Mile High Malaise: Lakers Flatten Listless NuggetsKobe 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:23 AM