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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bryant Leads Lakers to First Western Conference Finals Berth Since 2004

Kobe Bryant had 34 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the L.A. Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 108-105 to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2004. Bryant scored 12 points in the fourth quarter--all of them in the last 4:54, including six straight free throws in the final 2:12--as the Lakers held off a furious late rally by the Jazz that featured a barrage of five three pointers in the closing 2:33 of the game. Each team placed all five starters plus one reserve into double figures in scoring but the difference for the Lakers, as it has been all season, is that they have Kobe Bryant and their opponents do not. Bryant showed little sign of being hindered by the back spasms that slowed him down during game four and affected him slightly in the fourth quarter of game five. Pau Gasol had a nice game (17 points, 13 rebounds, four blocked shots) and his length and mobility frustrated the Jazz at both ends of the court. Derek Fisher had a very efficient--or should I say "e-Fish-ent"?--performance, scoring 16 points on 4-5 field goal shooting and 7-8 free throw shooting. Even though Deron Williams finished with good numbers (21 points, 14 assists), Fisher made him work for everything he got and helped hound Williams into 9-21 field goal shooting--and an extra couple misses are huge in a close game like this one. Carlos Boozer had a game-high 14 rebounds but he only scored 12 points on 5-16 field goal shooting and the All-Star power forward watched the final 4:34 of the game from the bench after he fouled out.

With this victory, the top seeded Lakers accomplished something that number one seed in the East Boston and number two seed in the West New Orleans both failed to do: close out a tough series with a road victory in game six. Prior to the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told his team, "Play with controlled abandon, all right? So you are playing hard, but you are under control. Let your instincts carry you to what you have to do--you've been trained in how to run this offense. Run the floor and follow your instincts. You know how to do that." The blending of preparation and instinct in basketball is very interesting, as Jackson suggests: a basketball team practices certain skills and actions in order to hone its players' instincts so that in crucial situations they will react properly and make the correct plays. Jackson's message to his team reinforces the idea that the players should feel confident that they can and will make good plays because they are well prepared to do so.

The Lakers took command right from the start, opening the game with a 7-0 run and leading by as many as 16 points in the first quarter. Utah cut the margin slightly to trail 33-20 by the end of the quarter. Bryant had 10 points and one assist in the opening stanza. He sat out the tail end of the first quarter and the first 3:45 of the second quarter but the Lakers still led 40-28 when he returned to action. He immediately faced up Matt Harpring, drove to the hoop, drew a foul and sank two free throws. As Hubie Brown put it, Harpring defends Bryant by "smacking him around," while Ronnie Brewer slides his feet and uses his athletic ability to try to stay in front of him and Andrei Kirilenko slides his feet, tries to stay in front of Bryant and then goes for the shot block. "What they (the Jazz) do," Brown explained, "is run these three different people at Kobe every quarter and force him into adjustments. Now, I would say, he is adjusting pretty good when he is scoring 33 a game and shooting 50 percent (from the field)...He is averaging 15 and a half free throws a game because he can beat anyone off the dribble to the rim and he can finish. More importantly, he will take the physical punishment to get the 15 free throw attempts."

On the next possession, Bryant again blew past Harpring and drew a foul. Brown said, "That is a smart offensive player being played by someone who is trying to intimidate him with physical play...Kobe set him up by calling for the pick and roll: no way was Kobe coming off that screen into the middle. He wanted that isolation on the baseline because after two bounces he's ahead of Harpring."

Bryant's ability to get by Harpring--and just about anyone else--at will opens up easy scoring opportunities for his teammates, which is why I keep saying that players should not be evaluated solely by their statistics but rather by their skill sets. Of course, doing that requires judgment and understanding about basketball that most people don't possess, which is why they rely too heavily on statistical crutches that should be used to buttress a skill-set based evaluation and not as the primary means of ranking players. For instance, Odom is thriving in his role as the third option in the Lakers' attack behind Bryant and Gasol but some people look only at his numbers and erroneously elevate how good he really is. After Bryant scored on the two previous possessions by easily driving around Harpring, the Jazz sent a trap at Bryant when he got past Harpring the next time down the court--and Bryant slickly fed Odom for an easy dunk. Odom's scoring average and field goal percentage are helped by playing with Bryant and Gasol. Sure, it could be said that Bryant and Gasol are also helped by playing with Odom--it is obviously better to play with skilled players than unskilled players--but anyone who watches basketball with understanding realizes that Bryant and Gasol help Odom more than he helps them. Brown said, "You cannot turn your head (defensively) when Bryant or Gasol have the basketball" because they will make great passes to cutters.

Fisher turned a steal into a three point play and then the Lakers got a stop, filled the lanes well and Fisher found Bryant for a double pump, two handed dunk during which he took off from outside the semicircle that designates the restricted area for block/charge calls. "By the way, the back is OK," Brown exclaimed after that play. "It looked like he came off a trampoline."

A bit later, the Lakers ran a great set out of a timeout, with Gasol setting a screen for Bryant at the top of the key and then rolling to the hoop. Bryant accepted the trap and fired a bounce pass that would make Steve Nash or Chris Paul proud and Gasol had an easy dunk that put the Lakers up 52-35. Bryant and Tracy McGrady are the only shooting guards in the NBA who possess the necessary passing skills to lead the NBA in assists. Of course, neither of them will ever do that because their primary skill is the ability to score the ball and they are more valuable to their respective teams doing that but their extraordinary passing skills amplify their ability to score because defenses have to account for that aspect of their games, particularly when Bryant and McGrady are playing alongside people who can catch the ball and finish plays. Bryant made an even better pass a couple possessions later, a pinpoint behind the back feed to Gasol, but Gasol did not go up strongly and C.J. Miles stripped the ball; Gasol had a good series overall but one problem he had against the Jazz was that he often did not protect the ball well enough against Utah's scrappy, physical defenders.

Utah made a small run to cut the lead to 56-43 but Fisher closed the quarter with six straight points: he hit a three pointer and then he sank three free throws after Williams fouled him on a three point attempt just before the halftime buzzer. Utah got no closer than 80-66 in the third quarter and a couple field goals by Bryant in the last 1:40 made the score 86-70 heading into the fourth quarter. The Jazz relentlessly chipped away at the lead in the fourth quarter, with Paul Millsap doing the bulk of the work with his inside power game; he scored 10 points in the first 5:37 of the quarter to help Utah get within 91-82. A minute later, two Harpring free throws made the score 93-86 but the last five minutes of the game belonged to Bryant. His three pointer pushed the lead back to 10. "That's what he does best," Brown said. "It's amazing how he can put a dagger in your heart." Bryant then nailed an amazing, double clutching fade away bank shot while Harpring fouled him; the resulting free throw put the Lakers up 99-86 but the resilient Jazz were not done yet. Williams made a runner and the Lakers had three empty possessions in a row: an Odom shot that was blocked by Millsap and turnovers by Odom and Gasol. Williams' three pointer at the 2:33 mark made the score 99-91. In the final two minutes, the Lakers answered Utah's three pointers with six Bryant free throws, plus two free throws by Odom and one free throw by Fisher. Fisher's missed free throw left the door open for Utah but the Jazz missed their last two three pointers, enabling the Lakers to beat the team that had the best home record in the regular season and move on to face the the winner of Monday's game seven showdown between San Antonio and New Orleans.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Sunday, May 18, 2008 2:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kobe played a great game esp. in finishing it

but this was not the kobe show the way you suggest

Fish had great steals and hardly missed a shot all series

odom's & gasol's length and their speed on the break was a huge part of the difference -- transition points was the main reason they won

there is no comparable power forward to odom with that length & speed (or maybe there is one or 2 who i cant think of, but not many)

kobe's D was good but not great ... at the end he inexplicable went for a double team that left kirilenko open for the 3 that brought utah to within 2 before Fish made 1 of 2 FTs

in game 6, sasha & Vlad were also good

if anyone came out roses, it was Phil

yes Kobe is incomparable -- but no, he is not worthy of the worship at the level you dish it out... the rest of the team was huge, and enabled him to be in a position to close it out...

notwithstandign his terrible defenisve lapse that almost cost them the game and perhaps their season

 
At Sunday, May 18, 2008 2:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I find your comment a bit odd because you imply that I ignored several things that I in fact mentioned not only in this post but in previous ones as well:

1) I agree that Fisher has made a significant contribution to the Lakers' success--in this game and throughout the season--and have mentioned that on several occasions, including in this post.

2) I said before and during the series that this would be a battle of the length/speed of the Lakers' bigs versus the power of the Jazz' bigs.

3) There is no question that Odom is a talented player but he is not a better pf than most of the pfs on Western Conference playoff teams, guys like Duncan, West, Amare, Nowitzki--and even Boozer, who is a 20-10 player, although he inexplicably faded down the stretch this season. You will note that Gasol, not Odom, guarded Boozer. Odom's numbers spiked when the arrival of Gasol shifted him to being the third option on the team. The above listed players are all the first or second option on their teams.

4) Kobe's defense in this series suffered a bit after the back injury, though that does not explain what happened on the play that you cited. As for that play, D Will is the guy who Utah looks for to shoot late 3s while Kirilenko is not a great 3 point shooter (though he had of course just hit one in this game). Without asking Bryant or Jackson what the plan was on that inbounds play I don't know why Bryant double teamed D Will and if that was a gaffe or not. Perhaps they were supposed to switch on every exchange and someone else was supposed to rotate to AK 47. After the shot went in, Kobe slapped his hands in disgust for a split second before refocusing on the Lakers' own inbounding attempt; I got the impression that he thought that someone else was supposed to rotate over, as opposed to him thinking that he had made a mistake but of course this is all just speculation until or unless someone asks one of the principals who was involved in the play. Based on Kobe's success as a defensive player I give him the benefit of the doubt and suspect that he did not blow this assignment. I could be wrong. For the sake of argument, let's say that in a six game series in which Kobe was clearly by far the best player on the court he made one defensive mistake: does that invalidate the truth of the statements that I made in this post about how he played throughout the course of game six?

5) Why is Sasha and Vlad being good in one game more significant than Kobe averaging 33-7-6 for an entire playoff run? Why do you think that Sasha and Vlad are able to get open shots? Why do the Lakers usually have a lead when Sasha enters the game?

6) Jackson is a great coach, no doubt about that.

7) I don't "worship" Kobe or anyone else. What I do, in contrast to other writers who cover the sport, is accurately analyze what happens in the games without dwelling on off the court nonsense or which players give the best sound bites or have the "coolest" blogs.

 
At Sunday, May 18, 2008 6:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There is no question that Odom is a talented player but he is not a better pf than most of the pfs on Western Conference playoff teams, guys like Duncan, West, Amare, Nowitzki"

not in the half court, but in the open court he is on their level, and they are elite players

his open court skills are probably eqaul to amare & west, and better than duncan & dirk

the problem with kobe, as he admits, is that sometimes he takes too many shots-- until i hear an explanation for his game 4 overtime ball hogging, then i think he has to answer for that... ditto the defense on AK47

nobody disputes his greatness, but that game was a team win

 
At Sunday, May 18, 2008 7:11:00 PM, Anonymous warsaw said...

Kirilenko has improved is 3 point shot and this season he's shooting at a higher percentage than Kobe Bryant, for example. So it was a terrible choice to leave him unguarded. The same way Odom has been leaving Okur completely alone all over the series in the 3 point lane.

By the way I find amusing that the media -not this blog- destroyed Gasol when Boozer had great games, but they don't even mention him when Boozer played poorly.

 
At Monday, May 19, 2008 3:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

AK 47 shot 5-22 (.227) from three point range in this year's playoffs and has shot 9-42 (.214) from three point range during his postseason career. He did shoot a career-best .379 from three point range in the regular season. Kobe shot .361 from three point range this season but he made more threes than AK 47 attempted.

As a defender I'd be much more worried about D Will shooting a three than AK 47. However, as I said, I don't know what Kobe was supposed to be doing on that particular play and what the other defenders were supposed to be doing. This is different than the play Gilbert Arenas made in his first game back from injury when he double teamed a well guarded player who could only shoot a two pointer to tie and thus left his man open for a three pointer that won the game. Even if AK 47 makes a three the game is tied and the Lakers have the ball for the last shot. I'm not saying that Kobe did not mess up; it's not clear what was supposed to happen. I would be surprised if a perennial All-Defensive Team member who changed Team USA's entire defensive mindset simply blew a late game defensive assignment. Anything's possible but that seems unlikely to me.

 
At Monday, May 19, 2008 3:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I already said my piece on the defensive play with AK 47 and there really is nothing to add unless or until Jackson or Kobe says something about that play.

I'm not taking Odom over the players I listed in full court, half court, the People's Court or any other court. Those guys are elite, All-NBA level players who can carry a playoff team. Odom is the third option on a playoff team and if he were the first option the team would not be a playoff team. I don't know why some people get so mesmerized by the fact that he is 6-10 and can dribble a little bit. Duncan and West are much better on the post, Amare is a much better finisher and Dirk has handles and can shoot threes. Odom is, as I wrote recently, essentially Horace Grant with more dribbling ability and not quite as much defensive prowess--both are basically 15 ppg-10 rpg guys and can be solid contributors on very good, even championship-level, teams.

I have yet to hear Kobe "admit" that he shoots too much, though he is often charged with that by others. Kobe already explained what happened in the overtime--he took shots that he normally can make and he missed them. He refused to use the back injury as an excuse, though it obviously affected his mobility. Phil Jackson said that he was more angry at Kobe's teammates than at Kobe because they simply gave him the ball and stood around, as opposed to creating the spacing that they did in the fourth q when Kobe had a bunch of assists.

Let's try to be logical for a minute and consider some facts:

1) Kobe was the leading playmaker on three championship teams.

2) Kobe sacrificed his scoring last summer to focus on defense as Team USA won the FIBA Americas tournament.

3) Kobe spent the fourth q feeding his teammates as the Lakers came back.

Considering those facts about Kobe, is it more logical to assume that he suddenly, inexplicably became a "ball hog" in overtime or that Jackson is correct that his teammates stood around and waited for Kobe to win the game?

 
At Tuesday, May 20, 2008 12:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

you right anymous that was a team win he has alot of help kobe does now. i wouldnt take odom over stoudamire duncan or dirk i defintely think he is alot better than horace grant was even though horace was good player he was a 11 and 8 career player odom is 15 and 10 and alot more versatile than grant. david west is inconsistent against spurs he had 2 30 point games and 3 10 point games the other 2 he had 20 but he didnt play well in either haveing 4 points in 4th quarter game 7 and 3 in game 3 he was up and down in series he is not elite or all nba player he is good but needs to be more consistent he is no duncan or nowitski or stoudamire he is not gasol either pau is consistent at least 20 and 8 and 5 in playoffs he hasnt had a bad game yet really let along 3 or 4 in a series.

staying on topic odom is good player not great better as your 3 option than 2 but good none the less. the lakers should win the series vsspurs kobe and gasol and odom spurs cant match lakers are the best.

 
At Tuesday, May 20, 2008 7:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

It is deceptive to compare Grant's career stats to Odom's because Grant played until he was a 38 year old bit player. Odom's averages after nine seasons are 15.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg; Grant's averages after nine seasons were 12.7 ppg and 8.8 rpg. It is worth noting that Grant played in 683 games in his first nine seasons while Odom has only played in 587, so when you have Odom on your team you need a good backup because he gets hurt a lot. Also, Grant shot better than .500 from the field in each of his first 10 seasons, while Odom is a lifetime .460 shooter who has shot better than .500 only once--this season, when he finally shifted to the third option and thus feasted off of the easy baskets he gets playing alongside Kobe and Gasol. Odom is a better ballhandler than Grant but Odom's versatility is overrated; I'd actually prefer to have a player like Grant who was versatile defensively, able to show hard on pick and roll plays and then recover quickly into the paint. He was a big part of Chicago's defense during the first threepeat.

Some of West's inconsistency stemmed from his back injury. My main point about West is that he generates much of his own offense through one on one moves. Sure, it is nice to have a great point guard, but West could use his moves to be a 20 ppg scorer in any offense. He has a postup game and a faceup game, so he is a very tough cover.

West had at least 20 points in eight of 12 playoff games; Gasol has had at least 20 points in five of 10 playoff games so I don't understand how you are interpreting these stats. West averaged 21.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 2.8 apg while shooting .466 from the field; Gasol's playoff averages are 20.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 4.5 apg with .568 field goal shooting. Their per game averages are obviously very similar. Gasol's field goal percentage as a Laker--both in the regular season and in the playoffs--is much higher than his career norm and that is directly attributable to all of the easy baskets he gets because Kobe draws so much defensive attention.

 

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