Bryant Dominates Second Half as Lakers Erase 20 Point Deficit to Edge SpursKobe Bryant scored 25 second half points on 10-18 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers came back from a 65-45 third quarter deficit to beat the defending champion San Antonio Spurs 89-85. Bryant finished with 27 points on 11-21 field goal shooting and 4-4 free throw shooting and he had a game-high nine assists, five rebounds and just one turnover. Six of Bryant's assists went to Pau Gasol, who scored 19 points on 7-16 shooting in addition to having seven rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Vladimir Radmanovic scored 10 points on 5-5 field goal shooting, with all of that production coming in the first quarter. Sasha Vujacic provided a real energy boost off of the bench with 10 points and five rebounds. Lamar Odom struggled mightily, missing numerous layups and scoring just eight points on 3-12 field goal shooting. He had a team-high eight rebounds but he also had a team-high three turnovers. Derek Fisher scored four points on 1-9 shooting from the field, had no assists and was repeatedly burned by Tony Parker in the first half.
Tim Duncan had game-high totals in points (30), rebounds (18) and blocked shots (four) as the Lakers went with single coverage on him for the most part. Duncan shot 12-25 from the field--which is a decent percentage but also one that the Lakers can live with because by staying at home on the perimeter they limited the Spurs to just 5-20 (.250) shooting from three point range. Parker had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists but he managed just six points and one assist in the second half. Manu Ginobili had a terrible game, scoring just 10 points on 3-13 field goal shooting and committing four turnovers. TNT analyst Doug Collins mentioned that Ginobili might be fatigued after the heavy minutes that he logged in the previous series against New Orleans; that is why I disagree with people who prorate Ginobili's regular season production and conclude that he is in any way a comparable player to Bryant, who is highly productive game in and game out while playing 38-40 mpg or more. If Ginobili played as many minutes as Bryant does for a whole season Ginobili's numbers would drop and/or he would break down physically. Bryant does not enjoy the luxury of coming off of the bench and padding his numbers against second stringers nor does he get as much time to rest as Ginobili does. Ginobili is an All-Star level player--and I correctly picked him to be the X factor versus the Hornets--but he is not an MVP-level player.
This game perfectly illustrates the truth of what I have been saying for several years about Kobe Bryant: he is the best player in the NBA because he has no weaknesses and he therefore presents more problems to a defense than any other player (and he also is a perennial member of the All-Defensive First Team as voted on by the league's head coaches). LeBron James--the second best player in the NBA--has largely shored up his weaknesses on defense but he is a subpar free throw shooter who has an inconsistent three point shot and a poor midrange game. He also is not a great postup player despite his size and athleticism. James has an amazing ability to drive to the hoop, accept contact and score but because the other parts of his scoring arsenal are incomplete it is possible for a great defensive team that has the right game plan to slow him down. James shot .356 from the field and committed 23 turnovers (5.8 per game) in last year's NBA Finals versus the Spurs and he shot .355 from the field while committing 37 turnovers (5.3 per game) versus the Celtics in this year's Eastern Conference Finals. His poor shooting percentages and high turnover rates in those two series happened because both teams built a wall around the paint to minimize his driving opportunities while defending him softly on the perimeter, clogging his passing lanes and allowing him to shoot long jumpers that he missed with regularity. It can be said that James' passing ability makes his teammates better, though I prefer to say that a great player like James draws attention and thus gives his teammates opportunities to do what they do well. However, it can also be said that James' inability to make outside shots permits defenders to better guard against his passes and in that sense he is making his teammates worse or, as I would put it, not giving them as many opportunities to do what they do well.
That may sound like a radical statement, but this can be proven by contrasting how the Spurs guarded Bryant in game one with how the Spurs and Celtics guarded James. The bread and butter play that the Lakers repeatedly ran was a screen and roll with Bryant and Gasol. Each time, Duncan trapped Bryant hard to prevent him from shooting a jumper. Meanwhile, Gasol rolled to the hoop with a smaller player on his hip, Bryant tossed Gasol a lob and Gasol dunked or made a layup. As I mentioned above, six of Gasol's seven field goals came as a result of this play, with Bryant receiving assists on all six; for those who may be wondering about the scorekeeping in light of my recent analysis of Chris Paul's assists, five of those assists were clearly scored correctly but the last one--at the :26 mark of the third quarter--is a close call in my judgment: after Gasol received the pass from Bryant he made a quick fake and then dropped in a layup in one fluid motion. Since Gasol faked and then shot all in one motion the assist is not completely bogus--an assist can be rightly scored if the recipient makes an immediate scoring move--but it is not as clearcut as the other plays in which Gasol caught the pass and scored without any fakes at all. From the standpoint that Duncan was somewhat out of position due to having to cover Bryant on the play--meaning that Bryant's movement before he made the pass created the opportunity for Gasol--the assist can be justified.
The difference between Bryant and James is that Duncan had to trap Bryant hard to prevent the jump shot and that made it impossible to stop Gasol from rolling to the hoop. If you put James in Bryant's place to run this play with Gasol then Duncan would hedge back into the lane, preventing James from driving while also guarding against the pass to Gasol. James would then have to shoot a jumper that he would probably miss, force a pass that would likely be a turnover, keep dribbling as the shot clock winds down or pass to a teammate who is well covered because the screen/roll play was successfully guarded without having to rotate other defenders. This is where statistical analysis of basketball players breaks down unless it is paired with the trained eyes of an observer: no matter how someone crunches regular season numbers to determine who the best player in the NBA is, the reality is that it is easier to design a defensive game plan against James than it is to do so against Bryant. James can do many wonderful things on a basketball court and that is why I say that he is the second best player in the NBA--but Bryant's game has no weaknesses, so when you pair him with good players his team instantly becomes a championship contender. Remember that Gasol is a one-time All-Star who had never won a playoff game prior to this season. The Memphis Grizzlies are rebuilding their team and Gasol is young enough that they could have used him as the cornerstone of that process but they got rid of him precisely because Gasol is better suited to being a complementary player to an MVP-level player like Bryant than to being the first option who the defense is built to stop. The Grizzlies preferred to start over from scratch rather than top out with a Gasol-led team that would never get out of the first round.
Bryant spent the first half trying to get his teammates involved; he had five assists but only scored two points. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said both during the game and in the postgame press conference that he knew that in the first half Bryant was simply getting his teammates involved and that Bryant could start scoring at any point. The Lakers trailed 51-43 at halftime but TNT's Charles Barkley presciently predicted that the Lakers would win the game anyway. He said that the Lakers missed several layups due to being rusty but that overall they had played well and that Bryant would be more aggressive as a scorer in the second half. Barkley's overall analysis was right on target but I do not think that the missed layups were due to rust: Gasol missed two shots by going up soft instead of making a power move to ensure that he would either score or get fouled. Gasol has the ability to finish at the rim but he is a finesse player more than a power player and sometimes in traffic he shies away from contact instead of seeking it out. Odom shot 2-8 from the field in the first half and was responsible for most of the Lakers' missed layups. On several possessions he stormed to the hoop either on a coast to coast move or on an isolation play in the half court but those drives resulted in missed shots, blocked shots and turnovers; his only two hoops came when he tipped in his own miss and when Bryant spoonfed him for a close range shot. Although Odom does have a quickness advantage over Duncan and Fabricio Oberto that really is negated because Odom is not an explosive leaper and he shoots a hard, flat shot whether he is in close or on the perimeter; he does not finish well in traffic against length, so even when he gets half a step on Duncan or Oberto he is still likely going to miss the shot because he cannot complete such plays with a dunk. Instead of having the ball as the primary attacker he is much better suited to being a weak side cutter who receives passes from Bryant or Gasol. In the second half the Lakers smartly went away from trying to utilize Odom's alleged mismatch advantage. Imagine for a moment a team that relied upon Odom to be its first or second scoring option: such a team could never beat the Spurs in a seven game series because he does not have the necessary skill set to be the focal point of the offense. Collins correctly noted that Odom is best suited to being the third option, the role that he enjoys now and has thrived in since Gasol joined the team, this subpar game notwithstanding.
The real problem for the Lakers in the first half was that Parker lived in the paint, breaking down the defense by either scoring (12 points) or passing to open shooters after the Lakers rotated to him (five assists). Collins repeatedly said that for the Lakers to come back they would have to start playing better defense but things got worse for the Lakers before they got better; they began the third quarter by missing five straight shots and committing two turnovers on bad passes by Gasol and Fisher. They trailed 59-43 at the 7:52 mark before Bryant scored their first points of the quarter on a jumper. The Spurs countered with a 6-0 run to take a 20 point lead with 5:54 remaining and a smattering of boos could be heard in the Staples Center. Just when things looked hopeless, Bryant took over the game: he made a jumper, assisted on a Gasol layup, nailed a three pointer and sank two free throws as the Lakers trimmed the lead to 65-54. A Vujacic three pointer made the score 65-57 and then the last four Lakers' possessions of the quarter consisted of three Bryant lobs to Gasol for easy scores on screen/roll plays plus a stunning one on one move by Bryant against Ginobili: Bryant faced up Ginobili at the three point line on the right wing, dribbled behind his back, made a step back move, pump faked and then made a leaning bank shot. "Guard that!" Collins exclaimed. The Spurs had a scoring drought that last more than three minutes but they came out of it at the end of the quarter and still led 72-65 going into the fourth quarter.
During an in-game interview with Craig Sager after the third quarter, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson offered this whimsical explanation for Bryant not shooting a lot in the first half: "I thought Kobe went on vacation to the Bermuda Triangle instead of the sideline Triangle (Offense). But we got him this quarter." Bryant later said that perhaps he had let the game come to him a little too much in the early going but that once he sensed some "jitters" from his teammates he realized that he had to boost their confidence by taking over the scoring load.
Collins noted a key adjustment by Jackson at the start of the fourth quarter: normally Bryant sits out the first few minutes but this time Jackson kept him in the game (and Bryant ended up playing the whole quarter, logging a game-high 43:34 of playing time overall). Jackson also shifted Bryant to small forward and used Vujacic at shooting guard so that the Lakers would have a small, fast and energetic lineup. Bryant outscored the Spurs 14-13 in the final stanza and he gave the Lakers their first lead of the game (83-81) when he made two free throws at the 2:42 mark. On the next possession Bryant nailed a jumper to put the Lakers up 85-81 and Collins said, "This guy's unbelievable. Unreal second half, what this guy's done for his team." It is very important to understand that Bryant's complete skill set is what enabled him to make these plays down the stretch; he has to be guarded closely on the perimeter, which makes his jab step fake even more deadly: he created open jumpers several times against premier defender Bruce Bowen by facing up, using the jab step to back Bowen off and then raising up to shoot. When Bowen guarded James in last year's Finals he backed off James and thus in effect had an extra step as a head start to block James from driving. A jab step by James would have been useless because Bowen was already laying off of him, perfectly willing to let him shoot long jumpers.
Ginobili hit two free throws to cut the lead in half and then the Lakers had flashbacks from the first half as Odom missed a layup and Gasol missed a left handed dunk. After a wild sequence, Duncan scored on a tip in to tie the game at 85. Collins said that the Spurs should trap hard on the screen/roll and make anyone other than Bryant beat them. After Gasol set a screen for Bryant they did just that, with Duncan and Bowen trapping Bryant on the left wing but Bryant dragged them out away from the hoop and then attacked hard to the basket before pulling up for a midrange jumper to put the Lakers up by four. "He strung out the double team and took the ball right where he wanted it. That's just a brilliant play," Collins said. The Lakers then got a stop and Vujacic made two free throws to close out the scoring.
In the second half, the Lakers kept Parker out of the paint and held the Spurs to 34 points. Bryant not only scored 25 second half points but his four assists accounted for eight more points. Barkley correctly said of the gorgeous passes that Bryant threw to Gasol, "If he's making those passes to Kwame Brown they might end up in the third row." What has changed this season is not Bryant's ability or willingness to pass but the fact that he now has a capable post player to catch those passes.
Kenny Smith succinctly summarized the dilemma the Spurs face in trying to guard Bryant: "The game plan for the Spurs is trying to defend the indefensible...He (Bryant) scores from so many areas of the floor that all of a sudden the defensive game plan that you draw on the board doesn't even work...It's easier to have a game plan against Tim Duncan than Kobe because he (Kobe) scores in so many different areas...Chris Paul is (always) going into the pick and roll. Kobe is going to the block, he's going to the three point line, he's coming off the dribble, he's coming off screens." In other words, even for great players like James, Duncan and Paul defenses have some kind of remedy or at least they know which areas of the court they have to protect--but Bryant can attack from anywhere at any time as a scorer or a passer, so it is very difficult to come up with a comprehensive plan against him, let alone execute it successfully.
Of course, this was just game one of what promises to be a long series and I respect the Spurs far too much to count them out. That said, in NBA playoff history the game one winner advances 79% of the time--and Phil Jackson is 40-0 in seven game playoff series when his team wins the first game. The Spurs should not rely on being able to come back from a 2-0 deficit against the Lakers like they did against Paul's Hornets, so game two is a must win for San Antonio.
Bryant said before the playoffs that he no longer has to go into gun battles with butter knives, so now "we'll see what's up." "What's up" is that Bryant is demonstrating the veracity of what I have been saying about him for the past three seasons: he is the best, most complete player in the game.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 AM