Kobe Delivers Victory With .6 Seconds LeftNBA Premiere Week continued on Wednesday night with another nationally televised doubleheader, this time on ESPN. In the first game, the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons made quick work of the Philadelphia 76ers, prevailing 108-88. Rip Hamilton shredded the Sixers for 37 points; Allen Iverson led Philadelphia with 31 points. The Sixers miss Samuel Dalembert's defense and energy and desperately need to find someone else who can create offense besides Iverson, who had six of his team's 11 assists.
The second ESPN game was much more entertaining and dramatic. The Lakers-Nuggets contest saw 24 lead changes and 18 ties and required overtime to settle matters. The Lakers had the final possession with the score knotted at 97. Kwame Brown received the ball on the left block and missed an awkward looking shot in the paint, but got the offensive rebound. He looked a bit perplexed about what to do next but then Kobe Bryant emerged from the baseline and Brown seemed quite relieved to pass him the ball. Bryant took a couple dribbles, jab stepped toward the lane and then buried a fadeaway jumper with .6 seconds left as several Denver defenders tried in vain to stop him. Voshon Lenard got a clean--but deep--look at a three point shot on the ensuing inbounds play, but his shot clanged harmlessly off the back of the rim and the Lakers won on the road against a team that most observers expect to be one of the leading contenders in the Western Conference. Bryant finished with 33 points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots (including a sensational swat of a Marcus Camby dunk attempt in overtime) and one steal; he scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, making all seven of his free throws during that span.
There are some parallels between the Lakers' quest this season and the situation that the Chicago Bulls found themselves in after Michael Jordan retired to play basketball. Conventional wisdom said that the Bulls would fall off the map without Jordan, but--thanks to an MVP-caliber season by Scottie Pippen--the Bulls went 55-27 in 1993-94 (only two games worse than the 1992-93 championship team) and lost a tough seven game playoff series to the New York Knicks after a horrible Hue Hollins call in game five that would have made the umpiring in this year's major league baseball playoffs look flawless. In a recent article, Fran Blinebury of the Houston Chronicle points out that Phil Jackson himself has compared this year's Lakers to the Pippen-led Bulls of 1993-94 and 1994-95.
Bryant is 27 years old coming into this season and won three championships as the star sidekick to Shaquille O'Neal; coming into the 1993-94 season Pippen was 28 years old and had won three titles as Michael Jordan's star sidekick. Bryant and Pippen would both surely bristle at the "sidekick" designation and with good reason--being the second best player on three championship teams while earning All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors means that both played indispensible roles during those title runs. Pippen hungered to earn MVP recognition but finished third in the 1993-94 balloting; Bryant hungers no less to be league MVP and it will be interesting to see not only how well he performs but how he is perceived by the writers and broadcasters who mold public opinion, many of whom bought hook, line and sinker the idea that he broke up the Lakers even though owner Jerry Buss has torpedoed that notion; the return of Phil Jackson to coach Bryant and Jackson's frank admission that Bryant did not chase him off or break up the team should forever lay that idea to rest.
The difference between the Pippen Bulls and the Bryant Lakers, of course, is that--unlike Jordan returning to the Bulls--Shaquille O'Neal will not be coming back to the Lakers and L.A. will not be able to trade Chris Mihm for Ben Wallace, the modern approximation of the deal in which Chicago swapped Will Perdue for Dennis Rodman. Still, this is a season in which Jackson and Bryant can silence a lot of their critics. At least one member of the national media buys into the possibility of the Lakers doing very well this year--on the NBA Shootaround program that preceded the doubleheader, Greg Anthony picked the Lakers as his sleeper team and said that he would not be surprised if L.A. makes it to the conference finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM