Bryant's Fourth Quarter Scoring Lifts Lakers to 107-101 Win, Series SweepKobe Bryant produced another fine all-around game (31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, two blocked shots, 12-24 field goal shooting) as his Lakers defeated the Nuggets 107-101 to complete the only sweep in the first round of this year's playoffs. Bryant scored 14 of his points in the final 5:31 of the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol added 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, though he scored just three points in the second half. Lamar Odom, thriving as the third option in the Lakers' attack, contributed a double double (14 points, 12 rebounds). J.R. Smith led the Nuggets with 26 points, including several spectacular dunks and three three pointers but, as Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith both noted after the game, even though a lot of his long jump shots went in they were still bad shots and you cannot beat a good team when you consistently take bad shots (which is exactly what I said about Gilbert Arenas more than a year ago when some people foolishly touted him as an MVP-level player). Of course, Smith is far from the only Nugget who takes bad shots. Allen Iverson finished with 22 points on 10-22 shooting from the field but he had just two assists, an uncommonly low number for him in that department. Carmelo Anthony scored 20 points on 8-20 shooting before fouling out; Anthony missed a staggering number of dunks, layups and shots in the paint in this series, particularly in games three and four.
Anyone who still believes that Anthony is an elite NBA player needs to get some tapes of this series and compare his performance to Bryant's--particularly in the fourth quarters of each game--and it should be pretty obvious exactly what the differences are between being an All-Star who can score and an MVP-level player who impacts the outcome of a game in multiple ways: Bryant averaged 33.5 ppg while shooting .500 from the field and .333 from three point range. He also averaged 6.3 apg and 5.3 rpg while getting six steals and six blocked shots. Anthony averaged 22.5 ppg while shooting .364 from the field and .250 from three point range. Anthony averaged 9.5 rpg--half of his boardwork came on the offensive end where he was cleaning up his own misses--and 2.0 apg. He had two steals and one blocked shot. I'm not a big believer in the NBA EFF stat but Bryant came out at 30.75 in this series while Anthony registered 16.5 and that seems about right based on their relative influence on the outcome of these games.
Of course, as I always stress, there are a lot of things that the numbers simply can't quantify. For instance, consider a play that happened at the 7:29 mark in the second quarter. Bryant drove to the hoop but was cut off by his defender. He faked a shot, pivoted, attracted more defenders and then dropped off a perfect pass to D.J. Mbenga for an easy dunk to put the Lakers up 45-34. Mbenga had four career playoff points prior to this season. After Mbenga's dunk, Reggie Miller said of Bryant, "See what happens when you are the best player on the planet? You draw so much attention to yourself--three players came over." Marv Albert added, "Those are the kind of plays that Kobe was able to (do) with (Andrew) Bynum." There is a reason that Bryant can complete such plays not just with Bynum but also with Mbenga: any big man who can catch the ball and finish is going to have a lot of opportunities to score when he is on the court with Bryant. Unfortunately for the Lakers the past few years, Kwame Brown is not particularly good at catching and finishing. There is a lot of talk about how Bryant is more unselfish this season but I'm not buying it; the difference this season is not with Bryant but with the quality of his supporting cast. To put it bluntly, now he has some guys who can actually catch the ball and put it in the basket. If Bryant had dropped off a similar pass to Brown it would not likely have resulted in a score. After Brown fumbles such passes several times is it really unselfish and in the best interests of the team to continue to pass it to him? Don't tell me that Steve Nash is making Amare Stoudemire better or that Chris Paul is making David West better unless you also have something to say about Bryant's effect on Pau Gasol. If another star player or point guard takes a team to the playoffs with Kwame Brown as his starting center the way that Bryant did then we have some real news in the "making players better" department. Based on the Lakers earning the number one seed in the West despite only having Andrew Bynum for 35 games and Pau Gasol for barely a fourth of the season, I'm confident that Bryant would do just fine if he had Stoudemire or West at his side for the entire season as Nash and Paul did respectively.
There is also a lot of talk about how deep the Lakers' roster is but that is another concept that I am not completely buying. It is true that some of the younger players have improved and I have already mentioned on several occasions that having Gasol as the number two option means that Odom can slide over to the number three slot where he is much more suited--but the Lakers' bench looks a lot better when Bryant is on the court than when they are left to their own devices, particularly against good teams. Bryant took his first rest of the game with the Lakers leading 52-40 at the 5:32 mark of the second quarter. When he returned to the game with 3:07 left the Lakers were only up 56-50 but with him in the game they pushed that margin back to 64-54 by halftime. Why exactly are we supposed to believe that a team led by Gasol and Odom with the players that the Lakers bring off of the bench would be any better than Gasol's Memphis teams that got swept out of the playoffs every year? I just don't see it. The Lakers' opponents devote so much energy and so much manpower simply trying to contain Bryant that his teammates have a much easier task than they otherwise would. That does not mean that those players have no skills nor is it meant to denigrate how much some of them have improved--but Denver is a 50 win team with two All-Stars, a former Defensive Player of the Year and one of the league's top sixth men: they might very well sweep a Bryant-less Lakers team; after all, the Nuggets spent a good part of the season running up the score against teams that could not match their firepower.
Bryant had 15 points, six rebounds and four assists at halftime, while Gasol scored 18 points, taking ample advantage of the defensive attention that Bryant drew. The third quarter was a sloppy mess that should have been accompanied by some circus music; both teams missed shots, turned the ball over and looked out of whack. The Lakers' only points in the first 6:49 of the quarter came on a jumper by Bryant at the 10:16 mark. The Lakers stayed in front for most of the quarter before Denver ran off 10 straight points to take a 73-71 lead. Kenyon Martin got very excited whenever the Nuggets made the score close and earlier in the game he screamed to the crowd, "It's not over," the Nuggets' rallying cry for this game. The Lakers managed to inch in front, 79-77, by the end of the quarter.
Bryant sat out the first 3:56 of the fourth quarter. This time the bench did a good job and actually increased the lead slightly to 85-81. For the first 42 minutes or so of this game, Bryant was just having an average game by his standards--meaning that he was leading the Lakers in scoring and assists but he had not completely put his stamp on the game. Then Bryant was called for a foul while J.R. Smith attempted a three pointer--a call that Bryant frankly admitted after the game was entirely correct--and it seemed like a gong went off in Bryant's head. Smith's three free throws tied the score at 88 but Bryant reeled off seven straight points--a turnaround jumper, a three pointer and a sweet left handed layup--to put the Lakers up 95-90. Bryant was fouled on that play but he missed the free throw (he uncharacteristically made just four of his 10 free throw attempts). Smith answered with a deep three--one of the shots that Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith said was a bad shot even though it went in--and then he stole Bryant's crosscourt pass, scored a fastbreak layup and completed the three point play after Odom fouled him. Denver led 96-95 and the home crowd believed for a moment that the Nuggets would win--and then Bryant cut their hearts out. First he nailed a jumper over Martin despite Martin defending him about as well as is humanly possible. Then Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and passed to Odom, who swung the ball to Luke Walton for a wide open three pointer (the kind of shot that would never be wide open without Bryant drawing so much attention). That put the Lakers up 100-96. Then Bryant proceeded to foul out Martin and Anthony by drawing three fouls on them in about a minute; that removed the Nuggets' best defender and best scorer from the game. Bryant split a pair of free throws after Anthony fouled out. Iverson launched a contested three pointer but Odom fumbled the rebound into the hands of Nene, who slammed the gift home to cut the lead to 101-98. Bryant answered with a running bank shot, Marcus Camby sank a three pointer and then Gasol dunked--his only field goal of the second half--after Bryant once again drew the defense and passed to Odom, who fed the unguarded Gasol. That made the score 105-101 with :22 left. Bryant secured the victory by stealing the ball and sinking both free throws after he was fouled.
The Lakers are now in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since trading Shaquille O'Neal after the 2004 season and this is the first time the Lakers swept a playoff series since they beat the Nets in the 2002 Finals. They will face the winner of the Utah-Houston series.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 AM