Lakers forcing Nash to score with pick-and-roll switches

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PHOENIX — Much like the San Antonio Spurs did last series, the Los Angeles Lakers decided to switch the pick and roll and force Steve Nash to be a scorer Thursday night. Nash took advantage with his quickness and shooting ability by ripping the nets for 29 points and 11 assists on 12-for-20 shooting, while turning it over just twice.

He is about as good as any point guard in the league when a big man switches out on him, and he proved that Thursday night as he drilled jump shot after jump shot over the outstretched arms of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

But the question is: Are the Suns a better team when Nash is a scorer or a distributor?

Nash’s answer: “I think it has to be a balance. I think we’re a good enough team where it doesn’t matter. We can read the defense and make you pay offensively no matter what you throw at us.”

I re-watched bits and pieces of Game 5 thanks to Synergy Sports Technology and took a look at how switching the pick and roll helped and hurt the Lakers.

How it negatively affected LA is a no-brainer. You put yourself in an extremely tough position defending one of the NBA’s best point guards and shooters with Gasol, Bynum or Odom. That disadvantage was most evident in the fourth quarter when Nash rattled off nine points in the final four minutes thanks to a slew of pull-up jump shots.

“If they switch Gasol, Bynum or Lamar on Steve, we’re going to spread the floor every time and we’re going to let him go one-on-one,” Jared Dudley said. “It’s no plays. We’re freestyling and we’re going to let him do it. And I like my chances with him on those guys nine times out of 10.”

“They switched screen-and-rolls. … Steve scored every time,” head coach Alvin Gentry added.

But the Lakers basically said, “We’d rather make you take long twos than draw another defender and kick out out for an open three or drop it off for a layup.” So really, the only true advantage was that Nash should score in a one-on-one situation against a big man more often than not.

The advantages for the Lakers are that it takes away Amare Stoudemire’s roll to the hoop, which is where he gets the majority of his points. It also limits the activity of the other Suns because Nash isn’t probing through the paint and forcing the Lakers to help, but rather backpedaling and attacking a big man to ultimately shoot a jumper.

Here you can see a play when the Lakers didn’t switch the pick and roll and STAT was able to finish with an And 1.

Because Nash isn’t worried about the mismatch that he has, he attacked the hoop right off of the pick and roll and got STAT involved. But imagine if Gasol had stepped out right away and stopped Nash’s progression before he could even see Stoudemire. Then the roll would be completely out of the question and Nash would have slowed the game down by resetting the offense and isolating against Gasol.

On this play here the Lakers switched Gasol out onto Nash and kept STAT from rolling to the hoop.

Fisher does a good job initially of using his quickness to negate Amare’s roll, while Odom leaves Jason Richardson and eventually switches with Fisher. Because there was nothing there Nash backpedaled, attacked Gasol and drilled a jumper in Gasol’s face, but that was the only real option on the play.

So in theory, switching the pick and roll takes away Amare’s roll to the hoop.

Secondly, because Nash is forced into mid-range jump shots, he isn’t sucking in other defenders and eventually kicking it out for three-point looks. Nash has made a name for himself by probing through the lane until he draws a defender and eventually kicking out an almost unfathomable pass for an open three.

But he’s taking what the defense gives him, which has been the mid-range jump shot. Although it did result in 29 points and a great shooting percentage, the Suns struggled to get easy buckets in the half court. It also slows down the pace and turns it into a half court game full of isolations.

The Suns are a rhythm team that thrives off everyone touching the ball and getting open looks from the outside. But that wasn’t the case in Game 5 because of how the Lakers defended the pick and roll.

So how do the Suns need to attack the switches to get everyone involved?

It’s all about that balance that Nash mentioned. He’s one of the best shooters in the league, so if he has an open look he should shoot it. But if he feels that Amare needs a touch or someone else needs a look, he shouldn’t settle for the jumper, but rather dribble through the lane until someone finds an opening.

That is the benefit of having a two-time MVP as your point guard; he knows what play to make and when to make it.

Here is a great example where Nash got Amare involved after Gasol switched the pick and roll.

Nash didn’t settle for the jumper, but rather worked his way into the lane until somebody cut to the hoop. He stopped on a dime once he knew Amare was coming and dropped it off to him for an easy layup.

Another option to combat their switch is slipping the pick before Gasol can fully commit to Nash, which Amare is usually very good at. Here you can see where Amare leaves the pick early, which froze Gasol and Fisher, and STAT ultimately finished with a layup at the rim.

If the Lakers execute the switch well and force Nash into nothing but mid-range jumpers, then they may be better off switching the pick and roll. But if the Suns move without the ball and Nash doesn’t just settle for jumpers every time down, instead knifing through the lane and creating opportunities for others, then the Lakers are in trouble.

So although the Lakers did force Nash into scoring mode and were barely able to sneak away with a Game 5 victory, the Suns have too many weapons and Nash is too good not to dissect the defense and find a way to get everyone involved.

And it wasn’t like the switches were the reason the Lakers won. Nash actually did a very good job attacking the Laker bigs, but it was the 18 second-chance points, 23 points off turnovers and nine missed free throws that doomed the Suns.

“It was a combination of turning the ball over and giving up offensive rebounds more so than the fact that I shot the ball more,” Nash said. “I think everyone likes to grab onto something that might be misleading, but that’s a lot of opportunities we gave away.”

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