Last night, in the fourth quarter at Staples Center, one team had another gear left, took control of the game late and came out with a close win. We Angelinos had become spoiled in recent years because that team had always been the Lakers — and with Kobe still around we expected much the same this year.
Of course, we used to expect good movies from Oliver Stone, then we get Alexander.
Phoenix closed out last night with a 19-3 run to win. Last time these two teams hooked up, the Suns closed out 7-0 to win by five. What’s concerning is this is not just the Suns — virtually every team has finished stronger than the Lakers this season. The Lakers have been tied or behind entering the fourth quarter in seven games this season and have lost all seven.
Read that last sentence again: The Lakers have been tied or behind entering the fourth quarter in seven games this season and have lost all seven. That’s been a hard pill to swallow after years of knowing that when the fourth quarter rolled around, it was your team that was going to step up and win.
This season’s Lakers late game strategy appears to be pretty simple — give the ball to Kobe. Frankly, it was pretty much the same system last season, but back then it worked.
Kobe’s eFG% (effective field goal percentage) in clutch time this season is 25%. (Clutch time is defined as 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.) On those shots, he is settling for a jump shot 85% of the time and his eFG% on those is 20.5%. It’s not just that he’s shooting poorly — he’s also not getting the calls. During the whole of the game, Kobe is drawing a foul on 17.3% of his shots, during clutch time that percentage falls to 7.1%.
For comparison, last season in clutch time Kobe’s eFG% was 44.5%, and he was drawing fouls on 17.3% of his shots.
So, what has changed? My guess: This year you know that option number one is Kobe, option number two is Kobe and option number three is Kobe. Option number four is probably a quick pass to Chucky Atkins, who then has to pass it right back to Kobe. Last season Kobe was certainly option number one — but you had to respect the other options. Shaq could still score on the low block, and through the entire Kobe-Shaq era there were always guys (Horry, Fox, Fisher) who, if you left them alone, would hit the open three to beat you. This season the Lakers may have people who can beat you with the three, but they don’t seem to trust them.
Add to that fact that Kobe is still playing 45 minutes a game on his plantar fasciitis foot (L.A. Times Laker beat reporter Mike Bresnahan said in a radio interview this morning that Kobe told him his about 60-70%) and by the end of games he is not as explosive.
Winning close games is a hallmark not only of good NBA teams, but ones that make the playoffs. If the Lakers are going to reach the post season, they are going to have to get better at the end of games and win some. Ones like last night.