Teams rostering LeBron James have long had a similar type of strategy to finish close games, the Lakers being no different. Through the seasons, a number of Laker guards have combined with James for two-man games that have largely served the purpose of switching smaller defenders onto the superstar forward.
On Tuesday, Malik Monk was the latest to combine with James late in the game against the Kings to help close out the win, but Monk showcased something that few others have in Los Angeles. Monk was not simply serving the role as a ghost screener, but was a threat in his own right that gave a glimpse at something that could be a weapon moving forward.
With the Lakers embroiled in a shootout with Buddy Hield and the Kings late, they went to something they hadn’t flirted with at times but not dove into with James and Monk playing off one another. And that’s how it should be described as the pair each made plays down the stretch.
Monk does a great job of attacking off the James screen that forces the Kings into a switch. From there, he clears out to the corner having done his job with Damian Jones attached to him and James buries a three-point over a smaller defender.
On the next possession, Monk shows why he is different from the likes of Wayne Ellington, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and other guards the Lakers have run similar actions with throughout the years. When the Lakers aren’t able to get a mismatch on James, Monk creates his own shot late in the shot clock and knocks down a tough shot in the lane.
Monk, though, is still a willing and capable screen-setter, and is adept enough to understand how to react to what the defense is doing. Here, he sets a hard (possibly illegal) screen on Jones to force the switch, then immediately flares to the corner. Jones doesn’t want to switch and Tyrese Haliburton can’t recover quickly enough before Monk buries the 3-pointer.
Monk again sets the screen and again forces the switch. This time, the Kings stick to the switch, forcing the Kings lone big man in Jones to the strongside corner with Monk. Aware of the fact no one will be at the rim to contest him now, James backs up, gets a head of steam and barrels to the rim, knowing that even if he doesn’t score, he can corral the rebound.
The last possession of the two-man game features a little quirk and counter to how the Kings played it. While they again switched the Monk-James screen, Haliburton shades over this time toward James and Buddy Hield to stop a drive.
James recognizes this and fires a pass to Talen Horton-Tucker, who is ready for the pass and attacks Haliburton’s poor close out before dishing to Russell Westbrook at the rim for the layup.
While they didn’t exclusively come in the two-man game to close the contest, James and Monk combined to score 25 points on 10/14 shooting from the field and 5/7 shooting from the 3-point line. James also added a pair of assists, both to Monk, as well as the hockey assist on Horton-Tucker’s dime to Westbrook.
After the game, Monk talked about playing off James in that fourth quarter and his ability to consistently make the right play.
“LeBron’s going to be LeBron every time and make the right play for us,” Monk said, “whether it’s finding me, finding (Talen), finding Russ or score himself.”
James’ performance in that final frame came despite a poor performance in the preceding three quarters. Prior to the final frame, James was shooting just 6/16 from the field and 1/6 from the 3-point line, unseasonably poor considering his recent run of form.
Vogel noted following the game that the team lessened some of the defensive responsibilities on James as the night went along. And while he and the coaching staff don’t plan for James to have big fourth quarters, Vogel was not surprised at James’ explosion on Tuesday.
“You always know that’s a possibility,” Vogel said. “If he’s not having a good shooting night, like anybody, you coach him. What are the shots you’re taking, can we get to the basket more, can we get you involved in other action. You have to coach him like everybody else but you never lose belief that he’s going to do what he did in the fourth quarter. That’s just who he is.”
Combine it all together and the Lakers closed out the game not just in style on Tuesday but while also showcasing a new look at how they did it. It’s not the first time James has shown a two-man game this season with a Lakers guard and for a team looking for advantages to use come playoff time, it’s another bullet in the chamber for the team in the future.