Kobe Scores 51 but the Lakers Play Like ZeroesThe Phoenix Suns defeated the L.A. Lakers 107-96 on Friday night in an interesting showdown between two leading MVP candidates, the Suns' Steve Nash and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Nash led the Suns with 25 points and eight assists and he had a lot of help--six other Suns scored in double figures, including Leandro Barbosa, who contributed 23 points and five assists off the bench. Kobe Bryant scored a U.S. Airways Center record 51 points, shooting 19-33 from the field (including 5-11 from three point range) and 8-10 on free throws. He also had five rebounds and three assists.
Bryant is criticized for supposedly shooting too much and not making his teammates better but the more I watch this Lakers team the more I am convinced that he in fact is not shooting enough; the rest of the Lakers shot 18-49 from the field against Phoenix but that only tells part of the story. In one sequence Kwame Brown missed three straight point blank shots without once going up strong or drawing a foul. Later in the game Kobe found Smush Parker with a great pass only to have Parker shoot a soft attempt that Boris Diaw easily swatted away. Bryant is an excellent passer and delivers the ball equally well in drive and kick situations or when he is double-teamed. The reason that Bryant is not racking up huge assist totals is that when he drives and kicks to perimeter shooters (or dumps the ball into the post if the big man picks him up) his teammates squander these open opportunities. Bryant's passes out of double teams are usually followed by a second pass to the weak side for an open shot (which is often missed); in any case, unlike in hockey, basketball does not award an assist for the pass that leads to the pass that results in a score. (Speaking of hockey, the way that Nash dribbles behind the basket on one side and comes out the other to either make a shot or deliver an assist is reminiscent of how Wayne Gretzky operated in his "office" behind the goalie.)
Bryant's presence draws double teams and creates openings for his teammates. Why is it his fault if they do not take advantage of these situations? If Nash played for the Lakers would Kwame Brown more frequently convert his passes to scores than he does with Bryant's passes? The other part of the "anti-Kobe" argument is that Bryant takes bad shots and does not shoot a great percentage. In fact, the latter contention does not hold much water when Bryant's three point shooting and free throw shooting are all considered, creating what is known as a "true shooting percentage." As for taking bad shots, Bryant gets stuck with a lot of what I call "hand grenade" shots--the Lakers fumble around for 20 seconds or more and then lob the ball to Bryant as the 24 second shot clock is about to "explode." A perfect example of that came when Bryant hit a long three pointer with 9:53 left in the third quarter to cut Phoenix' lead to 67-57. The Lakers meandered around aimlessly for about 20 seconds before Bryant touched the ball. He makes a lot of those shots but over the course of a season those "hand grenades" destroy his field goal percentage--but at least they have a chance of going in. On the next two Lakers possessions, Kwame Brown had a three second violation and Lamar Odom turned the ball over trying to pass to Brown in the post. The Lakers then got a stop and Bryant cut the lead to eight with his patented turnaround fadeaway from the left elbow. After Odom scored a layup on a nice pass from Brown, Bryant hit a three pointer in transition and the Lakers were only down 67-64. As ESPN went to a commercial break, Mike Tirico stated what should be obvious to everybody: Kobe Bryant is having an amazing season and must receive serious MVP consideration. He scored 30 points on 12-20 shooting in the first half (the Lakers trailed 64-52) and had 38 of the Lakers' 64 points at the 7:35 mark of the third quarter.
Brown managed to get another three second violation at the 3:24 mark and Nash quickly responded with a jumper to make the score 77-70, Phoenix. ESPN commentator Bill Walton suggested that Phoenix should consider simply double teaming Bryant anywhere on the court and make him give up the ball because "this team (the Lakers) is not good at getting the ball back to Kobe." Casual fans may think this sounds insane but if you actually watch the games it is true--as much as Kobe shoots, there are many occasions when he is open or has a favorable matchup and does not receive the ball. This is because his work ethic and knowledge of the offense enables him to get open or use screens to force switches that favor him. After one of Bryant's missed shots earlier in the game, Walton observed that the blame actually belonged to Bryant's teammates for failing to deliver him the ball early enough in the shot clock when he had Nash posted up. By the time Kobe received the ball the clock was winding down and a double team had arrived--and yes, Walton, who is known for making outlandish or tongue-in-cheek remarks, was being serious when he said these things.
Bryant scored 13 of the Lakers' 27 third quarter points and at the start of the final period Phoenix only led 80-79. Bryant already had 43 points--his fourth straight game of 40-plus points--and Nash had 25 points and eight assists. Phil Jackson rested Bryant until the 9:27 mark, by which time Phoenix was ahead 86-79. Jackson used to employ a similar substitution pattern with Michael Jordan during the Chicago Bulls' glory days, resting Jordan during the timeout between quarters and then for the first part of the final period, but the strategy works a lot better when you have Scottie Pippen anchoring the second unit. Bryant did not touch the ball during the Lakers' first possession with him back on the court, which culminated in a wild miss by Odom. Bryant then missed his first two attempts before scoring on a lefty layup to cut the lead to 93-83. By then momentum had completely swung in Phoenix' direction and the Lakers did not mount a serious threat again. I've heard of "icing" a shooter but that is usually done to an opposing player. It seemed like the Lakers "iced" Kobe in the fourth, sitting him when he was playing well and then not reintegrating him into the game until it was too late.
The game was a play in three acts: Act I (first half), Kobe keeps the Lakers in striking distance, scoring 30 points on 12-20 shooting while his teammates muster only 22 points on 8-27 shooting; Act II (third quarter), Kobe pulls the Lakers to within one; Act III (fourth quarter), Kobe sits, Lakers fall apart and are never able to make a run even when he returns. These teams may very well meet in the first round of the playoffs. Walton suggested that if that happens the Lakers should consider going to a small lineup, shifting Odom to center to guard Boris Diaw.
One respondent to my article that touted Bryant for MVP felt that I did not fully develop my argument that Bryant is a better player than Nash, who I picked second. I had said that if Nash were on the Lakers they would have a worse record than they do now because Nash would get fewer assists passing to the Lakers and would not be able to score like Bryant does. My critic asked me to address the flipside--how would Bryant do in Nash's place on the Suns? Friday's game is a perfect example to prove my point: Phoenix only led by one after three, Nash did not play in the fourth and the Suns won going away. They have a much better team than the Lakers; the only factor keeping things close was Bryant's brilliance. If you put him on the Suns and Nash on the Lakers, the Suns would have won by 20--Bryant would score with even less effort because it would not be possible to double-team him and he would get more assists than he does with the Lakers because his passes would be converted to scores. He would not average as many assists as Nash but he would come a lot closer to doing that (probably getting 6-7 a game, with Barbosa or Diaw picking up the playmaking slack) than Nash would to averaging 35 points per game. Nash is a great player--a joy to watch--but Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA right now.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM