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Monday, December 25, 2006

Wade Drops 40, Heat Rout Listless Lakers

Dwyane Wade led the Miami Heat to a 101-85 victory over Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers in a game that has become a Christmas Day fixture for the NBA. Wade had 40 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, four steals and four blocked shots in Miami's first victory this season against a team with a winning record. Wade shot 12-20 from the field and 15-16 from the free throw line. He set the tone from the start with 12 points, five assists and three blocked shots as Miami stormed to a 30-16 lead by the end of the first quarter. Bryant, who led the Lakers with 16 points, scored just two in the first period, shooting 0-6 from the field; he shot 4-17 for the game, shot 8-9 from the free throw line and tied for the team lead with four assists. The Lakers shot just 31-79 (.392) as a team, while the Heat shot 34-66 (.515); those numbers--and Miami's 45-31 rebounding advantage--are the key statistics from the game.

The Heat went through a stretch of over six minutes during the second quarter when they did not make a field goal but still led by seven because the Lakers' offense was almost equally inept. Throughout the game, Miami would build up a double digit lead, then make some careless plays that allowed the Lakers to creep closer before rebuilding another double digit lead. Miami led 47-40 at halftime. Wade outscored Bryant 16-4, but neither shot particularly well from the field: 3-7 for Wade, 1-9 for Bryant. The difference was that Wade got to the free throw line and converted his opportunities. Wade had five assists, while Bryant had four.

Bryant's best scoring stretch of the game happened early in the third quarter, when he scored six points in 3:21. Wade had four during that same span and Dorell Wright made a jumper, so the Heat were still up by seven. A Luke Walton layup brought the Lakers to within five but they would get no closer than that the rest of the way. Miami led 74-64 at the end of the quarter. Miami began pulling away in the fourth quarter, let the Lakers get within eight points a couple times, and then sealed the deal with three Jason Kapono three pointers in the last three minutes.

Naturally, the Bryant-Wade matchup attracts more attention than any other aspect of this game. Wade clearly got the better of things because his team won the game and his statistics were obviously superior but the most interesting thing about the matchup is that it was not really a matchup--Dorell Wright and Gary Payton took turns guarding Bryant and sometimes Miami played a zone. Wade did guard Bryant on a few trips down the court but not for sustained periods. The Lakers started each half with Luke Walton guarding Wade while Bryant guarded Wright but for a substantial portion of the game Bryant was the primary defender on Wade; later in the game, Maurice Evans served as the primary defender on Wade. So, based on Wade's numbers that must mean that Wade scorched Bryant, right? Not exactly. Wade got off to his fast start in the first quarter when he was being guarded primarily by Walton (to be fair, some of his points came in transition or after switches); Evans did not enjoy much success as the primary defender, either. When Bryant was Wade's primary defender, the Heat freed Wade with well executed screen and roll plays that the Lakers ineptly defended throughout the game. Kwame Brown in particular seemed clueless about where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do after Bryant had been screened. Wade made some fantastic shots throughout the game; he got to his high percentage areas and he converted at an excellent rate. For most of the game, the Lakers used single coverage on Wade and did not double him until he got into the lane; they tried to trap the screen and rolls (with little success) but only to slow Wade until his primary defender could catch up. Most of the points that Wade scored when Bryant was the primary defender came on botched screen and roll coverages. Wade hit a couple shots over Bryant without the benefit of a screen and drew some fouls against him as well. Wade also stole the ball from Bryant just after Bryant caught a careless pass and converted a fast break layup with the trailing Bryant trying in vain to catch him from behind. Bottom line: Bryant did not shut Wade down but he did not do a bad job against him either. If a coach or scout graded the game tape, most of Wade's points would be charged to other primary defenders or to faulty screen/roll coverage.

At the other end of the court, Bryant rarely saw Wade and rarely saw single coverage. Wright or Payton took the primary responsibility but as soon as Bryant had the ball anywhere past midcourt, either on a fast break or in a half court set, the Heat sent two or even three defenders his way, forcing him to give up the ball. Bryant forced a couple shots but for the most part his attempts came within the flow of the game and were from his high percentage areas; he just did not make a lot of them. Miami obviously had a game plan designed to force the other Lakers to make shots and the Lakers struggled mightily to do so, particularly from three point range (5-23, .217). A sequence that happened with about a minute left in the first half typifies how the Heat defended against Bryant. After he received a dribble handoff from Ronny Turiaf at the elbow, a typical initiation of the triangle offense, the Heat double teamed him and forced him to the left baseline. He broke the trap with a crisp crosscourt pass to a wide open Vladimir Radmanovic, who shot a three pointer as Wright ran to contest his attempt. Radmanovic missed the shot, but Turiaf dove to the hoop, filling the spot vacated by Wright, grabbed the rebound and scored (if Turiaf had not gotten the rebound, Bryant would have, because he cut straight to the hoop after passing the ball; if you listened closely you could actually hear Turiaf scream, "I got it," after which Bryant retreated to get back on defense as Turiaf put the ball through the hoop). Bryant receives no credit in the boxscore for Turiaf's basket, but that breakdown in the Heat's defensive rebounding was created by the need to double team Bryant and his effective pass out of the trap. That is how a great player makes his team and his teammates better even when he doesn't score, even in a game when he is shooting poorly (he still must be trapped or, lo and behold, he might not continue shooting poorly) and even on a play when he does not receive an assist (Wade, of course, does the same thing when he is trapped). Sadly for the Lakers, most of Bryant's passes out of double teams resulted in missed shots that they did not successfully rebound.

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child; it takes teamwork to guard a superstar and even when the superstar is held in check there are opportunities for his teammates to make shots. On some nights when Bryant's teammates are shooting poorly he is able to shoulder the burden and score even against trapping defenses but on this night he did not do that.

The misleading thing about this game is that it neither represented how either of these teams has performed so far this season nor did it tell us much about how they will do after O'Neal and Odom return to action. Even with the win, Miami is just 13-14, treading water in a weak Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Lakers are 18-10, far better than what most people expected. Miami may become a dangerous team if O'Neal returns to action in time and the Lakers surely miss the multi-talented Odom. Although this game did not tell us much about the teams it was a tremendous platform for Wade to remind everyone that he has earned all of the accolades that he received in the past year.

***Notes***

ABC's NBA Nation pregame show got off to a flying start with a Dan Patrick moderated discussion between Mark Jackson and Mike Wilbon about Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Jackson reiterated the statement that he made about Bryant last year: "Kobe Bryant, when it's all said and done, will be the best basketball player to ever play this game." Patrick seemed a bit stunned (or bemused). Jackson continued, "Kobe Bryant is not playing Dwyane Wade; he's playing against history. Wilt Chamberlain was told that he was just a one man show, (then he) went out and led the league in assists. Michael Jordan was just an offensive player--well, he made the All-Defensive First Team nine times. Kobe Bryant was told that he was just a selfish guy looking to score; now he is the consummate teammate and a big brother to his cast."

Wilbon disagreed: "I would take the guy who just won a championship. Why wouldn't you take Wade? I think that the one thing that may separate them is that Wade is so natural with his teammates. Kobe's been better (with that) this year but it's been an effort...I would take Dwyane Wade (over Kobe Bryant), narrowly."

Jackson responded, "I love Dwyane Wade but I'm taking Kobe Bryant." Anticipating that this is not a popular stance to take, he added, "I'm taking my phone off the hook."

I have written more than once that Bryant is the best all-around player in the game today and that he is the current player who is most similar to Michael Jordan but saying that Bryant will become the greatest basketball player ever is a bit farther than I'm willing to go. As for the Bryant-Wade comparison, I don't get Wilbon's argument about choosing the guy who just won. Bryant already won three NBA titles in a row. Granted, he did not win a Finals MVP but he made major contributions to those teams as an All-NBA player and an All-Defensive Team performer who hit many key shots and made many key stops in those championship runs. He also led those teams in assists, so it's not like he just learned how to play team ball, either.

One way to look at this is to consider for a moment the game plans prepared by the Lakers' Phil Jackson and the Heat's Pat Riley, two of the best coaches ever. Neither is particularly fond of double teaming because of how it can break the defense down and wreak havoc with defensive rebounding. Riley chose to shadow Bryant with multiple defenders whenever Bryant had the ball at his offensive end of the court and Riley rarely used Wade as the primary defender. This strategy indicates that Riley does not think that one defender can contain Bryant and/or that he does not believe that the other Lakers can make open shots. The Lakers primarily went with single coverage on Wade; their biggest breakdowns happened on screen and roll plays, with their big men not being properly positioned. Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf are young players whose games have developed under Jackson's tutelage but there is still room for more progress. Despite Bryant and the Lakers having a poor shooting night, the Lakers were still within eight points as late as the 7:16 mark of the fourth quarter. In the endless debate of Chamberlain versus Russell, one thing that Chamberlain used to always point out was that he guarded Russell one on one, while Russell often had help guarding Chamberlain. Chamberlain liked to point to old photos that showed two or three Celtics in close proximity to him when he had the ball. Wade is obviously a great player and he is often double teamed and trapped as well but when you watch a Lakers game Bryant often has two guys on him, with players three, four and five waiting in the wings. The Chicago Bulls used this approach in their recent win over the Lakers. Obviously, it would be more difficult for teams to load up on Bryant if Lamar Odom were playing but even when Odom is on the court teams tend to guard Bryant this way. There are 81 reasons that teams guard Bryant this way--and, contrary to conventional "wisdom," none of those reasons have to do with Bryant refusing to pass the ball, because he is a willing and excellent passer out of the trap. What he needs more than anything is a Steve Kerr or Robert Horry type player who could feast on open weak side three pointers.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:28 PM

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