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Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  March 14, 2013

Last night’s game with the Hawks actually provided two losses — one from the game itself and one in the form of the Lakers’ superstar shooting guard to injury. Kobe’s ankle looks like it’s about nine months pregnant and the team says he’s out indefinitely with a severe ankle sprain. So, with plenty to discuss in Laker-land, here’s some fast break thoughts on the injury bug, the playoffs, and other general musings…

  • 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:

Kobe Ankle

  • 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:

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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Happy Birthday James Worthy

Darius Soriano —  February 27, 2013

Historically, James Worthy sort of gets lost in the shuffle. He was third in line behind Magic and Kareem. A vital part of “Showtime” and a guy known for rising to the occasion in big games (hence the nickname), but still someone who, will likely never be remembered as fondly by national observers as his more celebrated teammates.

Today though, on his 52nd birthday, we’ll remember Worthy for the fantastic player he was. Not just the guy who came up big in the playoffs every year, but the guy who night in and night out played a fantastic floor game with an ability to finish in a variety of ways from 18 feet and in regardless of who was guarding him. Watching the clip above, you get a real feel for how fundamentally sound, yet how creative Worthy could be when he had the ball. He had great foot work, a fantastic first step, nice touch, and excellent feel around the basket.

So, while many people nationally will always remember Worthy for raising his game in the big moments, enjoy the video above and appreciate all that he did in the little ones too. He really was a great player.

Last night’s game against the Blazers seemed to hang in the balance the entire night. The game was tied countless times and it really didn’t seem like the Lakers would ever get over the hump and create the separation they needed to win the game.

In the first half, the Lakers found some success playing the way they have in their recent stretch, with Dwight starting to find his stride as a post practitioner, pick and roll finisher, and having some impact on defense (J.J. Hickson’s ridiculous shooting notwithstanding). Antawn Jamison was having some impact off the bench and Kobe, like he has been of late, was playing a very controlled game scoring 11 points on 9 shots with 3 assists and 3 rebounds.

This style, however had the Lakers trailing by two points.

In the second half, it was fair to question if the Lakers really would win this game that they needed so desperately. Portland looked like they were “due” to get a win after losing 6 straight and the Lakers looked like they would be the team to give it to them

Heading into that 2nd half, our own Emile Avanessian made a simple plea on twitter:

Emile would get his wish. In the 2nd half, Kobe scored 29 points on 14 shots and carried the team’s offense all the way to a win. The game itself wasn’t always pretty, but Kobe Bryant’s performance sure as hell was.

It feels cliche to continue to tell people to appreciate Kobe. But he’s been so good for so long we can sometimes take him for granted. Against the Blazers, though, he showed us once again what a classic Kobe game was. And for that, I know we’re all grateful.

When the Lakers signed Antawn Jamison, there was a great hope that he’d be able to help the team offensively. The thought was that he could be the type of stretch power forward the team would need to play off of the Lakers’ big men while also providing some sorely needed scoring punch to the bench. Jamison, though struggling defensively for most of the season, has mostly been the player the Lakers’ have asked him to be. Sure, he’s been up and down and has found himself in and out of the rotation, but for the most part his scoring has been only slightly down per minute from his recent norms and his rebounding has been solid.

And while Jamison hasn’t been the deep shooter the Lakers would hope (32% on threes this year), the rest of his offensive game has been as advertised. The scoops, funky flip shots, half hooks, and floaters have been on full display this season and that variety has been a nice addition to a Laker team that could always use more players with a nice in between game to work off of the attention their star players receive.

One of the reasons that Jamison has consistently gotten good looks at the basket is because he moves well off the ball. When you narrow your focus and only watch Jamison, you’ll see a player who understands spacing and has a knack for slipping into the creases of the defense for shots close to the basket. With gifted passers aplenty on the Lakers, this skill could very well be Jamison’s most valuable to the Lakers. When Kobe or Pau or Nash draw a second defender, there’s Jamison sneaking along the baseline or cutting backdoor.

That said, as much as Jamison is the beneficiary of great teammates, he’s also quite good at creating his own openings when working off the ball. One such way he does this is by slipping screens in a manner that you rarely see other NBA players do.

Here we see the start of a play against the Hornets. Steve Blake has the ball high on the right side and Jamison is coming from the left to set a screen for him:

jamison1

Next, we see Jamison sprint towards Blake with the defense getting ready to defend the P&R action:

jamison2

However, instead of setting a pick on Blake’s man, Jamison rounds off his cut and dives down the lane line:

jamison 3

Blake sees a wide open Jamison and hits him with a perfect bounce pass. Jamison then finishes with an easy lay in right at the rim. Here’s the play in real time:

One of the reasons this play works is because of the spacing the Lakers have created on the ball side. Notice when Jamison starts his path towards Blake that Earl Clark cuts towards the area that Jamison is about to vacate. This cut opens up the area of the court that Jamison will eventually cut to. Also notice Dwight Howard holding his position along the opposite lane line and occupying his man so he can’t really help on the dive.

Most important, though, is Jamison’s smarts and instincts to stop his path towards Blake short and instead cut hard to the rim. Jamison’s man is already getting into a hedge position to help on Blake should he use the pick and Blake’s man is eyeing Jamison and getting ready to engage the screen. Jamison set up this play perfectly with his hard run towards the ball and then his equally hard dive towards the basket. Blake’s pass is just the finishing touch.

Jamison will never be a pure floor spacer and that’s okay. Because even though he can hit the long ball, his real value is in making plays going towards the basket and keeping the defense off balance with finishes in the paint. And, as we’ve seen more and more of late, it’s through this action of slipping the screen that has given him a lot of those finishes.

Wednesday Storylines

Darius Soriano —  February 6, 2013

Steve Nash said Kobe was “brilliant” when describing the dunk. Kobe, meanwhile, is “very, very concerned” about Pau’s foot injury. Such is the up and down nature of the Lakers’ season to this point. The breaks the team catches have mostly been bad ones this year, especially on the injury front. Describing the season to this point as a roller coaster doesn’t do it justice.

Through it all, however, the team has battled. And maybe that is the bigger theme to this season to this date. The weight of expectations can be crushing. This team had ideas about what they could achieve heaped on them very early in the process. They have not come close to reaching those heights yet, but have preached about the process and the unyielding pursuit to still get to the finish line. Along the way there have been setbacks, but also been surprises. This is why we say to enjoy the journey. Things won’t always be easy, but they’re sure to keep you captivated. Kind of like that Kobe dunk.

On to the stories of the day…

  • Mike D’Antoni wants him to play. It’s been hinted at by his teammates that they want him to play. Fans definitely want him to play. But Dwight Howard is sitting with his bum shoulder. He won’t rush back, either, says Mark Medina. Not to play in pain or be less effective than he knows he can be. This may be hard for some to understand, but as Dwight has said, he’s the one out there playing. We, the fans, are not. I understand this perspective, even if it’s frustrating.
  • Dwight, of course, wasn’t alone in missing last night’s contest. Ron sat at the team hotel, watching on a TV, as his suspension didn’t allow him to even be in the arena. This is Ron’s 11th suspension in 10 seasons and, at this point, one can only assume his past transgressions plays a role in all decisions by the league to sit him down.
  • With Dwight and Ron out, someone needed to step up. The main player to do so was Earl Clark, playing 40 minutes and providing a double-double in the process. In talking about Clark’s emergence, Kobe says the Lakers would “be in deep crap” without the versatile forward. Dave McMenamin has the details.
  • Moving on to game stories, Brett Pollakoff of Pro Basketball Talk has a recap from the game discussing all the details, including how that Blake, Duhon, Meeks, Clark, and Sacre lineup built up the lead in the 2nd quarter.
  • Drew Garrison of Silver Screen & Roll also has a game story with several key numbers, including how the Lakers got outworked on the glass but still found a way to get the W.
  • For the Nets’ perspective, Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game discusses Brooklyn’s defensive miscues late in the game — including a breakdown of the play that led to Earl Clark’s big jumper — that enabled the Lakers’ closing 10-0 run that clinched the game.

The focus now shifts from last night to all the nights that will follow, starting on Thursday against the hated Celtics. While that matchup marinates on the mind, however, our focus is also on Pau Gasol. An MRI awaits him in Boston and there are fears of the worst. Words like “pop” and “tear” are never good and the prospect of missing the Spaniard for any stretch, especially when he was starting to figure things out, is a cruel blow for a team that’s seemingly suffered more than their fair share up to this point in the season. All we can do is wait. Hopefully the news is good. But if it’s not, I can at least trust that this team will battle and scrap to try and preserve their goals. They’ve at least proven that much  this season, even if the results haven’t been what we’ve wanted.

If not, watch the video above a time or fifteen and answer again. Tonight’s Lakers/Heat game should be a good one simply to watch these two all-timers go at it again. (h/t to @meir21 for the great work on this one)