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Monday, April 25, 2011
You don't know Jack about crunch time

By Henry Abbott

Jarrett Jack
Jeff Zelevansky/NBAE/Getty Images Sport
Jarrett Jack missed every shot before Chris Paul gave him the ball with the game on the line.

I have called Kobe Bryant a crunch-time ballhog whose relentless gunning down the stretch hurts the Lakers. I have also marveled at Chris Paul and the Hornets -- if you look for big samples, you'll find they perform better in crunch time than any other team.

Pretty cool that those two teams have been going at it in the playoffs -- it's a chance to see the two head to head, and what we have seen is incredibly telling, particularly at the end of Game 4.

At the end of Sunday's game, the Hornets had the ball up two. After running off some clock, Paul was isolated against Bryant on the wing. The star guard -- who has been perhaps the NBA's best performer in these playoffs -- worked his way into the lane. Paul had more than earned the right to take the big shot, and sure enough, with the shot clock down to just two seconds he leaped into a forest of bigger defenders.

On most teams, what would have come next would have been one of the most difficult field goal attempts you'll ever see. Instead, Paul dished the ball to the coldest player on the court, Jarrett Jack.

Jack's not a lights out shooter in the best of times, but he was both wide open and in the paint. He nailed the short jumper. The arena exploded, the Hornets won the game and tied the series. Incremental progress was made towards keeping the Hornets in New Orleans for the long haul.

That Chris Paul and his coach, Monty Williams, are willing to live with the results of a jumper from a cold Jack is, I believe, precisely the reason the Hornets have been so good in crunch time for years.

Conventional wisdom is the exact opposite: You need that guy to take all the big shots. The reality is that while superstar players are awesome to have for their talent, they're not at their best against double-teams. When the defense doubles, the best shots come not from mobbed superstars, but from open role players. Shots against double teams are almost all low percentage, because there's not a superstar player skilled enough to be better against a double team than any ol' NBA player is wide open.

Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook has broken down this play brilliantly. Take a look, and you'll see that Ron Artest was expecting the shot to come from the superstar Paul. Artest ditched his man, Jack, early -- to protect the rim against the charging Paul. It's the smart play against most superstars, who can be expected to take almost every opportunity to make their marks in crunch time.

But against this superstar, it made the Lakers vulnerable. Score one for hitting the open man.

"Why shoot with three people on me if one guy is open?" Paul explained at the All-Star break, when asked about his approach to crunch time. "If I'm open, I'll shoot it, and if I'm not, I'll pass it."

Of course, it doesn't always end so well. Imagine if Jack had missed, which could well have happened. Paul would have been chastised as passive. Williams would have been criticized for letting a bit player decide the series. Manhood would have been doubted all the way around (just like when LeBron James kicked the ball a wide open Donyell Marshall with the game on the line in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals).

There's a lot of support out there for the idea that the best players should just keep the ball -- defense be damned. And it's not the worst thing to do. The Lakers, thanks to Bryant, seldom find the open man in crunch time, and still manage to have a slightly-above-average offense and, oh yeah, five championships in the Bryant era.

It's just that if you want the best possible results, I'm with Paul in thinking that the guy who should get the ball is not the most famous, but the most open.

And similarly, my criticism of Bryant is not that there are other players who are blatantly better at the things he does. It's that the things he decides to do -- very commonly, to shoot against a double team -- are so incredibly hard. Deciding to do something easier might make Bryant mildly less heroic in the short-term analysis, but it would also make the Lakers, as a team, better.