Examining a Game Losing Play — Whose Mistake Really Was It?

Darius Soriano —  January 21, 2014

http://youtu.be/cCCLLi-BVO4

Whenever a team loses, the gut instinct is to try and establish who messed up so you can assign blame. When a team loses on a last second play the way the Lakers did against the Bulls, that instinct is even stronger.

As Pau Gasol said after the contest, “You don’t lose a game on a single play, but to lose a game like that on a layup still hurts.”

Yes. Yes, it does.

After the game, Mike D’Antoni spoke about the play in question and, per Mark Medina, defended his decision to have Manny Harris in the game and tried to explain what the plan on defense was:

D’Antoni said Harris was just following instructions, which entailed defending the inbounds pass so he could rotate to the perimeter wherever needed. “He played on the backside,” D’Antoni said. “He thought he was going to pop a guy out and he didn’t do that, We didn’t slide over to cover for him.”

In the clip above, you actually see Harris start the play standing between Taj Gibson and the basket only to get a signal from the bench to move into a position behind the Bulls’ Forward. When the play started, Harris found himself woefully out of position to defend the simplest cut in the game, a dive right to the front of the rim. Harris got pinned on Gibson’s back and Pau couldn’t recover in time to bother the shot enough to force a miss.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I see multiple errors with the Lakers’ defensive strategy that must come back to the coaches.

In the article quoted above, D’Antoni notes that Harris is a good defensive player who was a better option than some of the Lakers who were on the bench at the time. Harris is a good defender, so I’m not questioning that. However, having Harris defend Gibson specifically is a tactical mistake. Gibson was bullying the Lakers all night, pushing around everyone not named Jordan Hill on the offensive glass and in the post. Having Harris — who is a shooting guard — defend the Bulls’ power forward is a mistake.

Second, I don’t really see the value in having Pau defend the inbounder. Yes Pau is long and has the ability to disrupt an entry pass. However, without a second big man in the game to help guard the rim, the Lakers found themselves out of position to guard the type of shot that could beat them easiest. Granted Pau wasn’t as active defending the passer as he needed to be, but with only wings and Ryan Kelly in the game, the team wasn’t in a position personnel wise to guard the paint should a pass find its way in there.

Overall, it just seems like the Lakers’ coaches outthought themselves on this final play. Playing Harris isn’t a bad choice, but playing him over Johnson or Hill or even Meeks — players who have more experience — was probably a miscalculation. Having Pau defend the inbound in a hope he disrupts the pass rather than zoning up the paint to contest any lob pass or quick shot at the front of the rim also comes off as over-thinking things. And having Harris change his position from playing between the ball and his man to playing on the top side so he could be in better position to close out on a jump shooter on the perimeter is also getting too cute defensively when what was really required was playing a hard-nosed final second of defense.

Of course, if the Lakers get a stop on that final possession and the decisions the coaches made played a key part in making that happen, no one says anything. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the opposite.

Pau is right, of course, you don’t lose a game on a single possession, but the decisions the Lakers’ coaches made on the final play certainly tests that theory.

Darius Soriano

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30 responses to Examining a Game Losing Play — Whose Mistake Really Was It?

  1. Thanks Darius. I was starting to question my own understanding of the game. You nailed it.

    Simple rule ball should always go away from basket not toward it with a second left. Also height and length over quickness.

    Oh well they are what they are.

  2. A winnable game? Yes. However, the result is par for the course for this Lakers team. The margin for error in this league is so thin. To win an organization needs talent, a good coach and a sound owner/FO. The Lakers are out of sorts now and none of these areas are seemingly strong. Nor do they appear to be working together.

    I think the biggest need now is patience. To turn this around is going to require improvements across all of those facets. That will take a little bit of time to accomplish.

  3. Maybe it was Mitch’s call. That is why they changed it last second. Mitch knows we needed the loss. (Joking… kind of).

    Actually this team of almost nobodies (and no bodies) is almost getting too good, and we might have to credit MDA for that.

  4. Ok, Darius nailed it. But let’s use bullet points for this:

    - Harris should not be guarding a physical PF. Doesn’t matter if it’s the last possession or not.
    - On an inbounds play you always stand between your player and the basket. Let them shoot the fadeaway 3pt with a hand in his face.
    - I have no problem with guarding the inbounds pass to make it more difficult. Having said player zone the paint would work as well, since there was no time for the player inbounding the ball to get the ball back. But I’m ok with that…
    - You do not use your tallest player on the floor to do that! You simply don’t!
    - The coaches ordered Harris to do that in order to defend the 3pt shot. Did the Bulls need a 3pt play? No, so why not guard the easier shots?

    MDA is a terrible coach. Undermines the confidence of veterans and players with a proven record in the league. Can’t adjust his offensive system to the personnel available. And simply doesn’t know anything about defense. And now, to top it all, he actually tries to defend one of the worst coaching decisions I’ve seen. Rotate to help Harris? With 0.9 seconds left everyone is guarding his own man and trying to stop him from getting the ball! He’s a bad coach and the more I see the Lakers’ games the worst it gets. I’m so sorry for having defended his hiring over a year ago…

  5. I would have preferred to lose off a Dunelavy fadeaway 3ptr. Oh well.

  6. Darius: Good write up. With this roster, I am not going to question too much from the coaches with regard to specific execution. That said, pace, rotations, and post game comments are another matter.
    Terri: “To turn this around is going to require improvements across all of those facets. ” Indeed. ALL
    Renato: You are doing what so few do (I rarely do it myself). You are changing your mind, so you should be commended for that.
    rr: I am definitely now a moderate on the MD subject. At this rate – I could soon be a dove on the issue..

  7. We’ll look at the bright side. Pau was out of gas and they would have l lost in double OT since MD was still not playing Hill or Kamen if it was 20 OTs.

  8. Terri: To win an organization needs talent, a good coach and a sound owner/FO. The Lakers are out of sorts now and none of these areas are seemingly strong. Nor do they appear to be working together.
    ___

    I think this is why Laker fans are on edge – there’s not much working right now. Without a clear voice from management and no apparent strategy we are clearly a franchise in flux.

    But as mentioned we just need time to sort these things out. I think it is safe to say that in a few years time the Lakers talent will improve dramatically (please spend our cap space wisely). It’s also a safe bet that MDA will not be the coach beyond his current contract. While talent and a good coach can mask the problems of a FO – I really think that there will need to be significant changes in how Jim Buss runs things. To me that last point is the biggest unknown.

  9. People need to exhale. This was a team out-performing expectations with a bunch of guys picked up on 1 year contracts who might have upside based that at one point teams saw value in these guys as they were drafted early. Most of these guys seemed to fit in well with MDA’s philosophy and things were clicking. Now the team has been decimated by injuries so that we have a d-league guy starting at PG for 40 min and another guy on a 10 day contract plugging in holes. Yet fans are nitpicking around the edges of a bad play call.

    As in the last thread the Lakers had a great strategy for their team this year. I’m fairly confident in the future of this team as they hedged well, and really thought there was a surprisingly good team this year before the injuries set in.

  10. Ed: I think this is why Laker fans are on edge – there’s not much working right now. Without a clear voice from management and no apparent strategy we are clearly a franchise in flux.
    __

    With the NBA trade deadline approaching it’s safe to say that the FO will have to tip its hand as it relates to a strategy. It’s not necessarily a Pau deal that will reveal their intent. It’s quite possible that they hold onto Pau because the team does not want to take back salaries beyond this year. I think what will be telling is if players such as Young/Hill/Kaman are moved. That will tell me the FO is focused not on this season but next year and beyond.

  11. Why is it that the Laker’s FO and their coaches seem to be at odds? What I mean is that the FO hires a coach (Mike Brown and MDA) and nop sooner than the ink is dry on their contracts it becomes clear that they aren’t the right coach for the team. How do mistakes like that get made – on consectutive hires.

    Brown survived for a little more than a year. Its rumored that MDA may be a barrier to the Lakers attracting quality FAs this summer. What gives? I know coaches are hired to be fired but it would have been nice (with everything else going on these last 3 years) to have had some continuity on the sideline.

  12. Regarding coaches – At the time of the Brown hire I thought that the FO should have pursued Rick Adelman. He went to the Timberwolves instead. The TWolves haven’t sniffed the playoffs in his three years there. Maybe getting the right coach is harder than it seems.

  13. Bob/Ed: “Without a clear voice from management and no apparent strategy we are clearly a franchise in flux.”

    Not sure if you purposefully avoid TV or the internet, but we have discussed ad naseum here the apparent strategy of the team. Again, disagree with the strategy as much as you want to, but to say that there is no “apparent” strategy is just not true. Same goes for the “clear voice comment.” There’s Jim and Mitch. I suggest you google their names and read recent interviews so you can get an idea of what their voice and vision for the present and future is. Again, you can say you have no faith in them and disagree with their vision, but lets not pretend it does not exist.

    I’m sorry to come off as a jertk. I do not have any issues when people provide good, rational criticism. Robert, rr, Ko, Renato and others often lay down the gauntlet and is hard not to agree with some of their criticisms. However, what I hate is when people rely on generalities that are untrue or not reasonably argued. For example, the “clear voice” and “no strategy” arguments are often apparently raised by fans who do not understand what the FO is thinking. I get that this is frustrating, but it seems silly to me to get mad about not being able to decipher the very plans the FO wants to keep secret at all costs. I think that perhaps some fans want a fully disclosed plan, with short and long term checkboxes or milestones and specific free agent targets and draft positions that can be easily checked to compare progress against the plan. Problem is, NO SINGLE NBA TEAM WOULD EVER MAKE SUCH A PLAN PUBLIC. In fact, the FO would run into tampering issues if they were to come out and say, for example, “we want to trade for X player and if we can’t we will go hard for him in free agency”, “we are going to recruit LBJ heavily”. For example, Magic recently said in a radio interview if he were asked to helped the FO he would get on a plane and talk to Lebron the very next day. To some of you that sounds like a solid plan, but keep in mind that this type of action would be such an obvious tampering violation for the Lakers that it could not only cost them the ability to sign Lebron, but would also likely cost them a draft pick on the only year they actually have a pick that may matter. Is this really what you want?

    I do not know what the FO has planned for the future for sure. But I have to think that the Lakers would love nothing more than to win one more before Kobe hangs up his shorts for good.

  14. Leo/Todd: Rumor has it that Brown thinks he was let go primarily because he lost Kobe’s backing (he said as much in an interview on ESPN). Had the Manchild Howard told the FO that he would sign for sure if they got rid of MDA, I’m sure MDA would have been shown his pink slip – but when you also allegedly demand that the FO trade KOBE, you are basically asking for the impossible.

    I have read and seen instances where Kobe disagrees with MDAs coaching decisions and strategy. To me this means that MDA is moveable. I suspect the decision to keep or let him go will be made after the player exit interviews at the end of the season.

  15. Personally, I don’t think much of MD’A as a coach. His inability to incorporate guys like Kaman and Hill into this team has me perplexed. I think his positive experience with Team USA made folks overrate him. That defensive gaffe at the end of the Chicago game was totally against basic bball philosophy. We learned to stay between our man and the basket in elementary school.

  16. I hope Dantoni is handed his pink slip at his own “exit” interview.
    Free agent bigs won’t want to come here and play for Dantoni (Dwight, Hill, Kaman).
    Kobe’s extension and ego create additional challenges.
    Perhaps Pau may stay for 8-10 mil.
    He likes playing w Kobe and loves LA.
    In that case, maybe we can add one other mid-tier FA, hopefully an impact player in the draft and hang on for another year until Kevin Love comes to save us.

  17. Vasheed: the Lakers had a great strategy for their team this year.
    ___

    This past offseason the Lakers were already operating on a contingency plan that was built around a 33 year old center/40 year old PG/35 year old shooting guard (coming off a major injury). Added to this is the number of FA’s on 1 year deals (which were expected to become rotation players).

    That is not a great plan — that is wishful thinking.

  18. To echo Todd’s post above, getting the right coach is no easy feat. One of the things making it difficult is having a player of Kobe’s caliber on the team. Let’s be honest. Any coach not named Phil Jackson or Greg Popovich is not going to have a louder voice in the locker room than Kobe’s. The coach will say something and the rest of the players will look at Kobe to see if he give his approval. If not, the coach’s word goes nowhere.

    As long as the Lakers planned on keeping Kobe they needed an equally high caliber coach to keep his attention. A coach with no titles, and no Finals experience will never override Kobe’s will. Even Phil had problems doing it at times.

    Once Kobe is gone and the Lakers are truly starting from scratch they can get a young coach ready to go to the next level. But they won’t be in that position for another couple of years. In a weird way D’Antoni is the best coach for them right now and for the immediate future.

  19. I don’t know why everyone is so critical of the talent on this team? If you look at the roster there are plenty of first round draft picks. Just because you don’t flash onto the scene like Kobe, LaBron, or KD doesn’t mean that you’re a scrub. Many times the player isn’t ready when they come out of college and it takes a few years to learn the NBA game so their second team or a team willing to give them playing time is the beneficiary of their talent. With the players on this team I think a different coach could get more out of them. Certainly not a championship team or even a conference finals team but they have enough talent to be a playoff team. The players still need to have the offensive freedom they currently possess but they need to be more disciplined defensively and have more focus on defensive rebounding by all five on the court.

    (edited for trade speculation)

  20. I think specific plays highlight team deficiencies. We know the Lakers are a bad defensive team. They have been an unreliable defensive team for a few seasons now, but now they are bad. Some of it is personnelle. Pau does not have the foot speed he used to have. That is going to effect the overall defense. Not much can be done about Pau’s feet, for now. Some of the problem is defensive strategy. I think this specific play highlights that issue. In a few seasons, when the games really matter again, I would be shocked if it’s MD’A calling plays for the team.

  21. darius: I went over and over the replay with my timex stop watch; and i’ll be damn; it stopped. must be Chicago time.

    on to Miami, here’s hoping when the big hand hits 12 and the little hand reaches 5; i’ll be home in time to watch the tip off tomorrow pm.

    thanks for that you tubie thingy.

    Go lakers

  22. It’s certainly true that the final play of the Chicago game was mis-managed–more by the coaches than the players, from my perspective. (Where was J. Hill at the end of the game? Where was Wes Johnson? Where was Sacre? Why was Harris told to play in back of Taj Gibson rather than in front of him? Why was Harris in the game at all? Why were our best defensive players on the bench on the most important defensive play of the entire game?)

    But this one play actually underscores larger problems with the Lakers. And most of those problems, IMO, point to the coaching staff and the coaching of defense. MDA and his staff just don’t seem to make the right defensive calls when needed. The wrong players are in the game at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. The players are obviously not being coached well on defense. Or they’re not listening to the coaches. And if that’s the case, then this points to a credibility issue between the coaching staff and the players which we’ve discussed before.

    This was one play…and one game. But it’s the entire season in a microcosm. Defense is the issue. And defense is a matter of effort. And it’s a matter of coaching.

  23. T Rogers: “Any coach not named Phil Jackson or Greg Popovich is not going to have a louder voice in the locker room than Kobe’s. ” You state that as if it is totally obvious, which of course – it is. “In a weird way D’Antoni is the best coach for them right now and for the immediate future.” I also agree, however “immediate”, means for the rest of this season (unless of course we are going on the multi year tank, which we might be). If next year is going to be another 3 ring circus, I can think of no better man to be in the center ring wearing a top hat.
    P. Ami: “In a few seasons, when the games really matter again, I would be shocked if it’s MD’A calling plays for the team.” What a depressing statement. If I could refute it I would. However the odds of every bit of that statement being correct, are near 100%.

  24. Mid

    Ding ding ding

    Winner!

  25. Nice write up, Darius.

    Mid-Wilshire, you hit the nail on the head. My thoughts below are similar.

    Robert, “If next year is going to be another 3 ring circus, I can think of no better man to be in the center ring wearing a top hat.” Best laugh today.

    There is a thing called strategy and game planning that offsets your own teams’ deficiencies. Yes, Pau is older and slow of foot due to the excessive mileage of playing for his home country and the NBA. Nuanced levels of ineptitude are apparent with this staff, displayed by that one simple out of bounds play under the basket. The layered problem with that one play, exemplify the reason the Lakers have lost closely contested games this year, personnel be damned:
    i. Why would you put your shot blocker on the man out of bounds? Wesley Johnson would have been perfect in that role, a player with length that could have disrupted the vision of the inbounds passer. Pau provided little resistance on the vision of the out of bounds passer, so he was of little use in that position.
    ii. Why put a player in a position to fail? Manny Harris is a fine little defender, but once again the coach has put a player in an untenable position. He’s fighting for his career and was carving a niche as a quick, tough defender with a feel for scoring; instead of garnering that acclaim his name is now bandied about as the scapegoat for the Lakers loss. Wesley is at one time a player capable of defending a position from the 1-3 and the next he can’t even get on the floor over a player on a 10-day contract.
    iii. Why are you concerned about defending a three point shot when the Bulls only needed two points to win the game? The Bulls needed the most efficient way to score two points, and guess what they got exactly what they wanted, a one step layup at the rim. That play works consistently at the Boys and Girls Club basketball games, but one does not expect to see that play work in 0.9 seconds in the NBA. Period!!!!

    Pau is correct, in that a game is not lost on one play, however games are won almost nightly on one play.

  26. “He’s fighting for his career and was carving a niche as a quick, tough defender with a feel for scoring; instead of garnering that acclaim his name is now bandied about as the scapegoat for the Lakers loss.”

    I’ve been holding back my MDA vitriol for most of the year since apparently for some all on-court problems are the fault of the players. D’Antoni always has an excuse and always has a whipping boy. He guaranteed millions of dollars if he’s fired tomorrow and yet he passively/lamely attempts to lay partial fault with Manny Harris.

    Injuries do not make up mind-numbingly insane rotations, inflexibility, and cavalierly targeting individual players. This is his second stop since his one stop of glory and his patterns and excuses are the same.

    My head nearly exploded when I watched that inbound play. After reading that he told Harris to drag on the cutter the only thing I could think was that it was part of a master plan to narrow the gap with Milwaukee.

  27. @Robert
    “If next year is going to be another 3 ring circus, I can think of no better man to be in the center ring wearing a top hat.”

    Comment of the year my friend. Thanks for making a long day end with a chuckle!

  28. T. Rogers makes an excellent point about the type of coach the Lakers really need. Someone who has the gravitas to command the Mamba’s respect. Problem is, the Jacksons and Popoviches are few and far between. That’s why Brian Shaw made so much sense. A championship pedigree as both a player and an assistant, Shaw has one quality I love and that is fearlessness. Man was big time clutch as a player and sat there giving input on the bench during championship moments. He was a Laker through and through. Shaw was the right man to lead the Lakers back, IMO. Water under the bridge, but when the FO abandoned its affair with Shaw, the pattern for mediocrity was set.

  29. Kenny T,

    Shaw also didn’t back down from Kobe. During the icy Kobe/Shaq years Shaw (along with Fisher)
    was one of the few players on the team who connected with Kobe. Most of the other guys aligned with Shaq. Kobe has tremendous respect for Brian. You are right that it is water under the bridge now. But it does seem like he was the best coach for these twilight years of Kobe’s career.

  30. George,

    The preseason roster with its salary structure was a legacy of the blocked Gasol trade and the aftermath of Dwight signing elsewhere. Many anaylists had the Lakers as a lock for the Finals last year. So coming into this year the team had a few goals to attain.

    1. Build a playoff contender with limited financial resources.
    - The Lakers added a bunch of low budget guys who drafted high in the past who might have the possible unrealized talent to lift this team to the Playoffs. Prior to the string of injuries the Lakers were a .500 team looking at the lower seeds of the playoffs. Looks like the F.O. did a pretty good job.

    2. Retain financial flexibility going into the next season to sign free agents.
    -The Lakers took on mostly 1 year deals that all come off the books allowing the team to pursue higher caliber players next year. I disagree with alot of posters as to this meaning a max contract player as I dodn’t see much in that market but nonetheless the Lakers should be able to aqcuire more bonafide talent next year.

    3. Find quality players who could be future building blocks.
    - The Lakers drafted Kelly which I think is working out great. Guys like Young, Henry, and Farmar produced and I suspect the team will be looking to keeping some of these guys they discovered. Lastly this was a great year to gamble on a 1 year roster. As if things didn’t work out the Lakers have their 1st round pick to help bolster next year’s roster.

    Really as an organization this was tactically a great year. They put together a good team out of scrap parts. They hedged well enough that if things didn’t work out as happened after the injuries that they have assests going into the future.

    Whats better is the F.O. has tradable assets right now with which they could swing a deal or 2 to bring in more talent soon.