NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 2: Showcasing the impressive, empowered, and balanced Laker offense

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bryant.pngAfter the Lakers’ dominant performance in Game 1, Alvin Gentry wisely noted that “[the Suns] can survive a Kobe game, but [they] can’t survive a Lamar game, and
then Pau playing extremely well, and then Jordan Farmar really coming
in and having a solid game and then Artest playing the way he is.”

He was right, in a sense. Gentry’s statement deserves clarification, though: the Suns can survive a big scoring game from Kobe, but not necessarily a big game from Kobe. Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals could be Bryant’s best performance of the postseason so far, and he only scored 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The real gem in Kobe’s stat line was his 13-assist mark, and it was Bryant’s facilitation of a brilliant Laker offense that brought L.A. their eighth consecutive win.

Kobe’s 13 assists not only set a personal best for his playoff career, but according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, it was the highest assist total by any Laker since Magic Johnson matched the mark in 1997.

Of course, the immediate relevance of Kobe’s terrific performance is far more pressing than its historical context. It’s nice to know how this one game stacks up in comparison to Kobe’s other playoff performances and those of his fellow Lakers, but it’s far more crucial at this stage to understand and embrace just how much he helped his team to take a commanding 2-0 series lead last night.

The Suns are not a strong defensive team, regardless of their current reputation. That said, the most prominent story coming out of Game 2 should not be how Phoenix lost the game, but how Los Angeles won it. Stories of failure make for far more compelling theater, but in this case the Suns’ poor defense was only the catalyst for the loss. The Lakers, fueled by ball movement that was epitomized but not limited to Bryant’s assists, played like the elite offensive outfit that they are.

It’s a bit unfair that Bryant’s performance stole the show, especially considering how ridiculously effective Pau Gasol (29 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was in the fourth quarter. Gasol was a go-to option for the Lakers down the stretch, and though the Suns were within striking distance at points in the fourth, it was Pau’s scoring — not Bryant’s — that pushed Los Angeles over the top.

I think what makes Kobe’s night stand out amongst that of his teammates was how unique his playmaking was. A number of Lakers were productive scorers — Ron Artest finished with 18 points, Lamar Odom with 17, Andrew Bynum with 13, and Jordan Farmar with 11 — and all of them willing passers as well, but none of those contributors are in a position to defer.

Gasol was fantastic. He was put in a situation to succeed due to his skills, match-up, and circumstances, and he came through in flying colors. He’s still the second fiddle on this team though, and his dominance was by design. The Lakers (or more appropriately, Kobe) worked through Gasol with the game on the line, and he produced.

I know this all may seem like undue lavishing of an oft-praised star, but Kobe will always lie at the crux of what the Lakers hope to accomplish. In Game 2, he faced pressure but did anything but struggle. There will obviously be times between now and the end of the Lakers’ season where L.A. will need more than 21 points from Bryant to win, but his scoring in those situations is no more important than his willing deference in others.

That’s when Gasol will truly shine. It’s when Odom will go from from invisible to ever-present, and when Artest will command defensive attention. As the Celtics continue their quest to upset the Magic in the East, keep these Lakers at the back of your mind. They’re out for blood, championship-ready, and clicking both mentally and physically.

Video Breakdown: What is Hammer action? An explainer

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Hammer action — sometimes referred to as a Hammer play or a Hammer set — was made ubiquitous in the modern NBA by the San Antonio Spurs. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds to identify, and it’s got two main principles.

First, the Hammer part of any set is a back screen to setup a cut by a wing player around the arc to the corner (or sometimes on a flare to the wing).

Second, the Hammer always happens away from the ball side of a play. It’s a weak side action, and typically anything happening with the ball on the strong side at the beginning of the play is purposeful distraction.

You can learn all about the Hammer by watching this week’s NBA Glossary video above, or by reading the text version down below.

The Diagram

Here we have a set where the ball is on the right side of the floor, with one post high and one low. The Hammer action happens on the weak side of the court between the shooting guard and the center:

The small forward is going to start the pick and roll with the power forward going to the right side. Meanwhile, the center is going to set the back screen on the left left side of the floor. This is our Hammer action, and the shooting guard will run off that screen to the corner.

Once the play starts and the small forward gets to the baseline, he passes it out to the guard, who shoots the corner three.

Let’s take a look at it in action and how the Spurs mix it into different looking plays.

Here they have the ball at the arc on the right side of the floor. Kawhi Leonard is coming through the paint to receive a pass off the screen.

Meanwhile, Patty Mills is the player that’s going to run off a hammer screen here on the left elbow.

The ball is passed, and with Kawhi dribbling toward the arc, the trap is set, and the Hammer action commences.

The defender turns his head, and Mills runs toward the baseline unimpeded to take the jumper.

In this example, we have the pick and roll to the right side. The hammer action is going to happen between the guard and the post on the weak side.

As the pick and roll is run, the Hammer screen is set.

Notice San Antonio has cleverly positioned Tony Parker at the top of the arc, and when LaMarcus Aldridge pops out, it’s up to Parker’s defender to stunt over to help.

This makes Danny Green’s defender slide over to help cover Parker, basically leaving Green unguarded in the corner.

Aldridge sees this, and passes the ball to Parker for the quick rotation over to Green.

That’s the basics of the Hammer play. It’s nothing super complicated, but it shows you how spacing and exploitation of defensive tendencies can be programmed into an NBA offense.

Blake Griffin is producing “White Men Can’t Jump” remake

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 16:  Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers brings the ball up during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 16, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Do we need to remake “White Men Can’t Jump?” You remember the 1992 original, with Wesley Snipes (wearing era-appropriate clothes he’d now like to forget) and Woody Harrelson as a pair of playground ball hustlers. Rosie Perez knowing all the foods that begin with the letter “Q.” It’s no “He Got Game,” but White Men was clever and fun.

Whether it needs to be or not, White Men is about to get remade — with Blake Griffin as a producer.

Via the Hollywood Reporter:

Kenya Barris, the creator of ABC’s acclaimed comedy Black-ish, is teaming with Blake Griffin of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and Ryan Kalil of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers to develop a remake of the 1992 sports comedy for 20th Century Fox.

Barris will write the script for the project, which falls under his overall film deal with Fox that he signed in September. Barris also will act as a producer. Griffin and Kalil are producing via their Mortal Media banner, along with their partner Noah Weinstein.

To be clear, Griffin is producing, not acting in it. Although he should get a cameo, maybe as one of the playground ballers that gets hustled. It’s a bigger role than he’s going to get in Space Jam II, apparently.

Timberwolves Zach LaVine knows how to finish alley-oop (VIDEO)

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The Dunk Contest is not going to be the same this year without Zach LaVine.

The man has the hops to get up and knows how to finish — Tuesday night he took a not-very-good alley-oop pass from Nemanja Bjelica and turned it into an awesome throwdown. LaVine finished the night with 18 points.

However, Kawhi Leonard dropped 34 and sparked the comeback as the Spurs won the game, 122-114.

Three Things We Learned: Chris Paul’s bad luck trouble for Clippers

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Here’s what you missed around the NBA Tuesday while trying to decide which animal in Australia is most likely to kill you….

1) Chris Paul is out six weeks, and the Clippers are about to slide into tough playoff spot. It’s not fair to call Chris Paul “injury prone” — trying to fight through a screen his thumb got caught in the shorts of Russell Westbrook, which led to a torn ligament in his thumb which will require surgery. That is the definition of “fluke injury.” So was the play where he broke his hand in the playoff series against Portland last year (trying to defend a layup by Gerald Henderson). CP3 is much more in a Lemony Snicket place: A series of unfortunate events.

However, the Clippers are going to pay the price for Paul’s latest injury — they are going to slide down the standings in the 6-8 weeks he is out (until early March). Especially with Blake Griffin still out for a week or two (knee surgery). The Clippers lose CP3 as they enter the toughest part of their schedule: After being home to the Timberwolves Thursday, the Clippers have 10-of-11 on the road, heavily against teams over .500, plus Paul will miss three games against the Warriors.

As you read this the Clippers are the four seed in the West, but they are just four games up on being the seven seed — which would mean a long road through San Antonio to get out of the first round of the playoffs (climb back up to the six seed and they could get Houston in the first round). It’s hard to imagine the Clippers holding on to home court in the first round even with Paul back for the last month of the season. Healthy and playing like they did the first month of the season (remember that?), the Clippers might beat the Spurs/Rockets in the first round, but it would be a brutal series. The good news for Los Angeles is the Clippers are not going to slide all the way out of the playoffs — they have an 11-game cushion over the nine seed. They will not fall that far.

2) It’s James Harden’s turn: his triple-double not enough to get Rockets win. The Rockets were one of the best teams in the NBA against teams below .500, starting the season 21-1 against them. Then, in the past week, they have come out flat and dropped two against lesser squads. The first was last week against Minnesota — at least that’s a team loaded with young talent that can put together a good game.

However, Tuesday’s loss to Miami was ugly. Granted, the Heat have not rolled over and have played hard through tough times (especially against good teams, they have seven wins against teams over .500 this season). And they do have Hassan Whiteside (14 points and 15 rebounds Tuesday). Still, this is a game the Rockets need to win. Especially since they got center Clint Capela back in the lineup (but they were missing Ryan Anderson and it showed, their spacing on offense was poor).

Instead, the Rockets wasted an impressive triple-double from James Harden. 40 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a loss to the Heat 109-103.



3) Kawhi Leonard is quietly having a not so quiet season.
Kawhi Leonard is having an MVP-level season… well, most seasons he’d be in the mix, this year Russell Westbrook and James Harden are running away from the pack. But Leonard is right in the middle of the next tier of that award race — with Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and everyone else vying for votes (MVP voters choose five, who gets those last three slots will be interesting). Leonard is averaging 24.8 points per game, shooting 41 percent from three, pulling down 5.7 rebounds a game, plus playing lock-down defense to lead a Spurs team that is 32-9 this season. It’s just that he’s not out there trumpeting his own case for the award. That’s not his style.

You could see it Tuesday night, when Leonard dropped 34 points to spark a come-from-behind Spurs win against the Timberwolves. Don’t sleep on Leonard and the Spurs, this is a dangerous team.