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Monday, December 24, 2007

Lakers Improve to 3-1 on Road Trip, Kobe Bryant Scores 20,000th Point

Kobe Bryant had 39 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and two steals as the L.A. Lakers built a 25 point lead and held on to post a 95-90 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Early in the third quarter, Bryant scored the 20,000th point of his career, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to reach that milestone, beating Wilt Chamberlain by 12 days. Of course, Bryant got a head start by jumping straight from high school to the NBA, so Chamberlain still easily holds the record for reaching 20,000 points in the fewest number of games (499; it took Bryant 811 games). The Lakers finished their road trip with a 3-1 record, with the only loss coming Thursday night in Cleveland. After that game, Bryant vowed to go back to the gym and work on his jumper in order to compensate for the restricted mobility that he currently has because of his left groin pull. Sure enough, Bryant's jumper was in full effect against the Knicks, not only from three point range (5-12) but also his mid-range shot as well. Bryant led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals (Derek Fisher also had two steals) in his finest all-around game of the season. Jamal Crawford had just one point on 0-7 field goal shooting in the first half but he finished with 31 points on 11-25 shooting. He and Bryant each played a little more than 41 minutes; Bryant had a +19 plus/minus score, while Crawford's plus/minus score was -6. The only other Laker to reach double figures in scoring was Andrew Bynum (13 points, eight rebounds) and Bryant's teammates combined to shoot just .404 from the field (Bryant shot 14-28). The Lakers also got outrebounded 52-38 and gave up 17 offensive rebounds. Those kind of numbers usually lead to a loss--particularly on the road--but Bryant's brilliance saved the day in a fashion very reminiscent of how the Lakers played in the second half of last season; that is definitely not a formula that Coach Phil Jackson wants to rely upon very often and he surely hopes that the other starters and the bench players will resume playing the way that they did at the beginning of the season.

The Lakers took leads of 11-4 and 22-10 in the first quarter and were ahead 31-21 by the end of the period. Bryant had 12 points in the opening stanza, while Lamar Odom scored all nine of his points before disappearing for most of the remainder of the game (not unlike how he played versus Cleveland). The game was telecast on NBA TV using the feed from the MSG Network and commentator Walt Frazier offered this explanation for the Knicks' sluggish start in a game that tipped off just past noon Eastern time: "These guys are nocturnal creatures, folks. In these matinees, we always see dreadful play in the first half before we see some real NBA action." Frazier may have a point but, as play by play man Mike Breen observed, the adjustment should be even more difficult for a West Coast based team for whom noon Eastern time is equivalent to nine in the morning.

The Lakers pulled away in the second quarter, outscoring the Knicks 24-16, as Bryant had five points and five assists. Frazier noted that a big reason that the Lakers are doing better this year is their improved defense and he contrasted that with the poor defense that the Knicks play: "This is how the Knicks get behind by double digits. They have offensive futility and then their defense can't contain the other club." The Knicks also had serious ballhandling problems in the first half, committing 13 turnovers. A big reason for the team's woes in all of these areas--"offensive futility," turnovers and poor defense--is that the Knicks do not have any reliable, legitimate point guards on the roster. Their most talented guards are not true point guards, forcing Coach Isiah Thomas to constantly shuffle his lineup in the vain hope of getting adequate production from that position. Look at the NBA standings and you will notice that virtually every playoff caliber team has a good--or great--point guard. One of the unsung keys to the Lakers' improvement this season is the subtraction of Smush Parker and the addition of Derek Fisher at that position. The point guard orchestrates the offense for most teams (LeBron James' Cavaliers and Bryant's Lakers being two exceptions to this rule) and is the first line of defense, so poor point guard play leads to breakdowns all over the court, which could be the official motto of the Knicks ("Here are your New York Knicks, who bring you breakdowns all over the court on a nightly basis"). Stephon Marbury did not play versus the Lakers while he grieves for the passing of his father; I certainly don't want to kick a man while he's down but I have said for quite some time that the Knicks need to cut Marbury loose or buy out his contract and just start over at point guard: he simply has not gotten the job done when he plays and he is not a good leader.

At halftime, MSG's Al Trautwig interviewed Knicks assistant coach Mark Aguirre, who told him that Bryant is the league's best player but that it was unacceptable for Bryant to beat the Knicks with both his scoring and his passing; the goal in the second half would be to make Bryant more one dimensional. Frazier agreed with Aguirre that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, adding in his inimitable style, "When I talk to players, Kobe is the most feared and revered player in the league. When teams talk about him, when players talk about him, they know his ability to put up prodigious numbers and he is well respected because of that."

Bryant reached the 20,000 point mark by draining a pullup three pointer early in the third quarter. Not long after that, Frazier added, "One thing I noticed about Kobe when he came into the league is that he had so much confidence that he could be great--and he has achieved that." By the 6:28 mark of the third quarter, the Lakers led 70-45 and the New York fans were raining down boos on their hapless Knicks. Teams usually make runs, as Frazier predicted, but when Bryant sat down for his normal rest with 2:36 remaining in the quarter the Lakers still enjoyed a comfortable 73-55 advantage. The Knicks trimmed four points off of that margin to trail 75-61 by the end of the quarter.

By the 10:36 mark of the fourth quarter, the lead was down to 75-68 and Jackson was forced to put Bryant back in the game because the Lakers had been outscored by 11 points in the four minutes that Bryant was on the bench. Frazier commented on a couple occasions that he thought that Jackson made a mistake by keeping Bryant out for too long, noting that during his playing days he (Frazier) hated when his Coach Red Holzman kept the starters out for too long and then had to put them back in to essentially win the game again. Of course, Jackson is a Holzman disciple and Bryant's minutes have to be monitored somewhat not only because of his injury but also to keep something left in the tank for a long season; if the bench cannot maintain a lead for even four minutes then the team will not go far no matter how brilliantly Bryant plays.

What specifically went wrong when Bryant was not in the game? On offense, the execution of the Triangle Offense was very poor, most notably because of bad spacing; a key feature of the Triangle is that players are supposed to be 15-20 feet apart to prevent one defender from guarding two offensive players at any time. One of the players on the court during this time was Trevor Ariza, who the Lakers just acquired via trade and who is obviously still learning the offense (a process that can take more than a year). The Lakers compounded their offensive problems by playing poor defense that repeatedly led either to open shots or to fouls being committed by players who were out of position; Crawford scored six points during this stretch and Robinson shot 4-4 from the free throw line. Thomas had benched defensively challenged big men Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph in favor of using a small lineup consisting of a mixture of starters and bench players who hustle and play with energy (Crawford, Robinson, Malik Rose, Jared Jeffries and Quentin Richardson). Frazier observed, "The irony about the Knicks is that when you have a team like this, a mixture of players in the game like this, they seem to perform better than the starters, whether they are ahead or trying to catch up like they are now. They have good cohesion, the defense is good."

Right after Bryant came back in the game, the Lakers went on a quick 5-0 run and Frazier said, "What I think happened is just the presence of Kobe on the court inspired these guys. You saw how futile they were in scoring until Kobe came back on the court." For the next several minutes, the Lakers maintained a double digit lead. A Crawford jumper briefly cut the margin to eight but Bryant made two free throws to give the Lakers an 89-79 advantage with just 3:52 left. Then, Odom committed a flagrant foul on Crawford, who made both free throws and then hit a floater in the lane on the ensuing extra New York possession. Just like that, the lead was down to 89-83. Lakers rookie guard Javaris Crittenton missed a jumper and then Bryant fouled Crawford on a three point attempt. Crawford made all three free throws but Bryant countered with a jumper that made the score 91-86. Throughout the fourth quarter, the Knicks repeatedly exploited bad pick and roll defense by Lakers' big men Bynum and Chris Mihm; every time David Lee set a screen and rolled to the hoop, Crawford either got a wide open shot or passed the ball to Lee, who had eight of his 12 points in the final 6:49--and all of them either came on passes from Crawford or opportunities created as a result of the initial screen and roll. Crawford scored his 14th (and final) point of the quarter by making a running bank shot after Bynum took a horrible angle to defend a screen and roll play, allowing Crawford to split the trap and drive unencumbered to the hoop.

With the Lakers leading 91-88, Odom fouled out after barreling into the lane and committing an offensive foul. As I've noted in a few recent posts, including a recap of a Lakers' win versus the Nuggets, Odom has a perplexing tendency to dribble into traffic and commit offensive fouls; a player with his talent and experience should have better court awareness than he displays in those situations. Lee made two free throws to cut the lead to 91-90 but Bryant answered with a jumper with 57.6 seconds remaining to make the score 93-90; Bryant scored 13 straight points for the Lakers from the 8:37 mark of the fourth quarter until he hit that shot. The teams traded missed shots and turnovers in the next few possessions until the Knicks got a rebound and called timeout with four seconds remaining to set up a final play. Lee handled the inbounding duties. Bryant denied one option, a pass to Crawford in the corner, so with the five second count looming Lee tried to pass to Robinson above the top of the key. Farmar read Lee's eyes, stole the ball and raced downcourt for the dunk. Frazier concluded, "The moral of the story is why do the Knicks have to come out so lethargic and get down by 25 before going on a rampage?"

After the game, Trautwig asked Bynum what it says about the Lakers that they were able to hold on and win. Bynum offered a very wise reply: "Actually, it says something bad about our team because we don't have the ability to keep our foot on somebody's throat. So we are going to have to develop that characteristic if we want to be a great team."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:27 AM

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