Kobe Takes Command in the Fourth, Lakers Beat Nuggets, 114-107Allen Iverson scored 51 points but he had just two in the fourth quarter as Kobe Bryant took over at both ends of the court to lead the Lakers to a 111-107 win in Denver. Iverson shot 18-27 from the field and also had eight assists as he racked up the NBA's highest single-game scoring total this season. The effort was his 11th career 50 point game but his first as a Nugget. Denver dropped to 2-1 in games in which Iverson has topped 40 points; Iverson's teams have gone 54-25 during his career in his 40 point games. Bryant finished with 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and one blocked shot but those numbers hardly tell the complete story of this game. Bryant played less than 31 minutes due to injury and foul trouble but he had a major impact on the final outcome. In the fourth quarter, he scored 12 of the Lakers' 21 points, including six straight in a 1:07 stretch during the final two minutes; in addition to that, he very effectively guarded Carmelo Anthony for the first half of the period and then he shut down Iverson in the last six minutes of the period, chasing him all over the court and holding him to two points. Bryant, who obviously has had more than his share of high-scoring games, explained his mindset when he covered Iverson in the fourth quarter: "I'm not one of these players that believes if a guy gets hot there's nothing you can do about it. I just don't believe that." While Bryant did yeoman's work, he also received help from his supporting cast, notably Vladimir Radmanovic (21 points, 6-9 three point shooting), Derek Fisher (20 points, five assists, five rebounds) and Lamar Odom (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists). Anthony finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Marcus Camby failed to score but tallied a game-high 20 rebounds.
There were many interesting storylines and subplots in this game. The Nuggets came in averaging 106.6 ppg (fourth in the NBA) and the Lakers were right behind them (106.1 ppg, fifth in the NBA), so the resulting shootout is hardly a surprise. However, as ESPN's Jon Barry noted, Denver should clearly be the superior team: "I don't think there's a more talented roster in the NBA." The Nuggets have a former MVP (Iverson), a perennial All-Star (Anthony), the reigning Defensive Player of the Year (Marcus Camby), a former number one overall draft pick (Kenyon Martin) and several other talented role players, yet something is clearly missing with this group. Even granting that Bryant is the best player in the league, the Nuggets have the deeper and more talented team on paper--it's not even close--yet the Lakers have beaten the Nuggets twice in the past week; last Thursday, the Lakers overcame a 17 point deficit to post a 127-99 blowout win. Prior to the game, Barry identified two problems for the Nuggets: (1) They do not make a nightly commitment to play good defense; (2) the players do not sufficiently trust each other and trust the system. Nuggets players openly talked before the season about winning 60 games but after this loss they have the same 11-8 record that the Lakers do.
Another issue for Denver is who should start in the backcourt. Coach George Karl went with Anthony Carter and Iverson against the Lakers, bringing J.R. Smith off of the bench; the two-fold problem with that is (1) neither Carter nor Iverson is big enough to defend most NBA shooting guards and (2) Smith (seven points on 1-10 shooting) is a young, immature player who does not relish being a reserve. Carter drew the early assignment of guarding Bryant, who simply backed him down and shot right over him, scoring seven points in the first 5:37 as the Lakers jumped out to a 17-8 lead. The only good thing for Denver is that the cross-matching meant that Bryant often ended up guarding Carter instead of Iverson, who abused Derek Fisher for 15 first quarter points as Denver closed the gap to 29-24 by the end of the quarter.
Near the end of the quarter, play by play man Mark Jones said, "There are nights when if you are Phil Jackson you just can't figure out why Lamar Odom seems a little bit cursed at the offensive end." Barry responded by praising Odom's versatility but suggested that the Bryant-Odom pairing simply has not worked but that neither player is really at fault. The answer to Jones' question and the explanation for why the Bryant-Odom duo has not clicked is something that I touched upon in my recap (see above link) to last week's Lakers win over the Nuggets. Most people, like Barry, salivate at Odom's size and considerable talent but the problem is that Odom does not really understand how to play--and considering that he is in his ninth season but has not even sniffed an All-Star Game appearance, it is safe to assume that he is not going to suddenly figure things out. Consider a couple plays from the closing stages of the first quarter: on the first one, Odom catches the ball on the wing and has a wide open jumper but he instead hesitates (allowing the defense to get set) and then he barrels into the lane, committing a charge; on the second one, Bryant feeds Odom at the top of the key while Anthony has fallen down and is tying his shoe, leaving Denver's defense in disarray. Odom again has a chance to shoot an open jumper but he instead drives to the hoop and commits another charge. As Doug Collins put it last week when Odom made a similar miscue, Odom turned an easy play into a difficult one. Odom sometimes displays great court vision but he has a perplexing knack for making poor decisions, particularly at the end of games, and that is a big reason that he is not as good as many people seem to believe or as a cursory look at his statistics may suggest.
On Tuesday night, Bryant overcame a bout of the stomach flu and set the tone early by scoring 13 of his 20 points in the first quarter as the Lakers routed the Timberwolves, 116-95; the same ailment sent center Andrew Bynum to the hospital and removed him from the starting lineup versus Denver, though he did eventually see action versus the Nuggets. Bryant told Barry that playing through illness or pain is a learned skill but that rather than talk to Bynum or his teammates about this he provides leadership by example. Lakers' fans probably had stomach trouble of their own late in the first quarter when Eduardo Najera accidentally tripped Bryant, who landed hard on his left shoulder, forcing him to leave the game and to briefly receive treatment in the locker room.
Late in the first quarter, Denver started playing a zone defense. Initially, the Lakers had poor spacing and made some bad passes but they soon figured out how to expose the gaping holes in what Barry called a "Swiss cheese" zone; mainly, Radmanovic camped out behind the three point line on the right baseline and no Nugget ever came near him as he made five straight three pointers. Radmanovic's three point barrage helped the Lakers maintain their lead until Bryant returned at the 6:45 mark of the second quarter. I'm sure that it will not be long before some stats guru and/or fan blogger who did not watch this game looks at the boxscore, notes the positional designations and mocks Bryant's defense by saying that Iverson "torched" him for 51 points. As I already noted, due to cross-matching Bryant was rarely guarding Iverson in the first quarter (Iverson did make a nice fadeaway jumper after a pick and roll play when Bryant was on him). Iverson scored 12 of his points early in the second quarter when Bryant was not even in the game; after Bryant returned from the locker room, trainer Gary Vitti wrapped his shoulder in ice for a few minutes while Bryant sat on the bench. So, when Bryant checked back in, the Lakers led 45-40 and Iverson had 27 points, of which Bryant was "responsible" for a only a handful at most (depending on how one assigns "blame" for pick and roll plays). Bryant guarded Iverson and held him scoreless for the next 5:25. Then, at the 1:20 mark Odom's questionable decision making reappeared, this time at the defensive end of the court. On the previous possession, Bryant drove to the hoop but--unlike Odom--he pulled up to avoid the charge, drew the defense to him and made a left handed shovel pass to Odom, who converted a dunk to put the Lakers up 60-49. The Nuggets responded by running a dribble hand off play beyond the three point line above the top of the key. Bryant overplayed Iverson to deny him the ball, but then Iverson cut back and Eduardo Najera screened Bryant. Odom, who was guarding Najera, had planted himself several feet away from the play. As a Sports Illustrated caption once wryly said of a ground-bound Darryl Dawkins as several players around him jumped for a rebound, he was "awaiting future developments." What developed was a wide open jumper for Iverson. Not surprisingly, a couple possessions later the Nuggets again ran a screen and roll with Najera and Iverson, this time on the left wing. Odom was once again out of position and Bryant committed his third foul as he tried to recover and block Iverson's shot; he got a lot of ball but he also clipped Iverson on his shooting hand. Iverson made the free throws to finish with 33 first half points, his career-best.
Bryant picked up his fourth foul less than a minute into the third period. Iverson was guarding him and Bryant faked toward midcourt and then did a "swim" move (like a defensive lineman) to cut into the lane; when Bryant's hand touched Iverson, Iverson dropped to the court like he'd been shot, a very smart veteran move: he knew that he was beaten anyway, so he exaggerated the contact and hoped to draw the foul. The ploy worked and Bryant had to sit out the rest of the period. Without Bryant guarding him, Iverson "suddenly" became hot again, scoring 16 points in the quarter. His jumper at the 5:06 mark gave the Nuggets their first lead of the game. The Nuggets soon built a four point lead but, as Bryant told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game, the Lakers kept their cool and tied the score at 88 by the end of the period. Bryant also said to Salters that he felt he had gotten a couple questionable calls but that he knew that if he complained about them that it would destroy his team's morale; instead, he encouraged his teammates to keep the score close so that they could have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
Bryant played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter. Jackson put newly acquired Trevor Ariza on Iverson in the early going but he was hardly hiding Bryant, who did a great job on the dangerous Anthony. Bryant broke the tie with a driving layup but Denver answered with a Camby lob to Anthony. Barry commented, "You might say that's Kobe Bryant's fault but Andrew Bynum, who is guarding Marcus Camby, has got to step up and pressure that basketball. Don't let him survey the floor and make that pass." For you economists out there who believe that you can evaluate basketball players without actually watching the games and have decided that Bynum is more valuable to the Lakers than Bryant, what Barry is talking about is that Bryant was fronting Anthony in the post; when the post defender fronts his man, it is essential that the player guarding the ballhandler pressures him and makes it difficult for him to feed the post. Also, usually there is supposed to be backside help if the passer successfully gets the ball to the post player. After that play, Anthony did not score again with Bryant guarding him until Anthony stole the ball from Luke Walton in the open court and converted a fast break dunk at the 5:55 mark to put Denver up, 96-94. The Lakers had just been up 94-90 two minutes prior to that, so Jackson called a timeout to stop the bleeding. Ariza had done a good job on Iverson but when Fisher and Odom returned to the game to replace Jordan Farmar and Ariza respectively then Bryant shifted to Iverson for the rest of the game.
Smith's four free throws sandwiched around a Fisher jumper made the score 100-96 Denver with 4:24 left in the game; prior to Fisher's shot, Bryant had scored all six of the Lakers' fourth quarter points in addition to his defensive work on Anthony and Iverson. After Smith's second pair of free throws, for some reason Odom decided to go one on one in the post against Defensive Player of the Year Camby, shooting a jump hook that had no chance. This gave the Nuggets an opportunity to go up by six but the Lakers dodged that bullet when Bynum stole an Iverson pass. Then, Bryant drove to the hoop and passed to Radmanovic for a three pointer. Iverson answered with his first (and last) points in the quarter, making a strong drive, scoring a layup over Bryant and drawing a foul from Radmanovic. After that play, the Lakers once again tried the "Lamar Odom experience," this time resulting in a shot clock violation; as Barry said after that play, it would have been better if Odom had forced a shot because it might have gone in and would have at least given the Lakers an offensive rebounding opportunity (please remember this play the next time you criticize Bryant for "forcing" a shot or the next time some talking head says that the problem with the Lakers is that Odom does not get the ball enough). The Lakers dodged this second bullet that Odom attempted to shoot in their collective feet when Bryant stuck to Iverson like flypaper and blocked his three point shot. Bryant apparently had seen enough of Odom running the offense; he dribbled into the right corner, was trapped by two defenders but reversed himself and dribbled back out to the right wing when he glimpsed Bynum cutting to the hoop. Bryant made a perfect lob pass from just inside the three point line and Bynum, who has a long reach and excellent hands, dunked the ball to pull the Lakers to within 102-101. Radmanovic then stole the ball and split a pair of free throws to tie the score.
Odom and Smith dove on the floor for a loose ball during Denver's next possession. The officials called a jump ball and both players were jawing at each other as they stood up. Bryant walked right up to Odom, said something to calm him down and tapped Odom's chest for emphasis. Odom won the tip, Bryant caught the ball and drove all the way down court to score a layup. Kenyon Martin fouled Bryant on the play but Bryant missed the free throw, his only miss in six attempts (I just saw some stat about Bryant's free throw percentage in the last two minutes of games, so I'm sure that miss will be more ammunition to "prove" that he is not the league's best clutch player, notwithstanding how he completely took over the fourth quarter of this game at both ends of the court). Bynum made a great block to nullify an Anthony drive and Bryant scored on another layup to put the Lakers up, 106-102. Anthony's finger roll kept Denver in contention but Bryant all but closed the door by nailing a jumper from the left baseline. The game ended with Martin splitting a pair of free throws, Fisher making three out of four free throws and Anthony scoring a layup.
After the game, Barry summed everything up thusly: "If this L.A. Lakers team can keep it close and you have the best player in the NBA, you have a chance to win."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:20 AM