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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mile High Malaise: Lakers Flatten Listless Nuggets

Kobe Bryant passed early (six first quarter assists) and scored late (11 third quarter points) as the L.A. Lakers dismantled the Denver Nuggets 102-84 to take a 3-0 series lead. Bryant finished with game-high totals in points (22), assists (eight) and plus/minus (+21, tied with Derek Fisher) while tying for the team lead in rebounds (seven). He shot 9-19 from the field. Even more significant than Bryant's impressive numbers is the way that he controlled the game--and has controlled the entire series so far--with his scoring and passing; the Nuggets have tried several different defensive schemes but nothing they have done has stopped him individually or slowed down the Lakers collectively. Bryant simply reads the situation, shoots when he has the open shot, drives when he has the opportunity and feeds his teammates whenever the Nuggets try to trap him. Four other Lakers scored in double figures: Luke Walton (15 points on 6-7 field goal shooting), Pau Gasol (14 points on 5-9 field goal shooting), Derek Fisher (14 points on 5-8 field goal shooting) and Lamar Odom (12 points on 3-9 field goal shooting).

The Nuggets shot just 32-86 (.372) from the field, with their All-Stars Carmelo Anthony (16 points on 5-22 field goal shooting) and Allen Iverson (15 points on 5-16 field goal shooting) leading the way in both points and missed shots. After the game, Anthony bluntly stated what anyone watching the game could plainly see: "We quit." He hastened to add that he included himself in that assessment and that he was not singling out anyone in particular but just like there is something wrong with the Suns laying an egg in game three at home versus the Spurs there is something wrong with the Nuggets just quitting in game three at home versus the Lakers. The issue is not even so much the outcome of the game or the series but just the total lack of professionalism and personal/collective pride. We know that the Lakers are the superior team and would almost certainly win the series even if the Nuggets played their best but how can an organization develop a championship-level mindset with the kind of attitude that leads to such a dismal performance? When fans in Denver are serenading Bryant with "MVP" chants during the second half of a playoff game something has gone terribly wrong from the Nuggets' perspective.

This game will no doubt be misunderstood by people who try to analyze basketball exclusively by crunching boxscore numbers. I don't know how Bryant's performance would be rated by PER or EFF or Wages of Wins but I do know that it cannot be adequately quantified by numbers alone. The Nuggets had no answer for Bryant; if the score had been closer then he would have scored more points and/or dished off more assists, depending on how the Nuggets chose to set their defense. Regardless of what any statistical system might say, if Bryant were not on the court then this series would be completely different; the Nuggets would be able to focus in on Pau Gasol, who had never led a team to a single playoff game victory prior to joining the Lakers. Odom would then have to step into Gasol's role as the number two option and open shots would be very hard to come by for any of the Lakers. These things should be obvious to anyone who watches the game with understanding but all a statistical system can tell you is what numbers each player produced; it does not explain that the Nuggets have been forced to use forward Kenyon Martin to try to guard Bryant, which opens up things inside for Gasol, Odom and others, nor does it indicate that the Nuggets have also had to try zones and traps against Bryant, both of which leave gaps into which Bryant's teammates cut so that he can find them for layups or open jumpers. Numbers can tell a lot if you know how to interpret them but they never tell the whole story. Bryant is a threat to post up, drive, shoot midrange jumpers and shoot three pointers (although his three point shot was off during this particular game), which is why it is very difficult to come up with a defensive plan to effectively deal with him; he can post up or shoot over quick defenders and he can drive by bigger, stronger defenders. He also is an outstanding free throw shooter, so fouling him is not a good option. Bryant can beat traps either with a quick shot or a deft pass. PER, EFF, WoW and all the other stat acronyms do not adequately explain a player's skill set and the challenges that he poses to the other team's defense. LeBron James and Chris Paul are wonderful players but as difficult as they are to guard they do have weaknesses; James is an erratic three point shooter and a subpar free throw shooter, while Paul is a smaller player who is not a post up threat, who can be jostled physically when he ventures into the lane and who can have poor shooting games if the opposing team shuts down his driving lanes and forces him to shoot jumpers: Paul shot 10-37 from the field when the Hornets lost three out of four games late in the regular season when they were still battling for the top seed in the West and he shot 4-18 from the field in the Hornets' game three loss to the Dallas Mavericks. You will rarely if ever see teams defend Bryant with the idea that it is OK to give him an open shot from any range, so he puts constant pressure on the opposing defense no matter where he is on the court.

I would also disagree with anyone who would say that Bryant's eight assists in this game and his 10 assists in the previous contest prove that he has become a better passer or a more unselfish player; the difference this season is that Bryant, as he so aptly put it, is now going to war with guns instead of "butter knives." You get more assists passing to Derek Fisher than Smush Parker; moreover, after a certain point it does not even make sense to pass to Smush Parker because Bryant has a better chance scoring one on three than Parker does of making anything other than an uncontested layup or dunk. Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, so acting like he suddenly learned how to pass the ball is just silly. It will be a long time before anyone else carries a team to two playoff berths with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown (or equivalent players) in the starting lineup. In recent seasons, most Western Conference playoff teams have had two All-Stars in the starting lineup, not two guys who are closer to Developmental League status than they are to being All-Stars.

It is not easy to take a 3-0 lead in a series because even underdog teams tend to fight relentlessly to prevent that from happening; this year, only the Lakers and the defending champion Spurs have won the first three games in their respective series. Even the league-leading 66-16 Boston Celtics lost their game three versus the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had a sub-.500 regular season record. MVP candidates LeBron James and Chris Paul played very well in leading their teams to two home wins each only to lose their game threes on the road; James had a decent game three individually, while Paul played well below his usual standard. On the other hand, Bryant set the tone for his team with his approach to game three and he backed up that attitude with his efficient play.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:23 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Monday, April 28, 2008 8:49:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

There is no need to analyze this. The Nuggets play no defense and gave up. The Lakers are a better team. The series should be over tonight. Bryant can score 10 points and they will win. Who cares about Bryant beating traps and EFFs when the Nuggets show no effort on the court?

 
At Monday, April 28, 2008 9:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

The Nuggets are obviously a flawed team but they did win 50 games in the West and they beat some good teams down the stretch in order to qualify for the playoffs. In other words, they did not just up and quit in this series; the way that Bryant and the Lakers are playing forced them to quit.

Also, so much has been said about how Nash makes his teammates better and how Paul makes his teammates better. Some of those things are true and some have been exaggerated--but I don't hear anyone talking about how much Bryant makes his teammates better, from Gasol on down to the bench players.

 
At Monday, April 28, 2008 12:08:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

I dont care how they quit they did quit. Thats not a good enough reason for me when you are in the playoffs and make a lot of money and are at home. And why do you have to preface it as Bryant and the Lakers? Whats wrong with the Lakers forced them to quit?

You always say you write about Bryant because he is the best player but wow. You do praise him more than any player in your blog. You are a little ridiculous you have to admit when you discuss him. Who cares if no one else brings up how he makes his teammates better? Its obvious that he does by their play and record over the course of the season and playoff play. Bryant finally has help and the other players have stepped up.

And these idiot media members (I dont mean you) tend to equate making teammates better with a point guard. So what Bryant does goes unnoticed. Plus people dont like him, which makes most sports writers idiots and unequipped because their personal feelings get involved when it comes to a player.

 
At Monday, April 28, 2008 5:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

Saying "Bryant and the Lakers" is no different than saying "James and the Cavs" or "Duncan and the Spurs"--teams are normally identified with their best player. Frankly, I don't think that Gasol and Odom would have quite enough on their own to make the Nuggets quit.

I agree that it is inexcusable for Denver to quit; my point is that the Lakers did have something to do with it, because Denver did not quit at the end of the regular season in games against top teams.

I am trying to correct the incorrect impressions that many fans and media members have about Bryant, "making teammates better" and other subjects but I can't correct these things if I don't talk about them repeatedly.

 
At Monday, April 28, 2008 9:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous regggie

kobe a great player but lebron to me has played just as well as kobe in the playoffs and cp3 played great the first two games the last two not as much but he has been great for them all season.

makeing players better is not really a true thing it is called playing with better players most of the time. steve nash made shawn marion and stoudamire look better because his strengths fit there strenghts he is great in the pick and roll which helps stoudamire who does not have a great go to shot same with paul and david west who when paul penetrates west takes a open 15 footer and he does not really have a good go to shot either.


marion is at his best in the open court which is another strentgh of nash and jason kidd. the thing with marion is that he doesn not have a go to shot so it seemed someone had to creat for him and that is what nash did for him and stoudamire. but the media contradict ourselves because marion put up 21 9 02-03 with marbury and 19 9 marbury 03-04 numbers with nash 19 11 04-05 21 11 05-06 17 7 06-07 of course they will say they were winnning with nash and not a championship of course.

pau gasol put up 20 and 8 and 20 9 without kobe and as the vocal guy the problem is he never won a playoff game which proves that he could not be the vocal guy which is what kobe is but ithink he is what he is 18-20 points rebounds 8-10 plus a great passer with or without kobe but with kobe he could have a few rings without kobe he will not and we know he will at least win a playoff series with kobe.

kobe has never been liked by mainstream media. im not the
biggest fan of his but i respect his game and he is playing unselfish and great right. so noone should be takeing anything a away from kobe play and his game right now one thing about kobe he is mentally tough player he came from court cases in colrado hitting game winning shots been killed by the press for shaq sitaution and still has standed tall if mike tyson was that mentally tough he would of been the greatest boxer of all time.

 
At Tuesday, April 29, 2008 9:54:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I guess that could be a reason to continue to mention Bryant and making his teammates better. Its easy to tell if one is watching the game.

The reason Denver didnt quit in regular season games is because they needed to get in the playoffs. If the Lakers made them quit then they shouldnt be in the NBA or playing basketball. Thats a disgrace and an indictment on their coach.

 
At Tuesday, April 29, 2008 6:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

As I've said before, "making teammates better" should really be called "putting teammates in a position where they have a better chance to succeed." The point is that you can't "make" someone better; you can't make someone do something he is not able to do--but if a player is a good spot up shooter and his man has to double Kobe then the spot up shooter will have an opportunity to do what he does well. Great players put their teammates in positions to do the things that they do well. Instead of being the guy who is drawing double teams and is the focus of the defense, Gasol benefits from the attention that Kobe receives. You can't just look at their regular season numbers because sometimes Kobe and Gasol did not play much in the fourth quarters of blowouts. Gasol is getting easier looks at the hoop because the defense has to account for Kobe--and Odom is really benefiting because he is now the third priority for the defense.

 
At Tuesday, April 29, 2008 6:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

For years I've been hearing that Nash makes Amare better and this year I've been hearing that Paul makes West better but I have yet to hear anyone (other than me) suggest that Kobe is making Gasol better--but that statement is at least as true as the other ones: in the first game of the Denver series Gasol put up point/reb/assist numbers that only Baylor and Worthy had ever done as a Laker. Did Gasol suddenly magically improve? No, he is benefiting from playing alongside Kobe. Some people are acting like West could not score a point if he didn't have CP3. West has a deadly face up jumper from 17 feet, he can drive and he has good post moves. It obviously helps to have a great point guard but West is an All-Star level talent with or without Paul. New Orleans is better off for having both of them but Paul has not "created" West in the fashion that some people are suggesting. It is true that Paul has helped Chandler's offense but Chandler is averaging around 10 ppg, not 20 ppg, so let's not go crazy; we're basically talking about 1 or 2 lob passes a game here.

 
At Tuesday, April 29, 2008 8:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

pau could get double teams himself and also helps everyone out as well getting double teams kobe helps him get easy basket but most of the baskets he gets is from penetration from not just kobe but every laker player who penetrates. you act like the lakers cant score a point without kobe on the court pau has proven himself to be all star level without kobe his numbers are same with kobe he has great post hook passes well nice 15 footer as well.

west has only played with chris paul and his first two years without paul he was a bust. maybe he his good anyway but we dont know that i see him shooting wide open 17 footer because of chris paul pentration but defintely there are times when he drives and used his post but not as much as paul drives for him. he is not better than pau to me and pau is proven west cant win 50 games as primary guy like pau did.

if pau averaged 6ppg his first two years and then averaged 18-20 ppg the next 3 years with kobe you would be writing how great kobe is and how pau was nuthing before kobe and how much he benefits from kobe etc like you do in your post. some of the sucess of west is becasue of paul i think he could average 13-16ppg on his own without paul.

 
At Thursday, May 01, 2008 11:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Pau could get double teams but he's not getting too many of them now that he plays with Kobe. The other team has to stop (or try to slow down) Kobe first, which means that Pau is not facing defense geared to stop him, like he did in Memphis.

Pau made one All-Star team without Kobe and he has been in the league for quite some time. He was an All-Star in 2006.

West was not a bust; he hardly played, just like Bynum hardly played at first. I know for a fact that Kobe has been pushing Bynum to work harder and he has been in his ear giving him advice about how to guard certain players, as I explained in my game recap from when the Lakers visited Indiana. I don't know for a fact that CP3 has had a similar mentoring role for West, who is of course an older player than CP3.

Why can't West win 50 games as a primary guy? Give West the same team that Pau did--and in the same Western Conf., not the current Western Conf.--and I don't see why West could not have a similar impact. West has game--he's not a Tyson Chandler waiting for table scraps at the front of the rim. You are grossly underestimating West's skill level.

 
At Saturday, May 03, 2008 5:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie


he cant win 50 games and you know it david on that pau team. you think be david west can win 50 games as lead guy on a team lol? i dont know if i should take you seriously anymore. even in 05-06 the west number 8 was 45 wins this year it's 50 they were a 5 seed lost every game but still won 50 games you grossly try to be little pau and grossly overate west i think pau is clearly better than west is he doesnt have that much game pau got game he put up 20 and 8 20 and 9 20 and 7 3 times as primary guy i dont think west could do that if they dont key on cp3 he is a number two option you go nowhere if david west is your first option he is not good enough to make playoffs as one option in the east let along west.

 
At Saturday, May 03, 2008 5:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

You seriously need to pay more attention to West's skill set. He is very good at creating his own shot. He has good post moves and a deadly midrange jump shot. Obviously it would help any player to have a great point guard like CP3 but West is one of the better big men in the league and he is still improving. Pau has already reached his peak. Given the same teammates and the same Western Conference that Pau played in with Memphis a few years ago there is no reason that the current version of David West could not have led Memphis to a similar record.

 

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