Kobe Drops 52 as Lakers Beat Mavs in Overtime ThrillerLeBron James looked very much like the best player in the NBA as he put up 37 points, six rebounds and six assists in Cleveland's 95-86 win over Chicago--and then Kobe Bryant took the court in L.A. and showed once again why he should finally capture his first MVP, scoring 52 points--including 30 in the fourth quarter and overtime--as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Dallas Mavericks 108-104 in overtime. Bryant also had 11 rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and one steal. He shot 15-27 from the field and 20-27 from the free throw line; Bryant inexplicably connected on just three of his first 10 free throws, all in the first half, before draining his final 17 in a row. Bryant's effort is the highest scoring game in the NBA this season, eclipsing 51 point games by James and Allen Iverson. Bryant ranks third on the all-time list with 22 50-point games; the Lakers are 16-6 in those contests. He also ranks third on the all-time list with 91 40-point games, during which the Lakers have gone 63-28, including 4-2 this season. Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan rank 1-2 in both 40-point games and 50-point games; Chamberlain had 271 and 118 respectively, while Jordan had 173 and 31. The last time someone scored more than 52 points on March 2 is 1962, when Chamberlain had his famous 100 point game.
Pau Gasol added 17 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocked shots but he shot just 5-14 from the field and did not make a shot in the last three quarters and overtime after scoring 12 points on 5-7 shooting in the first quarter. Dirk Nowitzki got off to a slow start but made several big shots down the stretch and finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and two steals, though he shot just 10-26 from the field. Jason Kidd also shot poorly (6-17 from the field) but he played an excellent floor game (15 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, four steals, just one turnover). Erick Dampier made all seven of his shots en route to a strong double double (16 points, 17 rebounds).
The Mavericks took a 7-0 lead after Kidd made a three pointer and picked up assists by feeding Josh Howard for a jumper and Dampier for a dunk. The Lakers missed their first three shots but got on the board after Luke Walton made two free throws. Bryant did not score until his dunk made the score 9-9 at the 6:42 mark of the first quarter. Throughout the telecast, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy made some interesting observations. One thing that they both noted is the immediate effect that Kidd has on a team; players run harder because Kidd looks to pass, sees openings that other players don't and is able to deliver the ball on time and on target. Dampier in particular seems to have already developed good chemistry with Kidd, who you could call the anti-Arenas; I think that one of the reasons that the Wizards have played well without Gilbert Arenas (at least until Caron Butler's injury) is that players play harder at both ends of the court when they think that it is more likely that they will touch the ball. Arenas' propensity for jacking up shots from all angles and his indifference to playing sound defense lead to poor court balance and hardly inspire the kind of extra effort that you already see from Dallas' players just a few games after Kidd joined the team.
The Lakers recovered nicely from their slow start to lead 29-23 by the end of the first quarter. Although Gasol did most of the scoring damage, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson explained to ABC's Michele Tafoya exactly where the Mavs' defense broke down: "He's been unstoppable because we haven't been able to guard penetration. Kobe's penetrating, (Derek) Fisher's penetrating and he's gotten a lot of easy buckets because of it." The significance of this quote is that the whole "making players better" business works both ways. Yes, Gasol makes the Lakers better because he is a skilled big man who can catch, finish, pass, rebound and block shots--but Bryant (and even Fisher) also help make Gasol better (or, more precisely, make the game easier for him) by breaking down the defense via dribble penetration.
Mark Jackson offered this opinion about why the Lakers have been playing so well recently: "What really separates them as a team is Kobe Bryant on the defensive end. He's guarding the other team's best perimeter player and locking him down." Jackson added that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, saying "This is his year" to finally win the MVP. Jackson ranks Chris Paul second in the MVP race. Van Gundy said that the MVP should go to someone who makes others better, so his choice is the Memphis organization for essentially giving Gasol to the Lakers. On a more serious note, he added that his MVP is Paul, followed by Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. Strangely, Van Gundy also said that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has been for several years; he never explained why someone who has been the best player for several years and is the leading player on the team with the best record in the tough Western Conference should not be the MVP.
Despite his poor first half free throw shooting, Bryant scored 14 points and the Lakers led 50-47 at halftime. The Mavericks began the third quarter just like they started the game, with a 7-0 run. Bryant answered with two drives and an assist to Walton for a layup to put L.A. back on top, 56-54, but by the end of the quarter Dallas was up 68-65.
Bryant played the first 41 minutes of the game without a break but Coach Phil Jackson rested him for about a minute and a half in the fourth quarter. The Lakers trailed by four when Bryant sat and were still down four when he returned. Within the next minute, they tied the score at 79 after Bryant made four free throws and Gasol sank a pair. Nowitzki's jumper put Dallas up 81-79 with 5:50 remaining and the rest of the game turned into an entertaining duel between last year's MVP and the player who should win this year's MVP, with Bryant netting 22 points and Nowitzki putting up 19 points in the next 10:50 (the balance of the fourth quarter plus the overtime). Bryant made a three pointer and a pullup jumper to give the Lakers an 84-81 lead but Nowitzki tied the score by making a hook shot and then splitting a pair of free throws after the Lakers came up dry a couple possessions in a row.
Bryant scored nine points in the last 2:25 of regulation, while Nowitzki had seven points, including the three pointer that forced overtime. Bryant gave the Lakers a 91-88 lead with a three point play at the 1:19 mark, fouling out Dampier in the process. During those final moments the Lakers repeatedly gave Bryant the ball at the top of the key, spaced the floor and let him go to work. The Mavericks first used Jerry Stackhouse to guard him, then put Kidd on him and also tried various double teams; nothing worked, as Coach Johnson ruefully noted after the game: "We gave him a single look, then we double-teamed him, then we gave him a triple-team and he split the triple-team and scored. We tried to zone him, we tried to funnel him in the trap for a zone and he went the other way. He didn't cooperate on any of our defenses. Obviously he milked the free throw line on us and he just had it all going. He's a great player. He has these (games). Lots of these."
Jason Terry's jumper pulled the Mavs to within 91-90 and they had a chance to win after Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a triple team and passed to Gasol, who lost the ball (Bryant was charged with a turnover on the play). A wild sequence ensued on the next possession: Bryant knocked the ball away from Nowitzki but the Mavs recovered and swung the ball to Stackhouse, whose corner three pointer was blocked by Gasol. Lamar Odom got the rebound and Stackhouse promptly fouled him. Odom finished with 10 rebounds but he scored just six points on 2-8 field goal shooting and 2-6 free throw shooting; fortunately, with Bryant capable of scoring 40 at any time and Gasol usually putting up solid numbers, the Lakers are no longer dependent on Odom's erratic shooting touch.
As the players lined up before Odom's two free throw attempts, Van Gundy made a very prescient observation: "I don't like Brandon Bass matching up against Kobe, who is a great offensive free throw rebounder." That is something that I wrote about in my post titled The Best the Game Offers: Kobe Versus LeBron, when I noted that in the two Lakers-Cavs games this year Bryant beat James to free throw rebounds several times, forcing James to actually face guard him at one point. This is an excellent example of why I don't rate players solely based on statistics; numbers tell part of the story but you have to watch players with an informed eye and really understand their skill sets in order to accurately rank them. James averages more rebounds than Bryant because James plays forward and has different offensive and defensive responsibilities but that does not mean that he is a better rebounder than Bryant, as shown by the fact that the smaller Bryant repeatedly got free throw rebounds versus James despite James having inside position. Maybe most fans don't pay attention to "little things" like footwork and free throw rebounds but this is another example of how complete Bryant is as a player.
Sure enough, just as Van Gundy suspected, after Odom missed both free throws, Bryant slipped around Bass and grabbed the offensive rebound. Kidd fouled Bryant, who made both free throws to put L.A. up 93-90. With Dallas set to inbound the ball with six seconds left, Van Gundy talked about the Lakers' defensive strategy in such situations. Van Gundy believes that the defending team should foul, forcing the trailing team to make a free throw, miss a free throw on purpose, grab the rebound and then score but he added that based on his experiences coaching against Phil Jackson he knows that Jackson does not believe in fouling. Once again, Van Gundy was right on the mark: the Lakers did not foul and Nowitzki tied the score by making a three pointer. Odom's defense on this play was horrible. Nowitzki inbounded the ball to Kidd, who was inside the three point arc when he caught the ball. Obviously, the plan was for Kidd to pass the ball, most likely right back to Nowitzki. Odom foolishly went under a screen, leaving Nowitzki open.
During a timeout in the overtime, the subject of the anniversary of Chamberlain's 100 point game came up. Second place in the record book belongs to Bryant's 81 point game a couple years ago but Van Gundy said, "81 against today's superior defense and coaching is a bigger achievement than 100 by Wilt." I'm not sure if I agree with that reasoning but one significant difference between Chamberlain's big game and Bryant's is that Chamberlain's team was winning by a big margin for most of the game; the opponents kept fouling his teammates so Chamberlain would not get the ball and then Chamberlain's team retaliated by fouling to get the ball back. The end of the game was a bit of a sideshow, though 100 points is obviously a great accomplishment. Bryant's 81 points came in the context of a game in which the Lakers were losing by double digits and rallied to win because of his outburst; there were no shenanigans by either team in terms of intentional fouls.
Bryant scored eight of the Lakers' 15 points in overtime and at one point Van Gundy joked about Dallas' futile efforts to guard him, quipping, "They should go into a box and one--put the box on Kobe and the one on everyone else." Nowitzki also had eight points in the extra session and after Bryant's two free throws put the Lakers up 107-104 with nine seconds left it was "deja vu all over again," with the Mavs again inbounding the ball and needing a three pointer to tie. True to form, the Lakers did not foul and this time Nowitzki missed the shot. Odom split a pair of free throws to ice the win.
On ESPN's NBA Shootaround, Jalen Rose said that the Lakers are a very skilled team but he still does not consider them the favorites to win the championship, mentioning their lack of playoff experience together as a group and citing the absence of a "big body enforcer" to deal with Dampier, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal. Rose noted that Dampier put a few hard fouls on Bryant and he asked rhetorically why no Laker big men confronted Dampier. Rose concluded that the Spurs still should be considered the favorite to win the championship. I agree with Rose. The Lakers no doubt pose a viable threat to the Spurs but it is far from certain that they can beat San Antonio four times in a playoff series.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM