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Change The Script

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It's been four years since the Sixers beat the Lakers on the road. In that game, Allen Iverson shot 5/28 from the floor (17.9%), with 15 assists. The Sixers took advantage of Chucky Atkins running the point and forced 27 turnovers. Needless to say, both teams have changed quite a bit since then.

I'll have my full preview later today, consider this a preview to the preview, if you will.

The Lakers are probably the best team in the league, when they're at full strength. They may fall to 2nd or 3rd without Bynum, they're that deep. Make no mistake, the Sixers are decided underdogs, walking into a hostile environment and by every reasonable measure, they should lose this game.

My subway reading material for the past week or so has been Dean Oliver's Basketball On Paper, and it just so happens that the chapter I read this morning was about situations just like the one the Sixers face tonight.

In a nutshell, Oliver talks about how the very good teams strive for consistency, while the lesser teams strive for inconsistency. Now, don't think about this on a play-to-play basis. Think big picture. Consistent play for an excellent team is excellent play. Consistent play for a mediocre team is mediocre play. For a lesser team to have a chance against a significantly greater opponent, they need to utilize risky strategy to level the playing field.

Oliver goes on to describe some risky strategies:

  • Full-court pressure
  • Shooting a lot of three pointers
  • Release guards on shots for easy fast break opportunities
  • Have guards crash the offensive glass
  • Front the post
  • Play an unusually small or large lineup
The idea here is that as the underdog, you need to do something out of the norm to swing the odds in your favor. Each of the strategies above has the potential to backfire, but playing straight up against a superior team is going to result in a loss most of the time. Successfully using these risky strategies can swing the odds back to .500, or even.

Now, let's look at each strategy and see if the Sixers can/could/should use them in tonight's mismatch with the Lakers.


  • Full-court pressure: The press is something I'd expect them to use, to some degree, throughout the game. Actually, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is probably a game which Reggie Evans could have a profound effect on. Los Angeles is excellent in the half court, they have a stable offensive system which is based on timing and choreography. Throwing Evans out there would certainly disrupt their offense for short stretches of time, at least.
  • Three pointers: I don't think the Sixers are the type of team who can rely on heaving threes to make up for any disadvantage they may suffer. In fact, the three pointer is their main disadvantage. That being said, I'd like to see Donyell out there to at least keep the three-point diferential manageable.
  • Release the guards: The Sixers don't really need to release their guards for fast break opportunities, they get them anyway. What they need are crisp outlet passes and a desire to push the ball when the opportunity is there.
  • Guards crash o-glass: Again, the Sixers are among the best teams in the league on the offensive glass. Check below, however, for a reason why this might be a very good idea against the Lakers.
  • Front the post: Not really necessary with Sammy on Pau. If Bynum was playing, this may be a viable option.
  • Small or large lineup: The Sixers already start a small lineup, so maybe going in the opposite direction with Speights inserted for Willie Green would help shake things up. I'd certainly try it.
I saved one key risky strategy for the end because, well, it takes some logic to grasp. Oliver states, and I agree, that it's to the advantage of the lesser team to slow the pace of the game as much as they can. The logic is thus: Both teams always have the same number of possessions, the better team does more with each possession, so the more possessions in the game, the further the better team should be able to distance itself from the lesser team.

Look at it this way, the Lakers average 113.8 points/100 possessions, the Sixers average 106.3 (stats from Knickerblogger.net). For argument's sake, let's say they played at a 100 possessions/game pace tonight. That would be a 7.5 point advantage for the Lakers. Now, let's assume the Sixers can slow the pace down to say, 70 possessions. The advantage shrinks to 5.17 points. The fewer possessions, the smaller the advantage in points. (This is a bit more complicated, because we didn't take the defensive rating into account, but each team has a 105.6/100 possessions defensive rating, so they effectively cancel each other out for our purposes).

Now, the slow-it-down strategy isn't going to work if you're behind by 10 points, but it will work if you can get a lead early, or at least keep the game close. Let me be clear, I'm not talking about walking the ball up the court and putting up a shot with 0 left on the shot clock every time down the floor as a means to slow the pace. What I'm talking about is utilizing some of the strategies listed above as a means to an end.

For example, even when the press (or trap in the halfcourt) doesn't cause a turnover, it does make the team work harder to get a shot. Instead of crossing half court and going right into their offense with between 16-20 seconds left on the shot clock, it forces teams to work harder to get into their offense, and they may have only 10-15 seconds left on the clock when they finally get into their sets.

On offense, this doesn't mean you stop running the break when you have an advantage. What it means is that when you don't have a clear advantage (3 on 2, 2 on 1), you pull the ball out and run some clock. It could also mean sending your guards to the offensive glass. Every offensive rebound extends the possession for your team, and cuts down on the total number of possessions in the game (A possession is different from a play. Possessions only end wen the other team takes control of the ball. Plays end with shots, turnovers, etc.).

One thing about this particular chapter heartened me, because it backed up my philosophy on Reggie Evans. Look at it this way, when you have an advantage over your opponent, using risky strategies is not only needless, but it's dangerous. You want to play to your average, and allow your superior ability to overcome the lesser opponent. Playing Reggie Evans is a risky strategy. You're sacrificing sound schemes for the chance that he'll mess up the flow of the game and bring greater than average returns. Against lesser teams you're gambling with an advantage, best-case scenario, you get more of an advantage. Worst-case, you nullify the inherent advantage you already have over the lesser team. Make sense? 
by Brian on Mar 17 2009
Tags: Basketball | Lakers | Sixers | Strategy |