Virtuoso Artists Kobe and LeBron Make the Playoffs a Joy to WatchThe NBA playoffs will culminate in June with the Finals, most likely featuring a rematch between San Antonio and Detroit (don't sleep on New Jersey, as I mentioned in my playoff preview, but that's a subject for another day). The Finals are a celebration of two finely tuned quintets playing in perfect harmony. In the first round we are seeing two virtuoso soloists perform wondrous feats.
Neither Kobe Bryant nor LeBron James figure to be playing basketball in June when the NBA title is decided. Most likely, Detroit and San Antonio will be the two teams left standing at that time; the first round of the playoffs is just a warm-up for them. There is a reason that, given a choice of games to broadcast in the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs, ABC kicked off its coverage on Saturday April 22 with LeBron—I mean Cleveland—versus Washington and then featured Kobe—I mean the Lakers—versus Phoenix on Sunday April 23.
There are interesting storylines in each playoff series, but everyone—from diehard fans to casual observers—wants to see how LeBron James plays in his first postseason series and how Kobe Bryant does in his first playoff series without Shaquille O’Neal. With every step now James is entering new territory—his first playoff game, his first “second” playoff game (i.e., his first game involving the kind of adjustments that can only be made in the postseason when you face the same team over a one to two week stretch) and his first road playoff game. Soon he will participate in his first elimination game.
James’ first playoff game was nothing short of breathtaking—in a 97-86 win he completely controlled the game to such an extent that it is easy to overlook that he forced some shots, shooting only 12-27 from the field. The eye tends to not dwell on shooting percentage when there are other gaudy numbers to peruse, such as 32-11-11-48, his points, rebounds, assists and minutes. He is the second youngest player to have a postseason triple double and just the third player to have one in his first playoff game.
James had a bit of a setback in game two, producing 26 points and nine rebounds but only two assists in an 89-84 loss. When James wryly noted that he narrowly missed another triple double—he had 10 turnovers—it was clear that neither his confidence nor his sense of humor had been shaken. Washington’s newfound grip on home court advantage did not last long because James scored 41 points in game three, the most an NBA player has ever scored in his first road playoff contest, breaking the mark of 40 points held by David Thompson and Kelly Tripucka. He shot 16-28 from the field and had five rebounds and three assists. The low assist total is deceptive because he made some great passes that were followed by missed shots—a problem that has afflicted Bryant throughout the year. ESPN commentator Steve Jones noted the obvious—to get an assist the recipient of the pass must make the shot. James made a brilliant pass to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who hit a short shot to tie the game at 67. The ball whizzed by the ear of Wizards’ center Brendan Haywood like it had been shot out of a cannon yet arrived so softly in Ilgauskas’ hands that it seemed like the pass was laser guided. After Gilbert Arenas’ spectacular three point play gave the Wizards a 96-95 lead with only 23 seconds to go, James bulldozed to the hoop and muscled in the game winning basket with less than six seconds left.
Other than Wizards’ fans it is hard to imagine that anyone is disappointed by James’ first three playoff games. What will he do in his second road playoff game? Before the playoffs began I suggested (at 20 Second Timeout) that this series would return to Cleveland knotted at two, that James would have a tremendous game five to lead Cleveland to victory and that the Cavs would close out the series in six in Washington. That still sounds about right; Washington’s “Big Three” figures to have a great performance in game four and the Cavaliers do not seem quite ready to take this series by the throat with two consecutive road wins.
Kobe Bryant’s scoring feats this year are only matched by Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. We all know the numbers—81 points in a game, outscoring Dallas 62-61 for three quarters, averaging 35.4 ppg (eighth best ever) while having 27 games of 40-plus points, including six games of 50-plus points. Critics have sniped that anyone could score 81 against Toronto but that begs the question of why no one in the six decade history of the NBA has scored more points in a game except for Chamberlain. Purists cringed at how many times Bryant shot the ball but anyone who watched the team play realized that if Bryant did not do this then the Lakers had no chance to win. His teammates were simply not equipped to pick up the scoring slack. When the Lakers visited Cleveland for a March 19 game against the Cavaliers, Phil Jackson told me that Bryant’s field goal attempts and scoring would decline as soon as the rest of the team mastered the triangle. This is happening just in the nick of time—against Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs.
Jackson’s game plan against the Suns is to attack Phoenix inside for most of the game while using Bryant as a facilitator and then to have Bryant “finish” the game at the end, either by scoring or by drawing double teams and passing to open shooters. After three games the Lakers are up 2-1. Bryant is averaging 22.7 ppg in the series but has increased his assists to 5.7 apg from 4.5 apg in the regular season. All five Lakers starters have scored at least 10 points in two games after doing so only three times in 82 games in the regular season. Bryant’s willingness to execute Jackson’s game plan makes those who have questioned Bryant’s desire to win look very foolish. Also, Jackson has done a fantastic coaching job, not only coming up with the right approach to take against Phoenix but developing his players’ skills over the course of the season so that the team is peaking at the right time. Jackson and his staff have helped guys like Kwame Brown and Smush Parker play far better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Even Lamar Odom, always a talented player, has played better down the stretch and in the playoffs than he has previously played during his career.
When Bryant passed the ball to the other Lakers early in the year—or when he was resting on the bench—the results were not good because his teammates were tentative and ineffective. Bryant’s prodigious scoring carried this team to the postseason. Now, after a season of Jackson’s coaching, the other players are ready to step up and Bryant is proving that what he has said all along is true—his primary concern is winning games, not padding his statistics.
After a close loss in game one, Bryant scored 29 points (12-24 from the field), had a game-high 10 rebounds and had five assists in L.A.’s 99-93 win in game two, swiping home court advantage from the second seeded Suns. Since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 16 teams in 1983-84, the seventh seeded teams are 53-130 (.290) in games versus the second seeded teams and have won only four of 44 series (.091). The Lakers are a long way from winning the series but what they have already accomplished thus far is quite a testament to Jackson’s coaching and Bryant’s abilities. To this point we are not getting the scoring show that we expected from Bryant in the postseason but we are watching something that is even more impressive and meaningful—the best player on the court controlling the game and leading his team to victory against a deeper, favored opponent that is coached by last year’s Coach of the Year and has last year’s (and probably this year’s) winner of the MVP award, Steve Nash.
Bryant had 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds and four steals in L.A.’s 99-92 game three win. Parker led the Lakers with 18 points. Bryant passed the ball beautifully throughout the game, threading the needle on several occasions and delivering sweet behind the back dishes that often led to Phoenix Suns’ fouls against the cutting recipients. A lot of these passes did not become assists because the shots were not converted, but these are winning plays because they led to free throws for the Lakers and foul trouble for the Suns.
The later rounds of the playoffs will offer ample opportunities to appreciate the beauty of two finely tuned five piece orchestras playing in perfect harmony—but right now is the time to savor the stylings of two splendid soloists. Whether they are shooting or passing, it doesn’t get any better for a basketball fan than to watch Bryant and James in action. If we’re lucky, sometime soon the ensembles surrounding them will improve enough so that their encores will reverberate into June.
Postscript: On Sunday afternoon Kobe Bryant added another chapter to his storied career by hitting the game tying shot in regulation and the game winning shot in overtime as the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 lead over the favored Phoenix Suns. Bryant scored 24 points on 9-14 shooting from the field and also had eight assists and four rebounds. This year's MVP race is reminding me more and more of the 1995 duel between eventual winner David Robinson and 1994 MVP Hakeem Olajuwon, who finished fifth in 1995 balloting. Robinson received the MVP before a playoff game versus Olajuwon and Olajuwon absolutely torched him in the game and the series. I'll never forget watching the postgame press conference on TV, Olajuwon and teammate Clyde Drexler giggling like little kids when a reporter asked if Olajuwon deserved the award. "What do you think?" Drexler replied. It has been reported that Steve Nash will win the MVP again this year. Will he receive the award at home before the Suns' next game versus the Lakers? That could be an interesting scene. If the NBA doesn't present it to him then they might have to give it to him in TNT's studios while he poses for one of Kenny Smith's "fishing trips," because very few teams come back from 3-1 deficits and no one has ever done it against a Phil Jackson coached team.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM