Suns Sprint Past Lakers, 119-110The Phoenix Suns eliminated the L.A. Lakers from the playoffs with a 119-110 home victory on Wednesday night. Last year the Lakers took a 3-1 lead against the Suns before succumbing in seven games--but this year the Suns have Amare Stoudemire, who had 27 points and 16 rebounds; his inside presence was felt throughout the Suns' 4-1 series victory. Shawn Marion added 26 points and 10 rebounds. Steve Nash contributed 17 points and 10 assists, but shot just 5-15 from the field and committed seven turnovers. The Lakers countered with a two-pronged attack: Kobe Bryant scored 34 points but shot just 13-33 from the field; he shot well in the first half but faded down the stretch, which was the case in four of the five games. He also missed practice on Tuesday due to a back injury that he suffered in game four, but his mobility did not seem to be affected in this game. The Lakers' other main weapon was Lamar Odom, who scored a playoff career-high 33 points on 13-21 shooting, adding 10 rebounds. Odom showed a lot of heart and a lot of grit in this series, continuing to play despite injuries to his shoulder, elbow and knee--and there is no doubt that his physical pain pales in comparison to the emotional pain from the death of his infant son last summer. Many of the Lakers can rightly be accused of quitting or being soft--but not Odom.
Bryant and Nash are their teams' respective leaders but neither really displayed his "A" game (as Tiger Woods would put it). The difference, of course, is Nash has two other All-Stars to rely on, plus Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa (18 points), All-Defensive First Team selection Raja Bell and versatile reserve Boris Diaw. A dramatic demonstration of this difference happened in the second quarter. Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson took Bryant out of the game at the 7:56 mark of the second quarter with the Suns leading 41-34. Just 1:45 later, the Lakers trailed 49-34 and Jackson had to put Bryant back in the game; he promptly converted a three point play to pull the Lakers back within 12 and they maintained that distance the rest of the half, trailing 64-52 at the break. Bryant scored 18 points in the first half on 8-16 shooting. TNT's Craig Sager asked the Lakers coaching staff if they could afford to give Bryant any rest in the second half and they told him that apparently they could not; Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half.
Odom did most of his damage in the third quarter, scoring 16 points while Bryant struggled to find his shooting stroke during the period. Bryant finally made a couple jumpers, one of which cut the Suns' lead to 87-85. That was as close as the Lakers would get, though, as the Suns scored the final four points of the quarter. The Suns began to pull away in the fourth quarter and Bryant's mounting frustration boiled over, leading to a technical foul. He complained on several occasions that he was fouled when the Suns stripped the ball away from him, so it was only a matter of time until he got the technical foul. Nash made the resulting free throw to put the Suns up 105-91 with 6:46 left, but the Lakers made one more run, capped by back to back Bryant three pointers that trimmed the margin to 111-106 with 3:00 to go. Marion hit a jumper and Stoudemire split a pair of free throws to make the score 114-106 but an Odom layup and Bryant jumper sandwiched around two Nash free throws kept the Lakers in striking distance, down 116-110 with :50 left. The game concluded with three Suns' free throws and two missed three pointers by the Lakers.
During the TNT telecast, Doug Collins touched on some subjects that have been recently discussed in this space. He called Bryant "the most criticized great player in the NBA." Collins also said that he thought that Bryant may have made this year's All-Defensive Team more on his reputation than on his play this year, while Shawn Marion missed out on making the team because the voting is based on position (which hurts Marion because there are several standout defensive forwards). Collins is certainly right about the amount of criticism that is directed at Bryant and I made the exact same point about Marion's "snub"--he finished 12th overall, but behind several top notch forwards. Collins is certainly entitled to his opinion about how much "reputation" factors into All-Defensive Team voting but I don't buy this idea from him any more than I buy it from fans. The All-Defensive Team is voted on by head coaches, not media members. When Golden State Coach Don Nelson directs Baron Davis to attack Steve Nash in the post or has his forwards take the ball straight at Dirk Nowitzki he certainly knows who the weak links defensively are on those squads; there is a truism around the NBA that if you want to know who is the weakest defender on a team just watch who Nelson runs an isolation play against in the first half court set of the game. I would assume that if Nelson can identify weak defensive players then he can also identify good ones and I'm pretty confident that the other 29 coaches can do this too. Bryant did not barely make the All-Defensive Team; he is on the First Team, receiving more votes than any other guard. Why exactly would coaches be swayed by "reputation"? As for Marion, despite all the media hype about his defense, the coaches have never voted him to the All-Defensive Team; while Marion does face stiff competition at that position he also is frequently talked up by the media as a top defender, so if the coaches are voting by "reputation" then why has he never made the team? It's not because of Phoenix' bad defensive "reputation," either, because Raja Bell is on the First Team alongside Bryant. This whole "reputation" thing is just meaningless until somebody actually talks to a representative number of coaches and finds out their thinking on the subject of All-Defensive Team voting.
As injuries hit the Lakers during the second half of the season it became apparent that the team could only win when Bryant scored at least 40 points while shooting a good to excellent percentage--which is quite a burden for any player to carry. In the five games against Phoenix, Bryant averaged 32.8 ppg on .462 field goal shooting, .357 three point shooting and .919 free throw shooting. His field goal percentage was virtually identical to his regular season rate, while his three point and free throw numbers improved in the playoffs (field goal percentages tend to go down in the postseason because of tougher competition and because teams zero in on one team for several games in a row). Bryant also averaged 5.2 rpg and 4.4 apg, meaning he averaged 1.2 ppg more and .5 rpg and 1.0 apg less than during the regular season. Keep in mind that he sprained his ankle in the game two loss, the only contest in which he scored less than 31 points. Bryant's best performance came in game three: 45 points, 15-26 shooting from the field, six rebounds and six assists. Not surprisingly, that is the only game the Lakers won. The normally perceptive J.A. Adande of the L.A. Times wrote, "The Lakers' only victory in this series came when he made an effort to set up his teammates for shots in Game 3, rather than throw them the ball in desperation after getting caught in a double-team." That statement makes no sense because the reality is that the only game the Lakers won is the only game in which Bryant scored 40-plus points; in the next game he had nine assists (plus 31 points on more than acceptable 12-25 shooting) but the Lakers lost by 13--in other words, they needed him to get more than 40 points.
Adande offers this quote from Bryant on the current state of the Lakers: "I'll do whatever it takes to win. I've had to do a lot just to get us into the playoffs. I don't want to do that. I want to win championships. I don't want to be a one-man show, a team that goes onto the road, the opposition crowd wants to see me score 50 and lose. I'm not with that. I'm about winning. I want to win championships and win them now. So, they have some decisions to make" (maybe Bryant is listening too much to his critics, because the fact is that when he scored 50 points this season the Lakers went 7-3, so there were not that many instances of him scoring 50 and losing; the problem is that even he cannot score 50 points in enough games to push the Lakers to elite status).
The "they" that Bryant spoke of is, of course, the Lakers front office. Bryant had an extraordinary season in 2006-07, carrying an injured team into the playoffs; now the ball is in the hands of the Lakers front office and they need to make some exceptional moves of their own.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM