38 Special: Lakers Ride Kobe Bryant's Scoring Outburst to a 109-98 Win Over UtahKobe Bryant's 38 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the Lakers' 109-98 game one win over the Jazz were actually only slightly above his playoff averages in those departments, an indication of just how high of a standard he has set for himself. Bryant shot 8-16 from the field and 21-23 from the free throw line, setting a franchise single game playoff record for free throws made. Pau Gasol chipped in nicely with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Lamar Odom once again posted solid numbers (16 points, nine rebounds, three assists) as the third option. Ex-Jazz point guard Derek Fisher only scored five points but he had six assists and six steals while helping to force his counterpart and former teammate Deron Williams to shoot just 5-18 from the field, though Williams finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Mehmet Okur had 21 points and 19 rebounds and Carlos Boozer added 15 points and 14 rebounds as the Jazz outrebounded the Lakers 58-41; the Lakers overcame that deficit by holding the Jazz to just 36-95 field goal shooting (.379).
Bryant has become such a master of reading and reacting to various defensive alignments that Odom calls him "Kobe-wan Kenobi." Bryant saw opportunities to attack right from the start, so he scored 15 first quarter points while shooting 4-6 from the field and 6-6 from the free throw line. Despite Bryant's high efficiency scoring, the Lakers only led 25-24 at the end of the first quarter because the rest of the team shot poorly from the field.
Bryant took his normal rest at the start of the second quarter and Sasha Vujacic picked up the slack off of the bench, dropping in nine quick points. When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson helmed the Chicago Bulls he often liked to play Scottie Pippen alongside four reserves while Michael Jordan rested, ensuring that there was a steadying hand to anchor the bench players while they were on the court. Jackson now has the luxury of using Gasol in that role and Gasol assisted on two of Vujacic's field goals. Several of the Lakers' bench players have improved this season but those players also benefit from often being able to play alongside either Bryant or Gasol.
The Lakers led 34-28 when Bryant returned to action. Bryant promptly converted a three point play, scored a fastbreak layup and made a nice lob pass to Gasol for an easy score to put the Lakers up 41-28. By that time, Bryant had scored 20 points on 6-8 shooting from the field while the rest of the team had scored 21 points on 8-26 shooting from the field. The Lakers maintained that margin for the rest of the quarter and led 54-41 at halftime. Bryant had 24 points in the first half, shooting 6-8 from the field and 11-11 from the free throw line. Factor in his two assists and the extra defensive attention that he attracted and Bryant accounted for significantly more than half of the Lakers' offense.
In addition to Bryant's sterling offensive numbers, another thing that helped the Lakers to build and maintain their lead is that they forced a lot of turnovers and converted them into easy baskets; Bryant of course played a major part in that defensive effort, too. The Jazz took much better care of the ball in the second half, which in turn choked off the Lakers' transition game.
Utah is a very physical team that pounds the glass and pounds opposing players and that relentless pressure tends to wear teams down over four quarters, as we saw in the first round when the Jazz beat the Rockets into submission. In the second half, Bryant missed several jumpers that he normally makes but he also continued to take the ball to the hoop, absorb contact and make his free throws. Still, the Jazz chipped away at the lead and eventually they pulled to within 85-80. The Lakers desperately needed a score and Bryant provided it, drawing a foul and making both of his free throws.
The Jazz answered by closing to within 91-87, prompting Jackson to call a timeout to set up a beautiful play: Bryant ran a screen/roll with Gasol and the defenders naturally trapped Bryant, who passed to a cutting Gasol, who drew a defender and then passed to a cutting Odom, who scored and drew a foul (Odom missed the resulting free throw). That was a wonderful sequence to watch and it was made possible because the Jazz had to trap Bryant to get the ball out of his hands; if a less dangerous guard ran that play, the Jazz could respond differently and not compromise their defense in the paint. This is why assist numbers and PER and EFF only tell part of the story; it is essential to watch the action in order to see how the offense attacks and how the defense reacts.
On their next possession, the Lakers ran a similar action but Bryant's pass to the cutting Gasol was just a bit too fast and too high, resulting in a turnover. The next time the Lakers got the ball, Bryant drove to the hoop, attacking Boozer and drawing his sixth foul. Bryant split the pair of free throws to give the Lakers a three possession lead (94-87) with 3:28 remaining. Bryant missed a jumper and a layup the next two times that the Lakers had the ball, but Gasol slipped to the hoop behind Bryant and tipped in the missed layup to put the Lakers up 96-89. After Ronnie Brewer made one free throw the Lakers again ran the Bryant/Gasol screen play, this time ending up with Bryant threading the needle with a bounce pass that Gasol converted into a layup for a 98-90 lead. ABC's Hubie Brown said, "They've been wearing out that pick and roll on the left side in the second half and it was a great pass to a guy who made the catch and delivered for you." Each element of that play is important: you need an offensive threat like Bryant who must be trapped by the defense--and who is an excellent passer--and you need a big guy who is mobile enough to roll to the hoop and who has good enough hands to catch and finish.
Although many members of the media love to beat their established storylines into the ground, it is not accurate to say that Bryant has become more unselfish this season; he started making winning plays--shots and passes--in the playoffs and the NBA Finals years ago. The change is that now Bryant has someone with whom he can actually play the two man game--I realize that this is not the first time that I have made this point but it bears repeating because so many people are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge the simple truth that Bryant did not learn how to play the team game this year; he was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, so passing the ball effectively is not a new skill for him--the Lakers simply went through a period during which he did not have many good targets who were capable of receiving passes and finishing plays.
Bryant provided the coup de grace with less than a minute to go when he corralled a defensive rebound and whipped a Wes Unseld-like outlet pass to Gasol for an easy layup and a 101-90 lead. Keep in mind that Bryant and Gasol have developed their marvelous on court chemistry despite playing less than half a season together.
This was a very solid win for the Lakers but they can hardly afford to get complacent; after the Jazz stopped turning the ball over they essentially played even with the Lakers in the second half (trailing 57-55) and the Jazz murdered the Lakers on the glass throughout the game, grabbing 25 offensive rebounds. Of course, part of the reason that so many offensive rebounds were available is that the Jazz missed a lot of shots but Phil Jackson cannot be pleased that Utah's starting frontcourt of Boozer-Okur-Andrei Kirilenko outrebounded the Lakers' starting frontcourt of Odom-Gasol-Vladimir Radmanovic 39-22. The Jazz outscored the Lakers in the paint 56-52 and when Utah's players made the right reads in their offensive sets they often got easy baskets inside.
As the series progresses it will be very important for the Lakers' long and lean bigs to not get overpowered by Utah's stockier bigs. In my preview article about this series, I wondered how Phil Jackson would choose to deploy Gasol and Odom defensively. In game one, Gasol guarded Boozer while Odom checked Okur; I assume that Jackson wants to use Gasol's length against Boozer in the post while leaving Odom the task of chasing Okur around the perimeter and keeping him off of the boards (Odom did a much better job of the former than he did of the latter).
It will be interesting to see which adjustments Coach Jackson and Utah Coach Jerry Sloan make from game to game and how well their players implement these changes.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM