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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bryant Misses at the Buzzer, Heat Upset Lakers as Wade Scores 35

ESPN's Mike Breen repeatedly mentioned that Friday's Miami Heat-L.A. Lakers game matched up the league's two best shooting guards and the Kobe Bryant-Dwyane showdown certainly lived up to that billing. Fittingly, the contest came down to the final possessions and both stars had their opportunities to take command. After Wade split a pair of free throws to put the Heat up 89-87, the Lakers inbounded the ball with 6.8 seconds left. Bryant received the pass from Lamar Odom, faked left as if he was going to use a screen from Pau Gasol but Bryant then took a hard dribble to the right before dribbling behind his back to the left and shooting a pullup jumper from the left elbow. The ball literally went halfway down before spinning around and popping out as the buzzer sounded. Bryant walked off of the court with a wry smile of disbelief on his face, while Wade pumped his fist in exultation. Here are the boxscore numbers for both players:

Wade: 37:39 minutes, 35 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocked shots, six turnovers

13-25 field goal shooting, 2-4 three point shooting, 4-7 free throw shooting

Bryant: 35:30 minutes, 28 points, three rebounds, three assists, zero steals, zero blocked shots, five turnovers

12-24 field goal shooting, 1-3 three point shooting, 3-4 free throw shooting


1) When Bryant and Wade were both in the game, Bryant almost always guarded Wade; the only exceptions were when Bryant was caught in transition or if a screen/roll action forced a switch. Wade guarded Bryant at the start of the game but for a good portion of the game--including down the stretch--Shawn Marion got the assignment. Daequan Cook also guarded Bryant for a few possessions. When Bryant was not in the game, Trevor Ariza guarded Wade; Ariza used his long arms to harass Wade's dribble but he also committed some reach-in fouls. At the end of the third quarter, Ariza poked the ball away from Wade but Wade dove on the floor, recovered possession and threw in a long, one armed three pointer as time expired to put Miami up 75-63. That was excellent defense by Ariza but just a very good play by Wade, who showed a lot of determination to get the ball back.

In previous matchups, it has generally been the case that Bryant guards Wade one on one for most of the game but Wade does not guard Bryant one on one, as both Charley Rosen and I noted after a Heat-Lakers game nearly two years ago. Wade does not usually do too much when Bryant is guarding him one on one but Wade is very, very effective in screen/roll situations that help him shed Bryant; in contrast, when Bryant is guarded one on one by Wade he tends to go into attack mode, either posting him up, driving by him or shooting the pullup jumper (depending on where Bryant catches the ball, how much time is left on the shot clock and where the other players are on the court).

2) At halftime, Bryant said that Wade may be the best player in the league in terms of using screen/rolls because of his ability to powerfully split the trap and go to the hoop. This is particularly effective against the Lakers because their big men are playing horrible screen/roll defense this year, as could be plainly seen throughout this game. For instance, late in the third quarter, Wade used a Joel Anthony screen to get free of Bryant and draw a foul at the rim from Lamar Odom. After the play, Bryant raised both of his palms in the air in exasperation. ESPN's Mark Jackson said, "Any time a team runs a pick and roll, it's on the big man to force the guard to go wide. If the guard is able to come off of the pick and roll and get into the seams the responsibility lies on the big guy. There is nothing you can do if you give Dwyane Wade the space to get in to the interior." This gets back to something I pointed out in my recap of the Lakers' recent win over the Knicks: a guard may do exactly what he is supposed to do defensively and still look like he got burned if he forces his man to a certain area but does not get the defensive support he expects to receive from his center or power forward. In the past, Bryant has screamed demonstrably when teammates missed assignments and was often criticized for this, even though Kevin Garnett is praised as a fierce competitor for doing the same thing; so far this year, Bryant has been more laid back publicly, telling the L.A. Times' Bill Plaschke with a smile, "It's all timing; it's a long season. No, I haven't knocked over any coolers yet" (Odom offered a slightly dissenting view, indicating that Bryant has been very vocal behind closed doors during practices).

In the fourth quarter, after Bryant fouled Wade during a screen/roll action, Bryant, Gasol and Bynum talked during the stoppage of play. Bryant said, "I'm sending him right. I don't know where the pick is, but I'm sending him to his right." Mark Jackson explained that in these screen/roll situations it is the guard's job to force the ballhandler one way and the big man's job to cut the ballhandler off and keep him out of the paint. This is why I think that the individual statistical defensive ratings that are touted in various places are very incomplete; they only consider who was nominally matched up with whom but do not factor in cross matches, not to mention the intricacies of screen/roll defense or other situations in which blame (or credit) may not properly be assigned to the player who is ostensibly the primary defender.

There is so much talk about the supporting casts that Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Boston's Hall of Fame trio have but the biggest difference--literally and figuratively--is that Cleveland and Boston have several big men who play defense with great awareness, mobility and physicality while the Lakers have a glaring weakness in that regard; Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum use their length to block shots but they are out of position way too often and they do not play with an edge at that end of the court the way that Cleveland and Boston's big men do. Much like last season, the Lakers are putting together an impressive won-loss record with a high powered offense but they are only playing good defense sporadically--and in many games, they have needed a scoring burst by Bryant to preserve a lead or rally from a deficit.

3) Bryant and Wade both played at an MVP level in this game: they led their teams in scoring while shooting very efficiently, they attracted double teams that created scoring opportunities for their teammates and they played with great energy (Bryant was active defensively in his matchup with Wade, while Wade played his typical freelancing, gambling defense, roaming around to get steals and blocked shots).

4) In an unintentionally humorous exchange after the first quarter, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman said to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, "The first quarter was very low scoring for you. Where are you going to find more shots?" Jackson replied, "No, that's not the issue. The issue is about their controlling the pace of the game. So we're just playing at their pace right now because they're just running all screen/roll, set things up and taking advantage of what they can get off of screen/roll." In response to Lieberman's followup question about the Lakers' zone offense, Jackson said that the Lakers do a good job of recognizing zones and getting the ball to open shooters but that they have to cut down on their turnovers (they committed seven turnovers in the first quarter). I've seen Lieberman serve as a sideline reporter at a handful of games and I've consistently been surprised that a Hall of Fame player who presumably has a high basketball IQ asks such inane questions that do not relate to what has actually transpired during the game; the Lakers scored 26 points in the first quarter, so why would her first question be about getting more open shots?

How the Heat won:

The score was 46-46 at halftime and Miami led 67-63 with 2:00 remaining in the third quarter. That is when the Lakers unraveled: first came the Wade-Anthony screen/roll play that I described above, which led to two Wade free throws. Gasol missed a short hook shot and then Daequan Cook drilled a three pointer on a feed from Wade after some poor screen/roll defense; Bryant forced Wade to the right, but Gasol kind of sat in no man's land, Ariza was wandering around guarding no one in particular and Cook was camped out behind the three point line wide open. I don't think that this play will be cited in the next article about the Lakers' supposedly revolutionary "new" defense but it is a good example showing why the Lakers' coaching staff is desperately trying to get all of the players to properly understand how to play help defense; as Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons told me not long ago, "That (Chicago Bulls championship) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That’s why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don’t know how to help—when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn’t have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did."

The Heat closed the third quarter with Wade's desperation three pointer and all of a sudden the Lakers were trailing by 12.

As Phil Jackson has done throughout his coaching career, he placed great trust in his bench players to chip away at the lead. The early portion of the fourth quarter was an ugly mess as neither team scored for nearly three minutes. Jackson stuck with his reserves for 6:45 and they rewarded his faith by trimming the margin to 80-74 before Bryant returned to action. Bryant scored on a fast break dunk to make the score 80-76 but Wade answered with a jumper. Bryant made an excellent defensive play during an inbounds play, denying Wade easy access to the pass and then pressuring Wade into an over and back violation. However, the Lakers failed to capitalize on this opportunity because their next possession ended with Derek Fisher splitting a pair of free throws. Udonis Haslem answered with a jumper to put Miami up 84-77.

The Lakers then ran a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll, Bryant passed to Gasol and Gasol kicked the ball out to Ariza, who hit a three pointer. Mark Jackson said, "That play is made by the patience of Kobe Bryant, taking the trap, delivering the ball to Pau Gasol and allowing Gasol to make the play to Ariza." This is exactly the kind of thing that I mentioned throughout last season: Bryant's presence makes the game easier for all of his teammates because of the defensive attention he attracts--but because of the way defenses trap him and the way that the Lakers respond to those traps he does not get as many assists as Wade or LeBron James do. Bryant often makes the pass that creates the play (the so-called hockey assist) but the recipient of that pass completes the play. In other words, James will pass to Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Mo Williams for a spot up jumper, Wade will feed Haslem or Cook for spot up shots but Bryant is often passing to a player who then reverses the ball to the player who ultimately takes the shot. The point is that without Bryant drawing the initial double team none of this would be possible in the first place because teams would be guarding all of these players straight up, so "stat gurus" can keep crunching their formulas and casual fans can be wowed by assist totals but neither formulas nor assist totals are completely adequate to really break down a basketball game. This is a critically important point, because sometimes people assert that James, Wade and Chris Paul make their teammates better but that Bryant is just a scorer. It is true that James, Wade and Paul certainly create scoring opportunities for their teammates but so does Bryant; in that context, it is worth noting that Gasol shot .589 from the field last year as a Laker (easily surpassing his career high of .538 in 2006-07 when he was the first option for Memphis) and he is shooting .562 from the field this season. Gasol's field goal percentage has soared while playing with Bryant precisely because the defensive attention that Bryant attracts affords Gasol easy scoring opportunities.

During Miami's next possession after Ariza's three pointer, the Lakers were called for a kick ball violation and then Phil Jackson received a technical foul for complaining too much. Haslem missed the free throw but after the inbounds pass Wade hit a tough runner over the outstretched arms of Gasol and Odom. Gasol answered by making two free throws and then Bryant tied up Wade, forcing a jump ball. I have seen three interesting jump balls recently: Chris Paul defeated the taller Manu Ginobili by timing his jump perfectly and leaning into Ginobili's air space to prevent him from reaching his maximum jump, Bryant did something similar to Haslem earlier in the Heat-Lakers game--and then the smaller Wade turned the tables on Bryant in much the same way. There were only six seconds left on the shot clock with the Lakers trailing 88-84 at the :54 mark but Fisher fouled Haslem, a tactical error since the Lakers should not have fouled based on the score and the time remaining. After Haslem missed both free throws, Bryant nailed a tough turnaround shot over Marion to cut Miami's lead to 88-86. Wade missed a jumper and then the Heat blocked several point blank opportunities for the Lakers as Joel Anthony swatted Odom's shot and Wade rejected putback attempts by Odom and Gasol; when a shooting guard--even one as talented as Wade--blocks your starting center and your backup power forward (who started in the Finals last year) it is reasonable to question the toughness of your frontcourt players. The Lakers retained possession and after Bryant attracted multiple defenders they were able to inbound to Gasol right under the basket; Gasol was fouled and made one out of two free throws. Wade then drew a foul but also split his free throws, setting up the dramatic finish with Bryant's shot that danced tantalizingly on the rim before popping out.

Miami halted a three game losing streak during which Wade had played poorly, while L.A. cannot be pleased with such a performance in the first outing of a four games in five days Eastern road trip; after they return to L.A., the Lakers will just have one day off before their much anticipated Finals rematch with the Celtics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:56 AM



At Saturday, December 20, 2008 3:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


i agreee wade is great kobe was good well see what happens wade game has improved he about to hit the 27-32 years your best years in the nba jordan was great till 35 partly becasue he only played 11 full seasons kobe got 13 and 30 but he got a 5 years left. the lakers at times play down to competition i dont know if the lakers could win ring without home court they 3 behind celts rigt now do you think cavs could beat lakers as well i thinking just celts the lakers d come and go it was good first 10 games but not te last 15. loseing to sacramento and heat and pacers is unacceptable the cavs and celts arent doing that they have to get up for every opponet phil has to caoch and motivate better

At Saturday, December 20, 2008 3:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that the Lakers probably need homecourt to win a championship this year. They have emphasized the importance of getting homecourt advantage this year, though you certainly could not prove it considering some of their bad losses this year.

Right now, I would say that Boston is the best team but I do think that the Cavs are capable of beating the Celtics in a seven game series, even without homecourt advantage; a superstar like LeBron can lead a team to a big road win in the playoffs.

I think that either the Celtics or the Cavs would beat the Lakers in a seven game series right now--of course, seven game series don't start for a few months and a lot can happen in that period of time.

The reason that I say that Cleveland could beat Boston on the road but that I doubt that the Lakers could has nothing to do with Kobe and LeBron but rather with the disturbing way that Lakers' role players disappear sometimes in road playoff games; we saw that in game seven in 2006 and again in game six versus Boston last year.

That said, the Lakers still have the best record in the West, so it's not like the sky is falling for them.

At Saturday, December 20, 2008 4:47:00 PM, Blogger Not That Much, Really said...

Don't be so quick to dismiss Lieberman, as her question about how to get more shots was dead on. As you noted, the Lakers turned the ball over 7 times in the period. So literally, the Lakers problem was that they weren't getting enough shots; they were turning it over before they could shoot.

At Saturday, December 20, 2008 7:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Lakers are leading the league in scoring at 107.5 ppg while giving up 97.7 ppg. The first quarter score was 26-26, which projects to a 104-104 score at the end of regulation. In other words, even with the turnovers the Lakers were a lot closer to their normal offensive efficiency in the first quarter than they were to their normal defensive efficiency. Great teams focus on defense first and the Lakers' defense has been leaking oil for the past couple weeks.

The Lakers were not having trouble creating open shots; they were carelessly throwing the ball away, particularly on entry passes. Jackson mentioned that in response to her followup question about the Lakers' "zone offense." Suggesting that a team cannot create open shots indicates that players are not in the right spots on the court. As Jackson said, the Lakers are good at recognizing zone defenses and positioning themselves appropriately. Of course, none of that does any good if you simply throw the ball away instead of delivering it on target to the open man.


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