Lakers Dominate Spurs, Move Closer to Clinching Top Seed in the WestPlaying without the injured Manu Ginobili, the Spurs stayed competitive for the first half before the Lakers pulled away to claim a 106-85 win against the defending champions. If the Lakers win their last game of the season against the Kings and the Rockets lose one of their final three games then L.A. will earn the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Rockets conclude their season with tough road games in Denver and Utah before they have a home contest against the Clippers. Kobe Bryant led the way for the Lakers against the Spurs, finishing with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals, shooting 6-14 from the field. Bryant received a lot of help from Lamar Odom (17 points, 14 rebounds, four assists), Pau Gasol (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Derek Fisher (14 points, four assists). Tony Parker had 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists but was a complete non-factor in the second half (two points, two rebounds, no assists). Tim Duncan added 16 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 6-19 from the field and did not block a shot.
The Spurs took a 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the game and the Lakers struggled defensively throughout the first half as Parker repeatedly got into the paint. The Lakers were not rattled by their slow start and Coach Phil Jackson stayed true to his normal strategy of not calling quick timeouts even if his team does not look sharp. He expects his players to figure things out on their own based on how they have previously been coached and, sure enough, the Lakers soon rallied to tie the score. Neither team led by more than six points for the rest of the first half and the score was tied at 53 at halftime. In his halftime interview with ABC's Michele Tafoya, Bryant--who had called this a "statement game" prior to tipoff--provided a good summary (and second half preview), saying that the Lakers had missed too many easy shots in the paint and committed too many turnovers. Defensively, Bryant said that the Lakers needed to not give up so many open looks to the Spurs on jump shots from the corners.
Bryant had a team-high 13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting in the first half but in the third quarter he shined first as a playmaker--accumulating three assists--before scoring seven points in the final 2:31 of the quarter. His buzzer beating three pointer capped off that run and gave the Lakers their largest lead yet, 79-67. Bryant received his customary rest to start the fourth quarter and the bench players did such an excellent job of extending the lead that he did not return to action. With his team trailing 89-71 at the 6:40 mark, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich essentially waved a white flag, benching Duncan, Parker and Michael Finley.
The final seeding at the top of the West may not be decided until the last game of the season is played but if people are going to seriously base their MVP votes mostly or entirely on that factor then why isn't Tracy McGrady's name in play in this conversation? If the Rockets win out and get the number one seed after having the second longest winning streak in NBA history earlier in the season despite losing Yao Ming then shouldn't McGrady be the MVP if the tiebreaker is how each candidate's team finishes? Of course, the reason that McGrady is not being seriously considered as the MVP is that he was not the best player in the league for the entire season and the MVP is (or should be) a season-long award. TNT's Kenny Smith made an interesting point on Thursday when he said that Boston's Kevin Garnett was the MVP of the first half of the season and that Chris Paul was the MVP of the second half of the season--but Kobe Bryant was the second best player in each half and thus deserves to win the MVP based on his season-long consistency.
I keep hearing advocates for Paul saying that he has taken a team out of nowhere to 50-plus wins and that the Hornets would be no good without him. Well, how good do you suppose the Lakers would be without Bryant? The Hornets were a mystery team prior to this season because their nucleus of Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic only played seven games together last season--and Paul did not take that injury-riddled team to the playoffs, while Bryant absolutely carried his injury-depleted team to the 2007 playoffs by posting the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in four decades; that accomplishment included a 50 point outburst in a 111-105 win over Paul's Hornets during which Paul, West and Chandler played while the Lakers started Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, with Shammond Williams--who is not even in the league now--getting the most minutes off of the bench. In 2006, Bryant carried another sad sack outfit to the playoffs by averaging 35.4 ppg, the ninth best scoring average of all-time and the best mark since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. It is simply amazing that not only did Bryant not win the MVP in either of those years but he did not finish second on either occasion and was even left completely off of some voters' ballots.
This season, West, Chandler and Stojakovic all have been healthy and productive. Meanwhile, the Lakers have endured injuries to several key players and still have yet to put Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the floor together at the same time. Bryant has been productive individually while at the same time leading his team to the top of the Western Conference. Despite having all of his key players together for the entire season, Paul and his Hornets have been faltering right at the moment when they could have put a stranglehold on the top seed, losing three of their last four games, including one to Bryant's Lakers on Friday night, a game in which Bryant clearly outplayed Paul. Paul shot 16-48 from the field in those four games. How can anyone possibly say that those are MVP caliber numbers? If Bryant had shot that poorly in recent games then you can be sure that everyone would be saying that he should not win the MVP. The fact that this is still considered to be a debatable issue is actually quite remarkable. Bryant's critics said that these late season games would decide the MVP and yet now it seems like people are acting like these games did not happen; you know that if the Hornets had won on Friday that everyone on ESPN would be declaring the MVP race to be a landslide decision in Paul's favor. I don't think that the MVP race should be decided just by these games but it is ridiculous to first elevate the importance of these games and then to disregard them when the "right" player and the "right" team did not shine.
Prior to the start of the season, Bryant demanded that management provide him enough help to get the job done--and he has more than held up his part of the bargain as Bynum and others improved and the Lakers pulled off the heist of the season by acquiring Gasol. It has gotten pretty old to hear normally intelligent people acknowledge that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and yet continue to search for excuses to not vote for him as the MVP; this year, the search is over and the excuses ring more hollow than ever.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:32 PM