T-Mac Injured Again, Rockets Crash Versus Lakers, 94-91The L.A. Lakers built an 18 point lead and withstood a furious Houston rally to emerge with a 94-91 road victory, avenging their 95-93 loss to the Rockets in the season opener. Kobe Bryant had a game-high 30 points on 11-23 shooting, adding eight rebounds and five assists. Derek Fisher (13 points) and Lamar Odom (10 points) were the only other Lakers to reach double figures in points. Yao Ming led the Rockets with 26 points and he also had 13 rebounds and five assists. Bonzi Wells provided a boost off of the bench with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals in over 40 minutes of action; his playing time was increased because Tracy McGrady (nine points, two assists) injured his right elbow just before halftime and went to a hospital for an MRI; early indications are that he will be out for a week.
Bryant missed his first five field goal attempts but he did an excellent job distributing the ball to his teammates, though you will find little statistical evidence of this. As ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy noted during the first quarter, "He's making the right basketball plays. He only has one assist but he could have had three or four at least if guys converted layups." Kwame Brown's nickname should be "Assist Killer," because any great pass that could potentially be an assist dies an ugly, brutal death in his hands of stone; he might have the worst hands I've ever seen for a player who actually gets significant minutes in a team's rotation. Say what you want about Kobe Bryant but he has not stopped trying to pass the ball to Brown; on the other hand, as described in Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules, at one time Michael Jordan not only refused to pass the ball to Bill Cartwright in the fourth quarters of games but implored his teammates not to do so either.
Van Gundy firmly rejects any notion that Bryant is a selfish player: "I've always looked at it this way: when he's been surrounded by good enough players, he'll pass when he should; when he's doubled he'll give the ball up. But when he's surrounded by lesser players and the score's going the wrong way he's going to do what any great player would do, which is to get his team back in the game. At times, he may take questionable shots for normal NBA players but not for him. When he's putting pressure on the defense (by scoring) as an opposing coach you're saying, 'Please, just be a facilitator.' You don't want him to be on the attack." All of this should be pretty obvious, because there is a lot of evidence to back up what Van Gundy said: Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, he gives up the ball when he is double-teamed and he showed in the second half of last season that when Phil Jackson put the burden on him to carry the team with his scoring that he was more than up to that task. Don't judge Bryant based on how many assists he has in a game or how many shots he takes; watch the game and observe his decision making process in the heat of battle before buying into the herd mentality about his "selfishness."
Bryant finally made his first basket, a three pointer, near the end of the first quarter and the Lakers led 25-22 after 12 minutes of play. The Lakers' bench blew the game open in the second quarter, which is largely why five Laker reserves posted positive plus/minus numbers, led by Andrew Bynum (game totals of six points, nine rebounds, +10 plus/minus). Jordan Farmar had eight points, a career-high nine rebounds and a +4 plus/minus. Bryant sat out the early portion of the run but returned to action at the 7:54 mark of the second quarter with the Lakers leading 37-27. In a little over four minutes he drained four straight jumpers and also contributed two assists as the lead ballooned to 56-38. Shortly after that, Bryant came over from the weakside to make a spectacular left handed block on Yao; the night before, Bryant pulled off the same thing against Tim Duncan. Left handed blocks have become something of a Bryant specialty this season as he is still wearing a sleeve to protect his sprained right wrist.
McGrady's elbow injury happened at the :50 mark when his arm got bent backwards as he tried to steal the ball from Luke Walton. Brown fouled McGrady on the play and McGrady split the two free throws while shooting left handed, his right arm drooping lifelessly to the side; he immediately went to the locker room after the second free throw attempt. The Lakers led 61-49 at the break. Despite his slow shooting start, Bryant finished the half with 18 points on 7-14 shooting, while Yao had 11 points and five rebounds.
Bryant made a jumper and assisted on a Ronny Turiaf jumper to push the lead to 65-51 early in the third quarter and the Rockets began resorting to the defense that most teams have to use sooner or later against Bryant: swarming him with two or even three defenders and basically daring anybody else to make an open shot. The Lakers largely failed that challenge and Houston rallied to tie the score at 71 on Shane Battier's three pointer at the 1:44 mark. Fisher had a solid game overall but in the second half he threw some uncharacteristically poor passes. The Lakers' offense became very disjointed. Bryant only forced one shot during this rough stretch, a jumper near the foul line over three defenders; the shot clock was winding down and his only other option was a pass to Turiaf, who had an open shot from roughly the same distance. This is reminiscent of when a young Jordan would shoot over a double-team instead of passing the ball to an open man, later explaining that he had a better chance of making a shot over two guys than his teammate did of making an open shot. It seems unlikely that anything that dramatic was going through Bryant's mind on this particular play, because earlier in the quarter he did pass to Turiaf. Maurice Evans scored the last four points of the quarter, so the Lakers led 75-71 going into the final 12 minutes.
Wells scored eight of his points in the fourth quarter as the Rockets stayed close throughout the final stanza. Van Gundy noted on several occasions that various Laker defenders (mainly Luke Walton) were making a mistake by crowding Wells on the perimeter; the one Laker who seemed to understand this was Bryant--when he picked up Wells on a switch late in the game he wisely stayed back and let Wells shoot a jumper that missed. Wells is an erratic outside shooter who loves to use his quickness and strength to drive to the basket.
Van Gundy also offered a criticism of the Lakers' fourth quarter offense, noting that the team's most effective play was a pick and roll at the top of the key involving Bryant and a big man; instead, the Lakers often went to other options or ran the Bryant play on the sideline where it is easier to trap.
Taking advantage of these strategic errors, Houston briefly moved in front, 83-81, after Yao's turnaround jumper at the 5:43 mark. Bryant answered with a jumper and then Fisher made two free throws to give the Lakers the lead for good. On the next Houston possession, Bryant harassed Battier, Houston's opening night hero, into missing a jumper and corralled the defensive rebound. Shortly after that, Bryant sank two free throws to put the Lakers up by four. A little drama happened at the end when Farmar senselessly fouled Yao with a little over a second left. Yao made the layup anyway to pull Houston to within 93-90, so the Rockets needed him to miss the free throw so that they could fire up a quick three pointer; Yao not only missed the shot but the ball bounced straight back to him off of the rim, so he wheeled and passed to Rafer Alston, who Fisher had inexplicably left open. Alston's three point shot missed as time expired.
***Three years later, many people still try to blame Kobe Bryant for Shaquille O'Neal's departure from the Lakers, even though it was O'Neal who demanded to be traded. The reality is that, rightly or wrongly, Lakers' owner Jerry Buss made a simple business decision that it was not worth it to pay max dollars to an aging center who never has fully committed himself to being in shape (and how is that working out in Miami right about now?). Prior to the Lakers' 107-92 loss to the Spurs, Coach Phil Jackson told reporters, "I think we kind of knew what was going to happen in L.A. I think the owner [Jerry Buss] understood that there was a championship left in Shaquille [O'Neal's] legacy, maybe two. Who knows? But the fact is they made that choice for the way the NBA is structured now and the way the cap and all these other things go on. Our owner is a single-business ownership. It's a whole different financial status and struggle that they have to go through. That was a hard decision, a tough one to make, but one that probably this guy would do nine out of 10 times."
***McGrady's 41 point game in a 105-99 loss to Memphis on Tuesday briefly gave him the lead in the race for the scoring title but now Bryant has moved back into first place
***Bryant is averaging career highs in field goal percentage, rpg, spg and bpg. On the other hand, he is averaging a career low in free throw percentage (largely because of his performance in the first game of the season) and his three point shooting percentage is the lowest that it has been since 2001-02. His free throw percentage is certain to be well above .800 by the end of the season but it will be interesting to see how he does in the other statistical areas. My guess is that his field goal percentage will drop a bit but still remain in career-high territory, his three point percentage, steals numbers and blocked shots will all settle in around his career norms and he will have the second best rebounding season of his career (i.e., between 6.3 and 6.9 rpg).
posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 AM