Kobe Drops 41 in Shaq's Phoenix DebutShaquille O'Neal made his Phoenix debut on Wednesday night but his former teammate Kobe Bryant stole the show, scoring 41 points as the Lakers beat the Suns, 130-124. Bryant shot 16-25 from the field in the 90th 40 point game of his career, scoring 13 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers held off several strong rallies by the Suns. The Lakers improved to 62-28 in Bryant's 40 point games, including 3-2 this season; more significantly, the Lakers now have the same record as the Suns (37-17) and own the tiebreaker between the teams by virtue of winning the season series 3-1. Bryant received significant support from Pau Gasol, who scored 29 points on 13-19 shooting, and Lamar Odom, who finished with 22 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with 37 points and 15 rebounds, Steve Nash added 26 points and eight assists and O'Neal produced 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in just under 29 minutes of action. O'Neal also committed five fouls.
The Lakers led most of the way and pushed the margin to as high as 13 points but the Suns kept fighting back and used a 9-0 run early in the fourth quarter to briefly move ahead, 106-105. The Lakers responded with a 10-2 run, with Bryant scoring five points and assisting on a Gasol dunk that became a three point play. Bryant was clearly the best player on the court; as ESPN's Bill Walton put it at halftime, "Kobe is near perfect in every aspect of the game." Yes, Walton is often guilty of spewing blatant hyperbole, but at least on this occasion he was right on target. Perhaps the scariest thing for the rest of the league is that Bryant is no longer in the unenviable position of going into a gun fight with butter knives. Recent Lakers' teams would have folded in the fourth quarter of a tight game such as this one, not due to any deficiency in Bryant's game but simply because no other Lakers would step up; it is a whole different story in L.A. now, with guys like Kwame Brown and Smush Parker being replaced by Gasol and Derek Fisher. Gasol has stepped in and been highly productive a bit more quickly than I expected, so when the Lakers get Andrew Bynum back they figure to be very, very dangerous. My initial impression after the Gasol trade was that it is not fair to expect a Lakers team that has been rebuilt on the fly to beat teams from San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix that have core groups of players who have been together for years. However, the funny thing is that all of those teams have since made deals involving members of their primary rotations, which means that the cohesiveness factor may not be such a disadvantage for the Lakers vis a vis those other teams.
On offense, the Lakers can now operate out of multiple sets, including the Triangle, a high screen/roll involving Bryant and Gasol, an isolation set with Bryant or postups of various players if there are mismatches. Bryant and Gasol have already developed nice chemistry in screen/roll situations and that only figures to improve the longer that they play together. Gasol can shoot the 15 foot jumper or drive to the hoop, he has good hands and his height/length are great assets; gone are the days when Bryant's only choices were to force a shot for himself or make a great pass only to see it bounce off of Brown's hands or head. TNT's Kenny Smith often talks about the importance of placing every player in the rotation in his proper position and assigning him the correct role. The idea that Odom could ever even come close to being Scottie Pippen to Bryant's Michael Jordan is simply absurd; likewise, Gasol did not always thrive in the role as the leading player for the Memphis Grizzlies. Obviously, Bryant is the number one option for the Lakers, so Gasol can comfortably shift into the secondary role and Odom can now provide a spark as the third option.
It is important to remember that this was not only O'Neal's first game as a Sun but also his first live action in over a month. The numbers that he put up in terms of minutes, points, rebounds and field goal percentage (6-9) are all right where they need to be, though foul trouble will be a serious issue if the Suns ever need for him to play more than 30 minutes. O'Neal's impact on the glass can be measured not only by his own numbers but also by the fact that the Suns outrebounded the Lakers 46-33. Prior to acquiring O'Neal, the Suns were the worst rebounding team in the league and they had a very poor record against the top eight teams in the West; his presence figures to help the Suns in both of those areas. The Suns are a much more dangerous team now; before, they were cotton candy--sweet and fun but also soft and lacking substance--but O'Neal adds much needed ruggedness and championship experience. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs obviously understand this; the only possible reason for them to trade for Kurt Thomas is to add a big body to contend with O'Neal during the playoffs.
The Suns utilized O'Neal on offense in three different ways. The first is the most obvious: they posted him up on the block and threw him the ball, which either led to a double-team that created an open shot for one of his teammates or a one on one opportunity for O'Neal to take a high percentage shot. Even though O'Neal is a poor free throw shooter, his ability to draw fouls puts the Suns in the bonus quickly and results in more free throw attempts for players who will actually make them. The second way that the Suns deployed O'Neal was in the high post. From that location, he set screens, participated in dribble hand offs and made some deft passes to cutters. The Lakers hurt themselves a couple times by double teaming him, something which makes no sense when O'Neal is 15 or more feet away from the basket and would never even think of shooting. The third way that the Suns took advantage of O'Neal's presence was by crashing the offensive boards; it takes two or sometimes even three people to box out O'Neal, so Stoudemire often had a free run to the hoop. Sure, there were some awkward moments at times as O'Neal and his teammates got used to each other but based on this performance there is no reason to think that O'Neal will hinder the team's offense.
The Lakers scored at least 30 points in each quarter and shot 52-92 (.565) from the field, so the Suns' defensive shortcomings have still not been solved. O'Neal and Stoudemire are both good weak side shotblockers but neither one is particularly adept at either guarding his own man one on one or defending against the screen/roll play. Any team that has even a semi-competent big man should repeatedly make O'Neal guard screen/roll plays. In the playoffs, the game slows down and it is vital to have big bodies who can protect the paint; just consider how the Spurs literally put up a moat and built a wall around the paint to contain LeBron James during the NBA Finals. Whether or not O'Neal and Stoudemire are willing and able to provide that kind of defensive presence will go a long way toward determining how far the Suns advance this season.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 AM