Notes on the Weekend's Action, Thoughts on Kobe's SuspensionI can't let the weekend pass without talking a little bit about Jamal Crawford's eye-popping performance on Friday night and Kobe Bryant becoming the youngest player to score 18,000 points. Of course, there is also the little matter of Bryant's one game suspension.
Crawford scored 52 points in New York's 116-96 win over the Miami Heat, outscoring Dwyane Wade (37 points) and Shaquille O'Neal (11 points) by himself. Crawford set a career-high and is now tied for sixth on the Knicks' single game scoring list with Bernard King and trailing only King (60), Richie Guerin (57), King (55), Allan Houston (53) and Willis Reed (53). Crawford shot 20-30 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range. After missing his first four shots he did not miss again until near the end of the third quarter; his 16 straight makes in one game are the most since the Elias Sports Bureau began tracking that statistic 10 years ago. Elias added, "Jamal Crawford scored 52 points in only 39 minutes Friday. It was the 14th time a Knicks player had a 50-point game, but only the third time one did it while playing fewer than 40 minutes. Richie Guerin had 57 points in 38 minutes in 1959 and Bernard King had 52 in 36 minutes in 1984. Crawford's 52 points were the second-most ever against the Heat; Willie Burton had 53 for the 76ers against Miami in 1994. Crawford now has more 50-point games (2) than all of the following combined: Paul Arizin, John Havlicek, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. Of those players, only Pierce scored 50 or more points in an NBA game." Obviously, those numbers do not include the ABA--Erving had several 50 point games in that league--or the playoffs, because Barkley had 56 points in a playoff game versus the Warriors (his "revenge" for the classic commercial during which then Warrior Chris Webber looked at footage of his regular season behind the back move and dunk on Sir Charles and said that Barkley had told him, "I don't believe in role models, but you're mine").
Also on Friday, Kobe Bryant had 32 points, six rebounds, five assists--and nine turnovers--in the Lakers' 106-97 overtime loss to the Charlotte Bobcats; the Lakers lost their earlier game to Charlotte in triple overtime despite Bryant's 58 points. Lamar Odom returned to action for the Lakers after missing six weeks with a knee injury and looked rusty, shooting just 3-10 from the field and finishing with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and six turnovers. The Lakers still don't have their full complement of players: Kwame Brown is out with a sprained ankle and Luke Walton sprained his ankle during the Charlotte game. From a historical standpoint, the most significant thing about the game is that Bryant surpassed 18,000 career points at just 28 years, 156 days and is now the youngest player to reach that total; Wilt Chamberlain did it at 28 years, 166 days and Michael Jordan did it at 28 years, 359 days. Bryant holds--and continues to set--a lot of the age-level records, but LeBron James has a good chance of breaking them; both players came into the NBA straight out of high school, but Bryant served an apprenticeship on a good team while James was immediately thrust into a starter's role on a poor team.
On Sunday, Bryant and the Lakers returned to the court to face the San Antonio Spurs in the second game of ABC's double-header. ABC's Mark Jackson offered an interesting thought about the development process that young Lakers' center Andrew Bynum is going through, declaring that there is no college program in the country that could offer him better instruction on how to be a post player than he is getting from Lakers' assistant coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, pro basketball's all-time leading scorer. The flip side of that, some would argue, is that the grind of the NBA season does not permit a lot of time for teaching. Players are coached about what to do--what the schemes are on offense and defense--but if they don't have the ability to process this information or the necessary fundamentals to execute then they are cut or traded. Of course, top draft picks like Bynum receive more attention and instruction than other players--and not every team has a Hall of Fame player serving as an assistant coach. I think that Jackson may be right regarding Bynum's specific situation but I also think that there are a lot of young players who come into the league and land on teams with coaching staffs that don't have the desire, inclination and/or ability to teach the fundamentals to them during the hectic NBA season.
ABC ran a clip of an interview with Gregg Popovich during which the Spurs' coach said that Bryant is the most talented player in the game at both ends of the court. Jackson pointed out that this is a pretty notable statement considering that Popovich coaches Tim Duncan. Popovich also told ABC that Bryant is more difficult to guard the way that he is playing this season because he is a threat to pass. Jackson agreed that this is true in terms of winning but said that for Bruce Bowen individually it is tougher to guard the Kobe Bryant who relentlessly tries to score. My take is that Bryant is more difficult to guard this season because the guys he is passing to are legitimate scoring threats, a subtle but significant difference from what Popovich said. Bryant passed the ball last year, too, but his teammates either missed shots or passed the ball right back to him with the shot clock winding down. This year they are making a lot of the open shots that Bryant's presence and passing skills create.
Jackson said that Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant "are far and away at the head of the class in the MVP discussion," adding that he would vote for Nash right now. Gilbert Arenas "has been spectacular" but Jackson would not include him in the first group. I agree with Jackson on his top three but I would vote for Bryant; last year, he averaged the most points per game in a season since Michael Jordan and carried the Lakers to a playoff berth that few thought that they would get. This year, he has cut back his scoring--though he is still fourth in the league--improved his shooting percentage, raised his assists and led the Lakers to an even better seeding despite the absences of Odom, Brown and Chris Mihm, all of whom were expected to be key frontline players. If Bryant can't win the MVP by averaging 35 ppg and he can't win the MVP by reducing his scoring and doing more with less than the other top MVP candidates, then I don't see how he will ever win the award--and that does not seem right for someone who is indeed, as Popovich correctly stated, the most talented two-way player in the game.
The Lakers squandered a fine effort by Bryant (31 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and a nine point fourth quarter lead, losing to the Spurs 96-94 in overtime. More significantly, a play that went largely unnoticed at the end of regulation ended up possibly costing the Lakers a second game as well. With the score tied at 80 near the end of the fourth quarter, Bryant went up for a potentially game winning jumper on the left baseline. Manu Ginobili blocked it and while Bryant scrambled to recover the ball and launch another shot before the clock expired he caught Ginobili squarely in the face with his elbow. Ginobili crumpled to the floor in a heap and had to be treated for a bloody nose, but he eventually returned to the game in overtime. Watching the game live on TV, it was easy to miss what happened because the eye naturally follows the flight of the ball. No foul was called and after the game Ginobili and Popovich rejected the idea that the hit was intentional or that Bryant should be disciplined--but the NBA did just that. On Tuesday, NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson announced that he had reviewed the play and that Bryant would be suspended without pay for that night's game against the New York Knicks. Jackson said, "Some of the determining factors were the fact that there was contact made with Ginobili above the shoulders and the fact that this particular action by Kobe was an unnatural basketball motion. Following a shot, he drove a stiff arm in a backward motion and struck Ginobili in the head. We did not view this as an inadvertent action." Jackson added, "This blow was so swift in real time that it's understandable why, in fact, an official would have missed the contact. In our view, this was not an attempt to draw a foul."
ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast crew discussed this situation on Tuesday night and the entire panel--John Saunders, Greg Anthony, Tim Legler, Kiki Vandeweghe, Marc Stein and Ric Bucher--agreed that Bryant did not seem to intentionally hit Ginobili and seemed to be sincerely remorseful that Ginobili was injured on the play. Bucher and Stein said that Bryant's punishment is a result of the NBA's crackdown on any kind of violence, particularly relating to blows above the shoulder area. Bucher felt that the game being nationally televised also influenced the decision. Another contributing factor is that Ginobili stayed on the floor and had to be helped; no one is saying that he was faking--he was obviously in pain--but that made the situation look worse than it would have if he had simply been able to go to the bench. Fortunately, he was not in fact injured to a degree that he could not continue to play.
When I first saw the play, I--like everyone else--did not see what happened to Ginobili because I was watching the ball. After seeing the replay, I thought that Kobe's motion looked a little unusual but I couldn't tell if he was trying to draw a foul, trying to fend off Ginobili from blocking his shot again or trying to deliver a blow to Ginobili. I've seen the replay several times now and I'm still not sure what to think; looking at the play in slow motion, Kobe's movement does seem a bit "unnatural," to use Stu Jackson's word, but I don't think that it warranted a game suspension--unless the NBA will now suspend players for two games or more every time they deliberately throw a punch. Kobe's action was borderline at worst, so it should not be lumped in with deliberate blows--like what Raja Bell did to Kobe in last year's playoffs or any one of James Posey's "greatest hits" versus the Chicago Bulls. It would have made more sense to fine Kobe than to basically cost his team a game and deny New York fans their one opportunity a year to see him play; the faithful at Madison Square Garden booed when it was announced that Bryant would not play due to the suspension.
Since he was already in New York, where the NBA is headquartered, to play the game against the Knicks, Bryant sought to have an immediate hearing with Commissioner David Stern to appeal the ruling. That, however, is not how the appeals process works. Bryant was forced to miss the game and if he wins a later appeal then he will receive the salary that he lost. Not surprisingly, the Lakers lost 99-94 without Bryant. They have now lost three straight games for the first time this season and they will get no relief from the schedule any time soon; the New York game was the first stop in an eight game road trip, the team's longest road trip since 1989.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 AM