Gasol, Bryant Lead Lakers to Game One Victory Over Defenseless NuggetsPau Gasol set or matched playoff career-highs across the board with 36 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists as the L.A. Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 128-114 in game one of their first round playoff series; prior to this game, Gasol's playoff career-highs were 28 points, 16 rebounds and five assists. James Worthy and Elgin Baylor (twice) are the only Lakers who have ever put up at least 36-15-8 in a playoff game. Charles Barkley is the last player who had such a stat line in a playoff game (43-15-10 for Phoenix in 1993). The 36 points are easily the most points that Gasol has scored in a game since joining the Lakers, surpassing his 31 point effort in a March 4 victory over Sacramento; this is also Gasol's first 30 point game since his return to action after a sprained ankle sidelined him for nearly three weeks late in the season.
Kobe Bryant struggled with his shot in the first half but he made seven of his 16 field goal attempts in the second half and he poured in 18 fourth quarter points, including 14 consecutive points from the 5:29 mark to the 2:10 mark to ensure that the high-powered Nuggets would not mount a late comeback. Bryant finished with 32 points, three rebounds, one assist, two blocked shots and one steal, shooting 9-26 from the field and 13-14 from the free throw line. The Nuggets' entire defensive game plan focused on trying to contain Bryant; they started out the game by putting forward Kenyon Martin on Bryant, resulting in strange cross matches all over the court, including 6-0 (a generous listing) guard Allen Iverson checking 6-10 forward Vladimir Radmanovic. Martin, wary of being beaten off of the dribble by Bryant, gave him plenty of air space but Bryant missed several shots that he normally makes. Mark Jackson mentioned a few times that he thought that Bryant settled too much for the jump shot, though from speaking to Bryant on several occasions I know how he would answer that charge: any time a defender backs off of him or has his hands down Bryant is going to fire because that is a "money shot" for him (as he described it today to Michele Tafoya). Bryant is a very good outside shooter but it did seem like there were a few opportunities where he could have driven the ball. However, most of the shots he took are ones he normally takes and makes--and when the chips were down in the fourth quarter the ball was in his hands and he produced. The Nuggets also used a zone defense to try to clog Bryant's driving lanes but the net result of all of these gimmicks was that Gasol had a lot of opportunities to roam in the paint to catch and finish; late in the game, the Nuggets put Martin on Gasol and had J.R. Smith check Bryant but Smith is too small and too inexperienced to guard Bryant, who beat Smith every which way but loose, catching backdoor lobs, shooting jumpers over him and eventually fouling him out of the game (Bryant drew three fouls on Smith during his fourth quarter scoring outburst).
This season we have heard about how Chris Paul makes David West better and how the addition of Shaquille O'Neal to the Suns has made Amare Stoudemire better--and there is truth to both of those statements--but it is also clearly true that Bryant has made Gasol better in much the same fashion. Gasol had never won a playoff game before today, let alone perform this well in a postseason contest. He deserves credit for developing such a multifaceted skill set as a big man but he has had these abilities for quite some time; the freedom to display those skills resulted from the way that the Nuggets emphasized stopping Bryant--and Bryant went off in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets turned their focus to stopping Gasol. If the Nuggets use Smith or Iverson on Bryant for extended periods Bryant may very well give them 40 or 50 points. It is beautiful to watch the symbiotic relationship between Bryant and Gasol and to see how whoever has the open shot shoots the ball; there is no drama about whose team it is--they're just playing winning basketball and during timeouts they are laughing and smiling instead of staring off blankly in different directions. All Bryant has wanted for the past four years is for the Lakers to provide him with at least one player who can actually catch the ball and finish in traffic when defenses load up against him--and when the Lakers did not respond to Bryant's private entreaties he very famously made his complaints publicly known. That resulted in a lot of criticism being directed toward Bryant but the results speak for themselves: General Manager Mitch Kupchak got Bryant the kind of help he wanted and Bryant has responded by playing like an MVP, including his willingness to put off finger surgery until after the season because he realizes that the Lakers have an opportunity to do something special.
What about the fact that Bryant attempted 26 shots but only had one assist? Doesn't that prove that Bryant is a selfish gunner? This is why it is vitally important to actually watch basketball games to understand them. The Nuggets focused their defense on Bryant in the early stages of the game. When Bryant passed the ball the defense rotated to the recipient of his pass, who then passed the ball again, often to Gasol. As Hubie Brown always says, if you make the second pass out of the trap then you will get a wide open shot; the Lakers did that all game long. The Lakers' chemistry is obviously fantastic and that starts with Bryant, the best player, who sets the tone offensively and defensively. In contrast, look at Carmelo Anthony, one of the Nuggets' two All-Stars. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly pointed out how poor his defense is, adding that a team will follow whatever its leader does. Right after the Lakers isolated Lamar Odom on Anthony and drew a foul, Jackson said that Anthony must take more pride in his defense, recognize that teams view him as a weak link there and do everything he can to prove them wrong. Instead, on the next possession, Anthony drove into the teeth of the defense and forced up a shot against three players, trying to make up for his bad defense by scoring points. He drew a foul but Van Gundy observed that Linas Kleiza was wide open in the corner for a three point shot. Don't think for one second that this does not have an effect on the team. Anthony's teammates see that he does not work hard on defense and that he forces shots on offense rather than move the ball to the open man. Do all great scorers force shots sometimes? Absolutely. Does Bryant force shots sometimes? Sure he does--but Bryant has also been the primary playmaker on three championship teams and he has proven over his entire career (not just this season as some would suggest) that he is willing and able to give up the ball when he has teammates who are willing and able to catch and finish. As Bryant said earlier this season, now he is no longer going into a gunfight with "butter knives."
Van Gundy said that Odom was the best player on the court in this game. Odom certainly played very well (17 points on 8-14 field goal shooting, 14 rebounds, six assists) but again it is important to understand his role in the pecking order: the Nuggets did not set up their defense to stop Odom or Gasol. Odom is perfectly suited to be the third option. There is a reason that he looked out of place and the Lakers were not nearly as successful when he was the second best player on the team, just like there is a reason that Gasol had lost each of his 12 playoff games prior to today. Gasol is a marvelous second option but he is not an elite (by which I mean top five or even top 10) NBA player. The Lakers have a perfect balance now with Bryant leading the way, Gasol as the second best player and Odom filling in the gaps as the third best player. Bryant, Gasol and Odom are each willing and able passers so the ball does not "stick," which is a problem that the Nuggets often encounter; the Lakers had 33 assists on 46 field goals, while the Nuggets had 20 assists on 43 field goals. Luke Walton (16 points, five assists, four rebounds) was the only other Laker who scored in double figures.
If the Lakers' top three players were Gasol, Odom and Walton then you can bet that the Nuggets would run the Lakers off the court and there is no way that Gasol would be putting up 36-16-8 with the defense focusing on him. As Mark Jackson noted during the telecast, "Part of the problem with the (Denver) defense is you have your best interior defender (Kenyon Martin) on Kobe." Bryant would be the top option on any team in the NBA and he has proven that he can be productive against any kind of defense. That is not true of Gasol and Odom. Bryant is fortunate to finally have a good supporting cast around him but it is important to understand exactly how and why things are working so well for the Lakers. Gasol certainly knows what is happening. He told Tafoya at halftime, "We're moving the ball so well and they're so concerned with Kobe we just have to find the open guys."
The Nuggets have a lot of offensive weapons. Carmelo Anthony led Denver with 30 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 11-26 from the field and never put his stamp on the game; he's just out there "getting buckets" (to borrow a phrase from the similarly inclined Gilbert Arenas). Allen Iverson, who Denver Coach George Karl has correctly identified as the team's most valuable player, also had 30 points, shooting 11-24 from the field and leading the Nuggets with seven assists. He also had five rebounds but he had an off day from the free throw line, shooting just 7-13 (.538), well below his career playoff norm (.767). Kleiza (23 points) and Smith (15 points) provided plenty of production off of the bench.
I love statistics; I've been crunching basketball numbers literally my whole life but nowadays some people have gotten so caught up in their spreadsheets that they don't know (or even care to know) how to watch a game and evaluate personnel. Players like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony are considered stars (or at least Marbury used to be) and you can look at their assist totals and conclude (wrongly) that they are good passers--but they don't consistently play in a disciplined, unselfish way that is conducive to team success and that is why they rack up a lot of points but very few playoff victories. If you understand basketball then you know that there are some players who will only give up the ball if they know that they will get the assist; they are not interested in facilitating ball movement or playing winning basketball. Why do you think that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown is emphasizing the "hockey assist" (the pass that leads to the pass that is credited as an assist, a subject that I discussed here and here)? Brown wants his players to know that he and the coaching staff recognize and appreciate the importance of making such passes. Great players and great teams don't care who gets the points or who gets the assists as long as the team gets the win.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:33 PM