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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Kobe Bryant Leads Lakers to 124-118 Overtime Win Versus Heat

Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade both had big games, but Bryant made the key plays down the stretch as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 124-118 in overtime. Bryant finished with 25 points, eight assists and four rebounds, while Wade had 35 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Bryant shot 11-24 from the field, while Wade shot 12-25; the difference in their point totals came from the fact that Wade attempted 13 free throws (making 11), while Bryant shot 3-3 from the free throw line. Brian Cook received several of Bryant's assists, scoring 25 points. He also had 10 rebounds and four assists. Five other Lakers scored in double figures. Udonis Haslem supported Wade with 20 points and 11 rebounds.

One of the most interesting things about the Bryant-Wade "rivalry" (if it can really be called that when they only face each other twice per season) is that Bryant generally guards Wade one-on-one (except for switches or traps on screen/roll plays), while Wade seldom checks Bryant one on one. At the start of the game, Bryant guarded Wade, but Wade guarded Lakers small forward Luke Walton and Miami small forward Jason Kapono guarded Bryant (with frequent double-teaming help whenever Bryant put the ball on the floor).

Phil Jackson is renowned for the mind games that he plays with opponents (and sometimes with his own players) and he seemed determined to not let Miami "hide" Wade on defense. Luke Walton is not generally a primary offensive threat, but with Wade guarding him Walton went into the post on several occasions and scored over the smaller Wade. Walton scored seven points in the first quarter.

One might think that Byrant would try to exploit Kapono by going one on one but he spent most of the first half setting up his teammates. "The last couple possessions, Kobe Bryant won't get credit for an assist," noted TNT's Steve Kerr during the first quarter. "But just passing the ball back out to a teammate started a chain reaction...all of a sudden, four teammates touch the ball and they get a layup."

"You can see that Kobe is really enjoying being the facilitator right now," TNT's Doug Collins added. "The other night against Orlando he was quiet until the fourth quarter, then he had 16 points, hit all five of his field goals (and) all six of his free throws to close that game down."

Shortly after that, Bryant stopped at the free throw line on a fast break and shuffled a pass to Ronny Turiaf for a resounding dunk, putting the Lakers up 27-17. "He looks like Scottie Pippen the way he is playing now," said Kerr (a former teammate of Pippen's). "The big wing, point forward type of guy, distributing and loving every second of it."

During the first quarter, TNT ran a clip of a pregame interview with Bryant: "My role has changed from last year at this time. Last year at this time we were still trying to figure out our way through the offense and as a consequence I had to take most of the load when it came to scoring. This year is different. I don't have to do that. I can facilitate and try to maximize my teammates' opportunities."

Collins correctly noted that this change began at the end of last season, as players like Walton and Kwame Brown showed that they could handle more of the scoring load, and carried over into the first round playoff series against the heavily favored Phoenix Suns, when the Lakers took a 3-1 advantage before collapsing and losing in seven games.

Bryant did not attempt a lot of shots in the first half, but the ones he did were special. On one occasion, Bryant caught the ball on the post, faked a one handed pass to a cutter a la the Harlem Globetrotters--completely fooling Gary Payton--and then hit a turnaround jumper. "He's just so fundmentally sound," Collins said after that shot. "Steve, you played with Michael (Jordan) and I coached Michael: their footwork, the way they used ball fakes--that (being fundamentally sound) is such a weapon that they added to their game and makes the game so easy for them."

The Lakers led 33-29 after the first quarter. Bryant shot 3-4 from the field, scoring seven points and collecting four assists. Wade also played well, scoring 16 points and passing for three assists. How good could Bryant's defense have been if Wade was on pace for 64 points? The important thing to note is that most of Wade's points came on screen and roll plays or in transition when Bryant got cross-matched (since Wade was not guarding him). Collins identified a Lakers' weakness that I wrote about at length after the first encounter between these teams: "Sort of shades of Christmas Day, where every time Dwyane Wade saw one of the Lakers' big guys come into the game they (the Heat) went straight into the screen and roll situation; they (the Lakers' big guys) were all in foul trouble on that particular day. This is one of those games that is going to be very tough for (Andrew) Bynum because he (Wade) has got you back pedalling the entire time and then he creates contact." Collins added that the Lakers' deficiency in this area could be a problem in the Western Conference playoffs since teams like Dallas and Phoenix run a lot of screen and roll plays. Kerr noted that the NBA has changed the rules regarding defensive play on the perimeter, greatly restricting the level of contact that is allowed, and he suggested that no one has taken better advantage of this than Wade.

Bryant took a brief break from guarding Wade when Maurice Evans came into the game; Jackson seems to like the Evans-Wade matchup, because he also tried it for brief stretches during the earlier meeting. Evans is strong, quick and tough, traits that make him a solid defensive player. Bryant took his customary rest at the start of the second quarter, but the Lakers' reserves played very well and actually extended the lead to as much as seven (48-41). It was 48-44 when Bryant returned to action. The Lakers led 61-59 at halftime. Bryant did not score in the second quarter, finishing the half with seven points and five assists. Wade had 19 points, five assists and no turnovers. He shot 7-9 from the free throw line, once again getting the Lakers' big men into foul trouble.

The Lakers' offense hit a lull in the third quarter. At one point, Bryant drove and seemed to be fouled by Alonzo Mourning but nothing was called. Wade raced downcourt and tipped in Jason Williams' missed three pointer. On the next possession, Bryant received a pass at the top of the key, dribbled past Kapono and hit a fadeaway jumper on the right baseline, putting the Lakers ahead 70-69. "With that shot, you get the idea that he is starting to think offensively," Marv Albert commented. "Absolutely," agreed Collins. "He is starting to get a sense that his team is going to need him to pick up the pace offensively." Antoine Walker, fresh off of his suspension for failing to meet Pat Riley's conditioning guidelines, hit two three pointers in an 11-0 run late in the third quarter and the Heat took an 87-85 lead. Vladimir Radmanovic put the Lakers back on top 88-87 by nailing a three pointer just before the end of the quarter; Bryant got his seventh assist on that play.

On a couple different occasions, Bryant hit tough jumpers from the right wing that put the Lakers up seven in the fourth quarter, but Miami answered with a quick run that tied the game. Wade played a key role in that spurt: he made two free throws after Bryant fouled him, then he stole a careless Walton pass and converted a fast break dunk and then he assisted on a Jason Kapono three pointer that tied the game at 108 with a little less than two minutes left in regulation. Bryant's runner with 46.5 seconds left put the Lakers up, 110-108. Bryant scored the Lakers' last six points in the fourth quarter. Bryant forced Wade to miss a three pointer on the next possession, but Jason Kapono got the loose ball after a scramble and fed Udonis Haslem for a dunk. On the Lakers' final possesion, Bryant drove aggressively to the hoop, beating Wade and colliding with Haslem. The ball went flying, no foul was called and the game went to overtime; Bryant and Haslem both argued, but Kerr opined that it was a good no-call.

Wade scored the first basket of the extra session, stripping Bryant and taking the ball coast to coast for a dunk. An exasperated Bryant, who had only attempted one free throw at that point despite making frequent forays to the hoop, looked around in vain for a foul call. None came, but on the next possesion Bryant caught the ball in the exact same spot at the right elbow, froze Wade with a jab step and nailed a jumper. The Lakers then took the lead after two Andrew Bynum free throws, but Wade used a Haslem screen to get open and tied the score again with a long jumper. Bryant then drove to the hoop and kicked the ball out to Cook, whose three pointer put the Lakers up, 117-114. Wade missed a bank shot, but the Lakers were not able to extend their lead because Jason Williams stole the ball and scored a fast break layup. Bryant beat Wade on a backdoor cut and scored a tough spinning layup over Alonzo Mourning after Luke Walton hit him with a nice pass. Haslem's jumper brought the Heat to within one.

After not guarding Bryant for most of regulation, Wade did guard him for most of the overtime period--but with 43.3 seconds remaining and the Lakers up 119-118, Gary Payton guarded Bryant and Wade checked Smush Parker. Bryant received the ball at the top of the key and blew past Payton, forcing him to foul. "I don't know if I agree with that change of putting Payton on Kobe at that point in time," Collins commented. "I think that Wade gets away with a little bit more at that point in time than Gary Payton." Bryant made both free throws, putting the Lakers ahead 121-118. Wade attempted to drive on Bryant on the next possession, but Bryant cut him off and then Parker stole Wade's pass. "Every time Kobe has forced him to his right Wade has not done a nice job of finishing," observed Collins. "I think that the difference in this game ultimately could be Bryant's defense on Wade in the second half," Kerr added. "Kobe Bryant's defense on Wade changed this game." Parker sealed the win with two free throws and Cook closed out the scoring with one more free throw.

During the game's final timeout, TNT cut to the studio crew and Magic Johnson said, "This is one of the best played regular season games I've seen this season. Both teams have played exceptionally well." Bryant and Wade embraced after the final buzzer, a fitting show of mutual respect after such an exciting and entertaining game. Right after that, TNT's Craig Sager asked Bryant about accepting the defensive challenge against Wade and Bryant replied, "I just enjoy playing defense. For us it was an adjustment because he is such a great screen and roll player. They set great screens for him and that takes me out of the play, so we had to really focus and do a concentrated effort as a team of trying to corral him a little bit coming off of those screens." In addition to his defensive work, Bryant produced 12 of his 25 points in the last five minutes of regulation and the five minute overtime period.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 AM



At Wednesday, January 17, 2007 7:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great analysis. Kobe is MVP material this season.

At Wednesday, January 17, 2007 9:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What did you make of the refreeing, especially w.r.t D.Wade. I was 'ok' with Kobe not getting too many calls (this current version of the nba with too many FT's is killing me), but D.Wade gets far too many calls. No one is almost on the same level, as far as getting calls.

Or am I missing something here about D.Wade's technique, being really good enough to earn the same calls other players dont get?
Does he take it to the hoop more agressively than others (For example, other players anticipate contact and slow down hoping for a call)

At Thursday, January 18, 2007 6:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wade is an aggressive player, always on the attack with his dribble. He rarely shoots three pointers. He is so quick, explosive and strong that when he initiates contact with a defender it is literally a bang-bang play--the ref has to quickly determine what happened. Aggressive, talented scorers always have received the benefit of the doubt. That does not mean the calls are "bad" or "favorable." I think that Wade gets all the "ties," the close calls that could go either way. Because he drives so much and so explosively, I think that he is involved in more such plays than other players. He is not as tall or as long as Kobe or LeBron, who often extend their arms over defenders to shoot or dunk. Wade barrels into the paint, launches a shot and tumbles to the ground, leaving the official to ascertain what happened.

Kobe does not really seek contact in that way. He goes into the paint and tries to get the shot over or around the defender, using his body or off arm to shield the ball. Several defenders often reach for the strip or the block; depending on the ref's angle, he may or may not see contact with Kobe's arms and may or may not feel that this rises above the level of "hand is part of the ball" (that really is an NBA interpretation; if you hit the ball, you are given some leeway with other contact--but you aren't supposed to be able to just whack someone on the arm without getting near the ball). On some of the plays in which Kobe complains that he has been fouled (not just in this game but others), it looks like a foul from one angle but may not look like a foul from another. The contact is happening in proximity to the ball.

Even though Wade goes on streaks with his midrange jumper, I'm not convinced that he could really win games just with that. I think that defenders should really try to avoid the body contact that Wade is seeking--either back off and let him shoot jumpers, even if he hits two or three in a row, or make an effort to not let him crash into you. If he launched himself toward defenders only to crash to the floor without creating contact or getting to the free throw line, I think that he would stop playing this way. Of course, it is a lot easier to suggest this from where I am sitting than to actually guard one of the league's top players :)

One other thing. In last year's Finals, some people felt that Wade got a favorable whistle. It did seem that way at times but the way for Dallas to have tested/exposed that--if it was in fact the case--was for Dirk to put his head down and drive to the hoop just like Wade was doing. In the last four games of the series when Wade was living at the free throw line Dirk should have tried to do the same thing. He is also a superstar who can draw fouls and he is a better free throw shooter to boot--but you aren't going to draw fouls on fadeaway jumpers. I think that Dirk should have put the onus on the refs to put him on the free throw line 10-15 times a game. If he had played like that and not gotten the calls that Wade did, then I would be inclined to say that Wade received a favorable whistle. The way it actually went down, all I can say is that the more aggressive player and the more aggressive team prevailed.


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