Everyone will remember Kobe Bryant over the last half of the fourth quarter of Game Five, and rightfully so. However, it was sequences earlier in the game, ones that did not involve best player on the planet, that gave #24 a chance to prove that the MVP voters made the right call. These series of plays, usually coming after a timeout or stoppage in play, were pivotal in allowing the Lakers to stay close early, to give them a chance take a lead toward the end of the third quarter, and to finish off the game a few minutes into the fourth.
Here are the five most critical sequences that keyed the series-clinching victory for the Los Angeles Lakers.
First Sequence - 8:42 remaining in the second quarter, San Antonio ahead, 33-16
The Lakers and Spurs battled early to an 11-11 tie with 6:37 remaining in the first quarter. San Antonio subsequently went on a 22-5 run over the next nine minutes, putting Los Angeles in a 17-point hole. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, always calm, played right to the media timeout. Following that timeout, the Lakers came back on the floor with their three leading scorers (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom) all on the bench. However, Jordan Farmar brought energy and life to Los Angeles with his driving layup on a clear-out situation. A stop at the other end led to an alley-oop set play for Farmar from Luke Walton, as Farmar passed to Walton on the wing and dove to the rim on a backscreen. Momentum now in the Lakers' favor, Ronny Turiaf stuffed Duncan's baseline drive, and after a few missed opportunities on both ends, Farmar scored a transition layup, capping his personal 6-0 run.
While Farmar's injection of offense is easy to point to in this sequence, it really was the vitality and vigor of the Lakers' defense that made this series of plays a reality for Los Angeles. It came at a critical time, as the Lakers had looked moribund throughout the early going. It was notable, as well, that this spark came with the Lakers' leading scorers on the bench. So revived, the Lakers would continue their better play through the rest of the quarter.
Second Sequence - 1:05 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, San Antonio ahead 46-37
The Spurs had responded to a Lakers run in the quarter, taking a 15-point lead. However, a 6-0 run by the Lakers prompted a timeout by Gregg Popovich. Pop called a set play that had been successful for the Spurs twice earlier that quarter, involving a handoff in the wing area from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker, giving Parker room to operate in the middle of the floor off the screen created by the handoff. The Lakers had other ideas, however, and their strong ball pressure prevented an easy handoff, forcing Parker to shoot an 18-foot jump shot. He missed the jumper; Lamar Odom snagged the defensive board and showed his versatility with a dribble push up the floor. Odom went directly at Kurt Thomas, who was back defensively. Making the layup, Odom was fouled by Thomas and hit the free throw, cutting the Spurs lead to six. Though they would trade baskets to end the half, the Lakers still went into the intermission down just 48-42 after being down as many as 17.
Again, the Lakers defense keyed this play. Coming out of a timeout, Coach Popovich wanted a stabilizing play to give his team a sense of strength to end the half. However, the Lakers swarmed the ball, disrupting the ease with which San Antonio had operated its offense. This is what led to the sterling play from Odom, and allowed the Lakers to be within striking distance going in at halftime. At this point, all the momentum favored Los Angeles; the Spurs would need to regroup. Losing a 17-point lead, despite the fact that they were still up going into the half, would take its toll.
Third Sequence - 2:42 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, San Antonio up 58-56
Coming off a 4-0 run to bring the Spurs lead to just two points, most coaches might attempt to ride the momentum and continue their attack as is. Phil Jackson, however, wanted a chance to discuss their next possessions and how critical a point this was in the game. Coming out of the timeout, Jackson called an isolation play for Lamar Odom to go against Kurt Thomas. Though Odom missed the jumper and the Lakers failed to score after an offensive rebound, the Lakers came out in attack mode, knowing this was their moment to strike. On the ensuing possession, Manu Ginobili was fouled while shooting and made both free throws. The Lakers, however, were undeterred. Kobe Bryant answered with a quick three-pointer as Bruce Bowen was playing him for the drive. Manu missed his chance to respond at the other end, and Kobe started to sense that his time was now. Receiving the ball on the wing in nearly the same position as he had just a moment earlier, Bryant read Bowen's closeout as too aggressive, and he put the ball on the floor toward the middle, getting into the lane and hitting a short jumper. This gave the Lakers a one-point advantage, their first lead of the game since the opening minutes. The teams would trade scores to finish the quarter, but Los Angeles would end the period up one, 64-63.
The gaining of a lead in this situation was as much a symbolic marker as anything. The Lakers had completed, in full, their comeback attempt, and had put the Spurs on their heels going into the final period. Kobe Bryant's ability to execute one-on-one like no one since Michael Jordan put them in this position, and it would be Bryant's killer mentality that would carry the Lakers down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
Fourth Sequence - Start of 4th Quarter, Los Angeles up 64-63
To start the fourth quarter, the Lakers elected to run a set play they had not gone to much in this game. It was a play they used with some success against the Utah Jazz in the previous series. While Los Angeles had used a mix of isolations, transition ball screens, offensive rebounding and the Triangle offense thus far in Game Five, this set was a welcome change and in many ways seemed to catch the Spurs off guard. Coming off a double screen, Kobe Bryant sprinted out to the arc, received a pass from Jordan Farmar, and drilled a three-pointer to put the Lakers up four, 67-63.
This was the perfect way to open a quarter and ruin whatever advantage San Antonio might have wanted to gain from the stoppage in play. Riding the hot hand, Phil Jackson wanted a play that would guarantee a good shot for his star performer. This was the kind of moment Kobe Bryant lives for, and he relished the opportunity to put a major nail in the Spurs' coffin. The double screen was executed flawlessly, and though Kobe is not your classic catch-and-shoot player, he came off the screen with only one thing in mind, and finished the play.
Fifth Sequence - 9:04 remaining in the 4th Quarter, Los Angeles ahead 72-68
Following a Farmar layup, the Spurs called timeout, knowing that any spurt here from the Lakers would be fatal to their hopes in the game and the series. Out of the timeout, the Lakers came out in full-court man-to-man pressure, which bothered the Spurs. Unable to get into the set they wished because they were pushed out on the floor, the play ended with an offensive foul committed by Kurt Thomas. On the opposite end, Kobe Bryant scored on a driving layup to put the Lakers up six.
Like a shark circling its victim, the Lakers smelled blood in the water. They would, just a minute later, increase their lead to seven, and though they were briefly challenged, it was following this timeout from San Antonio and the defensive stop from the Lakers that they were never really threatened. The MVP made sure of that with his clutch play down the stretch. Again, the Lakers can point back to their ability to get a stop when they need it as the defining factor not just in this game, but really, in the series overall.
While Kobe Bryant will get the praise for his superhuman performance in the closing period, it was a set of masterful moves by Coach Phil Jackson combined with perfect execution by Bryant's teammates that put Bryant in a position for his heroics. The Los Angeles Lakers have the look of a championship team. Their ability to execute, throughout a game, on both the offensive and defensive end, is why they are the likely 2008 NBA Champions.
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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