Last night’s win over the Hawks was both frustrating and exhilarating.
Watching the Lakers commit careless turnovers and have stalled offensive possessions in the process of giving up a 16 point lead was worthy of multiple anger induced curse words. Watching Kobe close the game with a monster dunk and a tremendous finish over one of the best wing defenders in the game was worthy of multiple celebratory curse words. And, in the end, since a win is a win we’ll all likely just remember the final Kobe plays, add them to our catalogue of memories of why we love him and move on.
But the end of the game also featured a couple of defensive possessions that were key to how victory was decided. After all, the Lakers only needed that last Kobe lay in because the Hawks scored on a fantastically diagrammed action. And Atlanta only lost the game because when running the same exact play for a second time they couldn’t get the bucket. So, rather than just file the end of this game under “Kobe was awesome” let’s take a look at those final defensive possessions and how the game was put in danger only to then be sealed with Steve Blake’s steal.
Before we get to the final plays, we require a bit of backstory. In the 4th quarter one of the ways the Hawks were really hurting the Lakers was by running Kyle Korver off pin down screens to free him up for jumpers. Korver scored 7 of his 16 points in that final 12 minutes by using a lot of the same plays the Celtics would run for Ray Allen (or the old Pistons would run for Rip Hamilton). Korver would start on the wing, run to the baseline and either continue in the direction he was running to receive a screen or reverse course and come off a pin down to make the catch so he could get off a jumper. Running this action freed Korver up for several jumpers and the Lakers were having trouble defending it.
One of the defensive counters to this play, however, is for the man defending the screener to step out (or “hedge”) towards Korver to either disrupt the pass or to make Korver hesitate on his shot until the defender chasing him can recover back to the ball. Of course, Korver understands that this type of defensive adjustment is coming and, when seeing the extra defender step out towards him, knows to try and hit the screener with a quick pass. (As an aside, if this play looks familiar it’s because the Jazz used to run this same action for years with Korver and Boozer under Jerry Sloan in his Flex offense). Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
Korver has already walked his man down to the baseline and has decided to come back in the same direction he came from to receive a screen from Johan Petro. You see Jodie Meeks is in a trail position and Earl Clark looking at Korver as he approaches the pick.
When Korver comes off the pick, Clark hedges out — leaving Petro in the process — to try and either tip away the pass or to disrupt Korver upon receiving the ball. Korver, however, recognizes Clark’s attempt and after making the catch immediately touch passes to Petro who is wide open going towards the rim.
Here’s how the play happened in real time with the result kind of funny, at least for Lakers fans since, well, you’ll see:
Petro’s miss and Josh Smith’s airballed put back attempt aside, this play went exactly as planned. The Lakers had to overcompensate for Korver’s shooting ability by hedging hard on the screen and after a nice pass they got two point blank shots at the basket.
Now, fast forward to the end of the game. It’s the Hawks ball with 33 seconds left, they’re coming out of a timeout and looking to score the go ahead basket. As an aside, here’s what I tweeted right before this play:
Hawks probably going to run a P&R here, but don’t be surprised to see an option screen set for Korver w/ the screener slipping backdoor.
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 4, 2013
We pick up the action with Korver already along the baseline and in a position where he’s setting up the pin down screen that Al Horford is going to set:
Korver comes off this pick, but the real design of this play is to set up Horford slipping this screen to get a shot right at the rim. The Hawks smartly, and maybe because of how Clark played the screen earlier, knew that if Horford quickly darted into the paint he’d be wide open:
Lo and behold, Horford was wide open. Here’s how it looked as it happened and notice how Dwight, after the dunk, motions to Ron as if to say “I was stepping out to help on Korver”:
Fast forward to the Hawks next possession and they again find themselves down by one after Kobe hit that fantastic lay in. What do you think the Hawks are going to do? If you answered “run the exact same play”, congratulations you deserve a prize. Except this time they switch up the action by having Josh Smith set/slip the screen:
Using Smith as the screener turned out to be a smart play because it put a different defender who wasn’t involved in the action before (in this case Kobe) in a position to guard the slip. Kobe, as you can see, was not prepared:
Whoops. There’s goes Smith, wide open, cutting to the rim. However, even though Kobe wasn’t prepared, Ron and Dwight Howard were. In the still above, you can already see Ron eyeing Smith cutting to the rim. And, if you look at Howard, you see him ready to pounce as well. They both reacted well:
As you can see, Ron did well to disrupt the pass just enough to make Smith bobble the ball. And with Howard bearing down on him as well, Smith had no angle to shoot and instead forced a pass that Steve Blake picked off:
The anatomy of these plays show how the Lakers, though seemingly caught sleeping were able to evolve and show enough awareness to make the game clinching play. Give the Hawks credit for executing well throughout the game and playing to their strengths while preying on the Lakers’ aggressiveness. They used Korver brilliantly as a scorer, then as a passer, then as a decoy to set up their final possessions.
But on the play that sealed the game, it was the Lakers most aware defensive players — Ron and Dwight — who saved the day with quick, instinctive reactions. Ron especially deserves praise here as he was excellent in slowing Korver down the stretch — post game D’Antoni said Ron came to him and said “I’ll take Korver” down the stretch and praised his defense to limit him in the final minutes — and showed great awareness when leaving his own man to bother Smith and helping to force that turnover.