Kobe Strikes Early, Bench Takes Over in Fourth Quarter as Lakers Defeat Nuggets, 127-99Kobe Bryant guided the Lakers to an 81-75 lead after three quarters and then watched from the bench in the fourth quarter as the Laker reserves outscored Denver, 46-24. Bryant could not have been happier to get the extra rest: "The young fellas came in and took care of business. We have young players who have a lot of heart and who care. And when you have that combination, you have a lot of potential. In the past, I've always been the only guy in the gym really working hard. But now I've got guys in there with me pushing themselves every single day, and that makes a big difference." Despite playing fewer than 30 minutes, Bryant still produced game-high totals in points (24) and assists (seven); he also had six rebounds and played the kind of defense that inspired Boston Coach Doc Rivers to tell TNT's Kevin Harlan that Bryant is playing better defense than any player in the NBA. Sasha Vujacic poured in a career-high 22 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter alone. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 23 points but he also had a game-worst -30 plus/minus rating--and he was not even on the court for all of the Lakers' fourth quarter run because he was ejected for choking Vujacic. Anthony later said, "It wasn't intentionally done. I hope people don't overreact." It's hard to see how reaching out and grabbing someone by the throat is not intentional and, in light of the two suspensions that Bryant received last season for striking players in the face inadvertently after shooting the ball, it is hard to see how Anthony can avoid being suspended for what he did. Back to Anthony's plus/minus ratio, when a player shoots 11-15 from the floor, leads his team in scoring and his team gets blown out while he is in the game it is obvious that there is a serious problem at the other end of the court. For some inexplicable reason, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith thinks that the Nuggets can win the West; I still think that they will be one of the bottom tier playoff teams and lose once again in the first round. Charles Barkley is coming around to my point of view after his earlier contention that Denver is an "elite" team; Barkley noted that the truly elite teams consistently have a defensive mindset, something that Denver has yet to develop.
Anyone who saw the first part of this game would have never believed that the Lakers could possibly win going away, let alone do so without Bryant scoring 50 or 60 points. Bryant scored the Lakers' first seven points as they took a 7-4 lead but the Nuggets took advantage of L.A.'s sloppy ballhandling and poor shooting to claim an 18-11 advantage by the 4:21 mark. Bryant got his first assist of the game by making a gorgeous no look pass to Ronny Turiaf, whose dunk cut Denver's lead to 22-15. The Nuggets led 33-21 at the end of the first period. Bryant already had 11 points on 5-8 shooting, while the other four Lakers starters scored six points while shooting 2-13 from the field.
Bryant sat out the first 6:09 of the second quarter and Denver pushed the lead to as much as 38-21. TNT's Doug Collins talked about how Kwame Brown's injury has had a domino effect, moving Andrew Bynum (12 points, 13 rebounds) into the starting lineup and upsetting the chemistry of the bench. Collins has a point but would a truly good team be that dependent on the contributions of a career journeyman like Brown? The answer to that question is obviously, "No." Bynum is an improving player but he is still inconsistent. Take a good look at the Lakers' top six players other than Bryant in terms of minutes played per game: Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Vladimir Radmanovic. How many of those guys would be a top seven player on any of the really good Western Conference teams? Fisher was the fifth leading scorer for the Utah Jazz last year when they made it to the Conference Finals but this season he is in a dead heat with Odom to be the Lakers' second leading scorer. Think of it this way: several of the top Western teams are so deep that they have All-Star caliber players coming off of the bench (Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry) who would not only start for the Lakers but would arguably be the second best player on the team.
Bryant returned to action at the 5:51 mark. He promptly spoonfed Odom for a layup after Odom had missed his first nine shots from the field. Bryant then made two free throws after being fouled on a strong drive. The Lakers pulled to within one point, 52-51, after Bryant made a no look bounce pass that Odom converted into a layup. Bryant hit two jumpers in the last minute, including a buzzer beater, and Denver only led 57-55 at halftime. Bryant had 17 points and three assists, while Anthony led Denver with 16 points.
The Lakers opened the third quarter with a 13-0 run. Bynum split a pair of free throws and then Bryant drove to the hoop and once again fed Odom for a layup, giving the Lakers a 58-57 lead. An Anthony jumper finally put Denver on the board in the second half but the Lakers answered with a Luke Walton jumper and a bank shot by Bryant, who caught the ball at the top of the key outside the three point line, drove into the paint and tried to shoot a pullup jumper over Kenyon Martin. When Martin stopped that move, Bryant leaned in to take away Martin's ability to jump, then faded away and kissed his shot off of the glass. This is one example of what I mean when I talk about Bryant's skill set and why he is better than other players: he has three point range, so defenders have to crowd him on the perimeter, making it even easier for him to get in the paint. Then, even if a long, good defender like Martin recovers and stops Bryant from executing his first option, Bryant has the footwork, body control and shooting touch to still create an open, high percentage shot. In contrast to what Bryant did on that play, consider a sequence that happened a little bit later in the quarter: Odom received the ball at the three point line not far from where Bryant drove on Martin. Odom was wide open but he instead took two dribbles right into the teeth of the defense and missed a contested jumper. "Made a tough shot out of an easy one," Collins noted. Yes, that is just one play, but it represents the difference between the way that Bryant plays and the way that Odom plays. I'm not talking about talent--we all understand that Bryant is a more talented player than Odom; what I'm talking about is that Bryant just has a better sense of how to play: when to shoot and when to pass, what kind of shot to take depending on how he is being guarded, how to use good footwork to get open (with or without the ball), how to defend without fouling (Odom picks up a ton of cheap fouls) and so forth. This does not mean that Bryant is perfect or that he never takes a bad shot--but it is why so many players and coaches who compete against him on a nightly basis say that he is the best player in the league. As Collins put it, Bryant can make something that is very difficult look easy--and I would add that this is a much better trait than Odom's method of turning something easy into something difficult.
Bryant had seven points and four assists in the third quarter as the Lakers outscored the Nuggets, 26-18. On one play late in the quarter, Bryant grabbed an offensive rebound, drew two defenders and delivered another no look feed, this time to Turiaf, whose dunk put the Lakers up 81-68. Anyone who thinks that Bryant cannot pass, will not pass or is not a good passer simply is not paying attention; he is not just a good or adequate passer--he is a great passer because he is able to deliver the ball on target in a number of different ways (bounce pass, baseball pass, shovel pass, no look pass, etc.) and he can do so in tight quarters. So why doesn't Bryant average as many assists as LeBron James, Steve Nash or other players who are known as great passers? One obvious reason is that Bryant has some teammates who do not catch and/or shoot particularly well (Pete Maravich had the same problem during his career). Another reason is that in many cases Bryant makes the first pass out of the trap to start a play but the second, ball reversal pass ultimately is awarded with an assist (if the shot is made, of course). In this particular game, Bryant had the ball in a lot of situations in which he could make a pass that led directly to a basket, but the passes that he consistently makes out of double teams are very important even if they are not recorded as assists; Hakeem Olajuwon never averaged more than four apg during the regular season (he did so a few times during some playoff seasons) but he made great passes out of the post which led to another pass and a wide open shot. As Hubie Brown always says, the second pass out of the trap is the one that leads to a wide open shot.
Bryant sat out at the start of the fourth quarter. Coach Phil Jackson surely planned to reinsert him in the game around the 7:00 mark or so but by that time the Lakers were up 20 points, so he took advantage of the opportunity to rest his star player. After all, there will be plenty of nights when the Lakers need a 15 or 20 point fourth quarter from Bryant, so any rest that he can get now is very beneficial. This is not a great Lakers team by any means but Bynum is developing, Fisher is solid as always, Jordan Farmar is becoming a good second unit point guard and Odom is a useful--if somewhat overrated--player. Bryant is productive enough--and attracts enough extra defensive attention, freeing up his teammates for easy shots--that this team could possibly win 50 games if everything breaks right. The problem is that over an 82 game season it is not reasonable to expect everything to break right; someone will get hurt or go into a slump and the Lakers will once again end up in the 40-45 win range.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:06 AM