I’ve long struggled with the idea of “crunch time”. At times I’ve felt the definition used to describe this part of the game — the last 5 minutes of a game with a margin of 5 points or fewer — is a bit arbitrary. This feeling is compounded by the fact that I’m a firm believer that all parts of the game are important. A contest can be lost in the first quarter by surrendering a big lead through sloppy defense and turnover prone offense as much as it can be lost at the end of the game through the same type of poor play.
That said, it can not be ignored that the end of a close game feels different and, thus, creates a different environment in which the players compete. Defense tightens up and offensive players have a more difficult time scoring in general. The seconds seem to tick down slower and every possession takes on a greater importance. This often leads to the types of pressure packed plays that either build or destroy legends. Bring up the words “clutch” “Michael Jordan” and “Nick Anderson” in the same sentence and someone will surely say the word “choke” within a fraction of a second.
As fans we too take this part of the game more seriously and tend to heap praises on the heroes who can summon the skill needed to thrive at this time of the game. Forget analysis in the closing seconds, we love a guy hitting the big shot and then screaming at the top of our lungs in celebration. These are the most memorable moments.
The problem is, though, is that it’s never smart to forget the analysis. It’s better to know what actually happened and how a team got to the point where it made (or missed) those final shots that we think decided the game. It’s better to know what trends to expect from a team or player at any part of the game, but especially one that’s close late. This makes us better fans, even if in the moment most of us — or at least those of us with rooting interests — only really care if the shot falls or not.
The Lakers, for a long time, have been a predictable team down the stretch of close games. Kobe Bryant is a ball dominant guard and doubles as one of the premier shot creators of all time. Giving him the ball and having him create a shot has long been the Lakers’ strategy and that’s that. Some blame Kobe for this. Others blame Michael Jordan for glorifying the end of game isolation as a viable offensive approach. I, personally, spread the blame out but include Phil Jackson since he coached both Jordan and Kobe and helped influence this strategy. That’s another story for another time, however.
Most close Lakers’ games are decided with the ball in Kobe’s hands. Whether you agree with this style of play or not isn’t as important as the fact that in a results based league the Lakers seem to win a fair amount of these games historically (even if their overall offensive efficiency dips in the process). The ones they don’t win are the price of doing business with Kobe Bryant on your roster. While it’s frustrating, I think this is a fact that most Lakers fans accept — even if it’s begrudgingly — though that doesn’t stop the complaints from popping up now and again. It’s all great when Kobe goes nova down the stretch of the Hornets and Raptors games and produces exciting wins. It’s another thing altogether to watch him miss shots down the stretch of the Wizards game and play a major role in a disappointing loss.
And it was Kobe’s performance down the stretch of the Wizards game that has brought back critiques about the Lakers’ (and his) approach down the stretch of a close game. Kobe took 10 shots in that final period (plus seven free throws), missing six of them including the shot that would have tied the game on the team’s final meaningful possession. His teammates mostly stood and watched as Kobe used the P&R to mainly set up isolations for himself so he could shoot. At the time, I tweeted something along the lines of “maybe now would be a good time to let Nash run some P&R” only to say “I guess not…” after Kobe used up another possession by shooting without making a single pass.
Again, this isn’t necessarily new for Kobe and it’s part (not all, but part) of the package that comes with him. The thing is, though, is that this season has seen Kobe operate this way more than in recent years. Consider the following:
- This season Kobe’s usage (a percentage of plays that end with a shot, free throws, or a turnover) in crunch time is 50.7. That’s an astronomical number. In comparison, last season, Kobe’s usage in these situations was 40.1. That’s still high, but obviously much lower than this season.
- This season Steve Nash’s usage in crunch time is 13.3. Last season for the Suns it was 18.8. Not a huge difference there but Nash has typically been a player who doesn’t dominate how possessions end, but rather how they start. In other words, Nash is used to initiating the P&R and then having that play develop organically. This season he’s mostly spotting up off the ball. The end result is usually the same (Nash not ending a possession with a shot, turnover, or at the FT line), but the difference in approach is noticeable.
- This season Dwight Howard’s usage crunch time is 11.5. Last season with the Magic it was 18.7. That’s a fairly big difference and reflective of the fact that Dwight rarely gets a touch down the stretch of a close game. With creators like Kobe and Nash (who both are much better shooters, especially from the foul line than Dwight) it’s not a huge surprise his usage is lower than theirs, but how little he sees the ball is still surprising.
These numbers tell the story of an offensive approach that needs more balance. Through a combination of coaching and players changing how they operate late in games, something needs to be adjusted in order to bring more diversity to the Lakers’ offensive attack when games are close late.
From a coaching standpoint, Mike D’Antoni needs to continue to emphasize what he wants from his team late in close games. After the loss to the Wizards he railed against his guys for playing too much isolation and not moving the ball. You can decide whether that was a not so veiled reference to Kobe, but you’d be wise to think that it was since he was the guy playing in isolation and not passing the ball. Getting this message across better in games would be helpful.
From a player standpoint, Kobe needs to defer more to Nash and Nash needs to be more assertive in getting the ball and initiating the team’s offense. Nash will always have value as a shooter who can spread the floor, but he’s also one of his generation’s best decision makers (especially in close games) and can be relied upon more to make plays for himself and his teammates. As for Dwight Howard, making his FT’s down the stretch would likely encourage his teammates to pass him the ball more, but he can also work the offensive glass harder and find ways to fight for position so he’s harder to ignore when he’s under the basket.
Now would be a good time to note that the Lakers haven’t been an awful crunch time team this season and, in fact, one of the main reasons their season has turned around is because they’re performing better down the stretch of close games. It’s also worth noting that in their current roles, Kobe, Nash, and Dwight have all been playing pretty well in crunch time by shooting well and making some timely plays (Dwight’s work on defense during this part of the game, while not a big part of this discussion, simply cannot be ignored) that have helped win games. Nash’s shooting numbers, for example, are off the charts excellent (76.2% effective field goal percentage, 74.1% true shooting) and part of that is because he’s getting so many open spot up chances off plays where Kobe draws extra attention and then makes the right read.
However, the usage rates of the players do not lie and show a style of play that isn’t best served for a team with weapons the caliber the Lakers have on this team. Last season Ramon Sessions had a usage of 18.1 in crunch time and Bynum’s was 18.9. These numbers are 5 and 7 points higher than Nash’s and Dwight’s (respectively) this year. If the team could be successful with Sessions and Bynum taking possessions away from Kobe, they can certainly do so with Steve Nash handling a bigger burden and Dwight Howard getting a few more touches.
Making this happen isn’t just about Kobe, though. The players must shift their mindset and take more responsibility for their own actions down the stretch and the coaches must use their influence to make sure those shifts are represented in the actions on the floor. This isn’t a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but more of the need to tweak and improve what’s good to make it great. This team has the pieces to do just that, now they need to make it happen.
*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com