The Point 20200529

The Point: Starring Moments Often Find Role Players In NBA Playoffs

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

Last time that LeBron James graced the playoff picture, his team was facing a series deficit and heading home, so he clung to the spirit of a common NBA precept.

“I always believe the role players play much better at home than they do on the road,” James said during the 2018 NBA Finals. “They feed off the crowd. They feed off the familiarity with not only being home but being on their home floor, having their own locker, and things of that nature.”

With the NBA planning to resume this season late next month at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla., we will all be embarking on the extraordinary experiment of deciding a league champion via playoff games with no home-court advantage. That widely accepted notion about role players playing better at home won’t apply with no team on its home floor, yet it’s fair to question how those players will fare never getting the boost of benefits James cited. For the Lakers, there’s already a dash of good and bad.

For the Lakers, there’s already a dash of good and bad.

They can win anywhere: They possess by far the league’s best road record this season at 26-6—an .813 winning percentage to Milwaukee’s .735 and Toronto’s .719 in the East. (And same-conference teams face each other more often—meaning there’s a higher degree of difficulty in a Western Conference schedule, as seven of the league’s nine worst teams are in the East.)

However, the Lakers were likely to hold home-court advantage over everyone but Milwaukee if the conventional playoff situation had played out using regular-season records. What in the playoffs is historically an even sharper home-court edge than the regular season has been completely dulled this year.

When you start thinking about neutral courts, an inherent advantage would’ve still been there for the Lakers with their massive fan following unlimited by geography … except there will be no fans at all because of the pandemic.

No home games, no supportive fans. It means a unique challenge awaits those guys behind All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis on this current Lakers team. More than ever it will be pivotal for Lakers role players to generate their own energy and focus. Lakers coach Frank Vogel has no shortage of ways he can go for lineup applications, so playing time will have to be earned as productive time.

And if an NBA championship results from that productive time, Lakers legends can and will be born … even as role players.

Let’s be real and admit right up front that hitting clutch shots is as iconic as it gets. The same myriad of ways always exists to influence basketball games, but long before society shifted to snapshotting or recording everything, big playoff games were the backdrop for singular, shot-making moments that stood above all else.

Robert Horry will pick up that tapped-out ball and forever drop it through the net. Down goes the shot. Up goes every single arm inside STAPLES Center. Forever.

The epitome of the proper playoff mindset for the role player is what Horry brought: Be unafraid to take the big shots, but stay cool and composed when very few shot opportunities actually come.

That buzzer-beating three-pointer by Horry to win Game 5 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals—a series the Lakers went on to win in seven games over Sacramento in their third consecutive NBA championship season—came in a game where Horry took only seven shots. Horry was stellar in many ways that night: 18 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal.

It was actually by far the most minutes Horry had played in a playoff game during the Lakers’ three-peat run to that point. He still had the legs to get perfect lift-off on that last, long shot.

In his 44 minutes of play that night—more than Kobe Bryant’s 42 and Shaquille O’Neal’s 41—Horry watched Bryant take 26 shots and O’Neal 22. Both Bryant and O’Neal missed shots in those seconds right before Horry got the team’s third chance.

Truth is, Bryant’s best chance to succeed on the possession would’ve been to throw the lob pass to a wide-open O’Neal that Bryant so memorably threw two years earlier in the dynasty-starting series against Portland. Horry had been standing outside the three-point line back then on that 2000 Kobe-to-Shaq lob dunk—patiently spacing the floor and keeping himself available. Horry could’ve been the same role-player window dressing that day in ’02, and the iconic moment could’ve never happened.

Except it did.

It’s one thing to say you’re not afraid to take those big shots, make or miss. It’s another to prove you’re not afraid.

For Horry, his big-shot mindset was framed when his 1994 trade from Houston to Detroit was voided because offensive-minded Sean Elliott failed his Rockets physical exam. Horry vowed to play more carefree on offense and take the shots available to him back in Houston—and he won the first of his seven NBA titles that season. Besides the crew from the old-time Boston Celtics era in the 1960s, no one has more NBA titles than Horry … which is a pretty good role for a player to have.

Even the role player with the smoothest stroke might be tempted to squeeze the orange out of the ball in the playoffs because he so desperately wants to make good on his precious few shots. Yet there has to be some of Horry’s willingness to keep shooting your shot whenever it comes and accepting the consequences.

Any Lakers fans even remember that Horry shot 2 for 38 (5.3 percent) on three-pointers the very next year in the 2003 playoffs for the Lakers? He went on to make more big shots and win two more titles with San Antonio in 2005 and ’07—and no Spurs fans are likely to remember how before that Horry couldn’t make a single shot for San Antonio that day in May 2004 when Derek Fisher made the point-four shot for the Lakers’ side.

Fisher ranks as another memorable shot-making role player in Lakers history for point-four and so much more: He made 51.5 percent of his three-pointers in the playoffs en route to the 2001 title the year before Horry’s heroics. The shots Fisher made—especially huge ones on the road in Orlando and Boston—live on as highlights in both of the Lakers’ most recent championships in 2009 and ’10.

Again, do any Lakers fans even remember that Fisher was ice cold in that entire Sacramento 2002 series—19.4 percent from three-point range—while the moments brought Horry such glory?

Space the floor, take the open shot on time to maintain the team’s offensive rhythm and just trust it. Focus on the potential positives. Danny Green knows.

Green has been fire; Green has been ice. He has ridden out the varying temps in a long playoff career that averages out to 39.7 percent on three-pointers … almost exactly the 40.2 he has averaged in his career regular-season games.

That level of consistency might be more than most role players can dream of, but Green knows it’s what role players must aspire to find behind the superstars.

“The difference-makers in the playoffs are really not them; it’s the guys that step up as the X factors,” Green said on ESPN recently, going on to cite how critical it will be for someone specifically from the perimeter-shooting group that includes Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Green to “have a good night at least one night each throughout the playoffs.”

Basically everyone on this roster except centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, whose main scoring occurs at the rim, will be expected to step into open shots. But the shape of a great role player is obviously much more than shooting arc.

As Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, Green and others have all said often this season, the intangibles are the areas they pride themselves on having consistency.

“I just play my role,” Kuzma said in February. “Come in, play with energy, crash the boards every time, and when I get the ball, try to make the best of it.”

Bringing a positive, team-first mindset is the core of the job description, however that fits with each individual’s character. Take a look at guys like Luke Walton (suggested he give up his starting job and move to the bench to help the team), Mark Madsen (one of the all-timers as a source of energy and support) and Brian Shaw (truth-teller unafraid to use his voice). It’s no coincidence that those three wound up on the Lakers coaching staff in recent years, their devotion to team spirit ongoing.

Rick Fox hit his share of shots but also was invaluable with rugged defense, immovable screens and immense passion for all things team in the Shaq-Kobe era. Ron Harper was critical in bringing initial confidence in that stretch, too.

Behind Bryant and Pau Gasol on those 2009-10 title teams, Fisher’s leadership might’ve been even more important than his play. Lamar Odom set a tone by accepting and then flourishing in the sixth-man role Phil Jackson saw as best for those teams. As much defense as first Trevor Ariza and then Ron Artest provided, they also sank crucial playoff shots.

Even someone such as little-used Josh Powell, who would sit next to Bryant on the team plane and whisper words of counsel into Bryant’s ear before every tip-off, offered value. Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown … Lakers fans still remember them all well as winners because of what their group accomplished.

The Lakers have been waiting for 10 years now for the right group to come along to win another championship. It will take all sorts of plays by all sorts of guys, their commitment to winning filling an otherwise empty arena. Who knows exactly how this team will work to make that happen?

But bear in mind that James is a willing and absolutely pinpoint passer.

Don’t be surprised if it’s a current Lakers role player who sinks the next iconic Lakers playoff shot that is magical now and memorable forever.

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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