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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kobe Bryant Scores 34, Lakers Beat Spurs in San Antonio

Kobe Bryant had 34 points, eight assists and six rebounds as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Spurs 100-96 in San Antonio. Vladimir Radmanovic scored 13 points, making all three of his three pointers. Maurice Evans was the only other Laker to score in double figures (11 points). Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 26 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, while Tony Parker had 25 points, five rebounds and four assists. Manu Ginobili was silent for most of the game but finished with 16 points after scoring eight points during the Spurs' fourth quarter rally that came up just short.

Bryant helped the Lakers get off to a good start, scoring three points as the Lakers took an early 8-4 lead, but he picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out the last 8:29 of the first quarter. Tony Parker used his speed to dominate the remainder of the first quarter, scoring nine points and collecting two assists as the Spurs went on a 21-11 run to lead 25-19 by the end of the period. The Lakers made just four of their last 16 field goal attempts in the quarter. After one of Parker's driving layups, ESPN's Hubie Brown noted that he was fouled twice on the play (nothing was called). If you wonder why your favorite college player never made it to the NBA, rewind that play and watch it a few times (it put the Spurs up 20-16 at the 2:05 mark). NBA players are tremendously fast and strong and you must be able to absorb contact at the rim and finish the play to be a scorer at that level. When I did my A Scout's-Eye View of the Game article, one of the things that Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey emphasized to me is that the ability to deal with contact is essential for an NBA prospect; no matter how gaudy his college numbers are, if he is unable or unwilling to do that then he will not succeed at the next level.

Bryant returned to action in the second quarter and converted two three point plays. On the first one he drove around Bruce Bowen and made a tough reverse layup; on the second one, Andrew Bynum grabbed an offensive rebound and made a nice feed to Bryant, who scored despite having Bowen draped all over him. That play tied the score at 29. Bryant's brilliance makes it easy to forget that the Lakers have maintained one of the best records in the league despite Lamar Odom being out for an extended period of time and without the services of centers Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown. Bynum has filled the void in the middle nicely. Last year, he became the youngest player in NBA history and he is still the youngest player in the league. Hubie Brown said that Bynum's length and activity on defense remind him of a young Tree Rollins (who Brown coached). Like the young Rollins, Bynum has a tendency to get in foul trouble, but Brown believes that as the officials get more used to Bynum's game that Bynum will receive the benefit of the doubt on some of the close calls that now go against him.

During a break in the second quarter action, ESPN played a clip from an interview with Pat Riley, who raved about how well Bryant is playing this year: "He rates right there, probably, with Jordan. I mean, Jordan will always, to me, be the best of the best of the best, but you have to put Kobe there. That is where Dwyane (Wade) and LeBron (James) and Carmelo (Anthony) and all these other guys would like to be considered one day. But I don't think that anybody is going to be considered better than, you know, the guy who hung in the air. Never." From time to time I hear from people who don't like Jordan-Bryant comparisons but what I find interesting is that these comparisons are often coming from ex-players: Riley, Steve Kerr, Mark Jackson, Doug Collins. Also, I don't think that anyone is saying that Bryant is equal to or better than Jordan; they are saying that he is similar in many ways and that he is closer to Jordan's level than the other top players of this era.

As the Lakers continue to do well this season, we are hearing more and more about a "new" Kobe Bryant but what we are really witnessing is a "new" Lakers team: a young core group that is being groomed and developed by Phil Jackson and his coaching staff and that feeds off of Bryant's competitiveness and all-around ability. Bryant is averaging 5.5 apg this season but he has already had three full seasons during which he averaged at least that many assists and he led all three Lakers' championship teams in assists. He has not suddenly learned how to pass or become more willing to do so; his teammates are playing better, the Lakers are winning more often and people are now choosing to notice Bryant's passing. This is the basketball version of something that happened in the NFL regarding the perception of Bill Belichick. He supposedly "changed" from when he was a "failure" in Cleveland and has now become a great coach. The reality is that he had the same blueprint in Cleveland that he has now in New England: build a smart, physical team that is anchored by a great defense. The Browns were horrible when he first arrived but within three years they beat (ironically) New England--then coached by Belichick's mentor Bill Parcells--in the 1994 playoffs. The Browns started 3-1 in 1995 before collapsing under the psychological weight of Art Modell's planned move of the team to Baltimore. Belichick was a good coach then but because he cut hometown hero Bernie Kosar and because he was viewed to be linked at the hip to Modell (though Modell unceremoniously fired him right after the 1995 season after letting Belichick take the heat from the fans all season long) it was convenient for fans and the media to ignore how he was methodically building a contender. The conventional wisdom at that time was that Belichick had ridden Parcells' coattails and was only qualified to be a defensive coordinator, not a head coach. By the way, how many playoff games and Super Bowls has Parcells won without Belichick by his side? Perhaps the "experts" never figured out who was really the "brains" behind the Parcells-Belichick pairing; maybe there was a reason that Parcells kept hiring that "failed" coach to run his defenses with the Giants, Jets and Patriots.

Anyway, back to Bryant and the Lakers. When Bryant passes to his teammates now, they take (and make) the shot. In the past couple years, they either missed those shots or meekly passed the ball back to Bryant with the shot clock running down. Bryant and Bynum combined for a nice play with 3:18 left in the second quarter. Bryant elevated for a jump shot but at the last second he fired a perfect pass to Bynum, who dunked the ball to cut the Spurs' lead to 43-40. Hubie Brown said, "That's what the young guy needed." Bynum had been playing hard, but those were his first two points of the game. I saw Bryant deliver similar passes last year to Lakers' post players only to have the ball bounce off of their heads, hands or feet.

Bryant's third three point play of the second quarter tied the score at 45, but the Spurs closed the period with an 8-4 run to take a 53-49 lead. Bryant scored 17 points on 7-8 field goal shooting in the second quarter, finishing the half with 20 points and three assists in just 15 minutes of playing time. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 15 points and three assists.

Bryant got his fourth and fifth assists early in the third quarter and the Lakers took a 59-57 lead after he blew by Bowen and dunked over Duncan at the 6:59 mark. About a minute later, Bryant combined flash with fundamentals to put the Lakers ahead 61-60. Moving without the ball on the weak side, he used a jab step fake to fool Bowen into believing that he was going to the top of the key to receive a pass. Bowen moved into the passing lane and Bryant bolted back door, caught a perfect lob pass from Smush Parker and hammered a two hand dunk in Duncan's face.

The Spurs went on an 11-4 run shortly after that play to take a 71-65 lead but Bryant helped the Lakers to answer that by driving and then dishing to Radmanovic for a three pointer and then making a good pass out of a trap, initiating a sequence of good ball movement that culminated in another Radmanovic three pointer that made the score 73-71 Lakers.

The fourth quarter got off to a strange start as the Spurs had only four players on the court. That is a delay of game violation and Sasha Vujacic made the resulting technical free throw. Later he was fouled while attempting a three pointer and made all three of those free throws as well. The Spurs missed nine of their first 10 field goal attempts in the final period and the Lakers built an 83-73 lead. Just when the Lakers seemed poised to put a stranglehold on the game the Spurs responded with their best several minutes of play all night, trimming the margin to 90-89. On the ensuing Lakers possession, Bryant drew a double team and dished to Bynum. "That was a great pass by Kobe Bryant," Hubie Brown declared--but it did not result in two points. Bynum lowered his shoulder and committed a charge, his sixth foul of the game; that is the difference between an assist leading to two crucial points and a turnover that results in two Ginobili free throws that put the Spurs up, 91-90. The Lakers recaptured the lead on Bryant's eighth assist, a pass to Luke Walton, who scored inside. Duncan made one of two free throws to tie the game again and then Bryant hit a tough pullup jumper from the left wing, the final lead change of the game. Two Maurice Evans free throws gave the Lakers a little breathing room and a Ronny Turiaf layup with nine seconds left put the Lakers up five. After Brent Barry made a three pointer, Bryant shut the door by making two free throws with four seconds left.

"What we learned tonight," Bryant told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game, "is that we really have to execute down the stretch." She noted that during a fourth quarter timeout he said to his teammates, "This is what playoff basketball is all about," and asked Bryant what he meant by that. He answered, "Teams are going to battle back. The important thing is that we tighten up, we continue to execute and stay compact in what we are trying to do and not get rattled. It's OK to make mistakes."

posted by David Friedman @ 1:01 AM



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