Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Dwight Howard has taken to setting rock-solid screens for the Lakers and it has paid off instantly. A fantastic improvement from what Howard has shown all season.
Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers have been searching for a sustainable rhythm in the pick and roll game. With Howard's health being a complete hamstring on the Lakers on both ends of the floor, it's been difficult for the purple and gold to get into a groove. When specifically look at the pick and roll game, considering Howard isn't rolling to the rim with the gusto he did prior to the back injury, it's been especially challenging. While he constantly slipped screens prior to the All-Star break he would leave ball-handlers on an island to fend off two defenders while Howard himself was unable to swim to the rim properly.
In short, it wasn't working.
Since the All-Star break Howard has been setting noticeably better screens and it's creating space for Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and overall helping the Lakers' offense. A simple tweak, such as not slipping a screen and creating contact, can be a night and day difference for an offense that is highly dependent on his ability to be effective in the pick and roll. If he isn't rolling hard and creating his own space, then it's in his best interest to stand strong and push opposing defenders back while his teammates work around him.
Last time in the playbook we took a look at how ineffective the screens Howard was setting had become. Nash would be hounded and trapped almost immediately. It's been a different story since then for the Lakers.
In the first play Howard and Nash will run a simple, bread and butter, pick and roll at the top of the arc.
Lawson falls a few steps behind Nash, leaving McGee as the only defender in front of Nash. Since he is sagging, there's a great deal of space between the two.
Easy two points. Nash is pretty good at shooting the ball, so I've heard.
This time, Kobe is the ball-handler with Andre Iguodala on him.
McGee steps up to help in the pick and roll as Dwight demolishes Iggy. Now, Kobe has a favorable mismatch on the perimeter.
As Kobe turns the corner on McGee he has the attention of the entire Denver defense. All three players in the paint are looking over while McGee and Iguodala are in hot pursuit. On the perimeter, the Lakers rotate around the arc to clear space.
At this point Kobe is in the teeth of the defense. Kenneth Faried is prepared to challenge the shot at the rim, which would leave Dwight with a clear lane to the rim should Kobe decide to dish. All of Denver's defense is sucked into the paint. With the dribble penetration created for Kobe out of the pick and roll, their defense collapses, and the Lakers have three perimeter shooters ready for an outlet.
Instead, Kobe elects to take the shot himself, and while it was a difficult finish, he still scores on the layup attempt.
Back to Nash, however, as he has been taking clear advantage of Howard's strong screens.
A rock-solid screen from Howard that makes the defender pretend to be Neo from The Matrix. Nash now has space to operate -- something that hasn't happened often this season. With Chris Wilcox sagging off of the pick and roll action, Nash now has to beat him off the dribble.
With a little probing, Nash puts Wilcox on skates and gets another easy jumper because of a great screen from Howard.
Once again a simple pick and roll at the top of the arc to free up Nash.
The separation created is simply too much for a shooter like Nash. Especially with Boston electing to sag off, which may not have been the smartest decision in retrospect, eh?
Buckets. A quick shot from Nash from deep.
Nash had a rough night from the field when the Portland Trail Blazers came to town, but it wasn't due to lack of creation from Dwight by any means.
Another great screen for Nash to use leaving J.J. Hickson on Uh-Oh Island.
Nash puts Hickson on skates and takes a practice jumper for an easy two points.
Back to Denver, Kobe, and Iguodala.
Dwight completely walls off Iguodala. Andre Iguodala is 6'6, 206 pounds, and a bull of a player. Kobe now gets to take on McGee one-on-one, and we saw how that played out for McGee just a few plays ago.
Kobe blows by McGee and gets another layup.
Dwight is still struggling as a roll-man, however. He lacks the explosiveness that made him Dwight, but with the strong screens he is setting, he's forcing defense's to commit to stopping the ball-handler that is freed up. In this play Howard will set a strong screen, force a mismatch onto the ball-handler he's freeing up (Kobe), and take advantage of the Celtics' defense which commits their attention to stopping the dribble penetration off the screen.
Kobe works around the screen which forces Kevin Garnett to pick him up. Dwight is going to roll to the rim once he's done walling off the defender.
Once again the defense is focused on Kobe who is driving to the rim. Wilcox is the only defender in position to make a stop here, but his vision is on Kobe. Meanwhile, Dwight is completely alone on the weak side. A quick bounce pass from The Pass Mamba.
Quick Fire Screen MADNESS
And now, a word from the Howard Brick Wall Company.
Yes, Damian Lillard is a valued client of the Howard Brick Wall Company. Those were all separate plays with Lillard, just in case it wasn't clear. Quite unfortunate that Nash tweaked his back in the first quarter against Portland, as Nash had the golden ticket from the quality screens Dwight was setting.
Howard's willingness to stand in the pick and roll has been invaluable to the Lakers in their post All-Star sprint towards a playoff seeding. With his decreased mobility as a roll-man, it's important to find utility out of him as a screener still, and they have done just that from everything they've shown since getting back into the saddle. There's still a lack of opportunities for Dwight as a roll man, but with Nash and Kobe both provided with space and mismatches, it's still extremely effective.
The other long-term benefit is the ball-handlers finishing the possession keeps the ball out of Howard's hands. With the flimsy shoulder, Howard is constantly being targeted under the rim. This eliminates the chance that a defender tomahawk chops Dwight's arm to re-aggravate the torn labrum.
Overall, a remarkable improvement from what we last observed. Keep it up, the playoffs are still within reach.
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