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.
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.
Halfway (well, 65.8%, but who’s counting) through its annual marathon, the NBA bestows upon its rank-and-file (players, coaches, hell, fans) a much-needed four-day respite from the mental and physical grind of 82 in ~175. In 2013, nowhere is this midseason oasis more welcome than in Lakerland, where, in depressingly short order, euphoria and stratospheric expectations have devolved into the most disappointing campaign in franchise history, a nightly nut-punch mad lib on the floor outdone only by incessant upheaval behind closed doors.
On a far brighter note, the NBA convenes this weekend in Houston, to celebrate its present and future, flaunt its athletic wares and, presumably, provide tuition assistance to certain ilk of “law student.” Last night, behind 40, on an unreal-even-against-All-Star-D 18-for-22 from the field, and 10 rebounds by the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried and 20 apiece from Cavs and Spurs sophs Tristan Thompson and Kawhi Leonard (who also had 10 and 7 rebounds, respectively), Team Chuck laid the wood to Team Shaq in a still-entertaining Rising Stars Challenge. This evening, the All Star festivities shift into top gear, with the always-meh Shooting Stars, underrated (seriously, I love it) Skills Challenge and All Star Saturday mainstays, the 3-point and slam dunk contests.
Though likely for the best, given the manner in which the pas three months have unfolded, conspicuously absent from tonight’s proceedings will be the Los Angeles Lakers. Not here! Infusing your day with memories of brighter days, a look back at the Lakers on All Star Saturdays past:
1984 Slam Dunk Contest
Three decades ago, the NBA lifted a(nother) page from the ABA playbook with a revival of the slam dunk contest. Fittingly, the event (re)debuted in the Rockies, where eight years earlier, at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, a Spurs’ greats George Gervin and Larry Kenon, Kentucky Colonel Artis Gilmore, Denver’s own David Thompson and then-New York Net Julius Erving. The Doctor returned to headline the nine-man field, which included the preeminent perimeter defender of his (and maybe all) time and author of many a Coop-a-Loop, Michael Cooper. Suffice it to say, the Lakers’ inaugural All-Star Saturday performance was less than auspicious:
Though still immortalized:
1987 3-Point Contest
Three years after the slam dunk dud of ’84, Coop was back at All-Star Saturday, this time to take part in the second annual Larry Bird Invitational, err, 3-Point Contest. Accompanying Cooper to Seattle for the festivities was fellow sharpshooter Byron Scott. In a star-studded eight-man field featuring a who’s who of the game’s great shooters – and Danny Ainge (some grudges die hard) – Scott stumbled, while Cooper more than held his own, outscoring Bird, Dale Ellis and future three-time contest champ Craig Hodges in Round 1, before exiting in the Semifinals, the third place finisher.
1988 3-Point Contest
This time flying solo, Byron Scott returned to the 3-Point Contest the following year in Chicago. Scott rather emphatically avenged the previous year’s last place finish with a first round performance that paced a similarly power-packed field. Not surprisingly, as the stakes ratcheted up, so did Larry Bird’s performance. Though light years behind Bird, Scott and Dale Ellis engaged in battle for the second spot in the final round, with Ellis advancing by the narrowest of margins.
Is it wrong that this burns me up as much as any Lakers-Celtics battle of which we were deprived?
1994 Rookie Game
In a stirring homage to Michael Cooper’s showing the inaugural NBA slam dunk contest a year earlier, in the first-ever (at the time) Rookie Game, Nick Van Exel, in 20 minutes of burn, handed out six assists but turned in a rather impressive goose egg, whiffing on all eight of his shots (have you seen the defense in these things?!?), including three 3-point attempts. Oof. Let’s move on.
1995 Rookie Game
The Lakers’ first-ever lottery pick, the unheralded Eddie Jones (selected #10 overall in the 1994 draft) had quickly established himself as not only one of the league’s best young players, he’d almost immediately etched his name in the NBA’s top tier of perimeter defenders. This NBA ready defense, along with his stellar athleticism in slashing to the bucket earned him an invite to the second annual Rookie Game, where, sharing the floor with the top two picks in the draft, Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd (Grant Hill had been voted into the big-boy game), Eddie stole the show, racking up 25 (including 4-of-8 on 3-pointers), six swipes, and handing out four assists en route to the game’s MVP award.
(I’d planned to include a highlight video of this game, but sadly was only able to find the full telecast, chopped into 20-minute clips. You can find those here.)
1995 Slam Dunk Contest
In the first round of the 1995 Slam Dunk Contest, Antonio Harvey almost set the desert ablaze, but instead became the Andy Reid of All-Star Saturday.
Later that night, Bean returned to floor as the second Laker ever to take part in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest. With the contest on the ropes (it would actually be shelved the following year), the league had implemented the latest of what ultimately became a comedic laundry list of gimmicks, allowing each competitor 90 seconds in Round 1 to do with as he pleased, with the best of two dunks making up his final round score. Sadly, this resulted in our being limited to a scant three dunks by Kobe in his lone appearance in the contest. As one would expect, however, Kobe made good, delivering as emphatic and technically perfect a one-hand reverse as you’ll ever see for an opening salvo. By the way, the whole “keep the warmups on” bit looks a lot cooler when it’s Kobe instead of Brent Barry.
After edging out now-assistant coach Darvin Ham (perhaps owing to a bit of judging generosity, but whatever), Kobe set the house ablaze with a thunderous between-the-legs number – remember, this is before Vince Carter and Jason Richardson made a mockery of the skill – which earned him 49 points and dunking supremacy
(Bonus points for aggressively flexing with the sub-Durant physique and openly cheering Michael Finley’s last miss)
2004 Skills Challenge
Ok, who had Open Court Legend placing second in a competition that rewards speed, quickness, agility and outside shooting?
Seriously, I remember guffawing upon discovering Fisher’s inclusion in this field (in large part, probably, because the Lakers were that year’s host, but still), and simply hoped he could out-duel Earl Boykins and avoid last place. Taking out Boykins, Stephon Marbury (when this was still an impressive thing) and making prime-Baron Davis work in final?
Really not a lot to say here. 12 points for Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum with 7 points and 4 boards in 18 minutes.
2007 Skills Challenge
Anyone else kinda totally forget that this happened?
With the notable exceptions of the Malice at the Palace and the 1984 Draft Lottery, I’m not sure there’s an event the NBA’s worked harder to bury in history than 2007’s All-Star Weekend in Vegas. Without going into detail, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly public relations coup for the league.
That said, it was there that one of the most stealthily cool competitions in ASW history took place. It’s over in a flash (pun possibly intended), and it’d have been awesome if Kobe hadn’t flubbed the opportunity to make a run at Wade’s final time, but simply having Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul – and no one else – in a test of basketball fundamentals is pretty awesome.
2008 Rising Stars
A year after posting a solid, if unspectacular 12 points as a rookie, Jordan Farmar returned to All Star Weekend as an NBA soph, and quietly turned in a stellar playmaking performance. In a game whose narrative was dominated by Kevin Durant (23 and 8), Rudy Gay (22 on just 12 shots), Brandon Roy (17 and 7 assists), LaMarcus Aldridge (18 and 9 rebounds) and MVP Boobie Gibson (33 on 11 threes), Farmar played a central role, feeding (among others) Gibson to the tune of 12 assists, scored 17 points on 10 shots, ripped four steals, and made the play of the game (#8 below).
It might even have been recognized as such had that lob found, say, Kevin Durant instead of Ronnie Brewer.
2010 Slam Dunk Contest
They Let Shannon Dunk. It… was.
Enjoy the festivities everyone – no Laker losses tonight!
Over the past several games, Kobe Bryant has found out what every other chief perimeter player in Mike D’Antoni’s system has figured out: being the chief playmaker is how you lead the team. So, Kobe has moved off the ball to on it. He’s now calling for the ball earlier in possessions and actively seeking out a playmaking role. This is allowing him to dictate the terms of how this team will play from an active position, rather than a passive one. Furthermore, Kobe has also seemed to conclude that his individual game needed more balance, saying that he was looking to be a finisher too much and that he needed to help lighten the load on Steve (Nash) as the lone perimeter playmaker. Kobe is stepping up to help diversify the Lakers’ offense. And, so far, it’s working.
So Nash’s search will go on. He has the sweetest attitude of anyone, but Nash must find something for himself. Whether it’s making five 3-pointers every night or seizing a pick-and-roll time with Gasol early each game to play his old way, the guy who has made so many role players look so good in his career needs to find a role of his own. Nash’s mind doesn’t work like Bryant’s — always looking for something for himself, and thus indirectly the team — but it needs to start. Assuming Nash’s body is ready, he needs to go get something for himself and show everyone he’s not just the good guy willing to help his team, he can still be the bad boy crushing opponents’ hopes.
How Nash, and the team, find this balance will be key to how this season evolves and how successful the Lakers are. The formula they have now is a nice template, but as I’ve said since the start of the season, the goal is to get the most out of all the players in a way that maximizes both the individual and team’s production. Optimizing roles will mean getting them to perform great within the context of their singular roles while also finding a way for that role to fit into the team structure.
But, how do you do that for Nash while Kobe is evolving his game in ways that obviously help the team? I have one suggestion. Play Nash with Kobe a bit less.
This season Nash has played 733 minutes. Of those 733, Nash has been on the floor with Kobe for 706 of them. I don’t know about you, but I find that amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are obvious benefits to playing Nash and Kobe together. They do a great job of creating shots for each other and providing spacing for each other. The perimeter offense flows much more smoothly when on either side of the floor you have a hall of fame player who can make defenses pay if the ball is swung in that direction. During the Lakers’ recent stretch of good play we’ve seen this in action as Kobe has held the ball on one wing only to pass the ball out, watch the ball find Nash, and then see him break down the defense and create an easy basket.
That said, getting the most out of Nash is more than simply having him and Kobe interact on the floor. Getting the most out of Nash has to be him creating offense for the teammates who can’t create offense for themselves. When D’Antoni was hired, what we envisioned was Nash operating high in the P&R and attacking the defense in a way that generated great shots for himself or a teammate. And while we’ve seen plenty of that since he returned, we’re seeing less of it now that Kobe has taken such a prominent role as an offensive facilitator. For Nash, though, the proper balance in his game means that he needs some of those possessions back. And not just for Nash, but for the rest of the Laker offense to really thrive.
The Lakers are slowly building towards their ideal output. In the past few weeks we’ve seen D’Antoni make some pretty daring moves to try and get the most out of his players. He’s moved Earl Clark to the starting lineup to better complement Dwight. He’s moved Pau to the bench to better maximize the Spaniard’s offensive skill set. Kobe has become more of a distributor to take advantage of his ability to manipulate defenses. The only player left to help find a smoother role for is Nash.
And, oddly enough, it may mean a similar fate for him that it has for Gasol. Not a move to the bench — that would be too drastic — but a separation from his backcourt partner. Because just as Howard and Pau can play together to good success but have found that less minutes together gives them their best output, Nash and Kobe seem to be headed in that same direction. It wouldn’t have to be for long stretches, but for short bursts where Nash is once again given the reins, and allowed to be Steve Nash. We may find it’s not just best for Nash, but best for the team.