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 are 69 games into what’s been one of the wilder seasons in memory. Considering this is the Lakers we’re talking about, that’s saying something. I mean, remember Mike Brown? Him manning the reigns as Lakers’ head coach seems like years ago, not just earlier in this campaign. This season has aged in dog years and it seems crazy how much has happened to this roster in just the past 9 months.
If you go back to the start of this year, however, one of the key stories that still endures is how Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant would (and since have) play together. The question marks about mixing their playing styles, how their leadership qualities would mesh, and whether they would be able to co-exist in a way that maximizes both players’ talents.
Those answers seem almost fully formed, even as the players themselves evolve and continue to refine their on-court interactions. They have found ways to make it work, with Nash becoming more of an on ball threat and Kobe taking on more ball handling responsibilities, both making the types of shifts to their games that speak to their status as all-timers. They’ve found a sort of kinship in their longevity, their work ethic, their desire to win at any cost, and, yes, their ability adapt to what the team needs.
They’ve found a way to do it together and though this year has offered some very tough times, watching Kobe and Nash ply their craft and build towards something together has been one of the few rewards this campaign has offered to this point.
With all that said, I offer a couple of very good (though short) reads from around the web today. The first, is from Michael Pina at The Classical who talks about Nash’s shifting role this season and his ability to still be magical even as his age advances. He concludes with a statement about Nash being free to do more with Kobe off the floor (something that I agree with) and how maybe the team should do more of:
Is it possible to underrate a certain Hall of Famer? Nash isn’t what he used to be, but he’s still eighth in the league in three-point field goal percentage and 13th in true shooting percentage, and doing things as a playmaker that nobody not named John Stockton or Jason Kidd have done so late in their careers. Nash can still be a lead ball-handler on a very good team, and those shooting numbers can still coax a SMH from any skeptic. The Lakers are not better with Bryant on the sideline, of course. But Nash may well be, and will at the very least be free to do the things that he does better than just about everyone in the world. He isn’t who he was, naturally; none of us are. But it should be interesting—and could well be dazzling—to see what Steve Nash becomes as the season goes on.
Give the entire piece a read, it’s worth your time.
“It’s great to be with him,” Jamison said. “I love a guy who expects so much from his teammates. He pushes his teammates. After games, we’re traveling, guys are on their laptops, their iPads, watching movies, listening to music, this guy is watching film. He’s breaking down situations. I’ll be watching a movie, he’ll tap me like, ‘Come here.’ He’ll dissect plays like, ‘This is what we got to do, me and you got to get this going.’ I mean, this guy eats, sleeps basketball and the only thing he wants to do is to win another championship and I’ve never seen anybody as focused, as dedicated as Kobe.”
I appreciated Jamison’s honesty about Kobe, a player we all make assumptions about but never truly know fully. Jamison was able to pull back the curtain somewhat, and show us that leadership is complex and that Kobe’s style is certainly unique.
Kobe and Nash — both 17 year veterans, both league MVP’s, both future hall of famers, both at a stage of their careers where even with all the accolades winning is all that matters. Teammates for the first time and sorting out their roles together, growing as teammates together, and, though late in the season, finally finding a way to get this team on track together.
The game against the Hawks the other night was a mess. Two banged-up teams on the end of a back-to-back and by the time it was over, the Lakers were a whole lot gimpier. That plus another loss at a point in the season where eighth-place teams can’t afford to be losing. If they come out with a game like that tonight, the Indiana Pacers will eat them alive. Believe it.
At the moment, Kobe Bryant’s availability is uncertain. There is a common way of thinking when it comes to Kobe’s injuries. He is able to play through extraordinary pain, his ability to compartmentalize is legendary. We are spoiled as fans because we have come to expect it and count on it. The same goes for his teammates. They’re talking a good game right now about stepping into the breach. Let’s hope they deliver – a gimpy right elbow and sprained left ankle are just the latest in Mamba’s long parade of hurts and at some point, the candles will simply fail to light.
May of 2011 was a dark time for the Lakers. The team had been bounced in the second round, ending Phil Jackson’s last stand. Brian Shaw had generally been considered the front-runner to take over Jackson’s spot but barely got a proforma sniff. He learned about Mike Brown’s hiring through the media and was just one member of a mass forced exodus. Much has been written about that strange chapter and much more will be written once Kobe’s days as a player are done – it’s just too fascinating to ignore, in a repelling kind of way.
There will always be questions about what a Shaw-coached team might have accomplished. The lockout-shortened season was rough all over. It’s hard to imagine however, that his familiarity with the team would have been a detriment. The collision of new faces and a new system seemed unending, a slow-motion chain reaction that continued through another second-round exit. And then it started up again in the fall as old wounds were reopened and another curious coaching interview took place.
Tonight, Kobe Bryant may or may not be in uniform. Brian Shaw will be sitting in his customary spot next to Frank Vogel. The Pacers are currently in second place in the east with New York close behind. The Lakers have been pushing hard lately to get into the hunt and now have to push harder just to stay in. And per usual, nobody’s pushed harder than Bryant. Tonight another episode as the Lakers world turns.
Was the play dirty? That’s the question of the day and that gets complicated rather quickly. On twitter I used that term, but would amend it to say, instead, that it was simply an unsafe play by Jones. There are plenty of ways to contest a fadeaway jump shot, but walking into and underneath an airborne player is one of the more dangerous ways to do so. Here’s a screen shot of Jones contesting Kobe’s shot:
The reason why I’d say “unsafe” rather than “dirty” is because the latter implies intent. I’ve no clue what Jones’ intent was and prefer not to get into that at all. This in’t the real world where we get to go into a court room, hear testimony, and make a determination. There’s no “you can’t handle the truth” moment coming here. So, I see no need to get into that. Instead, let’s focus on the act and that act was Jones walking underneath a player in the air. That’s an unsafe play no matter how you slice it. I’m not out to disparage Jones or judge his actions through the prism of what I thought he meant to do. What he meant to do isn’t as important as what he actually did. And, in this case, the pictures and video show what he did.
What’s done is done, though. Arguing over it is less important than what happens next. The Lakers, simply based off their press release, imply Kobe will miss time. And, while there’s a train of thought that Kobe won’t miss any time (he is Kobe after all), I think he’ll miss at least a game and maybe more.
If that ends up being the case, the Lakers’ lack of depth on the wing will be a big challenge to overcome. Forget for a second that it’s Kobe missing time and simply focus on the fact that he’s currently the team’s starting shooting guard and its backup small forward. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s first substitutions are typically for Jamison to come in for Clark and for Meeks to replace Ron. That latter substitution slides Kobe up to SF where he’s a fixture of a small ball lineup. If Kobe can’t play any SF, who will?
Meeks and Blake are undersized for SG, much less SF. Ron has actually been playing PF more than SF if you look at who he defends on a nightly basis. Does this mean more minutes for Clark? He’s seen a decline in his minutes and production over the last month and isn’t exactly 100% healthy either (he’s had ankle, knee, and finger issues lately). Ebanks is glued to the bench and has played exactly 11 minutes since the turn of the calendar year. I don’t see this going well if Kobe is out for a prolonged period.
That said, knowing what we do of Kobe, he’ll get treatment on his ankle 24/7 until he can get back on the floor, though. He’s really not human in that regard.
In better injury news, Pau Gasol says he hopes to be back next week and it’s being reported he’ll return to the lineup as a starter. This is good news on both fronts. Yes, on both fronts. Before Pau got hurt, we were already starting to see a trend where Clark’s value as a starter was slipping from a team performance standpoint. The starting lineup that included Clark was essentially playing even basketball, their plus/minus numbers flat and their efficiency differentials hovering near zero. Meanwhile, when Clark was replaced by Pau, those numbers were beginning to trend up in a way that reinforced all the preseason belief that these players actually could perform well together as complementary pieces. Yes the sample was small and there were issues to work out defensively, but the numbers and the eye test support the “Big four plus Ron” lineup was starting to make headway as a cohesive unit.
Even though Pau will return as a starter, his biggest value should still come as an anchor for the 2nd unit. The bench has really struggled to create consistent offense outside of some good chemistry between Steve Blake and Jamison in the P&R. With Pau back, he can be the man in the middle whose passing and ability to score from all over the floor serve as a ballast for the bench.
Furthermore, his defense should also be quite useful. The Lakers’ defense is actually 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Pau is on the floor versus when he sits, per the NBA’s stats database. It’s often easy to forget that even though Pau isn’t the best option to cover perimeter oriented bigs, he still can protect the rim with his length and do so without fouling. Don’t get me wrong, teams will still attack the paint when Dwight sits, but I’d much rather have Pau back at the basket than a combination of Jamison and Clark.
How the rotation shakes out when Pau is back will remain to be seen (and we’ll cover this in detail when he does return), but I would not be surprised to see Clark become more of a SF backing up Ron with Jamison taking the majority of the PF minutes when Pau is out of the game or playing C. Simply based off recent trends and how this coaching staff has deployed lineups in the past, I could see a bench lineup of Blake, Meeks, Clark, Jamison, and Pau starting the 2nd quarter, for example. But, I could also see Clark on the bench with a Dwight, Jamison, Ron trio next to Kobe (or Meeks) and Nash (or Blake) getting big minutes with Clark the odd man out due to Jamison’s greater ability to stretch the floor.
Getting away from Laker stuff for a second, show of hands (or, in the comments below) of who would want to do a FB&G March Madness bracket challenge. We didn’t do one last year but I’m considering doing one again this year, but only if the demand is high. We’d figure out a prize for the winner.
Also, I’m interested in reviving the FB&G mailbag, but only if there’s interest in it. If you have questions, you can email me by clicking that envelope on the right side of the banner at the top of the site. Just put “mailbag question” in the subject line and ask away.
Lastly, friend of FB&G and video maker extraordinaire LD2K has produced another gem that is worth your time. Here you go:
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.