To Shoot or Not to Shoot?NBA superstars constantly face the question "To shoot or not to shoot?" Their teams depend on them to shoulder a significant scoring load and to make difficult shots under pressure--but they also need them to create open opportunities for their teammates. Let's look at two recent examples of superstars grappling with the question "To shoot or not to shoot?" On Saturday night, Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers faced the daunting task of winning a game seven in Phoenix. The Lakers' game plan for most of the series was to pound the ball inside but right from the start of game seven it became apparent that the plan was not working: neither Lamar Odom nor Kwame Brown could make a shot. Bryant did not shoot much in the first quarter but in the second quarter he asserted himself offensively, scoring 18 points, and that turned out to be the only quarter of the game that the Lakers outscored Phoenix (30-28). He scored 23 points on 8-13 field goal shooting in the first half but the Lakers trailed by 15 because their defense was atrocious and nobody besides Bryant could score.
When the second half began, the Lakers again tried to establish their inside game but were never able to do so. Bryant's only point of the quarter came on a free throw after a technical foul and the Lakers trailed by 25 going into the fourth quarter, making that period academic for the purposes of this discussion. During the game and then afterwards, TNT's Charles Barkley first criticized Bryant for shooting too much in the first half and then blasted him for not shooting enough in the second half. On Sunday morning, the ensemble cast of ESPN's Sports Reporters weighed in with their disapproval of Bryant's play as well. The whole scenario is very comical. Critics have spent this whole season--and much of Bryant's career--labelling Bryant a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than winning, despite the fact that Bryant was the primary playmaker on three championship teams. Bryant did not shoot a lot for long stretches of the first four games of the series against Phoenix. Why should nefarious motives be ascribed to him not shooting during the third quarter of game seven, particularly since he was constantly double-teamed? The same guys who are blasting him now would have blasted him even more severely if he had attempted shots with two defenders on him. Mike Lupica made the comment that two defenders couldn't stop Bryant from hitting the game winner in game four, intimating that Bryant must have been pouting to not attempt more shots against double-teams in game seven. Of course Bryant can shoot--and connect--against double-teams. That is one of the things that makes him special and one of the major reasons that the Lakers even made the playoffs--but against Phoenix, Coach Phil Jackson made establishing an inside game the Lakers' top priority. Bryant went along and the strategy worked, to a point. But, as TNT's Kenny Smith astutely observed, guys who are not accustomed to being big time scorers are unlikely to be able to produce high point totals for the duration of a seven game series.
Bryant's production in the fourth quarter of game seven is a moot point, because the game was long out of reach by then; people who are making a big deal of him only attempting three shots in the entire second half are ignoring the fact that the Lakers had no realistic chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, whether Bryant sat for the whole quarter (like LeBron James did on Sunday--see below) or jacked up 15 shots in 12 minutes--even down the stretch of the third it was apparent that only a complete Phoenix collapse could save the Lakers. What happened in game seven is that Bryant played the same way that he played in the Lakers' wins but his teammates failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to score against one-on-one (or one-on-none) coverage while two defenders shadowed Bryant's every move; how exactly is this Bryant's fault?
On Sunday in the first game of the San Antonio-Dallas series, the Spurs' Tim Duncan put up first half scoring numbers very similar to Bryant's from the night before (20 points on 8-14 shooting). The other Spurs looked sluggish on offense in the first half but they played good enough defense to only trail by six at halftime. Duncan scored only one point from the 5:57 mark of the second quarter until the 1:32 mark of the third quarter. Duncan's slam dunk at that time cut the Mavericks' lead to two and the Spurs eventually won, 87-85. Duncan made several key baskets down the stretch of the game.
No one would suggest that Duncan was pouting when he hardly scored for a quarter and a half, but the biggest difference between Bryant and Duncan in these two examples is not what each one did but the amount of help that each one received from his teammates. Bryant and Duncan are two special players who each do whatever it takes to help their teams win. What other great NBA player has ever had his decision making process as closely scrutinized as Kobe Bryant's is, his every shot attempt (or lack of a shot attempt) placed under a microscope?
In Sunday afternoon's other game, Detroit wiped out Cleveland 113-86. LeBron James had 22 points but he did not score in the fourth quarter--let's start an investigation (just kidding; James did not see a second of playing time in the final period because the game was so far out of reach).
Detroit is a much better team than Cleveland but they are not 27 points better. Last year Detroit lost three game twos but recovered to win the series on two occasions and extended the Spurs to seven games in the NBA Finals before losing. Expect game two of this series to be much closer than game one and don't be shocked if Cleveland pulls off the upset. The Cavaliers will win a game this series before Detroit finishes them off and I think that it will either be game two or game three.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:42 AM