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Friday, January 20, 2006

Pistons Smash Knicks, Lakers Snatch Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

TNT's theme for its NBA coverage is "We know drama." Last night, TNT could have added a postscript--"One out of two isn't bad." The first game of the doubleheader saw the Detroit Pistons simply dismantle the New York Knicks 105-79. Play by play announcer Marv Albert correctly mentioned that the game was in "gar-bage time" during the third quarter. Detroit Coach Flip Saunders is now comparing his squad to the legendary 1969-70 New York Knicks, but I'm not quite ready to go there--the '70 Knicks had three members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed), while this year's Pistons may not even send three guys to the All-Star Game. Detroit is head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the NBA right now, but before the Pistons are worthy of mention among the greatest teams of all-time they have to prove to be the best team this season by winning the championship. Look at a few very recent examples: ESPN could have saved a lot of money by waiting until after the Rose Bowl to run an elaborate, multi-part feature comparing USC to the greatest college football teams from other eras; mentioning the Colts in the same breath as the perfect '72 Dolphins looks pretty foolish now--the Dungy-Manning Colts have never reached the Super Bowl, while the Dolphins made three straight Super Bowl appearances and not only won the title in their perfect season but repeated as champions the next year; any connection between the '85 Bears defense and the '05 Bears defense exists strictly in somebody's imagination, because that's the only place that Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith would do to the '85 Bears what they did to this year's team.

All the drama that was lacking in the first game materialized in the second contest, a very entertaining 118-109 overtime win for the Sacramento Kings over the L.A. Lakers. If the first game was not as close as the final score--and it wasn't--the second game was definitely closer than the final score. Mike Bibby led the winners with 40 points, adding six assists and four rebounds, and Kenny Thomas had his first career triple double--16 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Kobe Bryant had 51 points, nine rebounds and four assists in defeat. This was his 12th game of 40-plus points this season and he also shot 13-13 from the free throw line, extending his franchise record for consecutive free throws without a miss to 48. The game was tight throughout, with neither team able to get a double-digit lead during regulation, but the Lakers seemed to be in control after Kobe Bryant drove hard to the basket and fired a pass to a wide open Lamar Odom for a top of the key three pointer that gave L.A. a 102-97 lead. There is so much talk--including in this space--about what great players should do down the stretch of close games and that sequence is a classic example of how you don't have to take the shot to make the play. What is the difference between Kobe passing to Odom near the end of this game and LeBron James passing to Sasha Pavlovic in the closing seconds against Denver on Wednesday? Kobe didn't abdicate responsibility by passing up an open shot to give the ball to a teammate who cannot create a shot for himself; Kobe drove to the basket, forced several defenders to converge on him and then fired a good, on target pass to Odom, spoon feeding him a wide open shot that Odom, to his credit, nailed. That should have been the end of the story, but the Lakers made several errors down the stretch: on the next possession Odom, instead of running time off of the clock, drove to the basket too soon and then compounded this mistake by committing an offensive foul. That left the Kings plenty of time to capitalize with a Mike Bibby three pointer after some less than stellar pick and roll defense by the Lakers. Then, after two Bryant free throws gave the Lakers a 104-101 lead, Kwame Brown inexplicably left Brad Miller open at the three point line and Miller tied the game. The Lakers inbounded the ball with four seconds left but Odom missed a long jumper instead of passing the ball to Kobe, who TNT's Doug Collins rightly calls the best "closer" in the NBA. Kobe wanted to take the last shot and--even though Odom hit the big three pointer a few possessions earlier--if you don't think that Kobe stood a better chance of making it in that situation than Odom, as Fred Carter would say, you're sitting in the wrong pew--move a little closer and get a better view.

The overtime was an even bigger disaster for the Lakers, who did not score until the Kings had a 111-104 lead. Bryant forced several long jumpers in the extra session, clearly frustrated by his teammates' miscues in the closing seconds of regulation. At halftime, TNT's Charles Barkley said that it can't be fun for Kobe's teammates to watch him shooting all the time, but the fact is that Kobe shot the Lakers to the brink of victory in the first 47 minutes of the game; it can't be much fun for him to put forth that kind of effort only to lose because of mental breakdowns by other players in the closing seconds. Also, the idea that Kobe is just gunning and not passing the ball can be easily refuted by simply watching the game--Kobe often drove to the hoop and kicked to open shooters, like he did on the play to Odom that should have clinched the win, but he can't get assists on those plays unless guys make shots. Another thing that killed the Lakers in overtime was Odom fouling out; Chris Mihm had fouled out earlier, so Luke Walton was forced to guard Thomas and Sacramento milked that mismatch for several easy baskets. What could have been a big road win for the Lakers turned into a heartbreaking defeat. The Lakers will have to shake off their disappointment quickly--they are facing the Pacific Division-leading Suns in Phoenix on Friday night.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM

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