Three men, one play, a glimpse at major potential
November, 21, 2012
By Dave McMenamin
To hear Kobe Bryant break down the most important play in the Los Angeles Lakers' 95-90 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday was akin to hearing a forensic detective combing his way through a crime scene and describing how each bit of evidence fit together to illustrate what went down.
First, some context. The Lakers led by three heading into the fourth quarter and then went horridly cold, starting off the final period by going nearly eight minutes without a field goal and seeing their three-point lead turn into a six-point deficit thanks to missed shots, turnovers and poor free throw shooting.
Metta World Peace finally made the take-the-lid-off-the-rim basket -- a 3-pointer from the left corner -- to cut Brooklyn's lead to two points with 4:39 remaining.
And that set up the play that changed the game.
"It’s kind of a domino effect," Bryant said. "To start the game, they went to a drop defense and I stepped up and had 11 points in the first quarter just from pulling up and shooting. After that, they had to change their coverage a little bit and went more to showing up a little higher on the screen-roll and I was able to hit Pau and he hit jump shots. So now, they have to pre-rotate and now I hit Pau and now Pau’s hitting Dwight slipping to the rim or hitting Metta in the corner for a 3.
"So it’s kind of a domino effect."
Bryant drove right past Gerald Wallace, but was forced to pick up his dribble when Brook Lopez stepped up to cut him off just below the foul line.
In true Bryant form, he already left his feet when Lopez collapsed on him, but was able to turn around in midair and pass it out to Pau Gasol who came to the ball to catch it at the top of the key. (Sidenote: Bryant leaving his feet before he passes is easily the most frustrating part of his game to see over and over again. For being as fundamentally strong as he is, he chooses to break this cardinal rule of basketball way too much.)
Bryant then came back out to the wing to get it back from Gasol and positioned his body in a way -- shoulders square to the rim with his feet spread apart enough to give him a good base -- that Wallace and Lopez both closed out on him, thinking he was going to shoot. Rather than shoot it, Bryant flipped a pass over Wallace's head to Gasol who was cutting towards the free throw line.
When Kris Humphries saw Gasol coming down the lane with the ball in his hands, he left Dwight Howard who he was checking on the baseline to cut off the Spaniard.
Then Gasol, seeing that Howard was as open as the day is long, immediately threw a lob pass that Howard caught and threw down for an alley-oop dunk.
That made it a tied game, 86-86, with 3:05 remaining. The Lakers made the dominoes fall and never looked back.
"It was a good, good play," Gasol said. "Kind of a double drag and then they jumped Kobe, because obviously he’s a great player and then I was able to get that pocket pass. I made the intention to go to the rim and Dwight was wide open. I always try to find him every time when I’m rolling there, unless they back off a lot from me and then I have to get the shot up, which is also a good choice."
As much as the play worked because Bryant shot pull-up jump shots in the first quarter to get the Nets to change their defense to pressure the ball, it also worked because Gasol kept shooting the ball from the foul line extended all night when he was open. Even after he missed a couple in a row, he didn't defer when he got an open look from there. If Gasol had shown a reluctance to shoot the ball in that position, maybe Humphries doesn't close out on him and stays home with Howard and then there's no lob portion of the play to finish it off.
"They mostly come out of Kobe’s pick-and-rolls," Gasol said of his team-high seven assists. "He gets all the hockey assists on my assists so he’s the one initiating the action. They have to make a decision as far as how much they want to commit to Kobe and commit to the roll of Dwight and then I make the next decision, which is most of the time hitting the opposite wing for the open jumper or hitting Dwight if I see that he has an opportunity to score."
(For the record, we had to ask Bryant what he thought of adding the hockey assist as an official statistic -- holler, HoopIdea -- and he was non committal about the possibility. "It's really just if they want to add it, they'll add it," Bryant said. "For us players, it really doesn't change the game except for statistically we'll probably get a little more assists.")
Howard had the least to do with the play out of the three guys involved. He really didn't have to think, just observe what was playing out in front of him and use his tremendous athleticism to punctuate the chain of events with a slam dunk. But that was part of the beauty of watching he and Bryant and Gasol come together to make the play happen. Bryant did the skill work by shifting the defense into a compromised position, Gasol did the thinking work by assessing the skewed D that Bryant had created and then deciding the best possible avenue to score and Howard did the physical work by doing what he does best and leaping toward the hoop.
"It’s a great play for us because you got to pick your poison," Howard told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "Sometimes they drop back on Kobe, he hits the jump shot. They come up, he passes the ball to Pau. If my man leaves me then I have a dunk. If my man stays home, Pau got the jump shot. So, we just got to slow the ball down and make the defense pay for making mistakes.
"It just shows that we’re learning each others’ game, we’re getting into a good rhythm on the offensive end and we’re playing together. It will only get better, so we just got to keep going."
That's the ultimate motivation to want to play together, when you see that a teammate gets it and that you're both operating on an unspoken plane while you're playing that renders the defense inconsequential.
The Lakers are still an unfinished experiment, but the way their elements are naturally mixing already doesn't make you think it's all going to blow up in their face.
"There’s a lot of stuff you can’t guard," Mike D'Antoni said after his first game on the sidelines ended with a win. "Kobe in the angle pick-and-roll with Pau there and going 7-feet (Gasol) to 7-feet (Howard) and Pau can pass ...
"So, a lot of good stuff."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.