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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.

Lakers’ fans, maybe more than any other fan-base, love to have their whipping boys. Typically, these are guys who don’t consistently play well, but also fit snugly into two different categories: 1). Guys who fans think should play a certain way, but don’t (Pau needs to be tougher!) or 2), Guys who aren’t seen as earning their paycheck. Players who have fallen into the latter category in recent seasons range from Lamar Odom (when he was making near max money before the Lakers went to the Finals in 2008), Luke Walton (whose six year contract at the full mid-level was instantly criticized by a certain sect of fans), and, most recently Steve Blake (who, in his first few years of his contract, didn’t live up to what fans expected from a guy making $4 million a year).

It’s Blake’s inclusion on this list that’s always been somewhat puzzling to me. Not because Blake was playing well and didn’t deserve some criticism for his on-court production, but rather because as a back up point guard making less than the mid-level, I never really viewed Blake as either A). overpaid or B). not playing hard or giving it his all on the court. Sure, Blake could have played better and there were times I wanted more from him considering his skill set. That said, when a player competes hard and is put in a position to be a role player who mostly plays off the ball and is only given limited opportunities, I don’t necessarily think it is fair to jump on him when his production isn’t what you’d want. Critique is one thing, but some of the blowback Blake has received in his time as a Laker has gone way beyond fair criticism.

This season, though, the much maligned Blake has turned those criticisms upside down by playing some of the best basketball of his career and certainly his best as a Laker. Consider the following:

*Since becoming the starting point guard 3 games ago, Blake has dished out 37 assists while committing only 8 turnovers.

*In those same three games, Blake has assisted on 47.4% of the Lakers’ baskets when he’s on the floor. In the past 40 years, with a minimum of 40 games played, only 12 players have put up an assist percentage over 47 over the course of a season. The guys on that list include names like Magic, Stockton, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas, and Deron Williams.

*Scoring wise, Blake hasn’t been amazing, but he has been scoring 11 points a night while shooting 44% from the field (including 50% of his two point shots — a pretty big feat for a guy whose two point percentage is normally in the low 40’s).

In essence, what we are seeing, is a player who is both comfortable in the offense he’s being asked to run and operating in an offense that finally allows him to show off more of the skills that made him a priority signing 4 years ago. As Mike D’Antoni said at halftime of the Pistons’ game, Blake is getting comfortable with the reads within this system and that comfort is showing on a nightly basis.

On this set, the Lakers start out running an half-hearted pin down action on the back side to free Jordan Hill up at the top of the floor to receive a pass. This flows seamlessly into a swing pass to Blake that sets up a pick and roll between Blake and Hill. Blake, reading that the D is a bit lax, goes away from the pick towards the baseline and draws a double team. After pivoting and finding Hill as a release valve, Blake instantly runs another P&R with Hill and drops him a nice pocket bounce pass along the baseline that Hill gathers and then rises up to sink a jumper.

On this next set, Blake again runs a P&R with Hill. This time, however, Blake accepts the pick right away and darts down the lane line to threaten the D. When Blake draws a second defender, he patiently strings out his dribble and waits for Hill to create an angle to receive a pass. Once Hill is open, Blake bounces a picture perfect pass to his big man that Hill is able to scoop up and turn into an easy basket.

On this last play, Blake has the ball high with Pau inching up to set a pick. Blake reads the D and decides again to go away from the screen and pressure the D by pushing the ball at Tony Allen who is covering Jodie Meeks in the corner. As Blake continues his dribble, you can see the Grizzlies defense respond to his hard dribble combined with Pau’s sliding towards the paint. Blake has successfully occupied his own man, taken Marc Gasol with him towards the hoop, and turned Tony Allen completely towards him in a help position. With Allen’s head turned, Meeks cuts right behind him and Blake hits him with a bounce pass that Meeks turns into an uncontested lay up.

None of these assists are spectacular passes where Blake is making the highlight play. But just because these are simple actions doesn’t mean Blake doesn’t deserve credit. In every one of these plays, Blake is manipulating the defense by keeping his dribble alive and attacking specific spots on the floor. By threatening the defense, Blake is successfully occupying multiple defenders and then picking out the open man with textbook passes that set them up for uncontested shots. What he’s doing epitomizes floor generaliship and is a key reason that, at least right now, this team doesn’t miss Steve Nash much at all.

No, Blake isn’t the scoring threat that Nash has been in his career and, despite good numbers from behind the arc for the season, Blake won’t garner the same attention off the ball that Nash has (and still does). That said, what Blake is doing with the ball in his hands is just as much (if not more) than Nash could be expected to do at this stage of his career and goes to show how much Blake really can offer this team offensively. Again, he may not be doing anything that gives you visions of Magic Johnson, but his technical precision and ability to make the play in front of him certainly reminds of a late career Stockton or, maybe more apt, what Mark Price used to do for those old Cavs teams.

Not bad for a guy who used to be every Lakers’ fan’s whipping boy.

Sunday’s loss to the Spurs showed great effort by the Lakers, but also a severe lack of outside shooting. The Lakers only made 10 of their 43 shots outside the paint, struggling to generate any sort of offensive momentum against a defense set on crowding the paint like a Best Buy on black Friday.

The Spurs understand that with Kobe Bryant tweeting from his couch and Steve Nash admittedly ailing physically, the Lakers’ offense is going to be a post heavy attack. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are the team’s best scorers and feeding them the ball to let them create makable shots is the one advantage the Lakers have in this series, even if the Spurs possess two very good post defenders in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. It simply makes too much sense, then, for the Spurs to crowd the paint and make the Lakers’ bigs earn any basket that comes from a direct post-up while simultaneously trying to force them to pass the ball out to shooters who simply aren’t as dangerous.

For a better idea of what Dwight and Pau are facing on every touch, we go to the eye in the sky. Here’s a fourth quarter post touch for Dwight Howard right after the ball has been entered into the post:

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Dwight Howard is the Lakers’ defensive anchor. Since the all-star break, he’s been flashing the dominance on that side of the ball that he’s built his reputation on. With this version of Dwight Howard, the Lakers’ defensive ceiling is raised several notches simply because of his ability to move in space, contest shots, and still recover to the paint to rebound. A player that big and that active can make up for a lot of the short comings of his teammates.

But Dwight Howard can’t do it alone. In fact, that’s been one of the main downfalls of the Lakers’ defense this year. Even when Dwight wasn’t playing as well as he is now on defense, he was more often than not in a position that approximated where he needed to be within the team’s scheme. The problem was, his teammates were not. So while Dwight tried to slide around the floor and contest shots with his normal enthusiasm (sometimes more effectively than others), his mates often left him on an island on the back side to guard multiple players and work the defensive glass. This is too much to ask of a fully healthy Howard, much less the diminished version we saw for the better part of the season.

For the Lakers to tighten up their defense, then, they need the players who surround Dwight to do their jobs more consistently.

Due to the issues of the roster, the Lakers will never be a team who’s great at denying dribble penetration. They simply employ too many players who lack the lateral quickness and athleticism to slow players who attack them in isolation or when coming off screens. Though they work hard, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, Pau Gasol are four players who are often targeted in isolation and attacked off the dribble. Further, Kobe, Earl Clark and Jodie Meeks can lack awareness when guarding in space and can give up lanes to the rim. That’s every player (not named Dwight Howard) in the Lakers’ rotation and all are prone to giving up dribble penetration to their man.

Understanding this fact means that what’s most important to the Lakers’ team defense are the rotations that happen once guys get into the paint. As mentioned, Dwight has mostly done his job this year (as has Gasol, though he’s nowhere near the deterrent that Dwight is) at stepping up and challenging shots. But it’s the guys who play behind Dwight (the wings and the other big man) who need to better be in position as helpers to challenge plays near the rim and rebound defensively.

This is where Kobe Bryant matters a great deal.

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And just think about execution, what are we going to do? You’ve got to look at what teams are doing against us in terms of spreading us out and rolling a big and now we collapse and now we’re late to the shooters. This is about the third game in a row where that’s happened to us. So we have to figure out defensively what we’re going to do.

That quote is from Kobe Bryant after last night’s loss to the Warriors. Kobe seems to be describing how teams are attacking the Lakers with dribble penetration and when Dwight steps up the guards are collapsing the paint to help on the diving big man only to then struggle to recover back out to the perimeter to cover shooters.

Kobe, of course, is correct in his assessment that the team has been struggling to recover to shooters once the ball is penetrated. This is fundamental basketball at its finest. Teams want to attack the paint, draw help, and then pass to the open man for an easy basket. And for the past several games, Lakers’ opponents have been doing just that to great success. Whether it was Curry and Jarrett Jack last night, John Wall in the Wizards’ game, Goran Dragic in the Suns’ game, or Isaiah Thomas in the Kings game, the Lakers have been facing guards who have been breaking them down off the dribble and causing a ton of problems.

The epitome of what Kobe described above is illustrated in this play (though, the pass isn’t made to a three point shooter):

The play starts with Blake isolated on Steph Curry. Jodie Meeks is guarding Carl Landry (a discussion for another day) and it looks like Landry is positioning himself to set a screen to Curry’s right with Meeks sliding with him to get into a hedge position. Curry, recognizing he can get a step on Blake, blows right by him to his left and away from any potential pick from Landry. Nash is the closest player who can step up to deter the drive, but feints help in order to recover back to his man who is in the strong side corner. Defensive principles dictate that you don’t leave that man, but in this case a strong argument could be made to ignore that principle based off the speed at which Blake has been beaten and the configuration of the defense behind him.

Nash, though, lets Curry go and that leaves Dwight Howard as the last line of defense against an advancing Curry and his own man (David Lee) lurking baseline. Dwight half steps up to deter Curry and forces a pass, but with no one there to pick up Lee, he gets an easy score with Dwight compounding things by fouling him. After the play, Dwight dejectedly turns away as this was simply another example of the team’s defense being so bad that he was put in an untenable position. (As an aside, I love the Warriors announcer talking about Howard being half asleep when it was Blake’s defense that was the root cause. If anyone looked asleep, it was Blake who got beat by a straight line drive right into the heart of the defense.)

Even though there are ways to diagram a defense to help stop a play like this one even after Blake is beat — Nash takes Curry, Dwight rotates to Jack in the corner, Kobe slides into the paint to pick up Lee and Meeks covers the back side all by himself — the fact is this play is indicative of what the Lakers’ issues have been on defense for most of the season. Ball handler gets beat, Dwight steps up, no one helps the helper, and the opponent gets an easy shot. And, if it’s not that exact formula, it’s a variation of it where after someone is beat off the dribble the defensive wings get so caught up in helping that they leave shooters open around the perimeter in favor of trying to do battle on the boards or take away the type of pass that Lee got from Curry.

So, if you’re looking for why the Lakers are a mediocre (at best) defensive team, look no further than what we saw last night. Yes it hurt that Ron didn’t play in the 2nd half. It’s also true that Dwight wasn’t as disruptive last night as he’s been in recent games. There’s also a point to be made about indifference to making the harder play and instead settling too often for the easy one. But the facts are the facts: the Lakers, as a team, have trouble guarding on the perimeter and it leaves them vulnerable in the paint where their big men are forced to help far too often without an adequate support system behind them to deny shots at the rim while still being able to contest perimeter jumpers.

Until that is sorted out, whether through scheme, better commitment from the players, or a combination of both, the Lakers will fail on defense over the long haul. That may not be what you want to hear, but it’s certainly the truth.

In beating the Bulls, the Lakers really showed how they can manipulate very good defenses with screen actions designed to get their best players makable shots. This was especially true late in the game where the Lakers picked on Carlos Boozer on multiple consecutive possessions in order to close out the game.

Of all the plays the Lakers ran against the Bulls, two stood out to me, and not just because they were successful. Both had very good design, but both were also relative simple actions that preyed on the quick reacting Bulls’ scheme in a way that exposed their aggressive help actions.

First, was a great play the Lakers ran out of a timeout. The Lakers started the play with Nash up high with Kobe on the left side of the floor and Dwight near the top of the key:

Kobe Flare 1

Nash goes to his left hand to run a 1/2 pick and roll with Kobe. After Deng hedges on Nash, he actually gets bumped by his own man before starting to chase Kobe who has darted to the right side of the floor. Only, when Deng starts his chase, he’s met by a nice screen from Dwight Howard:

Kobe Flare 2

Dwight gets Deng in a severe trail position with his pick and Kobe is wide open by the time the ball lands in his hands. By the time he raises up to shoot, look how far Deng is away from him:

Kobe Flare 3

The Lakers haven’t run this type of flare screen action a lot this year so it’s not like it was an easy play to scout. Coming out of a timeout, D’Antoni drew up the perfect play and Kobe came through by hitting the shot, resulting in a 15 point lead that really put stress on the Bulls’ offense. Here’s the play in real time:

The second play was another screen action, this time starting out of a Nash/Dwight pick and roll. We start with a similar set up as in the play before, with Nash high, Dwight in position to set a screen for him, and Kobe on the left wing:

Dwight Screen

After coming off a Dwight screen, Nash goes hard to his left to initiate a dribble pitch/hand off with Kobe who is circling back towards him. Notice as well that Dwight is trailing Nash rather than rolling hard to hoop as he would in a normal P&R:

Nash hand off

After giving the ball to Kobe, Nash sets a screen on Deng. And, after having to navigate that screen, Deng has to fight over the top of a second screen from Dwight. That double screen action gives Kobe a lot of daylight to operate, with Joakim Noah having to step up to ensure that Kobe doesn’t get into the paint:

Double screen

This is where Kobe’s smarts come into play. When seeing Noah, Kobe flattens out his dribble and occupies the big man in order to draw him up and away from his original assignment (Dwight). With Nash keeping his spacing high on the floor, Meeks and Ron spacing on the right side, and Dwight beginning a roll to the rim, Kobe patiently accepts Noah’s defense, waits for Deng to recover and has now created a situation where he’s double teamed but still able to make a play for a teammate:

Boozer watching

The purpose of this action isn’t just to make any pass, however. Dwight rolling hard to the rim after setting the screen is the primary target. And with Carlos Boozer still standing outside the right lane line, Kobe correctly picks out Dwight for an easy dunk:

This play really was the Lakers picking on Boozer, who should have helped off Ron and taken away Dwight’s dive by standing in the paint. With Meeks and Nash the other two players on the wing, Boozer’s guarding the non-shooter on the floor and it’s his responsibility to duck in.

But the beauty of the play design is that Boozer really is stuck in no man’s land. If he does slide over to help on Dwight, he leaves a shooter open for the most efficient three point shot there is in the game. And even though he’s guarding a non-threat, the Bulls defensive scheme is one that emphasizes not giving up that corner shot. So while Boozer is at fault here, I think the play design really did a good job of opening up multiple options for a high efficient shot.

Moving forward, it looks like the Lakers really are starting to find more options on offense by adding wrinkles to their traditional actions in order to create good shots. Whether it’s a flare screen for Kobe or a staggered pick and roll action that opens up Dwight for a dunk, Coach D’Antoni is getting more creative. Furthermore, he’s doing so using his three best players and utilizing them in ways that maximize their abilities to be threats on the floor. Continuing to use these types of plays should only make the Lakers more dangerous and an even bigger pain to game plan for.

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.

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There have been several requests for breakdowns on the Lakers’ defense. But, rather than look at what the team does in totality on that side of the ball, I’ve decided to look at various parts of the team’s defense and provide breakdowns on those specific actions. Today, we look at the Lakers’ P&R defense.

It’s a mimic league. It has been for a long time. Coaches see something and say, “Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that.” Screen-roll. Three-point shooters in the corner. Bigs that can roll and pop. San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.

That quote is from a Phil Jackson in a sit down with SI’s Jack McCallum. Of course, Phil is 100% correct. The NBA is full of copycats and once there’s a certain amount of success with a particular style — especially if it can be easily emulated — other teams will flock to playing that way.

With the current rules regarding hand checking and the defensive three second rule, as well as a shift towards more mobile big men who can space the floor, the NBA has become a pick and roll league. It’s really a simple formula: Guards can’t be defended as physically on the perimeter + an open middle due to defensive three seconds and big men spacing the floor = a style of play conducive to the P&R. A key for defenses, then, is the ability to slow this action.

The Lakers, this season, haven’t been one of the better teams to defend this action. Per my Synergy sports, the Lakers are 14th in the NBA in points per play (PPP) on shots taken by the ball handler in the P&R and 26th in PPP on shots taken by the roll man. Much of that is directly related to the simple combination of the defenders the Lakers have on the floor and way they play this action. Continue Reading…