The Lakers Pick a New Strategy, and Roll

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

LOS ANGELES -- When a team like the Lakers runs such a recognizable, well-defined system like the Triangle Offense, it's always striking when they depart from it. Normally, a team makes a drastic adjustment because the defense is disrupting the offensive flow. Thursday night, the Lakers voluntarily went away from the Triangle in favor of a Kobe Bryant exhibition outside their standard system. Bryant as the focal point of the Lakers' offense isn't news, and it's certainly not rare for him to freelance over extended stretches. Thursday night, though, Kobe's independence from the offense seemed like a deliberate strategy by the Lakers.

You could argue that Bryant is always a one-on-one player in the classic sense, even in the confines of the Triangle. Typically, though, he gets his shots within the system -- off handoffs at the pinch post, against weaker defenders in the low post, on cuts to the strong-side block. Game 1 was an entirely different story, as the Lakers relied conspicuously on a Give-it-to-Kobe approach, surprising Orlando with early drives, and utilizing a simple high pick-and-roll that caught the Magic off-guard.

"That was by design," Bryant said. "We saw something at that moment in the game."

That moment was with 8:32 remaining in the second quarter when Bryant checked back in to the game with the Lakers trailing by five:

  • [2nd quarter, 6:33] After Luke Walton abuses Courtney Lee in the post on consecutive possessions, Orlando switches Lee back onto Bryant -- but there's no relief for the rookie. Bryant moves early to back Lee down or -- in Bryant's words from "Kobe Doin' Work" -- to put his ass in the basket. Lee has had a solid defensive postseason taking on tough wing assignments, but he looks overmatched by Bryant. Against Lee, Bryant finishes 6-11 from the field, with a trip to the line for a couple of free throws. Here, Bryant has no trouble getting inside for an easy, turnaround jumper from five feet.

Both Phil Jackson and Bryant are unerringly methodical, and it's unlikely they'd redraw their offensive blueprint without cause. Following the game, Bryant offered one reason. "They were backing up and giving me a jumper, so I took them," he said.

We saw an illustration of this on the very next possession:

  • [2nd quarter, 5:58] The Lakers move quickly into a screen-and-roll high on the right wing. Bynum offers a pick, freeing Bryant from Mickael Pietrus. Whether he's afraid to foul Bryant, or he feels Bryant is going to attack, Dwight Howard drops back into the lane, yielding Bryant an open 18-foot jumper which fall through.

The Lakers realized that by drawing Dwight Howard out to defend a perimeter screen-and-roll, they left him with two lousy choices (and two promising outcomes for themselves): [1] Howard could switch onto Bryant and try to deny him space for an open shot -- but putting himself at great risk of fouling in the process. [2] Howard could drop back and leave Bryant with open mid-range jumpers.

"I think both our coaching on how to play the pick-and-roll and our execution were poor," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I thought we were giving him too much space on pull-up jumpers, particularly on pick-and-rolls."

The Lakers tested Van Gundy and the Magic defense again on the next possession:

  • [2nd quarter, 5:22] A facsimile of the previous possession. Once again, Bynum steps out to give Bryant a screen on Pietrus to drive left, and again Howard drops back apprehensively. The big man looks besieged. Pietrus tries to run over the screen, but can't possibly catch up to Bryant, who gets to about 15 feet where he buries another jumper.

Not only did the high screen-and-roll result in open shots for the Lakers, but it set the tone for the remainder of the game. While the Magic were constantly retreating defensively, the Lakers attacked at every opportunity. Pau Gasol got into the act in the third quarter, as the Lakers continued to baffle Orlando with high screens for Bryant until the game was out of reach.

Usually, when we characterize the Lakers as versatile, it's a nod to players like Gasol, Lamar Odom, Walton, and Bryant who have broad skill sets and play multiple positions in the offense. Game 1 demostrated that the Lakers' versatility extends beyond the sum parts of their roster, and is manifesting itself in their overall game plan. Most nights, the Lakers aren't an isolation or pick-and-roll team, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Sometimes being opportunistic requires a break from orthodoxy. Great teams are flexibie enough to do that.