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Crunch time play can feature teamwork

In writing about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in crunch time recently, I noted that NBA offenses generally are pretty terrible with the game on the line. Why? Some theories:

  • Offenses are playing against the clock, in addition to the defense.

  • There is very little fastbreaking.

  • Thanks to all the timeouts, often opposing coaches have had the chance to put their best defenders in the game, and to give them meticulous instruction. (Without all the stoppage, presumably they'd want their best two-way players.)

  • Effort levels, focus and preparation are high for both teams ... which probably helps defenses (it's boring to play great defense all game) more by comparison.

But there's another reason, too, I suspect: Teams that use a lot of passing, cutting, picks and all that often use isolation with the game on the line. A lot of teams simply give the ball to their best player and, essentially, watch. I've argued that's a big part of what dogs the Lakers, and other teams: "When the Lakers most needed points, they stopped passing, and instead isolated Bryant. ... Say what you will about Bryant's abilities. I'd argue they're basically the best anywhere. But a steady diet of isolation plays is just about never efficient. The Lakers can do better."

Zach McCann of the Orlando Sentinel asked Magic coach Stan Van Gundy about crunch time offense, and the video is on the Sentinel's website. Van Gundy says:

You can talk about running your offense all you want. But the best teams in this league, now and forever, historically, have been teams that have those guys who, as the shot clock's running down, and the game's running down, can get the ball and go get a shot. Or force the double team and create a good shot. Especially when playing against good teams, it's not like you're going to trick somebody or get something real easy. Or run a guy off a screen and he's going to be wide open. You're going to have to make a play.

This whole idea that you're going to run your offense, I mean, you are to some degree, but it's still going to come down a guy making a play.

Agreed on wanting great offensive players. Bring 'em on! I'd give the ball to Kobe Bryant in crunch time, too, if I coached the Lakers. But I'd do so assuming that, skilled though he is, he's most effective working as part of a bigger team concept, which may well mean coming off a screen, passing, setting a pick etc.

Watching the Magic, I suspect Coach Van Gundy and I basically agree. The Magic don't use much isolation in crunch time, and do run their offense. They have won five playoff series over the last two years, and when they went to the NBA Finals in 2009 their go-to crunch time play was a side pick-and-roll with Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard, which led to plenty of player movement and options, including crafty movement to get looks at the rim for Howard, as well as wide-open jumpers for Rashard Lewis and Turkoglu.

So, yes, players have to make plays, for sure. But coaching strategy can help them do that, and can even get them open in crunch time, against great defense.

Van Gundy's Magic have the NBA's second-best offense in the NBA over the last five years, in the final 24 seconds of games when they're tied, or trailing by two or less. I suspect his offense is no small part of it -- they certainly have not had a lights out shot creator carrying them. (They rank second to the Hornets, another team that, thanks to Chris Paul, moves the ball with the game on the line.)

And let's not forget that the Lakers' coaching staff has, in its way, argued against isolation, too, at least in the past. "I sometimes think Kobe is so addicted to being in control that he would rather shoot the ball when guarded, or even double-teamed, than dish it to an open teammate," Jackson wrote in his 2004 book "The Last Season." "He is saying to himself: how can he trust anyone else? Well, he should learn to trust ..."

In the same book, Jackson describes drawing up a play with multiple options, in crunch time of a playoff series against Houston. Bryant abandoned the play, ran straight to the ball, effectively creating his own isolation play that angered Jackson mightily.

More recently, Jackson's long-time assistant Kurt Rambis, when he still worked for the Lakers, was clear that the coaching staff preferred the team run their ruthlessly efficient triangle, with its passing and cutting, "at all times."

So, yes, great scorers are a big facet of crunch time scoring. But surely great team play can be too.