Last Night’s Futile Final Play

Final play 0

The Brooklyn Nets lost to the Los Angeles Lakers tonight, by an operative score of 95-90, but truly lost this game by only three points. With 4.8 seconds left, the Nets were down 93-90 with the ball and one final shot to tie the game and send it to overtime. They didn’t. Here’s what happened.

Before getting into this final play, it’s important to note that the Brooklyn Nets played excellent basketball last night for most of the game. Their offense was clicking, the game was competitive, they almost played spoiler on the road to a team that featured three of the best twenty players in the NBA. They absolutely could have won this game, even with the poor execution down the stretch, and that’s a positive sign going forward. (I’m also not one to bite my thumb at refereeing, but thankfully, Avery Johnson is.)

But that final play? Not so much. Let’s break it down.

Deron Williams, C.J. Watson, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson are set up in an “I” formation, standing in a straight line at the free throw line with Gerald Wallace inbounding. Wallace grabs the ball, and the action starts.

The action begins with C.J. Watson rolling above and cutting to the inbound-side corner. Deron Williams trails him, then begins a curl around Lopez and Johnson. Neither is really setting a screen per se, as Kobe Bryant (defending Williams) is overplaying the top.

Deron Williams as Bryant smartly doesn’t try to trail him. However, take a look again at the space on the left side:

Had Williams darted to the left side, it’s likely he would’ve had a cleaner look (albeit a harder pass to make), and if the defense scrambled to recover, Joe Johnson may have had extra space to cut up top off the Lopez screen.

Instead, Williams cuts between Johnson and Lopez into Bryant’s defense, as Lopez then sets a flare screen for Johnson. Johnson gets a little bit of space and could’ve had a look, but the five-second clock is nearly up and Gerald Wallace doesn’t have time for that to develop.

Williams cuts into Bryant, then darts away from him towards the ball for a sliver of an open look. Wallace defers the ball to Williams, who hurls a tough look towards the basket upon the catch.

No good.

Three parts of this play pique my curiosity.

First, C.J. Watson, who’s been excellent from three this year, literally does nothing of consequence. He cuts to the corner and stands there. You could argue he’s taking a defender out of the play, but the defender is Chris Duhon. He’s already out of the play, by nature of being Chris Duhon. If anything, that’s a matchup worth taking advantage of in John Paxson fashion.

Secondly, Deron Williams doesn’t run off a screen of any kind, or adjust to the defense. With Kobe Bryant overplaying the top, Williams still decides to cut to the top of the key, perhaps because he knew that Joe Johnson would soon be cutting off the Brook Lopez screen. But he’s running directly into the defense, something Sun Tzu would advise against. By the time he gets the ball, he’s so close to the inbounding Wallace that Pau Gasol — who’s guarding Wallace — barely has to move to help Bryant contest the shot.

Thirdly, if the play was designed to get either Johnson or Williams an open look, why was Johnson finally getting his action as the five-second play clock was running out? Watch the referee’s arm as Johnson finally gets free. It’s at the fourth second. Wallace had to rush and that spot wasn’t clear, and Williams was coming straight to the ball. It was a near-impossible look and a poor decoy.

Coach Avery Johnson has been a mixed bag in terms of offensive creativity. The play he runs often in the beginning of games, that begins with a down-screen for Deron Williams, comes with a bevy of options for open and high-percentage looks, and Williams has also been effective in spurts setting screens on bigger players and running pick-and-pops with Joe Johnson. But this end of game play didn’t seem to have a particularly high rate of success — not the way it was executed last night, and not without understanding the defensive wrinkles that could make it a better look.