Stand and Deliver: Kobe and the Lakers Face Elimination After Squandering a 3-1 LeadKobe Bryant and the seventh seeded Los Angeles Lakers were one defensive rebound away from knocking off the second seeded Phoenix Suns in game six of their series on Thursday night--but the Suns scrapped for that rebound near the end of the fourth quarter and Tim Thomas hit a three pointer to send the game to overtime. Phoenix prevailed 126-118 to send the series back to Phoenix for a seventh game. Steve Nash led the Suns with 32 points and 13 assists, while Kobe Bryant poured in a playoff career high 50 points. He also had eight rebounds, five assists, three steals--and seven turnovers. Bryant shot 20-35 from the field and 5-6 from the free throw line and made several spectacular shots down the stretch; anyone who says that he shot too much and cost his team the game either did not watch the game or did not understand what happened. The Lakers still utilized their plan of going inside against the smaller Suns and Lamar Odom (22 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, 8-14 shooting from the field) and Kwame Brown (17 points, nine rebounds, 8-9 shooting from the field) both did a lot of damage. Phoenix scrambled around a lot on defense and clogged up the middle more than in previous games, which in turn opened things up for Bryant on the perimeter.
There are many subplots leading up to Saturday night's game seven, including: the return of Phoenix' Raja Bell, who was suspended for game six after a cheap shot clothesline of Bryant in game five; Phoenix attempting to complete a comeback from a 3-1 deficit; the Lakers trying to win a game seven on the road. Who faces the most pressure, the higher seeded team that has been pushed to a seventh game or the lower seeded team that must win on the road to avoid blowing a 3-1 lead? Clearly, there is tremendous pressure on both teams, so the real question is which team is going to be more affected by the pressure. I think that the Lakers are more susceptible to feeling the pressure because they are a young team that is not accustomed to this situation and because the game will be played in Phoenix. Pounding the ball inside and using Bryant almost as a decoy was a clever strategy early in the series, but I believe that for the Lakers to win they will need for him to score at least 45 points while shooting around 50% (or better) from the field. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that by having such a performance in game six Bryant put his team in a position to win; the breakdown that cost them the game happened on defense, not because of anything that Bryant did offensively.
Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Luke Walton are not going to be the primary factors in a game seven road victory. They can--and must--make supporting contributions but Saturday night must be the Kobe Bryant show. He must take Phoenix' crowd out of the game with a big first quarter, which will give his young teammates confidence, and then he must have the energy to sustain a high performance level throughout the game. I picked the Lakers to win the series but also noted that it is tougher to win road games as a series progresses. I still feel that way; game six was the Lakers' best chance to win and advance and I give the Lakers about a 33% chance to win game seven. They have a puncher's chance because they have the game's best player, but it will require an almost flawless game and "flawless" is not something that these Lakers attain very frequently. In the fourth quarter and overtime of game six Bryant hit many amazing shots, but the Lakers fell behind because of fumbled rebounds, dropped passes and missed shots by other players. In my playoff preview, I wrote: "The biggest problem for L.A. is their propensity this season to mess up close games at the end with mental errors or soft play. If the Lakers lose it will be because of a poorly thrown inbounds pass, a lob to Kwame Brown that should be a dunk but becomes a turnover or a mental lapse on defense that allows a cutter to score an easy basket." The offensive rebound that led to Tim Thomas' three pointer is the play of the series right now and is just the type of miscue described in the previous paragraph. Not only did L.A. fail to get this rebound, Kwame Brown closed out horribly against Thomas, allowing Thomas to fake and still shoot the three pointer. Brown should have run at him at an angle that forced Thomas to dribble inside of the three point line. Barring a game seven for the ages by the Lakers, L.A. will have all summer to lament a tremendous upset that literally slipped through their grasp.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 AM