Before the season even started, we discussed how the Lakers could get Kobe Bryant shots and keep him fresh at the same time by working him off the ball more often. Circumstances–Steve Nash’s early-season injury, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol’s recurring injury problems, Mike Brown’s firing, Mike D’Antoni’s hiring, Mike D’Antoni’s feud with Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ general ineptitude up until around three or four weeks ago, and so on and so forth–dictated that he handle the ball more often than not for much of the season, but now that the Lakers have settled into a rotation that works over the last few weeks, we’re starting to see a little bit more of this. Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bulls provided a great example of how using Bryant off the ball can help not only him, but Nash and Howard as well, especially when all three are used in conjunction with each other in the primary action.
After Luol Deng cuts the Laker lead to five points with just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter, Nash walks the ball up the court. The Lakers clear the entire right side of the floor as Ron Artest and Earl Clark spot up on the left wing and left corner, respectively. Bryant stations himself just above and outside the right elbow, while Howard trails closely behind the play. What the Lakers run here is a Nash-Bryant pick-and-roll, something they’ll run some variation of on five of their next eight possessions. (Note: I’ll only show four of the possessions below. The fifth resulted in Bryant drawing a foul. The three possessions that didn’t involve this action resulted in a missed transition three by Artest, an Earl Clark jumper off an offensive rebound, and a Bryant turnover that came out of an aborted Nash-Bryant pick-and-roll when Artest got in the way)
To understand just how much this action fools the Bulls, its important to know and understand their normal pick-and-roll defense strategy. Like the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls usually have their bigs hang back in the lane near the free throw line to meet penetrating guards coming around screens. Rather than aggressively trapping or switching on picks, the Bulls trust that their bigs can corral ball-handlers near the lane for a sufficient amount of time for the other involved defender to recover, and then scurry back to their own man to cut off any passing opportunity. Also like Indiana, the Bulls like to have the three players on the court whose men are uninvolved in the pick-and-roll action stay home so as not to give up open jumpers.
As you can see in the video above, however, when the Lakers run these 1-2 pick-and-rolls, Luon Deng aggressively jumps out and tries to redirect Nash off his path rather than hanging back in the lane. This is already a deviation from Chicago’s usual strategy. The result is that, when Deng doesn’t hedge aggressively enough, Nash is able to turn the corner quickly and get into the lane each time he comes around a Bryant screen.
On the first play, Nash takes a Bryant screen moving right, and then when a driving lane isn’t there because Joakim Noah slid into it, quickly wheels around and takes another one moving back towards the middle of the court. Nash easily ditches Nate Robinson in the confusion, but Howard is there waiting to nail Nate with another screen as Nash nears the elbow just in case. As Nash gets to the free throw line, he backs Noah off, and one of the greatest shooters in history winds up with one of the most wide open shots of his career.
On the next Laker possession, Nash again dribbles up the court as Artest and Clark space the floor on the left side, Bryant stations himself just above and outside the right elbow, and Howard trails the play closely behind. Again Nash comes off a Bryant screen moving right, and again Deng jumps out to try to redirect him. Deng is unsuccessful once more in his efforts, but this time, rather than wheeling around and coming back the other way, Nash turns the corner and continues toward the lane. Robinson actually recovers pretty nicely and cuts off Nash’s path to the rim, but a ridiculously well-timed between the legs crossover allows Nash to get into the teeth of the defense. A pump fake later, and Nash has a (relatively) easy six-foot jumper.
Two possessions later, the Lakers decide to move the action to the other side of the court, and this time they run it out of a horns set. Nash dribbles up the court while Bryant and Howard station themselves at the elbows, and Artest and Clark camp out in opposite corners. Nash comes off the Bryant screen at the left elbow, and once again Deng is both too late and not nearly aggressive enough with his hedge and allows Nash to turn the corner. The result is one of those weird one-legged runners that looks horrible but you just know is going in, which it does.
Two minutes of game time later, and immediately after a timeout, the Lakers take advantage of something they saw in the way the Bulls covered this action the first few times they ran it. Go back and watch that first video above again, only this time, concentrate on Howard and Noah rather than Nash, Bryant, Robinson and Deng. You’ll probably notice that each time Nash comes around a Bryant screen, Noah abandons Howard and moves to position himself between Nash and the rim. Pretty standard help defense. But what you’ll also notice is Howard inching toward the play to set screens: for Nash on the first play, and for Bryant on the third. That’s how the Lakers catch the Bulls napping here.
The Lakers again set up in horns with Nash dribbling above the top of the key, Bryant at the right elbow and Howard at the left, and Clark and (now) Jodie Meeks in opposite corners. Nash again is seemingly coming around a Bryant screen at the left elbow… only this time it’s not a screen at all.
By the time Nash gets to where Bryant is on the court, Kobe is already on the move. Robinson, Deng and Noah all think it’s the exact same action though, and they’re playing it as such. Deng jumps out to try to redirect Nash’s path. Robinson tries to fight over the top of a nonexistent screen. And Noah slides into position for when Nash turns the corner.
Kobe’s already floating over to the opposite side of the court, which is now completely clear thanks to Meeks cutting through the lane as Nash came around the screen. With Deng hedging, Noah sliding and Robinson fighting, there are no help defenders to pick up Bryant as he comes off a killer flare screen from Howard to the opposite elbow extended.
There are no Bulls within 10 feet of Bryant when he catches the ball, and he unsurprisingly drains the open shot.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the game just about in hand, the Lakers get even more creative within this action. Nash and Howard set up a high pick-and-roll while Meeks and Artest spot up on the right side and Bryant stations himself at the left elbow extended.
Nash comes around the Howard screen and, rather than try to penetrate, dribbles directly at Bryant and executes a dribble handoff. After dishing it off, he stops and screens for Bryant, as does Howard, who followed Nash on the play. What you see next is the roll/pop combo, something being used by an increasingly large amount of teams, from the Hornets to the Spurs to the Knicks.
Nash pops out off his screen to the left wing, and Howard goes on a delayed roll through the lane. Robinson, Deng and Noah are so confused by all the movement that they leave Howard wide open for a dunk. Because Deng gets knocked off his path by both Nash and Howard, Noah has to contain Bryant’s drive. Theoretically, this should leave Robinson and Deng to pick up Nash and Howard. For a second, that’s what happens.
Robinson tags Howard on the roll, but Deng steadfastly tries to fight over the screen and get back to Bryant. With Noah already guarding him, and Robinson scurrying back to Nash on the wing after tagging Howard, Dwight winds up all by his lonesome right next to the basket, and Bryant fires a pass right over the top of the defense for a dunk.