Game 2, JaVale McGee started challenging a lot of shots around the rim, and this disrupted a lot of what the Lakers were trying to accomplish, so if McGee gets more time because of his defensive presence, Brown will be forced to adjust again (more on this in tomorrow’s preview). But for now, the Lakers have to like the position they’re in. They’re up 2-0 and Kobe is shooting relitavely well against the team he struggled most against in the regular season.

Statistical support for this post provided by

Phillip Barnett