Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up for the slam dunk against the New York Knicks to put the Lakers up 99-94 late in the second half during the NBA game at Staples Center on December 25, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Knicks 100-94.
Steve Nash has taken control of the Lakers’ offense and shifted its reliance on Kobe Bryant to a balanced attack when the game is on the line. Can the Lakers’ recent success simply be explained by Steve Nash’s return?
The numbers seem to suggest that the Lakers were transforming prior to the Nash comeback, but the 38-year-old Canadian completed the metamorphosis by having the respect to take shots away from Kobe Bryant in crunch time. With Nash guiding the offense, the Lakers demonstrated a balanced attack during winning time, the fourth quarter.
In the two games since Nash returned to general the offense, Kobe Bryant’s fourth quarter impact has been rolled back to allow more shots to the rest of the team. It was no accident that Pau Gasol ended up with the ball late in the Christmas Day game and put down an emphatic game-winning slam dunk.
Gasol got the ball late and was aggressive with it because he made a midrange jump shot earlier in the quarter. The offense was flowing, Gasol was consistently involved, and he was confident enough to contribute within the rhythm of the game rather than forcing an ill-advised shot with a rare late-game touch.
Since Nash returned, Kobe Bryant’s shot attempts account for just 29.3 percent of the Lakers’ total fourth quarter shot attempts. Also, the Mamba has been responsible for only 26.3 percent of the Lakers’ fourth quarter points. This is a massive decrease from only five games earlier when the Lakers were on a losing streak and playing some of the worst basketball in the NBA.
In the Lakers’ last three losses (against Utah, Cleveland, and Oklahoma City), Bryant took an average of 43.6 percent of the fourth quarter shot attempts and scored an average of 41.7 percent of the Lakers’ points in the final period.
Kobe averaged nearly 12 points on eight shot attempts in the final quarter. That is a darn good return on investment. However, the other guys were not able to get involved with any regularity, and Kobe would have the nightly dilemma of a pure scorer handed the ball late in a game because his point guards were out injured.
Kobe did what he knew to do. He shot the basketball, and he actually shot career bests in field goal percentage. However, far too often Kobe-ball led to the other Lakers watching on the offensive end rather than each developing their own offensive rhythms.
During the darkest times against Utah, New York, and CLEVELAND (it still hurts…Cleveland?), Howard only put up one shot attempt per fourth quarter and scored an average of three points when the game was on the line. The Lakers, however, did not entirely change their offensive imbalance overnight. The shift started after the loss in New York, well before Nash returned to the team.
Dwight Howard has made the most traceable fourth quarter increase in the Lakers’ transition from loser to winner. Howard averaged three points on a lone shot attempt during the last three Lakers losses. As the Nash-less Lakers started winning, Howard averaged 4.6 points on 2.3 shot attempts during the final 12 minutes. With Nash back running a screen and roll with Howard, the Lakers’ defensive anchor averaged 5.5 points on 2.5 shots the last two fourth quarters.
After the loss in New York, the Lakers put together a three-game winning streak prior to Nash re-joining the team. During that winning stretch, Kobe Bryant still shot the ball eight times per game in the final quarter, but he only accounted for 32.9 percent of the team’s points, meaning the ball was moving more and different guys were taking and making shots.
The Lakers’ winning formula relied on sharing the ball. Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, and Darius Morris were all averaging two of more shots in the final 12 minutes in the three wins against Washington, Charlotte, and Philadelphia. Still, Kobe was shooting a couple times more than he should have been.
Then, Nash returned to complete the transition.
Nash not only kept the others involved; he did something not many would dare to do. Nash took shots away from Bryant late in the fourth quarter in close games. Bryant’s eight shot attempts in the fourth quarter dropped to six attempts with Nash calling his own number twice per fourth quarter. Nash is 2-4 when it counts following the coming back.
With Nash and the Lakers sharing the ball, the Lakers are no longer a one-eyed Cyclops that suffers from a lack of peripheral vision. Now, they are a multi-headed beast that cannot be defeated by simply isolating the best scorer in the league.
Bryant is still leading the team with 7.5 points per fourth quarter on a team-high six shots with Nash in the lineup.
However, the Lakers’ finishing five (Gasol, Howard, Metta World Peace, Nash, and Bryant) are combining for an average of 22.5 points per fourth quarter. None of those finishing five are averaging less than two shots per fourth quarter since Nash returned, and that balance down the stretch is exactly what has the Lakers winning games.
Steve Nash certainly deserves praise for his ability to manage the offense, but to achieve offensive balance, the entire team must buy into the team concept—especially Kobe Bryant. Right now, the Lakers are winning games and everyone is buying in when it matters most, the fourth quarter.