Defense, Bench Play and a Late Surge From Kobe Lift Lakers Over PistonsSo much for being distracted; so much for not having a good supporting cast. All is well, at least for the moment, for Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers, who improved to 5-3 with a 103-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons, who were without the services of injured starters Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess. In addition to Detroit, the Lakers have recently beaten three other teams that most observers consider to be serious contenders: Houston, Phoenix, and Utah. Kobe Bryant had a poor shooting night but every other facet of his game was on point. "Kobe in the end has to score the basketball but he can be just as deadly when he passes it," ESPN's Jon Barry noted early in the game, pointing out that when Bryant has the ball the entire defense focuses its attention on him, creating open scoring opportunities for other players. Sure enough, the Lakers followed Barry's script to perfection: Bryant had no points and three assists in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 29-20 lead; in the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance, Bryant had 11 points on 4-4 shooting. He finished with 19 points on 6-18 shooting, seven assists and four rebounds. Bryant also played outstanding defense, a trait that seems to be rubbing off on his teammates as the Lakers had 13 steals and many deflections. Lamar Odom posted a double double (25 points and a game-high 15 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum headlined an outstanding effort by the bench, contributing 12 points and seven rebounds. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 16 points each.
Detroit fought back to tie the game near the end of the second quarter and only trailed 48-46 at halftime. The third quarter was tightly contested most of the way but Detroit used an 8-2 run in the last 3:00 to go up 68-62 heading into the fourth quarter. The Lakers scored six straight points in the first 1:31 of the fourth quarter to tie the score and soon built a small lead on the strength of several steals that they converted into fast break points. Bryant's scoring burst began with a three pointer at the 5:37 mark that put the Lakers ahead 83-76. Detroit answered with a Rasheed Wallace three pointer and a Hamilton jumper. On the Lakers' next possession they ran the Triangle Offense to perfection as Jordan Farmar fed the ball to Bynum in the post, who then delivered a slick bounce pass to a cutting Bryant for a layup; back in the Chicago Bulls' glory days when they ran the Triangle majestically, Scottie Pippen used to get at least one layup a game using that baseline cut and receiving a pass from Luc Longley, Will Perdue or Bill Wennington. Bryant drew Hamilton's fifth foul on the play and he made the free throw to put L.A. up 86-81. A bit later, Bryant drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to Farmar, whose three pointer made the score 93-83. On the next possession, Farmar returned the favor, passing to Bryant for a three pointer. After Bryant fed Odom for yet another three pointer, the Lakers led 99-85. Not to harp on something that I've mentioned here a few times recently, but those plays by Bryant, Farmar and Odom are just as "clutch"--if not more so--then a desperation shot that someone makes with less than five seconds left in the game; these are winning plays made at a crucial time in the game when Detroit could have otherwise stayed within striking distance.
During the game, Barry listed what he called the five "pure, best talented players--more talented than anyone else in the league": Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James. Mike Breen noted that the past three MVPs--Steve Nash (two) and Dirk Nowitzki--did not make the cut for Barry, yet later agreed with Barry's contention that the aforementioned quintet probably comprises the five most talented players in the NBA. "Talent" is a rather nebulous thing to define: does it refer to athletic ability, fundamental basketball skills or something else? I've always thought that it was silly when people tried to say that Larry Bird lacked athleticism or "talent"; how can it be said that a 6-9 player with superb hand-eye coordination and almost unlimited shooting range lacks "talent"? Bird blocked more shots than many of the game's celebrated leapers (including Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins) and he did not do that merely by outsmarting people; Bird possessed good size and was a decent vertical jumper, particularly early in his career--he never displayed the ability to broad jump, to fly from the free throw line and dunk, but he certainly was more than capable of playing the game above the rim. Nowadays, people similarly try to dismiss Nash's athletic ability--but there is a lot more to athletic ability than just broad jumping or vertical jumping; Nash is very quick and like Bird he possesses great hand-eye coordination and excellent shooting range. Nowitzki is a seven footer who runs the court like a guard and also has tremendous shooting range. He's not athletic? Bird, Nash and Nowitzki are not "talented"? Obviously, the way that athleticism and talent are defined has a heavily racial component to it but the reality is that the NBA's white superstars are more athletic than they are given credit for being and the NBA's black superstars are more fundamentally sound and more well schooled from a technical standpoint than is sometimes suggested.
Rather than ranking players based on talent or athleticism it makes more sense to rank them the way a scout would: how fundamentally sound are they in all aspects of the game and how much of a challenge do they present to the opposing team at both ends of the court? By that standard, Bryant is the league's best player because he has no serious weaknesses offensively or defensively. LeBron James and Tim Duncan--who both struggle from the free throw line--are right behind him (James also needs to show more consistency on defense). One could make a case that Garnett has been the best player in the NBA early in this season but he still lacks a go-to move on the block and has been known to fade--literally and figuratively--in critical situations; for those reasons I would not yet place him above the first three players who I listed. Obviously, if Boston wins 55-60 games or more then Garnett will be a landslide MVP award winner unless Bryant or James do something truly spectacular (Duncan no longer plays enough minutes to put up the stats that wow MVP voters). As for Wade, I would give him an incomplete because we have not seen much of him in the past six months or so; unless he improved his outside shooting and his defense during his rehabilitation period I would not put him ahead of Bryant, Duncan or James. Nowitzki was a worthy MVP choice last year--though I would have voted for Bryant--but his production is not at the same level so far this year; defense is his main weakness. As for Nash, I rate him and Jason Kidd neck and neck as the best point guards but neither one is the best or the most valuable player in the NBA; Kidd's flaw is his shooting, while Nash's flaw is his defense.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM