Unstoppable: Kobe Drops 49 as Lakers Smash Nuggets, 122-107Even in a career full of performances for the ages, this one stands out: Kobe Bryant scored 49 points on blistering 18-27 field goal shooting and he dished out 10 assists as his L.A. Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 122-107 to take a 2-0 lead in their first round playoff series. He shot 5-9 from three point range and 8-9 on his free throws, finishing one short of tying his playoff career-highs in both points and assists while becoming just the fourth player in the past 15 years to have at least 40 points and 10 assists in a playoff game (the others are Tracy McGrady, Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley). Bryant shot 10-15 from the field in the first half and 8-12 from the field in the second half, producing 20 first quarter points and then closing out the game with 19 fourth quarter points, all of which were scored in a remarkable four minute stretch during which the Lakers pushed their lead from 100-93 to 120-101. Bryant tied Elgin Baylor and Jerry West for the fifth best single game playoff scoring performance in Lakers history; Baylor holds the mark with 61 points, which was the NBA record for 24 years until Michael Jordan's famous 63 point game versus the Boston Celtics in 1986. Bryant also just missed tying Baylor's franchise record for points scored in one quarter of a playoff game (22).
Pau Gasol, fresh off of his spectacular game one performance, overcame a sluggish first half (four points on 1-5 field goal shooting) to finish with 18 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 6-11 from the field. Luke Walton (18 points, seven rebounds and five assists) and Derek Fisher (10 points) were the only other Lakers who scored in double figures. Foul trouble limited Lamar Odom to 22 minutes and he ended up with just four points, six assists and four rebounds. As usual, Allen Iverson (31 points, six assists) and Carmelo Anthony (23 points, five rebounds and one assist) led the way offensively for Denver but the Nuggets gave up at least 26 points in each quarter and allowed the Lakers to shoot .505 from the field, though a lot of that damage was obviously done by Bryant.
The Nuggets actually got off to a good start and they led 22-16 after Marcus Camby's tip in at the 3:59 mark of the first quarter. Then Bryant made a strong drive to the hoop from the left wing, splitting Kenyon Martin and Anthony and flipping the ball in with his right hand, the first two of 12 points that Bryant scored in the closing minutes of the quarter to propel the Lakers to a 33-32 lead. During a stretch that spanned the first and second quarters, Bryant made 10 straight field goals. Bryant scored 25 points in the first half and the Lakers led 59-49 at halftime.
In the third quarter, Bryant did not force the action, calmly accepting additional defensive attention and then distributing the ball to his teammates, racking up five assists and helping the Lakers maintain a 10 point edge, 89-79, going into the fourth quarter. He spent the first part of the fourth quarter in distribution mode as well before putting the game out of reach with his stunning 19 point outburst.
Bryant clearly took offense at the idea propagated by some people that Martin does a good job defending him. When TNT's Craig Sager asked Bryant at halftime what was the difference between being guarded by Martin and being guarded by J.R. Smith, Bryant replied that it did not matter. Martin and Smith both talked a lot of smack to Bryant. After Smith started yapping, Bryant drove right past him, scored and drew a foul from him. Bryant sank the free throw for his 49th point and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson then wisely took him out of the game since the outcome was decided. Bryant said of Smith, "Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out." Martin and Smith are two hotheaded players on a team full of guys who regularly lose their cool. Martin's tough guy persona is based more on bluster than anything else, as Tim Thomas pointed out years ago when he called him "fugazy." Martin has no back to the basket offensive game to speak of, he's a power forward who has never averaged 10 rpg in a season and he should be tithing a portion of his huge contract to Jason Kidd because Martin had his best years when Kidd was throwing him lob passes for easy scores. Martin's strategy for guarding Bryant in game one was to concede the jump shot and pray that Bryant (1) did not shoot well and (2) did not drive right past him; it worked for a half because Bryant missed shots that he normally makes but I wouldn't count on it working very often for the duration of this series. Smith is a good athlete but he is also too small, too slow and too weak to be anything but a speed bump as Bryant either elevates over him to shoot or simply drives right around him.
Bryant's 49 points are obviously going to be what most people focus on but his 10 assists are also noteworthy; he showcased a full repertoire of passes: no look dishes, bounce passes, lob passes, drive and kick passes to open shooters. Bryant is a highly skilled passer and that is probably the most underrated aspect of his game. Everyone knows that he can score and he annually makes the All-Defensive Team but for some reason his playmaking abilities are overlooked. Some people scoffed the first time I said this but I'll say it again: Bryant is a skilled enough passer to lead the league in assists. Of course, that will never happen because his greatest gift is as a scorer and because the Triangle Offense is not set up in such a fashion that one player will get a lot of assists, unlike some team's offenses that revolve around one player doing most of the distributing. Bryant annually leads the Lakers in assists and he was the primary playmaker on the three championship teams but the opportunity is not there for him to average 10-11 apg. Frankly, it would make no sense to turn an unguardable scorer like Bryant into a pass-first player.
The series shifts to Denver for two games now and it is rarely easy to win in the Mile High City. However, with Utah possibly heading toward a sweep of the injury-depleted Houston Rockets it would behoove the Lakers to close out this series as quickly as possible; the Lakers don't want to drag this thing out and then have to face a well rested Utah squad. The Nuggets' pattern is usually to play one really good game per series, so the Lakers have to be prepared for a dogfight in games three and four.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:13 AM