Kobe Scores 50 but Clippers Overcome 17 Point Deficit to Win, 118-110Generally, I am not a big believer in making predictions about the outcome of a single game, particularly in the regular season; there are simply too many variables to consider, from injuries to fatigue to the random bounces that can tilt one game but even out over a season. Yesterday, though, I made a prediction of sorts: the slumping Lakers would need for Kobe Bryant to score at least 40 points to have a chance to beat the (also slumping) L.A. Clippers. I added that Bryant is literally in a "no-win" situation: his team is so injury depleted, fatigued and just generally out of whack that their only chance to win is for him to score a ton of points but he obviously has to shoot a lot to do that, meaning that no matter what he does the critics will say that he is selfish--and the team may very well lose even if plays great, because the Lakers just aren't that good right now. If Las Vegas had a proposition bet that fit what I described, someone could have made a lot of money risking the house on that. Kobe Bryant scored 50 points on 17-33 field goal shooting and 15-15 free throw shooting but the Lakers blew a 17 point lead and lost, 118-110. Bryant played all 48 minutes and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds from the shooting guard position. He also had two steals and committed three turnovers, hardly a high number considering how much he handled the ball. So, what happened?
The superficial "analysis" that you will hear from 99% of "experts" and fan bloggers is that Bryant did not pass the ball--he finished with one assist--and that he "choked" in the fourth quarter--he shot 2-8 from the field in the final period and did not score after his two free throws with 8:46 left gave the Lakers a 102-92 lead. If you hate Bryant and/or are not really interested in understanding basketball, now is the time to stop reading; feel free to celebrate that the "ball hog" got his "rightful comeuppance."
OK, for everyone who did not leave, let's get down to the business of actually analyzing what took place in this game. This was as close to a playoff game as you will get in the regular season, because the Clippers basically need to win their remaining games and the Lakers desperately need to stop their slide before they slip right out of the playoffs altogether. As I explained in the post referenced above, the Lakers' two big problems this year have been lack of production from the center and point guard positions. That, coupled with injuries to Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and others, has caused the Lakers to regress. Last year, for the first 65 games or so they relied on Bryant to score a ton but down the stretch and in the playoffs they finally understood how to utilize the Triangle Offense and how to play sound defense. This season, the team started out playing well, but the injuries and the lack of production from arguably the two most important positions have caused the Lakers to revert back to needing Bryant to score 40-plus points just to have a chance to win; even when he does have monster games, the final scores are often close, because the Lakers simply are not a very good team right now.
The Clippers promptly jumped out to a 6-0 lead. Kobe Bryant had yet to even take one shot at that point. Elton Brand was killing Lamar Odom and eventually the Lakers switched up and put one of their centers--Andrew Bynum or Ronny Turiaf--on him. Brand had his way with them, too, except for a brief second quarter stretch when the Lakers forced turnovers and prevented the Clippers from getting him the ball; he finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots. Bryant attempted his first shot with the Lakers trailing 9-2; he posted up on the left block, made a spin move to the baseline and dunked. Bryant's second field goal, a dunk off of a nice Luke Walton steal and pass, cut the Clippers' lead to 13-10. Brand made four of his first five shots from the field, though, and the Clippers led 17-10 with 6:37 remaining in the period. Bryant scored again on a post up to make the score 17-12. The Clippers pushed the margin to 25-14 but the Lakers were able to counter a bit by establishing a presence inside with Bynum, who scored a basket and two free throws to bring the Lakers back within 10. Bryant, frustrated by a couple no-calls, received a technical foul at the 1:44 mark; a TNT replay showed that on one of the plays that he was upset about he was in fact slapped on his left arm. Corey Maggette made the free throw to put the Clippers up 26-18, but that sequence of events really seemed to energize Bryant. Soon he grabbed a defensive rebound and went coast to coast, finishing with a spin move and a left handed layup. Then he made a turnaround jumper and he followed that up by drawing a double-team and passing to Turiaf, who was fouled and made one of his two free throws. That brought the Lakers to within 28-23 and resulted in this comment about Bryant from TNT commentator Doug Collins: "He makes the game easy for everybody else...He's a three-time champion and if they make the playoffs it's going to be because he put them on his back and carried them there." Note that Bryant does not get an assist for the Turiaf play because no basket was scored, but by drawing the double-team and passing Bryant created that scoring opportunity. Bryant scored 10 points on 5-6 shooting in the first quarter.
Bryant quite simply took over the game in the second quarter, shooting 6-11 from the field and 3-3 from the free throw line, scoring 15 of the Lakers' 32 points. He nailed a turnaround jumper, got fouled and made the free throw to give the Lakers their first lead of the game, 30-28, at the 10:24 mark. Collins noted, "Kobe is an incredible offensive player. I don't think that there is a weakness in his game." A little over a minute later, Turiaf made a jump shot to put the Lakers ahead again, 32-30. Vladimir Radmanovic got the assist on the play, but Collins explained how Turiaf got so open in the first place: "All of that is created when you tilt the defense to get the ball out of Kobe's hands." After Bryant's fast start, the Clippers had to double-team him for the rest of the game, which enabled the other Lakers to play four on three; the sad thing is that this Lakers team simply is not that good at this stage of the season and four on three is not quite enough of an advantage for them.
Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson made an interesting move for a stretch during the second quarter, taking starting point guard Smush Parker out, shifting Bryant to the point guard and playing him alongside Turiaf, Vladimir Radmanovic (soon replaced by Brian Cook), Luke Walton and Maurice Evans. That lineup gave the Clippers some trouble and the Lakers forged a 40-32 lead. Bryant did not get an assist while he played point guard but he controlled the action, making two free throws after drawing a foul on a post up and drawing double-teams that resulted in open shots after he passed the ball and the next player reversed it to the weak side. After a few minutes, Jackson replaced Evans with Jordan Farmar and Bryant went back to shooting guard. The Lakers led by 11, 48-37, but two Odom turnovers were converted into five fastbreak points by the Clippers. Those points were sandwiched around a Walton three pointer that came as a direct result of the Clippers having to double-team Bryant on the post; Bryant passed the ball out and Farmar ultimately got the assist on the play. The important thing to understand is that without the threat that Bryant represents Walton would never have been open in the first place; he can't create his own shot and is only left alone because Bryant must be double-teamed. That is why simply looking at Bryant's assist totals does not tell the complete story. Bryant finished the half with 25 points on 11-17 field goal shooting and the Lakers led 55-51. Collins said, "He's an amazing player. Every night the other team is geared to stop him."
At halftime, TNT's Kenny Smith noted that the Clippers were successfully executing their defensive plan--limiting Bryant to just three free throw attempts--but that Bryant is so good that he scored 25 points anyway. In the third quarter, any idea that the Clippers' plan was working began to look farfetched. Bryant drew two quick fouls, making all four free throws, and then nailed a turnaround jumper, putting the Lakers up, 61-54. Bryant's layup with 8:46 remaining gave him 35 points and gave the Lakers a 71-57 lead; at that point he had shot 13-20 from the field and Collins remarked that Bryant had scored "an easy 35...without forcing any shots." Just 20 seconds later, Bryant had an easy 38 after his pullup three pointer gave the Lakers their biggest lead of the game, 74-57. Collins declared, "It's fun to watch great players make things look so easy."
Let's stop the tape/TIVO here for a minute. Bryant has scored 38 of his team's 74 points, has shot 14-21 from the field and has created many open opportunities for his teammates by drawing double-teams. Defensively, he has been active in the passing lanes, getting two steals and then drawing fouls that resulted in him making four free throws. Can Jackson take him out of the game to rest? Can his teammates pick up the slack in any area for even a two or three minute stretch? The answers to those questions are "no" and "no." If this were a normal regular season game as opposed to virtually being a playoff game, Jackson would almost certainly have given Bryant his normal rest around this stage of the game--but the stakes were too high to risk having him out of the game for even a second. The Clippers made a quick 6-0 run, which was snapped by two Bryant free throws. Then the Clippers made a 7-0 run, ended by a Bryant jump shot. He now had 42 points on 15-24 shooting but the Lakers only led 78-70. Without his points--and the open shots that he created by being double-teamed--the Lakers would have been down 15 or 20. Brand scored 13 points in the quarter and the Lakers were up 93-86 going into the fourth quarter. Bryant scored 19 third quarter points on 4-8 field goal shooting and 11-11 free throw shooting.
Bryant added six points in the first 3:14 of the fourth quarter and the Lakers led 102-92 after he made two free throws, his 49th and 50th points. He had shot 17-28 from the field, with no rest. For obvious reasons, the Clippers' double teams became more and more aggressive as the game went on, basically daring any other Laker to make a wide open shot. Brand scored on a three point play to cut the lead to seven and on the Lakers' next possesion Walton missed an open three pointer that was created after Bryant was double-teamed on the post. Sam Cassell, who is approximately 200 years old and has been hurt all year, drove by Parker's nonexistent defense and made a layup to make the score 102-97. Bryant missed a jumper and Cassell scored again: 102-99. During this time, Bynum also missed a couple of shots in the lane after Bryant had to give up the ball. Then, Bryant drove to the hoop but Brand stole the ball and Maggette converted a three point play to tie the game at 102. You could see all of the air coming out of the Lakers. Bryant was being double-teamed whenever he got the ball but no one else could make a shot. Bynum drew a foul but only made one of two free throws and then Tim Thomas capped the Clippers' comeback with a three pointer, putting them ahead, 105-103. After a miss by each team, Parker threw the ball away to Thomas, who went the distance and scored. Then Parker missed on a wild drive and let Cassell drive right by him for a layup on the next possession. That put the Clippers up 109-103 with 3:50 left. Bryant slammed the ball to the ground in disgust as the Lakers called a timeout. Parker made a three pointer to pull the Lakers to within 109-106 at the 3:23 mark but the Lakers did not score again until Parker made another three pointer with :58 remaining; that made the score 114-109 Clippers, but the Lakers were unable to get any closer.
So, what went wrong for the Lakers? Let's look at the evidence: they needed 50 points from Bryant on .607 (17-28) field goal shooting and perfect free throw shooting just to have a lead in the first place; they also needed him to lead the team in rebounding (they were outrebounded 48-41 despite Bryant's nine boards) and to draw double-teams and kick the ball back out. He supplied all of that in about 39 minutes, which is a typical night's work for most superstars--the problem is that there were still almost nine minutes left in the game. I've commented that one of the most amazing things about Bryant is that he can score 50 or 60 points and not seem tired but it is pretty clear that fatigue played a role down the stretch in this game. He shot 0-5 from the field in the last 8:46 and did not get to the free throw line. Bryant did not force shots to get his 50 but a couple of those last five could be considered forces. Does that mean that he "choked"? Consider this: until Parker's three pointer that made the score 114-109 with less than a minute left Bryant's teammates had shot just 2-19 from the field in the fourth quarter. Now, if you are Kobe Bryant and you have shot 17-28 from the field in nearly 40 minutes, would you pass the ball to guys who are shooting 2-19, even if you are tired and even if not doing so might mean forcing a shot or two? Obviously, he did continue to give up the ball--or the Lakers could not have launched 19 shots--but as the game slipped away Bryant took a couple questionable shots. If that causes some people to say that he choked or that he is not a team player, they are entitled to that opinion. The reality is that the Lakers are simply not a very good team right now. They are playing so poorly that they don't even deserve a playoff berth and if Bryant had not averaged 40 ppg in March they would already have long disappeared from the hunt. To Bryant's credit, he denied that fatigue played any role in his late game performance: "I felt fine physically. I felt like I could go the distance. I didn't feel like my legs were heavy. I didn't feel tired at all. They just double-teamed me and triple-teamed me. You've got the advantage when that happens. But we didn't make the plays and they did." As the Lakers fell apart down the stretch, Collins said of Bryant, "I think he wore down. He expended so much energy." Maggette, who led the Clippers with a career-high 39 points, agreed with Collins: "Kobe ran out of gas. He played 48 minutes." Brand added 32 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots.
Most of the recent championship teams have won by having one or two superstars who draw double-teams and a supporting cast that makes open shots. Bryant teamed with Shaquille O'Neal to win three titles that way. Bryant is playing the same way that he played then: scoring when he is defended one on one and passing when he is double-teamed (or splitting the double-team and getting to the hoop if the angle is there). The difference is that he does not have a Robert Horry or a Derek Fisher to make open shots--and he does not have another star player who can carry the load for even short stretches. You know what this game showed? It showed the value that Scottie Pippen had for the Chicago Bulls. When Michael Jordan had 40 or 45 points after three quarters, he could rest for several minutes while Pippen and four bench players held down the fort. When Jordan returned to the fray, he had enough energy to finish the deal. Some critics like to minimize what Pippen provided to the Bulls but that is exactly what Bryant needs now. Jackson has not become dumber since he coached the Bulls and Bryant is capable of some pretty amazing things, but no one--not Jordan and not Bryant--can carry a team entirely by himself.
***This was Bryant's ninth 50-point game of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wilt Chamberlain is the only player to have at least that many 50-point games in one season: he had nine each in 1963-64 and 1964-65, 30 in 1962-63 and 45 in 1961-62, the year that he averaged 50.4 ppg. The Lakers are 6-3 in Bryant's 50-point games this year and 14-6 during his career in his 50-point games. Only Chamberlain (118) and Jordan (31) have more career 50-point games than Bryant.
***This was Bryant's 17th 40-point game of the season; the Lakers are 12-5 in those games and 58-26 during his career in his 40-point games. During the past two seasons, the Lakers are 30-14 when Bryant scores at least 40 points and 51-60 in the other games. Prorated over 82 games, that amounts to 56-26 when he scores 40-plus points and 38-44 when he does not.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 AM