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No NBA team has been better than the Los Angeles Lakers in the last three minutes of close games this season. They can play in different ways during those final minutes and have several possible lineup combinations. This is a true luxury for head coach Frank Vogel.
The Lakers are 13-4 after having faced clutch* situations, giving them the top winning percentage in such games at 76.5 percent. Their clutch-time wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat each came via varying attacks, as broken down below.
*A clutch situation is defined throughout this article as a three-point game within three minutes to play in regulation or overtime.
Lakers’ Clutch Offense
Most teams are predictable regarding what they run at the end of games. Coaches will go to their bread-and-butter plays over and over. The Lakers, on the other hand, can go in different directions.
Before the All-Star Game, L.A. secured a thrilling overtime win against the Nuggets on Feb. 12. Down the stretch, Vogel and the Lakers went with a LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll attack.
It caused all sorts of problems for the Nuggets on several consecutive possessions. On this first pick-and-roll below, Nikola Jokic is in drop coverage and is worried about Davis’ roll. Jokic never gets in front of James, allowing Jerami Grant to recover, so James gets a layup.
Roughly a minute later, the Lakers go to the well once more. This time, though, Davis pops instead of rolling. As Jokic and Grant corral James, Monte Morris rotates over to take away the pass to Davis. This creates a cutting lane for Alex Caruso, who James finds for a layup:
On the Lakers’ next offensive possession, the Nuggets switch the pick-and-roll, leaving Jokic to guard James. LeBron recognizes this, backs up to the three-point line and blows by Jokic for a lefty layup.
According to Synergy, the Lakers have a points-per-possession average of 0.97 in pick-and-rolls that include passes out of the play. James has a PPP of 1.04 in those situations. The pick-and-roll option is one the Lakers can use when they want to attack a big man.
But it might not always be the best choice against teams that are good at switching. This is when the Lakers can go to their two post options. Davis has a PPP of 0.98 on post-ups including passes, and James has a 1.16 mark on those plays, according to Synergy.
It was evident in their Feb. 23 win against the Boston Celtics, who are excellent at switching on pick-and-rolls. Because of that, Vogel went into the post with James. On a critical fourth-quarter possession, the Lakers got the ball to James in the post off a baseline inbound. Jaylen Brown is a good defender, but once James goes to the fadeaway, it is a bucket:
Vogel said about James’ post-up: “He’s been, you know, pounding it the whole night trying to put them in the basket using his up-and-unders to the rim. So he just commented in the locker room that because he had been doing that, he knew he’d have space for the turnaround.”
James’ post-ups usually force opponents into double-teams, which is dangerous because of his passing ability.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans below, he has Jrue Holiday on him, so he immediately goes to the post as the ball is swung. It forces Brandon Ingram to rotate and JJ Redick to zone up to the weak side. Ingram leaves and then returns as James goes into his move. At the last second, James finds Kyle Kuzma in the corner for a big three to put the Lakers up two late in a Nov. 27 win:
Should a team take away both the pick-and-roll and post-ups, the Lakers can run some of their normal actions. Against Miami, they went to their trusted elbow action. James starts at the elbow but ends up at the three-point line. Danny Green makes the pass and then goes to set a screen for Davis, who is in the corner.
Davis can come off the screen and post up but can also pop out for three if teams overplay it like the Heat do here:
Vogel has a variety of crunch-time options that make things difficult for a defense. He said after the Celtics game that he looks at “matchups and coverages” to decide which strategy to go with. He added, “You feel out the game with what the other team’s matchups look like and what their coverage is.”
Most teams prefer to have a solidified closing lineup, but that is another way in which the Lakers are acting differently. Two guys are guaranteed to be out there: James and Davis. After those two, it’s a toss-up.
In the Boston game, the Lakers had a closing lineup of James, Davis, Kuzma, Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. In the Denver contest, Vogel had Caruso in over Kuzma. The Lakers have not settled into a closing five, and it seems they won’t this season.
L.A. has used nine different fourth-quarter lineups featuring both James and Davis that have played a minimum of 10 minutes this season. One of the most-used lineups has been James, Davis, Caldwell-Pope, Caruso and Dwight Howard, which has logged 24 minutes and posted a net rating of 20.4 points.
The other most-used James-Davis lineup has the best net rating and features Davis as the center, James as the forward, and Green, Caldwell-Pope and Caruso as the guards. This group had a net rating of 29.0 in its 24 minutes.
Most coaches struggle to find five players they trust in close games. Vogel has the opposite problem: He has too many options.
He said after the Boston game: “The great thing is, it is not a matter of not having enough guys I trust—it is too many guys that I trust. I felt great with Avery in there, with Alex in there, with Danny in there—you go down the line with the guys…our bigs I trust.”
Vogel can base his decision on what his team needs at that moment. “It is one of those things I continue to feel out throughout the season,” he said. “I got a good feel for what guys can’t and can do. Who is really going in the rhythm and in what ways—whether it is scoring the ball or defensive matchup.”
Adding Markieff Morris
The Lakers added the recently bought-out Markieff Morris on Sunday to give Vogel yet another option. With the Detroit Pistons this season, Morris was shooting a career-high 39.7 percent on 4.3 attempts per game. This puts him right behind Caldwell-Pope as the highest-percentage three-point shooter in the rotation.
Morris can spread the floor for the Lakers in a variety of ways. He gives them another pick-and-pop option besides Davis. According to Synergy, he had a 1.00 PPP mark on pick-and-pop plays.
Here, Reggie Jackson comes off the Morris pick, forcing Aaron Gordon to hedge and creating the room for Morris to pop:
Even when he is not involved in the pick-and-roll, Morris has value as a spacer. He’s shooting 43 percent on corner threes this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. This will make it harder for a team to send weak-side help on a James-Davis pick-and-roll, especially with James’ passing skills.
Vogel said about Morris: “He’s one of those wings that has great versatility—3, 4, sometimes small-ball 5, sometimes play him at the 2. You know, like Kuz, and you know, just another guy that can play on the perimeter, can catch and shoot threes, post, roll to the basket, good basketball instincts and some toughness defensively.”
The Lakers had a need for more shooting, and Morris helps fill that void. His shooting should open the floor even more for James and Davis, as well as give Vogel additional lineup options. He’ll get some clutch opportunities because he’ll fit whatever offensive strategy L.A. goes with.
The Lakers have been great at closing games and have been doing so in different ways. They have the versatility to attack in multiple ways with either the pick-and-roll, through the post and by just running their normal sets, regardless of who they have out there. It is that versatility that has made them so difficult to beat in close contests.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men’s national team. Follow him on Twitter @MoDakhil_NBA