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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