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Friday, January 13, 2006

Kobe versus LeBron: The Measure of Greatness

"Who you got?" It's the classic basketball question, whether you are choosing sides on the playground or selecting the greatest players in the NBA. Chamberlain or Russell? Robertson or West? Dr. J or Larry Bird? Magic or Michael? "Who you got?"

When it comes to perimeter players in the NBA, my answer for the past several years has been Kobe Bryant--and Thursday's showdown between Bryant's L.A. Lakers and LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated why. If you just look at the numbers, LeBron performed at least as well as Kobe: 28 points, 9 assists, 2 rebounds, 11-22 field goal shooting and 4-9 free throw shooting for James versus 27 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 9-21 field goal shooting and 8-8 free throw shooting for Bryant. But if you watched the game you saw that Kobe made every big play down the stretch. When Bill Russell used to work CBS' NBA telecasts he would always say, "It's not how many you score, it's when you score them." He mentioned that after Dr. J scored 7 points in the last two minutes of game four of the 1983 Finals to secure a sweep for the 76ers.

Kobe got off to a hot start on Thursday versus the Cavs, but after he sprained his right wrist in the second quarter he only made 1 of his next 11 shots from the field. With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter Kobe missed a shot and the Cavaliers extended their lead to 90-87 after Drew Gooden followed up LeBron James' miss. The game was there for the taking--and Kobe took it. After Lamar Odom hit a jumper to trim the lead to one, Kobe stole the ball from LeBron and assisted on Devean George's three pointer to give the Lakers a 92-90 lead. Zydrunas Ilgauskas countered with a jumper to tie the game and Odom made one of two free throws to put the Lakers ahead. Eric Snow knotted the score at 93 with 1:40 to go by also splitting a pair of free throws. Then, with everyone in the building knowing who is going to get the ball, Kobe scored the Lakers' final six points on three long jumpers. Each shot gave the Lakers the lead after the Cavs had tied the game on the previous possession.

Kobe fouled LeBron on a drive with five seconds left and the Lakers up by two. LeBron made the first free throw and Drew Gooden rebounded the second, giving the Cavs one final chance. After a timeout, Kobe guarded LeBron and forced him to miss a fadeaway shot as time expired. As TNT's Steve Kerr said right after James' miss, "In the last couple minutes I think we saw what separates Kobe from LeBron, at least at this point in LeBron's career." How does Kobe do it? Kerr, who of course played with Michael Jordan on three championship teams, said that Kobe is mentally stronger than any player since Jordan. James, who is obviously a fantastic player in his own right, himself commented in a recent interview that Kobe has a "killer instinct" that he does not. I recall Brett Favre's comment when he played with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. He said that it was "Mind over matter--if I don't mind, it don't matter."

Kobe has produced in clutch moments to win division titles, to win playoff games and to win championships. No, he's not Jordan, but he's the closest current player to Jordan and is indistinguishable from Jordan in terms of competitiveness, focus and willpower. As Kobe said simply after the game, "I live for these moments."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 AM

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