In the first and second rounds of the 2008 NBA Playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers offense shined, averaging 112.4 points while assisting on 63.3% of made field goals. The Lakers scored 1.15 points per possession, which is extremely strong. Much credit has been given to their newly-crowned MVP, Kobe Bryant; their willingness to push the ball in transition; and their use of the Triangle offense. It is a combination of these items that have allowed the Lakers to dominate these playoffs offensively.
In Game Three of their Western Conference Semifinal series with the Utah Jazz, the Lakers struggled to score with the same consistency as they had in their 6-0 start to the postseason. The Jazz employed tactics to frustrate the versatility of the Lakers offense, with good results. That, combined with Carlos Boozer breaking out of the general malaise that had overwhelmed him in the first two games of the series, allowed the Jazz to win at home and situate themselves just one game back of Los Angeles.
The Lakers' Game Four goals included a desire to return to the versatility that had been an earmark of their success in these playoffs. One of the tools that Lakers coach Phil Jackson has said he uses is a possession chart which indicates what options out of their offensive attack they use and which ones are successful. This tool gives them two major advantages: first, it allows them to ensure they are mixing up their attack sufficiently to keep their opponent off-balance, and second, they can see which options are working best so they can plan late-game situations effectively. Because the Lakers run comparatively few sets, this possession charting serves them well as they evaluate the performance of their attack.
A chart like this reveals that during the first half of Game Four, the Lakers successfully converted 56.6% of their possessions. Since successful conversion includes a made field goal and/or trip to the free throw line, however, this statistic was mitigated by the fact that the Lakers shot so poorly from the line. During the first 18 minutes, the Lakers did not go to their normal halfcourt Triangle offense, relying on early offense (both fast breaks and quick shots that precluded halfcourt sets), second chance opportunities and broken plays to score. However, in the last few minutes of the half, the Lakers went to their normal options in the Triangle offense, in particular running post splits off of Gasol. This was effective for them, opening up other Triangle actions that they took advantage of during those minutes. This was a major contributing factor to the Lakers' run to end the half. Overall, the most effective place they scored was in early offense, consistently attacking as a result of long Jazz misses.
In the second half, the Jazz made two key adjustments that affected the Lakers offense. First, they stopped taking long jumpers that led to easy run-outs. This limited the Lakers' early offense opportunities--they attacked in transition just five times in the second half, converting twice. Second, the Jazz tightened their pressure both in the passing lanes and on the ball. Despite the Lakers coming out with a more concerted effort to run the Triangle (on 10 of their first 13 halfcourt possessions of the second half, the Lakers used their offensive staple), the Jazz did a better job forcing tougher shots and preventing offensive rebounds. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers went away from the Triangle, choosing to run more sets and isolations. This really stifled their ball movement, and in turn it slowed their offensive output. In fact, the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter looked strikingly similar to the Lakers' Game Three.
With five minutes remaining in regulation, however, Los Angeles returned to running the Triangle, which requires much more ball and player movement. The Lakers proceeded to convert four of their next five possessions, running three post splits and two top-of-key options. Suddenly, the lid came off the basket, and this led to the heroics of Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom in the last few minutes that set up the Lakers' run into overtime.
In the overtime, the Lakers again started away from the Triangle, only showing the offense on two of their nine possessions. Their offense largely came to a halt as they attempted to isolate Bryant, who was clearly injured. Their insistence on going to an ailing Kobe was questionable, at best, as both Gasol and Odom had shown the ability to score throughout, and the Lakers are a much better offensive team when every player has a chance to touch the basketball and be a scoring threat.
One of the central values of this possession charting tool for game analysis is to consider the various ways the Lakers attack. For example, the Lakers attacked in the Triangle on 37.4% of the game's possessions, converting on 57.5% of those possessions. No other segment of their offensive repertoire managed to convert with such a high percentage, so you can conclude that the Lakers should be using the Triangle even more often in their halfcourt attack.
Before Game Five, the Lakers will look back at the tape of this game and conclude that the more ball and player movement they can get out of the Triangle offense, the better off their attack will be. In the press conference after Game Four, Jackson and Bryant indicated a desire to run their offense with more efficiency and go to Bryant as an option late in the shot clock. This would seem a much better tactic for the Lakers, for Bryant's supporting cast seems content to watch him too much early in the shot clock. Gasol is able to score seemingly at will against this Jazz team, as they simply do not have the height or athleticism to deal with a player of his ability. The Lakers managed to score on seven of the 12 possessions they were in the Triangle and hit the post player, cutting off of his shoulders to either side. In what is known as their "solo-cut" series, in which they isolate a post player and a wing player on one side of the floor and the wing cuts through opposite after entering the ball into the post, the Lakers managed to score on six of 10 possessions. While the Lakers are consistently labeled a softer, finesse team, they really do make a living going to the post. They should look to increase their post-touch possessions to somewhere between 25 and 30 in Game Five.
In addition, expect a stronger emphasis on scoring in early offense, as the Lakers attacked in transition just under 20% of the time, converting 52.4% of those possessions. By standing around in isolations and relying on other sets that lack ball and player movement, the Jazz' slow-footed defenders had an easier time defending the Lakers. With their long, athletic, multi-skilled players, the Lakers have a decided advantage in full-court offense despite their lack of a star point guard.
Finding the right mix to showcase and take advantage of the versatility of the Lakers' attack has occupied the coaching staff over the last two days. With the extra day in between these two games, and provided Bryant's back is strong enough to allow him to play at a high level, expect the Lakers to get back to their high level of play on the offensive side of the floor on Wednesday evening.
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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