Kobe's 45 Points not Enough, Lakers Fall to Rockets, 95-93Kobe Bryant scored 45 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, but his L.A. Lakers fell 95-93 to the Houston Rockets after Shane Battier made a three pointer with less than three seconds left. Tracy McGrady led Houston with 30 points, adding six rebounds and four assists. Yao Ming had 25 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Mike James contributed 13 points, while Battier added 11 points before fouling out on the last play, wrapping up Bryant before he could attempt a tying three pointer; that forced Bryant to make the first free throw and intentionally miss the second, which Bryant did. Bryant grabbed the loose ball, but it was slapped away as time ran out. Houston's rookie power forward Luis Scola was largely invisible in his NBA debut, not attempting a shot and grabbing three rebounds in nine minutes. Like all FIBA players (and like NBA players who play FIBA ball for the first time), he must get used to the differences between FIBA and NBA officiating; he committed three fouls in his brief time on the court.
Bryant not only led the Lakers in scoring but he tied for the team lead in rebounds (eight), assists (four) and steals (four), picking up the slack for the injured Lamar Odom, the second best player on the squad. Derek Fisher (17 points on 6-9 shooting, four assists) was the only other Laker to reach double figures in points. Houston outrebounded L.A. 49-37, reinforcing a point that I made during the preseason: "Bryant may rue the 15-20 pounds that he lost over the summer because the Lakers are getting nothing from their frontcourt in terms of rebounding and defense; he may have to get seven rpg or more as a shooting guard in order to keep the Lakers from being completely dominated on the glass."
The Staples Center crowd serenaded Bryant with boos at the start of the game but his performance won them over and they were chanting "Kobe, Kobe" by the end of the game. Bryant can thank Coach Phil Jackson for those boos since they were no doubt largely in response to Jackson's assertion that Bryant is not fully committed to the team. Jackson has always known how to work an audience, while Bryant at times seems tone deaf in that regard; on Tuesday, though, he let his game do his talking. This was Bryant's 10th 40 point effort in his last 18 regular season games; the Lakers won seven of the previous nine such games as Bryant carried the team to a playoff berth last spring. No one could watch this game from opening tip to final buzzer and doubt Bryant's commitment to the team and to winning basketball games. That is not the same thing as saying that Bryant's performance was without flaws--far from it: he shot 13-32 from the field and 18-27 from the free throw line. He also wore a sleeve from his elbow to his wrist to keep his right (shooting) wrist warm; the wrist was noticeably stiff and balky and it clearly affected his game: he finished many of his drives to the hoop with his left hand in situations when one might have expected him to keep the ball in his right hand. Also, last year he shot .868 from the free throw line, so his career-high nine misses are highly unusual. If he were not committed would he even have played in this game, let alone drive to the hoop so frequently that he established a career-high in free throw attempts? Bryant also accepted the challenge of guarding McGrady for substantial portions of the game, while McGrady guarded Bryant much less frequently. McGrady ended up with good numbers but a lot of his points were not at Bryant's expense; for example, on one screen and roll play Bryant switched off but Jordan Farmar neglected to bump the cutting McGrady (as TNT's Doug Collins pointed out), enabling McGrady to convert a lob into an easy dunk.
Neither team scored until Bryant's layup at the 9:01 mark in the first quarter. He got off to a quick start, scoring 13 points in the period as the Lakers raced to a 25-16 lead. Houston trimmed that margin to 27-23 by the time Bryant took his first break at the 8:59 mark of the second quarter. When he returned to action roughly three minutes later, the score was tied. A few minutes after that, the Rockets took their first lead of the game and they went up by as much as four before Bryant made a couple great plays. First, he blocked a dunk attempt by Yao, then he dribbled up court and fed Fisher, who drained a three pointer. On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant drove baseline and converted a reverse layup. The score was 43-43 by halftime. Bryant had 19 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, shooting 6-16 from the field and 7-10 from the free throw line. TNT's Craig Sager asked him about his state of mind considering everything that is going on and Bryant replied, "I'm ready to play and represent this organization the way that it should be represented." Yao had 13 points and five rebounds, while McGrady had 10 points.
The Lakers got off to a very slow start in the third quarter, making just one field goal in the first 3:10. Meanwhile, McGrady got hot, scoring 14 points as Houston went up by as many as 12. Bryant did not guard McGrady exclusively during this time and one of McGrady's baskets came on a play so bizarre that Collins said he had never seen anything quite like it: the Lakers' Kwame Brown whiffed on a rebound, deflecting it to Luke Walton, who slapped the ball off of the backboard and into the hoop for two points (credited to McGrady because he was the closest Rocket to the play). That looked like just a funny blooper reel clip at the time--but it turned out to be the final margin of the game.
The fourth quarter was a war of attrition, as both teams again started off slowly, just like in the first quarter. Then, as Collins put it, Bryant started putting his head down and driving to the hoop, repeatedly drawing fouls; Bryant apparently realized that his jumper was not on, so he tried to find a different way to score. Bryant split three pairs of free throws but even though the three misses were unusual (and potentially costly in what turned out to be a close game), Collins noted that what Bryant was doing helped the team in two ways: it enabled the trailing Lakers to score with the clock stopped and it put Houston in the penalty with six minutes to go, meaning that every subsequent Houston foul of any Laker would result in free throws (that is one value of having a foul-drawing star that is not reflected in conventional box score statistics). Unfortunately for the Lakers, they started committing fouls, too, and with 1:36 left Houston led 92-80. Bryant scored six points in the next 16 seconds--a three point play followed by a three pointer--to put the Lakers right back in the game as he, Fisher and Luke Walton applied pressure defense that forced several Houston turnovers. Farmar scored on a layup, Bryant snared a defensive rebound and raced downcourt for a a layup and then Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a double-team and passed to Fisher for a jumper that tied the score at 92.
Naturally, Bryant guarded McGrady on Houston's last possession, keeping him from driving to the hoop. McGrady passed to Battier on the wing, who had inexplicably been left open by Walton. Battier's trey enabled the Rockets to escape with the win.
Some people will glance at the boxscore and say that Bryant shot the Lakers out of contention with his low field goal percentage. Certainly no one would suggest that he shot well but it is worth noting that Houston is considered one of the better teams in the West, while the Lakers are supposed to struggle to earn a playoff berth even with a healthy Odom. Another thing to consider is that the Lakers have no real choice other than to have Bryant shoulder a heavy scoring load; Jackson himself realized this in the second half of last season when he told Bryant to start shooting more. Nobody else on the current roster--other than Fisher--has proven that he can even be a consistent double-figure scorer in the NBA, let alone put up 20 or more points on anything remotely resembling a regular basis. That is why Bryant wants out of L.A. in the first place. He understands better than anyone that a team that relies on him to score as much as the Lakers do cannot win a title--but he also understands that if he does not score 35-40 points then this team has little chance to win at all. Once Bryant's wrist heals, his field goal percentage will go back to the .450-.460 range and he will again shoot better than .850 from the free throw line but Bryant faces a long season of having to author superhuman performances just to make the playoffs and lose in the first round.
Asked after the game what he thought of the fans' booing, Bryant replied, "I understand where they're coming from. They didn't really understand the whole situation because I'm keeping my mouth shut like I should." While some of Bryant's shots were off target on this night, that one--directed toward Coach Phil Jackson and Owner Jerry Buss--hit the bullseye. Bryant was roundly criticized months ago for his one day of marathon radio appearances--after the Lakers' season was over--in which he offered seemingly contradictory statements about whether or not he wanted to be traded. Then he met with Buss and the two agreed that in the future such matters should be handled privately. Bryant kept his mouth shut after that and all of the drama and controversy died down until Buss blurted that he is willing to trade Bryant and then Jackson publicly questioned Bryant's commitment, an assertion that was refuted by Bryant's 43 minutes of work--more than any other player on either team--on Tuesday. Why exactly are Buss and Jackson's utterances being held against Bryant? Magic Johnson, a Lakers executive who also offers commentary on TNT, suggested that the Lakers feel betrayed by Bryant because they stood behind him during various situations over the years--but shouldn't Bryant also feel betrayed by his owner, his coach and, most importantly, a management team that has completely and utterly failed to upgrade the roster for several seasons?
Refusing to add more fuel to the fire, Bryant offered the only sensible statement that has been made in recent days about this whole ongoing drama: "The business side of it should remain behind closed doors."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM