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15th Jun, 2009

The Five Seconds that Won the Lakers, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson the Title

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It is not often appreciated that basketball is a culture, an amalgam of subtle signs, a distinct language and even its own set of taboos. Perhaps that is why so many athletes major in kinesiology, which is the science of the body and body language.

The uninitiated and the outsider understand the game the way someone comprehends the basics of a foreign language: they can read the broad patterns and understand its basic phrases. Watching a game they may be able to perceive that a team is running a 1-2-2 zone or a flex offense, but that is the limit of their understanding. At the next level are those who are more fluent, but still non-natives. They can recognize what analysts call the game within a game the way someone well-versed in a foreign language can grasp the tone and pitch of words. They may see that a player uses his right hand more than his left on the dribble or hammers the ball just before executing a cross-over or always tips a jump shot by raising an eyebrow.

To those who are truly part of the culture the game operates on a level that the TV analysts struggle to convey. Perhaps that is why so many ex-athletes in announcing roles appear as tongue-tied or as elementary as non-native speakers struggling to make their own language understood in English. Only a rare few are the equivalent of bi-lingual.  Former player and coach Doug Collins is one. The late Al McGuire could translate that side of the college game.

The Mind Game

A basketball team is a culture of its own where the best are made up of players who not only know but also embrace their roles. Even more, like any culture they have grown to rely on each other in an almost supernatural way. They know when someone is on just by body language that only players who have gone through grueling practices together can understand.

Most people do not appreciate the intelligence it takes to play and coach basketball well.  By that I don’t mean that players are candidates for Mensa, but the good ones have that rare cultural consciousness that is a mixture of memory, perception and talent.  Basketball at the highest level has as much to do with that as it does with strategy.

Every player on the floor has a pretty good idea what his opponent will do.  Not only have they played against them for a full season, but sometimes for years. In addition they have watched film of their opponent over and over again, frame by frame: click, stop, what do you see? Back it up again and again. Does the pattern hold?

They know cultural nuances such as how two players execute the pick and roll, which has become the basic foundation of many pro offenses. What is the spacing on the screen as one player tries to block out another? How does he apply the screen? Which way does the player the screen is set for move? Are you likely to be able to fight through the screen or will you have to switch (notice how little switching there is on pro screens as opposed to college or high school games). Switching is the easy way out; if you make it to the NBA finals you do not get there by switching.

It all comes down to culture. Is there something in a player’s eyes that tips what they will do? Or maybe it is a subtle bend of the knee, where they place their hands, their footwork. The offensive player may know his defender will bite on certain fakes, leaving his feet in an attempt to block the shot or allowing just a little extra space because he has five fouls. The mind game is about trying to find that magic key that will enable a player to have power over another player or a team to dominate another team.

An NBA final is as much a cultural clash as the player vs player contest the media love to hype. Maybe that is why they attract fans who normally do not watch the game during the regular season. They sense that there is something bigger going on, something that has deep meaning for how we see and understand the world.

Perhaps the coach and player in today’s game who understand this best are Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant. That the two should be united on one team is one of those fortunate intersecti0ns–like Bill Russell and Red Auerbach–that make for dynasties. Nowhere was that better demonstrated than at the end of game four of the NBA finals, the game that for all practical purposes decided the outcome of the series.

The Final Five Seconds–The Players

In the final moments of regulation Phil Jackson stuck with the same lineup he had used every game: guards Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher and frontliners Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and Pau Gasol.  Even grade school players know the importance of being on the court at the end of a game. I once had a player break down in tears because in the last minute of overtime playing for a state consolation trophy, I pulled him for a stronger defensive stopper.

The final five is one of the most important cultural statements a coach and team can make. It is not so much about having your best players out there as your best team: five people who have played together enough that they know each other so well that in a basketball sense they can complete each other’s sentences.

By staying with the same five, Phil Jackson was making an emphatic statement that his team had a group of five that functioned so well together that pulling one of them would have totally disrupted the chemistry between these players. Second, he was showing his confidence in those players as individuals and as a unit.

Van Gundy’s strategy throughout the playoffs was in sharp contrast to Jackson’s.  As the series wore on his roster moves appeared more and more perplexing. Why, for example, in one game did he have J.J. Reddick on the floor at crunch time and then in the next game bury him deep on the bench?  Then there was Courtney Lee, the rookie who was out there for the crucial final play during regulation in game three and then disappeared in game four.

In game four, Van Gundy elected to go with guards Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus and front liners Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu.  Nelson was coming off a severe shoulder injury that had kept him out off the playoffs until the finals, during which he had only played sparingly up to game four. Although Nelson had played a courageous and significant role in the game, by this time he was tiring, plus he had never been a shooting threat. The final three were always out there at the end, but in each game Van Gundy played with his back court combinations as if he was not sure whether he had a consistent combination. This told players and fans alike that the team did not have a strong culture but instead was a creature of the coach’s whims. It is the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy.

Jackson, on the other hand, understood his team’s culture. Instead of jerking players in and out he had stuck with the culture he and the team had created. When Derek Fisher hit the two crucial threes that broke Orlando’s back in game four, he told anyone who would listen how much he appreciated Jackson’s faith in him. At the end of the final game of the series Fisher was even more philosophical, pointing out that Jackson “let his players play,” trusting them to do the right thing.

When I saw Van Gundy’s roster manipulations in the close game three I told my wife the Lakers would win because Reddick was neither a good ball handler nor a great defensive player. When I saw he had again jerked his lineup around at the end of the next game, I told her the series was over.  The Magic had had been shattered.  True to form in the next game the Lakers went on a game-winning, demoralizing 18-0 run in which neither the team nor van Gundy appeared to have a clue as to how to stop it.

Before the finals the Magic had shown a great deal of cultural strength in the games leading up to the finals, bouncing back from losses to go on and win each series.  Yet near the end of game three or game four of the finals–I forget which and could not find it on video– Rashard Lewis made a comment to interviewer Doris Burke that said everything. Asked how the Magic prepared for the final play, Lewis said in essence that the players relied on the coach to call the right play. Contrast this with Fisher’s remarks and you have the series in a nutshell.

The Final Five Seconds– The First Play

As usual, the media missed the key moment. Look for the video of the end of regulation in game four and in all the highlight compilations you will find this crucial five seconds gone, as if they never happened.  The official NBA site does not even have a highlight video of it. However, you can find the final seconds of regulation here, as number twelve of thirteen videos that chronicle the complete game.

To show you how few people understood the significance of those final moments, video twelve has only 4,992 views on YouTube as of this morning. The screen shots that follow are taken from that video. Instead of cutting those critical moments they ought to be everywhere for fans, coaches and players to see, for that brief moment was as pure an example of the game at its highest level that you are liable to find.

Unlike the previous game when they were in a similar situation but had only a tick of the clock, this time Orlando had a legitimate shot to end it. The game was tied in regulation with a little less than five seconds to go–an eternity to pro players–and Orlando had the ball to inbound to the side of the Lakers’ basket.  Magic coach Stan Van Gundy had a play for his team to execute the winning basket. At this level teams practice inbounds plays with little time on the clock the way football teams execute two-minute drills.

Hedo Turkoglu had the honor of throwing the ball in. As he stood there on the sidelines waiting for the play to develop and an open man to appear, the close-ups caught the distress in his face.  He finally had to rely on basketball’s equivalent of a do-over, calling a timeout so his team could regroup and Van Gundy call another play.

One picture tells the story.

The Lakers could not have asked for better spacing on this play. Note the Magic essentially have two players who are out of the play as far as being options for Turkoglu.  The play was clearly designed to go to Rashard Lewis who is circled in the corner.  But the Magic’s spacing has Dwight Howard too close to Lewis so that Odom and Gasol can double on either of them.   Kobe Bryant has also left his man in the corner ready to add a third defender should they try a lob to Howard. Meanwhile Trevor Ariza, who is contesting the inbounds pass in front of Turkoglu, has sensed the play and moved to block off the passing lane to Lewis.

If you want an example of textbook defense this picture is as good as it gets. Turkoglu’s body language tells it all, for instead of looking at the court his head is turned across court towards the Magic bench as if he were looking for instructions from Van Gundy. I don’t believe I saw anyone inbounding the ball for the Lakers do that the entire series.

Either something broke down or this is a bad play because normally there is at least a second option in the middle of the floor who probably would have caught the ball and then quickly driven to the basket or dished off to someone else. But Jameer Nelson does not come for the ball, instead choosing to stay on the far side of the court where Fisher has him defended well enough that a long pass would have been absurd.

This is at its heart a cultural failing. Either Nelson did not feel he had enough freedom given the way the play was designed to come bail out Turkoglu or he did not have the court sense to make that play.  But Nelson isn’t the only one who did not help out. Seeing Ariza blocking the passing lane Lewis could have made a move toward the center of the court taking Odom with him and leaving Howard with Gasol and perhaps Bryant doubling up.  But time had just about run out and Turkoglu, not seeing either Lewis or Nelson making a move did the only thing he could.

After Turkoglu calls the timeout, the video shows Lewis walking over to him with a frustrated look, his body language telling the story even if you cannot hear what he was saying.  Lewis wanted the ball and Turkoglu had not gotten it to him.  In extremely slow motion you can see that Turkoglu telegraphs the pass, but then without a viable second option in the middle of the court he could not even have faked in the direction to keep Ariza honest.

The Final Five Seconds–Play Two

The second play tells you everything you need to know about the entire series. You can see why the only game Orlando won was one in which they had to hit a record 62.5% to win by four points–and that game was in doubt up to the final moments.  If you cannot put a team away when you hit almost two-thirds of your shots it is a sign you are either overmatched or outcoached or both.

It takes a few more shots from the video to watch what happens on the final play of regulation in game four. For Orlando fans looking at those shots must be painful, for the team’s failings are in full view of those who watched that game.  First they faced the overwhelming statistic that in the NBA playoffs 60% of the teams down 3-1 lose in game five and another 20% in game six. Only eight teams have rallied to win a playoff series when down 3-1 and no team in the finals has ever won after going down 3-1.

As play two developed, again Turkoglu looked for an open man and again his face became more contorted.

The above shot shows that clearly van Gundy changed the play. Jameer Nelson streaks from the corner, his figure a blur in the lens as he moves past a Dwight Howard screen.  Rashard Lewis moves towards Mickael Pietrus in anticipation of a screen.

The next shot in the sequence is a thing of beauty for the Magic appear to have pulled off multiple screens that have Pietrus heading for the top of the free throw lane while Dwight Howard sets another screen to free up Lewis who is heading for his favorite spot in the corner–the same place he was in the previous sequence.

The multiple screens required on this play rely on perfect execution and pinpoint timing. Viewing this shot it looks like the Magic are going to pull off the play.  Things look even better in the next shot.

This time Turkoglu now has an option at the center of the court–Pietrus. Only Nelson is out of the picture, but note how Derek Fisher has already begun to slide toward the middle to cut off Pietrus should he decide to go to the hole. This is where having Nelson out there becomes a liability because Fisher knows he does not need to cover him tightly.

Also note that Howard’s screen has created two mismatches. Kobe Bryant is now on Howard under the basket and Pau Gasol is on Lewis in the corner. If Turkoglu can get the ball to Lewis chances are he can drive by Gasol for the winning basket. The height advantage Howard has over Bryant makes him an option for a lob play. Instead of the one option Turkoglu had on the first play he now has three.

The switch had put Bryant, who is listed by ESPN as 6″7″ on Superman, 6’11” Dwight Howard who outweighs Bryant by at least fifty pounds and is generally considered the strongest player in the NBA. Howard can dunk on a twelve foot basket, something Bryant, for all his talent, can only dream of accomplishing.  Sports Illustrated notes that Howard’s weight lifting and other talents would put him right near the top of NFL LINEBACKERS.  Imagine trying to guard a 6’11” Dick Butkus and that gives you some idea of the task Bryant faced.

When you have a person built like a linebacker who can dunk on a twelve foot basket even a sandlot coach could draw up the play: just get the ball in the air and let Howard go get it and finish the play. But Turkoglu did not throw the ball to Howard, nor did Pietrus after he received the inbounds pass. Why not?

Bryant and Howard

To the general public Kobe Bryant won the Most Valuable Player award for his offense–his scoring and his ability to find the open man when double and triple-teamed. But Kobe Bryant also takes great pride in his defense, which he works on just as hard as he does on his offense.  It is this double threat that makes Bryant the number choice by general managers for players to build a team around.

Young players will be back on the court after these playoffs practicing all the scoring moves Bryant made that are all over the Internet, but what may be the most important single play he made in the playoffs is not an offensive play and not on any highlight reel. He would play kryptonite to Howard’s Superman.

The smaller Bryant had draped himself around Howard like a piece of shrink wrap. The way Bryant was playing him Howard would not have even been able to get his feet off the floor. You may be Superman, but you cannot dunk on even a regulation basket if you have to carry Kobe Bryant with you.

Bryant could afford to gamble a bit on how hard he played Howard because of several factors. First Howard is not the best free throw shooter in the NBA.  In fact he had a chance to put the game out of reach when he had two free throws shortly before Derek Fisher hit his clutch three. Had Howard hit one of those two–a mediocre 50%–the game would have been all but over.  Second, the referees had been calling a fairly loose game underneath, allowing the players to get more physical than they had in the previous game.  Third, it is pretty well established that superstars such as Bryant get the benefit of the doubt on many plays.

Still Bryant’s strategy for wrapping up Howard was pure basketball genius. He bodied him so closely that they might as well have been glued together, but he did so by playing Howard low not high. By that I mean his efforts were focused on containing Howard’s waist and hips. Note in the picture how you do not even see his hands. For all I know he may have been executing the old-fashioned playground maneuver of grabbing Howard’s jersey.

A Shaquille O’Neal would have muscled Bryant aside as if he were a fly. A Tim Duncan would have executed some footwork worthy of Dancing with the Stars that left Bryant flat-footed.  Dwight Howard may be Superman, but he is also a young player drafted out of high school who is still learning the game. The Magic have brought in Patrick Ewing, one of the game’s all-time greats, to work with Howard and no doubt in a few years he could mature into the greatest center of them all. But on this play, he did not know what to do.

The Final Five Seconds–The Last Shot

All of a sudden Turkoglu’s options had shrunk from three to one. Bryant had Howard under wraps, Nelson was out of the play and never an option and Gasol had Lewis covered with help from Ariza who again cut off the passing lane to the corner all but inviting Turkoglu to throw the pass to Pietrus.

As the Lakers hoped, Turkoglu passed to Pietrus who rushed an awkward shot that managed to get rim, but not much else and the game went into overtime.  But the Magic were like a  boxer on the canvas. They had actually had several chances to put the game away, but had blown  them all, the most crucial being when Dwight Howard missed two free throws with eleven seconds on the clock and then Orlando flubbed a defensive assignment that allowed Derek Fisher to hit the game-tying three.

The Lakers clearly had both plays the Magic ran in those five second scouted ahead of time. A casual fan might think there are an infinite number of possibilities, but actually there are significantly less. Start with where the ball is being thrown in. Where on the court is it? Then move to personnel. Who is on the floor? Finally move to the positions the players take before the ball is thrown in.  This lowers the possibilities from infinite to manageable.

Putting these ingredients together, the Lakers know the Magic will have only run certain plays throughout the season and they will have run them in a statistically significant sample–play one 45% of the time, play two 21% and so on.  The coaching staff will have had to have studied and remembered those reports so when Orlando ran a  play chances are they recognize it.

But in the end it is up to the defenders on the floor to also recognize the play, because the Lakers were out of timeouts and the coaching staff could not tell them what to do. They had to have watched so much film of the player they were guarding in exactly that circumstance to know how to defend the inbounds pass.

The Final Five Seconds–Pietrus’ Dilemma

Now we are left with the question that will dog Magic fans, players and coaches during the long nights of an off-season when you have lost a shot at the championship. Should Pietrus have taken the shot or did he have other options?

The first is did he have enough time? A shot of Pietrus driving tells the story of the play and the Magic’s loss.

Note the time on the clock as Pietrus begins his drive–three seconds, plenty of time to pass and give someone an opportunity to catch and shoot. the first obvious target is Lewis who is standing in the corner with his arms out as if he expects a pass. Gasol has started moving towards the middle to make sure Pietrus cannot get to the rim, so he would have had to reverse gears to come back to Lewis.

Option two is Turkoglu in the center of the court. He, too, appears to be looking for a pass. Both plays–the pass to Lewis and one to Turkoglu are Magic staples, but Pietrus continues driving. Still when he releases his final shot there are 2.3 seconds on the clock.

Note Lewis in the corner who is now wide open and all but begging for the ball. Also note Odom has slipped off Turkoglu to try to block Pietrus’ shot.  Perhaps Pietrus decided to shoot to give Howard enough time to put in the rebound should the shot miss. Perhaps he did not see Lewis. He probably could not have seen Turkoglu.

Mickael Pietrus was one of my favorite players through the playoffs. Without his gritty effort, the Magic would have never made it to this point, but imagine if Bryant had been making the same play. My guess is that he would have had the ball to Lewis in plenty of time for Lewis to catch and shoot a wide open shot.

Still having said this, Pietrus’ shot was makeable. He had made shots like that before and he will make them again. My guess is that he saw the 6″10″  Odom closing in on him and perhaps rushed the shot a bit. Still the best two shooters on the floor were left without a touch in the most crucial play of the series.

End Game

In this sense, Orlando was outcoached and outplayed. As well as he had played, Nelson should not have been on the floor.  Orlando should have had another shooter out there. In the previous game Van Gundy had former Duke standout J.J. Reddick on the floor, but not this time, perhaps because Reddick had a crucial turnover in the final moments.

The Lakers seemed better prepared for the final minutes than Orlando, as if Lakers sideline regular Jack Nicholson’s famous smirk indicated he knew something. One of the most important cultural concepts in basketball is the idea of help. It usually is associated with defense, but is equally important on offense. A team whose players don’t instinctively know how to help each other does not win championships.

In game four the lack of help allowed Derek Fisher to break free for the tying shot. Jackson was running a relatively simple play where players break down court in zones, but the success of the play depends on impeccable timing and spacing. The have to break at the right time, at the right speed and their spacing has to be enough to stretch the defense but not too much so that one player is unavailable for a pass.

The Lakers pulled this off perfectly. Again the key figure was Kobe Bryant, who drew the double team so well that it left Fisher streaking down the sideline wide open. Orlando, on the other hand, blew the assignment because there was no help.

The Big Picture

This all may seem an idle discussion about the nuances of basketball that holds little relevance for more critical social and cultural issues. Most people draw a strong line between sports/entertainment and social and economic issues, but they are dead wrong. The culture of basketball can teach us much about our larger culture.

It is no accident that the most successful team in sports history hung on the cultural collaboration of a black player and a white coach during the midst of the turbulent Civil Rights Era. Had America truly learned from the collaboration of Bill Russell and Red Auerbach one wonders what history would have been like.

What occurred in those final five seconds of regulation in game four is as relevant to business or government as it is to basketball. Businesses like to bring coaches like Jackson and players like Bryant to give their employees motivational speeches. Usually they focus on shopworn topics such as teamwork or what it takes to make a champion, but rarely do they focus on culture.

In cultural terms the big picture of what was going on in the five seconds involved the always difficult balance between overcoaching players or giving them too much freedom. As Rashard Lewis indicated in his interview, the Magic are clearly a coach-centered team where players appear to be on fairly short leashes, if Van Gundy’s lineup changes and yanking of players is any indication. Turkoglu’s look towards the sideline tells everything you need to know about the Magic’s culture.

The Lakers, on the other hand, are a team in which the cultural bonds between the players are strong enough that their coach trusts them to do the right thing, even in the most crucial seconds of the most crucial game of the season. Note how once both plays had run their course the Orlando players appeared lost, unable to improvise while the Lakers who found themselves in the difficult situation of the switch that put Bryant on Howard reacted as a unit. On another team, someone might have left their man to come help Bryant with Howard, but the Lakers players knew Bryant was up to the task and defensed the play they way they should have. The window of opportunity in which Turkoglu had three options was measured in tenths of a second.

It is interesting that this cultural theme of how much leeway to allow a team figures in several new books that detail various aspects of the financial crisis. In Fool’s Gold Gillian Tett, who writes for the Financial Times, explores how a culture that believed it could eliminate risk (hence the title) took the venerable firm of J.P. Morgan into a financial morass that the company and the nation are still recovering from. Kate Kelly’s Street Fighters, which details the last 72 hours of Bear Stearns, zeroes in on that firm’s cultural failings.

But the most crucial cultural question hanging over America today is the Obama Administration. Currently anyone who can peck away at the keys of a computer is offering an instant diagnosis of what is happening at the White House, but few of them approach it as a cultural issue.  Yet it is the culture of  an Administration, like the culture of a basketball, team that will determine how it handles a crisis the same way it determined how each team responded during those last five seconds of regulation in game four.

Three examples from history are enlightening. The Kennedy Administration survived the Cuban Missile Crisis largely because of a decision-making culture that delicately mixed restraint and action. The Carter Administration could not handle the Iranian Hostage Crisis because its culture lacked that balance. The Bush Administration reacted to 9/11 by taking this nation down the road of torture and the forfeiture of our civil liberties.

Let us hope the Obama Administration does not face the equivalent of any of those crises, but if it does, it will be culture that decides the outcome just as it did in game four.

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