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Monday, February 12, 2007

Kobe Sizzles, Lakers Fizzle in 99-90 Loss at Cleveland

The L.A. Lakers wasted a scintillating performance by Kobe Bryant--who outscored LeBron James 25-0 in the first 22:01 of the second half--and fell 99-90 to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Bryant had 36 points, seven rebounds and six assists, shooting 12-24 from the field and 11-11 from the free throw line. He was particularly dominant in the second half, scoring the Lakers' first six points of the third period and their first 14 points of the fourth period. Bryant received little help from his teammates, especially the bench players, who scored just 15 points on 3-17 shooting from the field. James had a subpar performance (18 points, eight rebounds, five assists, 5-16 field goal shooting, 8-12 free throw shooting) but the Cavs' reserves came through with 46 points on 15-29 field goal shooting. Sasha Pavlovic led the way with 21 points. James' only second half field goal came on a spectacular dunk that put the Cavaliers up 97-87 with just 21.9 seconds remaining in the game.

In the early going the game looked like the Vladimir Radmanovic Show. The fifth year Lakers forward has been on the receiving end of some pointed barbs from Coach Phil Jackson and he made his first four field goals in the opening quarter, helping the Lakers build a 16-9 lead by the 5:23 mark. Pavlovic entered the game at that point and provided an immediate spark, blocking Radmanovic's next shot attempt and making both of his field goal attempts, including a fast break dunk at the buzzer that put Cleveland up 24-23.

Bryant sat out the first 3:49 of the second quarter and the Lakers fell further behind, trailing 33-27 when he returned to action. Bryant's two hand fast break dunk at the 2:23 mark trimmed the Cavaliers' lead to 43-40. The Lakers missed their last five shots of the quarter and Cleveland closed the half with a 9-1 run to lead 52-41 at halftime. Radmanovic cooled off considerably after his fast start and had 11 points by halftime (he finished with 12). Bryant and James each had 11 points as well. Bryant shot 5-11 from the field and did not attempt a first half free throw, while James shot 4-9 from the field and 3-4 from the free throw line. Bryant added four rebounds and four assists, while James had six and three respectively. The Cavaliers' bench outscored the Lakers' bench 18-4, with Maurice Evans supplying all four points on 1-4 shooting.

With Radmanovic's brief scoring burst over and the rest of the Lakers team looking pretty lethargic it was obvious that the Lakers would need a big second half from Bryant. He set the tone from the start of the third quarter, forcing Larry Hughes to miss a layup, grabbing the rebound and dribbling coast to coast for a dunk. Bryant's aggressiveness helped to put the Cavaliers in the penalty with nearly eight minutes remaining in the quarter and his defensive intensity proved to be contagious; the Lakers even forced a five second violation at the 6:44 mark. The Lakers led 67-64 by the end of the quarter, with Bryant contributing 11 points, three rebounds and one assist while playing all but 18 seconds. James had no points, rebounds or assists in his 11:31 of action, missing five field goals and two free throws.

Pavlovic opened the fourth quarter with a three pointer to tie the score at 67 and neither team led by more than three points until James' two free throws with 2:59 left--his first points of the second half--put Cleveland up 85-81. James scored seven points in the closing 2:59, shooting 5-8 from the free throw line and delivering the soaring dunk that punctuated Cleveland's win. Hughes made a big defensive play with 1:26 remaining, knocking the ball out of Bryant's hands. Pavlovic ended up with the ball, scoring a layup despite getting fouled by Smush Parker. The basket plus the free throw made it a two possession game, 91-85, and the Lakers never got closer than four points after that sequence.

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Notes From Courtside:

Kobe Bryant's supposed "transformation" is one of the big stories in the NBA this season. One questioner asked Lakers Coach Phil Jackson during his pregame standup if Bryant has "evolved" to the point that Michael Jordan reached when Jordan was willing to pass the ball to players like John Paxson. Jackson replied: "He has shown the ability to do that and the willingness to do that. You know, he did that (in his fourth year) on the (2000) championship team when he had (Robert) Horry and (Derek) Fisher and guys who were really shooting the ball well and Shaq could finish. To regain the confidence with some of the young players who haven't shown the ability to meet that pressure situation is still a work in progress."

Is it really that hard to understand that Bryant is more eager to pass the ball to guys who prove that they will take and make big shots than he is to pass the ball to guys who don't want to take and/or cannot make such shots? Bryant would have had at least 10 assists against Cleveland if guys knocked down open shots that he spoonfed to them. Bryant delivered a couple Steve Nash-like passes along the baseline that resulted in wide open three pointers that were missed. In his postgame standup, Bryant said, "We've faced this before and sometimes I have to remind them that I haven't lost confidence in them." He emphasized that he wants them to keep shooting, adding that they should adopt his way of thinking: "If I'm 1-5, I feel like I'm due. You just have to be assertive." Bryant's unselfishness or his "transformation" cannot be judged just by looking at his field goal attempts or his assists. The important issue is the decision making process that he employs: does he attack the basket when the opportunity presents itself and not settle for three pointers? When he is double-teamed does he read the defense and find the open man? When he has an advantageous one-on-one situation does he use that opportunity to score? The latter is important, because some "unselfish" NBA stars are really just guys who don't want/can't make pressure shots, so they pass up good shots to give the ball to teammates who have less talent and are not in a better position to score. Not shooting when you are the open guy is just as bad as shooting when you are not open because it results in the same thing: a low percentage shot by someone on your team.

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During the pregame warmups, Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis worked with forward Brian Cook on his footwork in the right elbow area (the "pinch post" in the triangle offense). Some of the moves he practiced included a reverse pivot followed by one dribble and a jump shot, a jab step followed by a jump shot and faking a dribble hand off followed by a jump shot. Cook is an excellent catch and shoot player but if he is able to utilize some of these moves in game situations he will be a more effective player in the triangle offense and not just someone who is stationed on the wings waiting for Bryant to find him. He only played three minutes versus the Cavaliers, shooting 0-3 from the field.

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Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has been criticized for his team's slowdown offensive style and for his emphasis on defense when the "experts" have figured out that Cleveland's problems are on offense. He addressed these two issues in his postgame standup: "When we move the ball and when we execute we play good basketball. We did a decent job pushing the ball; we had 12 fast break points. The bottom line is that we have to defend. The media and fans think that running is the answer to everything but we have to make sure that we get stops. Prior to this game we had four games where our opponents were averaging around 82 points a game. We came in tonight versus a very good Laker team that averages over 100 points a game and they score 90 and shoot 39 percent from the field. Our guys had a little something to do with that."

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In his postgame standup, someone asked Jackson what he said to his team and he replied, "That we gave this game away. We had a 12 point defensive (third) quarter against Cleveland, played really exceptional defense and kept them off of the foul line and did the things that we asked them to do in the locker room. In the fourth quarter we came out and gave them a 35 point quarter, which is exactly the opposite type of defense. We got in foul trouble right away and they just capitalized by going in there, smashing around and getting to the foul line."

He also had a pithy explanation for why Bryant had to shoulder such a heavy offensive load in the second half: "He had a hot hand and we went with the hot hand." Earlier in his remarks, Jackson noted, "According to Kobe, nobody else wanted to step up and that was one of the things that we were looking for, to get somebody else going. Mo (Maurice Evans) had an opportunity underneath the basket and lost the ball and Lamar (Odom; 5-13 from the field, 11 points) looked like he wasn't stepping into the vacuum."

Bryant played all but 18 seconds in the second half as he tried to carry the team to victory. Jackson commented, "I may have played Kobe too many minutes out there. I thought that he might have gotten tired there at the end."

Someone asked why the Lakers went to a zone defense but Jackson replied that they never used a zone in this game: "It might have looked like a zone but it wasn't," he quipped, alluding to players being out of position and not attached to the players who they were supposed to guard.

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Lakers forward Lamar Odom is frustrated at the Lakers' lack of communication at the defensive end of the court: "We have to become better as a team defensively if we want to win consistently...We don't communicate. It's funny, as a team everybody is so close off the court but on the court we don't talk at all. If you go by the park where I grew up and watch some guys play four on four you'll hear 'pick,' 'help,' 'rebound,' or whatever. We don't do a good job of that."

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Bryant offered this take on the Lakers' fourth quarter woes: "Our defense pretty much caved. We gave up a lot of easy opportunities at the basket and a lot of free throws."

The combination of Bryant's scoring and the complete disappearing act by the rest of his team enabled the Cavs to get away with simply swarming Bryant. Whenever Bryant caught the ball in the frontcourt late in the game, Coach Brown frantically waved both of his hands toward himself, imploring the Cavs to basically ignore the other Lakers and surround Bryant. That led to Hughes' key steal. Someone asked Bryant if he thought that Hughes fouled him on that play and Bryant replied, "It was a great defensive play. I was looking to read some of my cutters and try to get other guys involved in that particular situation and he made a great defensive play."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM

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