Bryant Leads Lakers to First Western Conference Finals Berth Since 2004Kobe 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM