How a Triangle Beats a Square: Why the Lakers Really Won the Utah Series

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How a Triangle Beats a Square: Why the Lakers Really Won the Utah Series
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

 

The Western Conference’s semi-final round between the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz turned out to be not only a series of interior dominance on the Lakers part, but also a clash of offensive systems.  The Lakers brought Phil Jackson’s now legendary triangle offense against Jerry Sloan’s endless series of down and backpicks, an offense he’s run as the longest tenured NBA coach.  Utah's system is the "square" in more ways than one:  the offense and their coach.

 

Every avid fan is familiar with LA’s triangle offense.  It is the most non-structured, structured offense in history.  Based on a “read and react” concept, to quote Jackson, this offense relies on player’s smarts and ball movement.  The better executed the flow, the better the triangle performs.  

 

The triangle is actually a vintage offense, refined by Jackson’s long-time assistant and mentor, Tex Winter, who learned the system from its inventor in the 1940’s.  

 

Jackson ran the triangle during Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls championships run, used it again during the volatile Shaq and Kobe Bryant days, and now in this Lakers’ rebirth.  The triangle may be old and complex to learn but it works, even in 2010.

 

Surprisingly, Jackson has been recently quoted again on how “old school” his offense really is and how he’s still reluctant to embrace the run, gun, and launch three offenses of today’s NBA.  For a brief moment, it seems like Jackson questions himself, considering the possibility of adopting more of today’s NBA styles.  Just as quickly as he’ll admits this, he reverts back, sticking with old faithful, the triangle.  But, the proof is the scoreboard and the triangle has netted 10 championships.  

 

Now, the experts will tell you that LA runs the triangle about 60% of the time and that would be accurate.  The other sets of the Lakers’ offense would be:  Pick and roll, usually with Kobe Bryant and Paul Gasol; a little fastbreaks (especially when backups Shannon Brown and/or Jordan Farmar enter the game); and the most powerful offensive set of all:  Kobe Bryant in isolation.  

 

But, this article isn’t about how much or how less the Lakers run the triangle or even how perfect of a system it is or isn’t.  This is all about a clash of styles and why the triangle trumped the square.

 

Jerry Sloan’s Jazz employ the kind of offense you’d run into at your local YMCA, but only if you played against a group of 40-50 year olds.  It’s also an “old school” offense, usually reserved for old men.  

I call it the “pick you to death” offense because it’s slow and methodical.  Normally, when it comes to screens in today’s NBA, most teams run pick and roll or their systems take their two guard or their shooting three small forward, and run them off a gauntlet of screens (picture Ray Allen with Boston.)  

 

But, Sloan doesn’t stop there and never has.  He’ll run pick and roll, with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, or he’ll go to down screens on both sides.  If that doesn’t work, he’ll mix in cross and back picks.  The Utah offense even has some Princeton wrinkles to it.  

 

Every Utah opponent knows this but they have to prepare and come to play because Utah plays hard on every possession and never gives up, all traits of their pit bull of a coach.

 

It’s like me, when I play ball at my local Y and come up against “the old man” team.  I know what they’ll do, all the picks and plays, but it still doesn’t matter.  They work you to death.  Most teams (even the ones I play on) love to get out and run, but not Sloan.  Only because Williams is the best point guard in the league does Utah even consider speeding up the pace to his offense.  

 

In my personal opinion, Sloan would have been better off, especially against the larger Lakers, (memo to Sloan to watch LA v. Oklahoma tape for ideas for next season) with his young and talented team to open up the offense and let the Porsche that is Williams out of the driveway.  

 

Williams and the other Jazz could actually run on more teams.  But, while Sloan still coaches Utah, it is a heavy, I mean super heavy, dose of down screens on both sides.  This is where I get the “square” for Sloan’s offense, compared to Jackson’s “triangle.”

 

In this sweep of a series, Jackson and his staff prepared the Lakers well for the brutal screens and the Lakers players delivered.  They also executed their offense, including the triangle, to perfection.  They followed Jackson’s game plan and took what the Jazz gave them.  They made sure to use their superior height advantage and talent to perfection.

 

This meant pounding the ball inside to their bigs in the first two games in LA and then capitalizing on the Jazz’s pack the paint and sag defense in game three, where LA nailed open outside jumper after outside jumper.  In the closeout game, the Lakers delivered one of their more balanced performances of the season.  

 

No matter which way the Lakers played in this series, the Jazz couldn’t handle the Lakers, not their height, not Kobe Bryant nor Jackson’s triangle.  The Jazz were simply outmatched on all fronts.

So, in the case of the Lakers versus Jazz series, the triangle beats the square. 


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