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Are The Lakers Clutch?

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84 to 85.

That was the score after three quarters of playoff basketball. The Lakers were down by one, with 12 minutes of play remaining. Far earlier on in this season, when the Lakers had a ridiculous record in games decided by five points or less, and the Lakers had garnered a reputation of toying with teams early on before finally deciding to come out and play, Lakers fans would already be confident in a Los Angeles victory by this point. Something like Game Two of this series, maybe, where the Lakers and Suns were tied 90-all at the three-quarter pole before blowing the Suns away late to transform the game into a double-digit victory, 124 to 112. The reality, this time around? A 106 to 115 loss.

Now, to label the Lakers as 'un-clutch' is inherently stupid, as one only needs to point to earlier on in the season, as well as more recent outings such as Game Two to see that the Lakers CAN prevail in the clutch. But can they do it consistently, like a truly clutch team is capable of? Do they look at home in money-time?  More often than not, the answer this season has been 'no'. The Lakers panic in the clutch, stop going into the post and rely on perimeter shots from players who, in actuality, really need to just stop shooting. They stop running their offense, gamble on defense, take bad threes early into the shot clock. They don't correctly box out on defense, allowing easy offensive rebounds for the opposition. They commit stupid fouls. They fail to match their opponents' energy level.

In fact, watching a game where they are losing in the clutch, one would find it hard to ever envisage a situation where such a team could be a force in crunch time. How could players who take horrible shots, brick open threes, turn the ball over, fail to box out and commit stupid fouls ever survive in a close game, some may ask. Well, sometimes those players get hot. Sometimes the shots fall, the bad passes miraculously find their mark, the rebounds fall into their hands. Sometimes. 

The one seeming constant the Lakers have in the clutch is Kobe Bryant, aka the Black Mamba. 'Now what about him?' some may ask, 'He's the game's best closer!'. And they have a fair point. What was it, seven gamewinning shots this season? Countless one-man runs to push the Lakers ahead? Yeah, something like that. Kobe Bryant in the clutch is oft unstoppable. Sometimes his shot will be off in crunch time - he's only human. What makes him so clutch? Well, some of it is that he knows he can't be stopped. So, why would he pull something like he did this game? Amble around casually on the weak-side with six minutes to go (not even positioned properly), taking only one shot until the game was out of reach? Many will only remember his array of  excellent shots created off of penetration when there were two or three minutes remaining in the game, but by then the Lakers were down by double-digits and the game was effectively out of reach.

While it truly mattered, when the Lakers were still within striking distance, he took only one shot, which he missed. Other than that, he preferred to play the role of facilitator, passing out of soft perimeter double-teams to three-point shooting embarrassments such as Ron Artest and Lamar Odom. These threes were admittedly wide open, but there was a reason Phoenix was happy to leave those guys open - they couldn't shoot fish in a barrel. On the other end of the spectrum entirely, Kobe was hyper-efficient and virtually couldn't miss a shot, yet didn't feel the need to force himself on the game in the fourth, instead passively watching his teammates throw the game away. Why? I get that Phil probably accentuated the standard line of 'get your teammates involved' before putting Kobe back in, but c'mon, after literally the first possession Kobe was in it was evident that wasn't going to win it.

Why is this? Because frankly, players such as Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher are inconsistent as hell. Those were three of the four players out there with Kobe late in the game, and they all contributed in missing wide-open jump shots over and over again. Lamar Odom has garnered a reputation over the years of being one who will step up when the Lakers need it most, but even that is just a footnote under the massive 'inconsistent' label always attached to his name. I've read an article before that presented the argument that Lamar Odom is 'inconsistent but clutch', but I believe that to be an oxymoron. Clutchness won't magically make wide-open threes drop in. Ron Artest has been a decent carrier of a team earlier on in his career, and has made some clutch plays to go along with that, and even made some in the regular season, but three-point shooting is not governed by clutch. It's governed by practise and consistency. While I have no idea about the former, Ron Artest certainly does not subscribe to the latter.

And Derek Fisher. Point-Four. Or, more recently, Game Four. Look at those highlights and then say he isn't clutch, I dare you. He has a knack for hitting the big shot, true, but his shot is still not consistently money, and never has been. During the regular season, it was consistently bad, and now while he's stepped his game up in the playoffs, one just can't count on him to be accurate from deep on a night-in, night-out basis.

Now for the other player on the floor, Pau Gasol. Is he great? Yes, he's been the best big man in the playoffs. Is he consistent? Yes, he's the most consistent player on this team. Is he clutch? Nope. Why? Because, in crunch-time, intensity rises. In big men especially, that manifests itself in more contact. The refs realise this and thus let more contact go. Now while Pau is by no means 'soft', he is certainly not the type of player who thrives in heavy-contact environments. The Suns at all times in this game had a body on him, and in crunch time that body started pushing harder, grabbing more often and being as physical as possible. Robin Lopez is a decent defender and a big body who by no means shrinks from physical play, and he was effectively able to neutralise Pau. Many will claim that it is the other Lakers' fault for not looking for Pau more actively, but Pau failed to get good position. Why? Because in money time, elbows fly, shoves are given and Pau just isn't accustomed to that environment. It does more than affect his game, it affects his mindset. Therefore, he's just not clutch.

And the bench? Jordan Farmar has shown miraculous clutch ability from time to time, just ask Ammo. He's had clutch plays on both the defensive and offensive end throughout his career, and occasionally can seize the momentum of a game. Shannon Brown has hit the occasional miraculous shot or two. Even Sasha and Luke used to have their moments, back when they were in the rotation. Are all of them capable of being clutch? Yes. Are any of them consistent enough to be clutch? Hell no.

Also, a prime mark of a 'clutch' team is an ability to execute and close out on the road. This was present in this Los Angeles team last season, who finished the season with the league's best road mark, but disappeared this season, where the Lakers had a mediocre road record. This is becoming even more blatant in the playoffs. The Lakers' current playoff record is 10-4. They are undefeated at home, at 7-0, while on the road they are a far more pedestrian 3-4. Can a truly clutch team be so bad on the road?

So, what are the Lakers? They are obscenely talented, very large, have plenty of point-getters, an excellent playbook when run correctly and have a tough defense. But they're very, very inconsistent. And that in itself is enough to stop them from being truly clutch.

Other points:

  • The zone defense can be disconcerting at times, especially when a team executes it with as much energy as Phoenix, jumping every passing lane. In such circumstances, there are two ways to attack the zone. Number one is to shoot over the top of it, which Los Angeles has tried for two games now with little success. Los Angeles aren't a good three-point shooting team, and they need to realise this. If they're hitting their threes, it forces defenders to close out, thus opening passing and cutting lanes, reducing the defense's ability to double-team, and tiring defenders. But the Lakers don't often hit their threes, and thus should take a look over to the second method of fighting a zone, to attack the middle. This strategy was run to near-perfection by the NCAA National Champions, Duke, who consistently throughout the Tournament attacked zones by having their center, Brian Zoubek, flash to the free-throw line and catch the ball with his back to the basket, thus opening up numerous passing and cutting angles. With an excellent passing big such as Pau Gasol, the Lakers should be able to run such a strategy effectively, though their ability to move away from their offense to implement such a strategy is doubtful.
  • How the HELL did the Phoenix Suns outrebound LA by 15? Pau had a pretty terrible game by his standards, but other than that there's no one singly responsible for LA's atrocious work on the boards.
  • Kobe has had back-to-back all-time great playoff performances, with 36/11/9 being followed with 38/10/7, yet Los Angeles has lost both games. Others need to step up on the road.
  • The Lakers shot a higher percentage than the Suns, it was free throws and rebounds that lost them the game.
  • The Lakers REALLY need to stop settling for threes. 28 attempts, only making 32% is the height of inefficiency.
  • Statistically, the free-throw discrepancy this game was not particularly bad, after accounting for Phoenix's free-throw numbers being inflated by the Lakers' intentionally fouling for the last minute and a half. However, many touch fouls went Phoenix's way, which didn't even directly aid them with free throws, but disrupted the flow of the game.
  • Neither Pau nor Drew is fast enough to single-cover Amare, and Drew's lack of mobility due to his knee injury makes it hard for the help-defensive schemes to work properly, and even when they do they have the side-effect of giving up easy offensive rebounds to the Suns' other bigs. Lamar Odom really needs to step it up, and defend Amare.
  • The Suns' bench is REALLY fast.
  • Anyone else finding it weird that when both teams play offense efficiently for an extremely high-scoring game, Los Angeles wins, but when the pace slows down a bit and defenses kick in a bit more, Los Angeles loses? Kinda the exact opposite of what was expected at the onset of this series...

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