Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Power of Flexibility

With 10.8 seconds left in regulation in Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Magic, the Lakers had the ball out of a timeout after Dwight Howard had just missed two free throws to leave the Lakers down three, 87-84. Lakers coach Phil Jackson decided to take the ball near their own baseline (where the timeout had been called), rather than advance it to halfcourt. Trevor Ariza inbounded the ball to Kobe Bryant, who was immediately double-teamed. Bryant advanced the ball near halfcourt back to Ariza, who then cross-courted the ball to Derek Fisher. Fisher dribbled the ball up toward the three-point line on the right wing. Since Jameer Nelson was playing so far off Fisher, Fisher decided to hoist up the trey at that point and sank it to tie the game with 4.6 seconds remaining. The Magic failed to score in their final possession of regulation and the Lakers would go on to win the game in overtime to take a 3-1 lead in the series.

Tim Legler of ESPN later suggested that Jackson's decision made it easier on the Magic, because of the extra time that bringing the ball the length of the court would consume. I think this takes a narrow and unnecessarily time-centric view of the play.

In the first place, 10.8 seconds is a lot of time for a "last-second" play. It's nearly half of a full shot clock. The Phoenix Suns could probably run three whole plays in that amount of time. It's unlikely the Magic could delay the Lakers long enough to avoid giving them a decent look. Indeed, Fisher sank the three-pointer with 4.6 seconds left, but he actually released it with 6.2 seconds; the whole play took less than five seconds to execute.

Secondly, Legler underestimates the pressure that having to play full-court defense places on the Magic. If the Lakers had inbounded the ball at halfcourt, they would have had to set their offensive positions for the most part, showing their hand on the playcall and allowing the Magic to set their defense. Whether or not the decision to bring the ball up surprised the Magic, it concealed the Lakers' play from them and required them to cover a multitude of options.

As it happens, the Magic decided to double Kobe, and the Lakers took advantage by quickly advancing the ball out of the double-team to give the Lakers a 4-3 man advantage on the rest of the court. The Lakers had used this ploy, a kind of basketball aikido, several times in the second half of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. In that game, the Nuggets decided to double team Kobe aggressively, pushing him all the way toward the halfcourt line. Kobe obliged them, drawing his two defenders so far away from the basket that by the time Kobe passed out of the double team, they were effectively out of the play, giving the Lakers a man advantage for long enough to get an easy shot. In hindsight, this strategic decision by the Nuggets was a main reason they lost the game and the series.

But even had the Magic chosen not to double Kobe, the Lakers still had a multitude of options to run, starting from the backcourt, and the Magic would have had to anticipate them all. Most options put the Lakers in a kind of semi-transition game, placing the Magic defense in jeopardy. Normally, teams run very unimaginative sets at the end of a period, and the Lakers are no different in this regard, typically putting the ball in Kobe's hands and letting him go 1-on-N. The fantastic play run by the Magic at the end of Game 2, freeing up Courtney Lee for an alley-oop attempt, was very much the exception rather than the rule. And in this game, Fisher still had to make the jumper. But Jackson's decision to bring the ball up the length of the court broke the usual mold and gave the Lakers their best chance at tying the game.

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