Lakers Cruise Over Sonics for First Preseason WinKobe Bryant scored a game-high 20 points in just 16 minutes as the Lakers rolled to a very easy 126-106 win over the Sonics. Bryant, who shot 6-11 from the field, also had five rebounds and four assists. Lamar Odom did not play due to his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and he told TNT's Cheryl Miller that there is not an exact timetable for his return but that he is feeling better. Andrew Bynum and Brian Cook scored 19 points each as six Laker reserves reached double figures against a very porous Seattle defense that allowed L.A. to shoot 46-82 (.561) from the field; Bynum shot 8-11, Cook shot 7-9 and Chris Mihm--who seemingly has not played in decades--shot 5-5. If the Lakers are really this good then they will easily win the championship. Of course, that will not happen; all this proved is that Seattle's defense is terrible, particularly on the inside. Kevin Durant led Seattle with 19 points on 8-20 shooting. He shot 1-2 from the free throw line, earning those attempts in the last couple seconds of the game. As usual, the rest of his boxscore was pretty empty: other than showing off some quick hands by getting three steals, Durant only managed to get three rebounds, one assist and no blocked shots. Mercifully, Coach P.J. Carlesimo shifted Durant from shooting guard to small forward and did not have him trying to chase around Bryant, although Durant did have the misfortune of attempting to guard Bryant in transition a few times in the third quarter.
Ronny Turiaf set the tone right from the beginning, scoring all 13 of his points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 28-24 lead. TNT's Doug Collins explained that this year Lakers Coach Phil Jackson plans to alternate Bryant between a facilitating role and a scoring role in the Triangle offense. Apparently, it is not enough to ask Bryant to be Michael Jordan; he now must switch on the fly between being Jordan and being Scottie Pippen. On this night, at least, it worked well, but that had a lot to do with the strength of the opposition. The terminology is kind of moot, anyway, because at the end of the season Bryant will lead the team in both scoring and assists, as he did last season. In the first quarter, Bryant facilitated his way to three assists and made several other good passes that were not converted into scores. As TNT's Kevin Harlan noted later in the game, Bryant cannot really "win": when he is the facilitator, he gets criticized for not carrying the team by scoring but when he is in a scoring mode he gets criticized for shooting too much. After careful consideration, I have figured out the only possible solution to this conundrum: the Lakers should schedule the Sonics 82 times.
Durant got off to a rocky, 0-4 start. His first miss came on a straightaway three pointer that Bryant did not even bother to contest (apparently, Bryant has seen Durant's field goal percentage). A little later, Durant missed another jumper. There is not anything obviously wrong with his form and because of his height, length and athletic ability he can get his shot off easily so one would assume that at some point his percentage--at least on standstill jumpers--will improve. However, another problem for Durant is that he is a very soft finisher in traffic. Considering that he was a double figure rebounder in college one would not expect him to so obviously shy away from contact and this cannot just be dismissed as being the result of his slender frame; there have been plenty of great players who had slight builds but knew how to absorb contact and draw fouls. Durant's third missed shot came after he made a nice dribble drive move but then lofted a very soft attempt in the lane. His fourth miss came after he drove hard to the right but stopped well short of the paint--avoiding the possibility of contact--and threw up a wild shot that caromed off of the backboard. In the summer league, Durant drew some fouls on these pell-mell drives even as he tried to dodge contact because his opponents were not good enough or savvy enough to avoid getting called for blocking but it is obvious that unless Durant starts playing a lot differently he will not be making many trips to the free throw line this season. Durant sat out the last half of the first quarter and did not return until the 7:20 mark of the second quarter.
A few minutes after Durant left the game, fellow rookie Jeff Green entered the fray. Green may not have the athletic gifts that Durant does but he seems to have a better understanding of how to play; Green is without question a stronger finisher around the hoop, as he showed on the first possession of the second quarter when he faced up Cook, drove baseline and converted a power move in the paint. Green scored on several moves like that during the game but ended up shooting just 6-13 because he went 0-2 from three point range. With his body type and his ability to go strongly to the hoop Green needs to leave the three point shot alone for now. Collins admitted that this statement may sound crazy but he suggested that Durant and Green may finish 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting. Considering the dearth of talent Seattle has after the departures of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the team will have no choice but to give Durant and Green heavy minutes and plenty of shot attempts. I realize that Durant is everyone's golden boy but I wonder how long it will take for Seattle's coaching staff to realize that instead of having Durant shoot 20 jumpers and soft layups while Green only attempts 13 shots that the team would be better off if Green took 20 shots in the paint and when he got double-teamed then he could kick the ball out to Durant for 12-15 standstill jumpers a game. Durant has no postup game right now and does not take the ball to the hoop with authority so why should he automatically be penciled in for 20 FGAs?
Durant finally made his first basket at the 6:48 mark of the second quarter, making a nice two dribble move and nailing a jumper after a pass from Green. Seattle spent a lot of time using a weak zone that will either have to be improved dramatically or completely discarded. After Durant made his first jumper, he was stationed on the low block on defense, trying to guard the much larger Bynum without engaging in too much physical contact. Watching the play, one could visualize a poster in the making. Sure enough, Luke Walton lobbed the ball in to the big center and Bynum threw down a two handed dunk while Durant awaited future developments (to borrow the choice phrase that appeared in a Sports Illustrated caption of a photo of a similar defensive "effort" by Darryl Dawkins decades ago). Durant tried to answer with another jumper after a quick dribble move but he missed.
A very interesting sequence happened later in the quarter. Durant had the ball on the left wing while veteran Kurt Thomas was posting up against the much smaller Walton on the left block. Instead of passing to Thomas to exploit the mismatch, Durant waved Thomas out of the post so that he could go one on one against Cook. Thomas complied, whereupon Durant took a couple half hearted dribbles before settling for a long jumper. Not recognizing a mismatch is bad enough but at the very least Durant should have then driven past the defensively challenged Cook. A little later, Durant made three shots in a row in a little less than two minutes--an off balance runner, a reverse layup on a fast break and a smooth jumper--and TNT play by play man Kevin Harlan got so excited that I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Harlan tends to be high strung and usually I don't mind that but after watching Durant brick his way through most of the first half I didn't feel like Durant making three shots in a row signaled a shift in the balance of power in the basketball universe. Collins spoke of Durant's "flashes of brilliance"--which also seems more than a bit overly exuberant--but he tempered that with an excellent observation: "Right now he doesn't take good shots." Bingo! Durant shoots far too many off balance shots and when he gets in traffic he goes up softly. Collins said that Carlesimo told him that 10 of Durant's 22 attempts in the previous game were shots that Durant cannot make. Durant closed the half out by dribbling the ball off of his foot and out of bounds while attempting to go for the last shot. The Lakers led 64-47 at halftime, fueled by great first half performances by Bynum (15 points) and Cook (10 points). Bryant sat out the second quarter with ice on his knees and Collins speculated that he might not play any more during the game.
That did not turn out to be correct, as Bryant started the third quarter and Collins quickly stated that Bryant appeared to be playing in the scoring role in the offense, not the facilitating role. That proved to be an understatement, as Bryant reeled off 12 straight points on 5-5 shooting in a little over 90 seconds after Seattle cut the lead to 67-62. Durant was not assigned to guard Bryant but ended up picking him up in transition on a few occasions; of course, no one in the league can stop Bryant when he gets on that kind of roll. As Bryant single-handedly took over, Collins related an interesting story from the Team USA practices this summer. Collins said that at one point he closed his eyes and just listened to Bryant talking to his teammates on the court: "The things he says, the way he approaches practice and the attention to detail--I had a flashback to when Michael Jordan was 25 years old and I was coaching him in Chicago." Bryant finished with 16 points in the quarter and the Lakers led 95-85 going into the final stanza. Collins declared, "Kobe Bryant is showing tonight why he is the best player in the NBA: a guy who has no weaknesses, First Team All-Defense, led the league in scoring."
Bryant did not play at all in the fourth quarter but the Lakers still won comfortably. Durant matched his 4-10 first half shooting with 4-10 second half shooting. During a stoppage of play, Carlesimo gestured animatedly toward Durant--imitating someone shooting a layup--and he told him, "Go up strong! Come on!" Durant nodded his head slightly and walked back on to the court.
I don't doubt that Durant could become a good player in time. What I don't understand is the rush to canonize him--as the presumptive Rookie of the Year and the next great thing--before he has actually accomplished anything at the NBA level. Right now, Durant is not the Rookie of the Year nor is he a bust; he displayed a lot of ability in one year of college but he is finding out that the NBA game is a lot tougher mentally and physically than the collegiate game. If he works hard and stays focused then his talent will eventually blossom--but there is no shortcut to greatness.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM