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.
Dwight Howard stepped to the free throw line and took a deep breath. Dwight stepped to the free throw line. The free throw line. The line. Again and again, 39 times, matching his total number of points. It’s a lot of times at the line. It’s a lot of points. It was his first trip back to a city where he had been much loved, a city that he jilted badly, awkwardly and way too many times before it was finally over – a long messy divorce in that messy way that divorces can be. There can be a fine line between being fouled for basketball reasons and being fouled for other reasons altogether. Sometimes the line isn’t there at all.
There’s guys that always have to clown around. Dwight’s one of them. He’s the kid in school that wants to make you laugh, the actor at the party who won’t stop after he manages to tell a good one. Dueling Shakespeare lines anyone? It’s just who he is and the fact that he came wrapped in an outsized package with outsized expectations further complicated things. Playing hurt and making excuses and telling jokes when it just wasn’t that cool anymore. Until he started playing according to the expectations of a major media market and the team started winning. We love our zany guy because he’s our zany guy. Winning cures all.
Tonight’s the second night of a back-to-back, step right up folks, we got your tickets here. The Lakers are always a draw when the big top comes to town but there’s a new storyline now. The giant is awake and the national swivel-heads are starting to rethink this thing. The Atlanta Hawks are also on a back-to-back and a bit of a skid. Currently in seventh place in the east, they lost to Miami last night. Their starting point guard Jeff Teague rolled an ankle late in the third quarter and is listed as questionable. The Lakers arrive at an opportune time, looking to extend their win streak to five.
The Lakers comeback parade hasn’t turned into a bandwagon yet but it could. At the moment, it’s a fine line. The team has only just reached the lunatic fringes of a playoff bracket they were supposed to own. Seventeen games to go and we’re drawing beads on ducks in a gallery and hitting more than not. The lights in the cabin were turned low but a big man with a broad smile wasn’t done telling jokes and doing impressions. His teammates looked up occasionally and smiled with earbuds in. We love you man. Just don’t leave us until we’re ready for you to leave us. And keep winning. The night went dark and turned to day and night once again. And the banks of white light clicked on and bodies crashed and whistles blew. Dwight Howard stepped to the free throw line and took a deep breath.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
The glow of the Lakers’ galvanizing fourth-quarter comeback on Wednesday still lingers but the next bend lies right ahead. It’s a big night for western teams on the playoff fringe. Houston visits Golden State, Utah visits Chicago and the Lakers host Toronto.
What does this mean? Golden State has a two-game edge on Houston, possesses a solid home record and has won two in a row. Utah has a weak road record while Chicago’s coming off a couple tough losses – they’d love a win before heading west (facing the Lakers at Staples on Sunday). As for the Lakers themselves, winning is absolutely everything – currently 1.5 games out of eighth. With the right combo of wins/losses tonight, they could be just a half-game back come midnight.
It’s been a story about numbers lately, written here, there and everywhere. And as the Lakers demonstrated on Wednesday, there may well be a new wrinkle – Dwight Howard says the win brought the team closer together and for a season marked by injuries, inconsistency and conflict, the statement could be more than just words.
With just twenty games left in what was once termed a cakewalk season, the Lakers have a shot – to make the playoffs. This is where we find ourselves. Back at Staples, facing a team with a 9 & 22 road record on a night when the western conference schedule is as favorable as could be for a giant step forward. For Dwight Howard, another chance for redemption in front of a home crowd that wants to believe. For Steve Nash, he’ll be facing the team that most people assumed he would sign with during the off-season. It has been a period of willing reinvention for the 39 year-old guard. And for Kobe Bryant, there are no simple ways to convey what he means to the team or the city or the game itself. Tonight, he’ll take to the court once more, Sisyphus with a bad elbow and a glare, just looking for the win.
“The only thing that matters is the present right now,” Howard said when asked about his free agency. “There’s no need for me to talk about what happens at the end of the season, and there’s no need to go back and forth about it. I just feel like, at the end of the year, that’s when I should have my opportunity to make my own decision. And I shouldn’t be pressured or criticized for waiting until the end of the year. I don’t think it’s fair for my teammates. I don’t think it’s fair for the fans or anybody to be worried about what’s going to happen at the end of the year.”
Dwight Howard has become quite deft at answering questions about his future. The statement above is from a scrum at all-star weekend, but just as easily could have been handed out at the Lakers’ media day in October or before the Christmas Day game against the Knicks, or a couple of weeks ago after a win over the Nets. Howard’s response has become a canned statement, and for what it’s worth, I’m perfectly okay with that. Some feel that Howard should give a commitment through the media and let fans know that he’s going to stay, even if that’s really not true. Personally, I see little value in that.
Why lie? Just to get the media and/or fans off your back? What happens if/when you go against your word and leave? Won’t those quotes come back to him and end up making him look even worse? In Oklahoma City, fans and media were quick to cite James Harden’s quotes about not needing the max to remain with the Thunder after declining a max offer directly led to his trad to Houston. These are more than soundbites; they’re the record that will be used for/against you later on.
Which makes statements that Dwight also made a bit more interesting than the boilerplate language he’s been using all year. From the same Amick column:
“There’s no need to talk about (free agency),” he had said during the un-fun scrum. “I want to have fun. I want to enjoy myself and not talk about free agency or what I’m going to do at the end of the season.”
And this: “I’ve got to do what makes me happy. That’s it.”
And what makes you happy?
“Having fun on the court,” Howard said. “That makes me happy.”
Are you having fun now?
“Not at the present time, no,” he said. “Hopefully it gets better.”
In reading the tea leaves, this statement implies doom and gloom. It is, after all, a simple formula: Dwight likes fun; Dwight isn’t having fun; Dwight will leave in free agency.