Bryant Lifts Lakers to Within One Win of Returning to the NBA FinalsKobe Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (10) as they beat the San Antonio Spurs 93-91 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. He scored eight points on 4-4 field goal shooting as the Lakers raced out to a 22-8 first quarter advantage and he contributed six of the Lakers' 16 fourth quarter points, helping them to build up a big enough margin to hold off a late comeback attempt by the defending champions. Lamar Odom bounced back nicely from a subpar game three to post 16 points and nine rebounds. Pau Gasol did not score much (10 points, eight of them coming in the first half) but he added 10 rebounds and six assists. Tim Duncan had game-high totals in points (29) and rebounds (17) but he shot just 10-26 from the field. Tony Parker contributed 23 points and nine assists while committing just one turnover. Manu Ginobili was not only ineffective--seven points on 2-8 shooting, six assists, one rebound--he was largely invisible during his 36 minutes of playing time. Brent Barry picked up the slack for Ginobili with 23 points, including five three pointers. This Lakers' victory snapped San Antonio's 13 game winning streak in home playoff games.
The Lakers held the Spurs to 30-75 (.400) field goal shooting and outrebounded them 46-37. Bryant's impact was felt on the boards as he not only tied Gasol for the team lead but he had twice as many rebounds as every Spur not named Duncan. So how did the Spurs keep the game close? They took care of the ball (committing just eight turnovers) and made 24 out of 26 free throw attempts. Bryant attempted no free throws in this game after shooting just one free throw in game three; he has only shot six free throws in the entire series. This comes on the heels of a series against Utah in which he never attempted less than 10 free throws in a game and he averaged 16 free throw attempts a game. The Jazz foul more than any other team and the Spurs emphasize defending without fouling but those numbers are still bizarre; it's not like Bryant has become passive offensively; he shot 14-29 from the field. After the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson drily said, "It's pretty impossible to take 29 shots and not be fouled. Tonight was one of those exceptions, I guess."
It is true that a lot of Bryant's points are coming on jumpers but I disagree slightly with the idea that the Spurs are "giving" Bryant the jumper. It is more precise to say that the Spurs are trying to deny Bryant the opportunity to drive and then contesting his jump shots; that is why Tim Duncan trapped Bryant very aggressively early in the series when Bryant ran screen/roll plays, something that Duncan did not do versus LeBron James in last year's NBA Finals. This series vividly demonstrates just how much better Bryant is than James; one NBA scout (see Postscript below) says "The difference between him and LeBron is like (the one between) a Maserati and a Volvo." Specifically, one difference is that Bryant has a deadly jump shot, so even in a game when his forays to the hoops were limited and he shot no free throws he still had a major impact by hitting jumper after jumper against perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA, Bruce Bowen. I have repeatedly said that the Spurs' defense that shut down James would never work against Bryant and it is quite obvious now that I was correct about that: Bryant is shooting 48-90 (.533) from the field against the Spurs, with his primary weapon in this series being the midrange jumper--the same shot that James missed at an alarming rate not only versus the Spurs but also against the Celtics in this year's playoffs.
Bryant's efficiency has simply been off the charts, even by his standards. The Spurs have no answers for Bryant's ability to make shots from anywhere on the court and whenever they double-team him he spoonfeeds Gasol and Odom for dunks or he swings the ball to perimeter players for wide open shots. The Spurs are now trying a little bit of the Chris Paul treatment--guard him one on one, stay tight on everyone else--but the wrinkle that stymied Paul and his New Orleans Hornets does not work against Bryant because he continues to shoot so well and he has no qualms about shooting a high volume of shots. Unlike James, who piled up turnovers by repeatedly forcing passes against the Spurs and the Celtics, Bryant understands that when he is the open man he has to knock down shots; it is not unselfish to pass the ball when you are open and the player you are passing to is well defended. Bryant had just one assist in game four and the Lakers only had 17 assists as a team but none of that matters--Bryant has proven that when he is double-teamed he will not only give up the ball but that he will make a play, a pass that leads to an easy score. In this game, Bryant was the open man and the ball movement that he facilitated primarily consisted of putting the ball into the hoop. Also, in light of my recent analysis of the faulty scorekeeping regarding Chris Paul's assists, it is worth noting that Bryant made several passes that would be scored as assists for Paul; for instance, at the 9:36 mark of the first quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to Vladimir Radmanovic, who took one escape dribble and made a jumper. Bryant did not get credited with an assist but Paul was awarded several assists on plays like that in the game footage that I analyzed. The NBA really needs to zealously enforce one universal standard for assists.
In Bryant's scoring burst during the first quarter, he made three jump shots and one fastbreak layup. The Lakers crisply executed their offense, seemingly grabbed every rebound and loose ball and played defense with tremendous energy but also with good attention to detail in terms of making proper rotations. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich burned two timeouts to try to settle his team down but in both cases they turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. However, the Spurs eventually settled down, closing the quarter on a 15-6 run. The Spurs shot 6-6 from the free throw line in the final 4:23 of the quarter, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Jackson, who offered this response when TNT's Craig Sager asked why the Lakers had not been able to maintain their early lead: "You want me to be honest with you? The guys with the whistles. They (the Spurs) went to the foul line on some inconsequential fouls and that got them back in the ballgame."
Jackson took advantage of the Lakers' lead to rest Bryant for nearly the first four minutes of the second quarter. By the time he returned to action the reserves had increased the Lakers' lead to nine. The Lakers briefly went up by 10 but the Spurs went on a 12-2 run to tie the score at 43. After the teams traded baskets, the Lakers closed the quarter out with an 8-2 run that included a couple Bryant jumpers. The third quarter was very much a nip and tuck affair, with the Lakers building an eight point lead only to have the Spurs quickly tie the game again. The Lakers closed the quarter with a 6-0 run to lead 77-70 going into the fourth quarter.
Bryant sat out the start of the fourth quarter as he typically does, but he had only rested for two minutes before he came back in the game with the lead slashed to 77-75. He immediately hit back to back jumpers to stabilize matters and put the Lakers up, 81-77. Neither team scored for more than two minutes after that until Ginobili made a jumper. Then the Lakers went on a 7-0 run with Odom providing five of the points and Bryant seemingly icing the game with a fast break dunk. However, the Spurs had one final run left: Barry made a three pointer, Duncan and Parker scored layups and after Gasol missed two free throws Ginobili knocked down a three pointer to make the score 93-89 Lakers with :42 remaining.
At that point, Bryant committed a gaffe, driving all the way to the hoop instead of pulling the ball out and forcing the Spurs to foul. Bryant later said that he thought that he had a clear lane but he ended up missing a contested shot and Parker almost immediately scored a layup to pull the Spurs to within two points with :28 left. San Antonio had gone from being dead in the water to only needing one stop and one three pointer to win the game. The Lakers ran down most of the time on the 24 second shot clock before Derek Fisher missed a jumper. The ball clearly hit the rim before bouncing off of Robert Horry and going out of bounds but the officials ruled that the ball had not hit the rim, which meant that the shot clock would not be reset. Instead of being able to hold the ball and wait for the Spurs to foul, the Lakers had to inbound quickly and try to beat the clock. Bryant missed a fadeaway jumper and the Spurs called timeout to advance the ball and set up their final shot of the game. Even if you did not watch the game you have probably seen/heard about what happened next. Barry received the pass, traveled (which was not called) and then leaned forward, which resulted in contact between Barry and Fisher. Barry then fired a shot that was not even close. Did Fisher commit a foul? It depends who you ask. If you are a Spurs fan, then you definitely think it was a foul. If you are a Lakers fan, then you definitely think that it was not a foul, that Barry traveled first anyway and that if not for the blown call seconds earlier none of this would have happened anyway. The reality is that depending on who is officiating the game and which players are involved that play could be a no-call, a defensive foul or even an offensive foul. The offensive player is supposed to go straight up, not "invade" the defender's space, though he is rarely punished for doing so. I hate plays in which an offensive player makes a fake, the defender jumps and the offensive player throws himself into a defender who is doing the best he can to avoid contact; I have always thought that this should be called an offensive foul.
As for the play in question, I think that a no-call is the best call but I have seen defensive players be whistled for far less contact. Again, just like with the scorekeeping for assists, it would be nice if these calls were made in a consistent manner--and if the NBA would not pretend to be oblivious to all the discussion about such plays and actually issue a statement giving its official perspective on what happened. I will never forget Scottie Pippen's "foul" against Hubert Davis in game five of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals; still photos showed that Pippen's hand was not even close to Davis' by the time the ball was long gone, yet Pippen was whistled for a foul by Hue Hollins and Davis calmly sank the winning free throws. If that was a foul then what Fisher did certainly is a foul but Darell Garretson--Hollins' partner that day who later became the chief of officials--frankly admitted a few months after the game that it was a horrible call. Ronnie Nunn used to do an excellent job of breaking down the game from a referee's perspective in his short lived show on NBA TV and it would be great to see him or someone from the NBA go on TV and give a definitive answer about the Fisher call, whether the league thinks that it was right or thinks that the officials missed the call.
Popovich said that if he were the referee he would not call a foul on such play, while Jackson conceded that there was contact but agreed with the no-call. Barry said that it was not a foul, though his initial on court reaction was a bit different. Fisher explained that he thought he had maintained his verticality and Bryant scoffed at the very question, saying that with everything the referees let go that could not be deemed to be a foul.
As for the ebb and flow of the game after the Lakers' quick start, Jackson said, "We responded every time that they came in and tied the ballgame. Most of it was Kobe responding to it." Odom echoed those sentiments: "There's something Kobe has that even some of the great ones don't have. It's just like he can will the ball into the basket." Odom calls Bryant "Kobe-Wan Kenobi." Keeping with the Star Wars theme, Bryant has admiringly called Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter "Yoda." In that same interview, Bryant said, "He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums." In the first half of game one of this series, Bryant got his teammates involved and calmly assessed the Spurs' defensive scheme--and then in the second half he scored 25 points and rallied the Lakers to victory from a 20 point deficit. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment but he did a similar thing, albeit less dramatically, in game four; Bryant's 28 points came in several staccato-like outbursts that either began a Lakers' run or quelled a Spurs' run. Bryant has become a Jedi Master at building his own team's momentum and breaking the opposing team's momentum.
I read and heard a lot of nonsense by various pundits early in the playoffs on the subject of whether or not it was too late to change their MVP votes and select Paul; in that vein, is it too late to go back and make Bryant the unanimous choice for MVP? Bryant is so obviously the best player in the game that only the foolish or the obstinate would try to argue otherwise. The one alleged flaw in Bryant's game was that he supposedly did not make his teammates better--although I'm still waiting to see another star lead a team to the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker as starters--but now Bryant is the undisputed leader of the team that won the regular season Western Conference race and is one victory away from returning to the NBA Finals.
Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard just wrote a wonderful article that provides some insight into just how driven Bryant really is to be the best and to perfect his game. This article was published before game four was played but it gives some great context to how Bryant has not only elevated his game but brought his team to the brink of the fourth championship of his career. Here is an excerpt:
He unveils a spin move or a crossover or something else he has picked up watching tape and does it over and over and over. "The crazy thing about it is, he has the ability to put new elements in his game overnight," says (Devean) George, a Laker from 1999 to 2006 and a frequent target of Kobe's requests. "He might say, 'Stay after and guard this move. Let me try it on you,' and he'll do it the next day in the game." George pauses to let this sink in. "Most of us, we'll try it alone, then we'll try it in practice, then in a scrimmage, and only then will we bring it out for a game. He'd do it the next day--and it would work."
It's 2003, and Bryant is getting worked up in an interview while talking about a variation on a move: a jab step-and-pause, where you sink deep, hesitate to let the defender relax and, instead of bringing the jab foot back, push off it. Soon enough, Bryant is out of his chair and using the reporter as a defender on the carpeted floor. Then he has the reporter trying the move. Some people are Star Wars nerds; Bryant is a basketball nerd. "I think Kobe's actually a little bit embarrassed by his love of basketball," says (Gregg) Downer (Bryant's high school coach). "People called him a loner, but it's just that basketball is all he wants to focus on. I think he's part of a dying breed that loves the game that way."
That's why Bryant gets so excited to meet kindred souls. Asked last week about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Bryant's face lit up as he remembered the time he played for Pop. "I was really hoping he'd run us through one of those rigorous practices he does," said Bryant, who got his wish. By the way, Kobe was talking about practice for the '05 All-Star Game.Now it's 2008, the Western Conference finals. Bryant is finally where he wants to be: an MVP playing on his team, no behemoth Hall of Famer to get in the way of post-ups, within reach of a title. He is also, by almost all accounts, the best player in the league. "It's not even close," says one Western Conference scout. "The difference between him and LeBron [James] is like [the one between] a Maserati and a Volvo."
The scout has other things to say about Bryant. For example, on his weaknesses: "Um, let me think . . . (long pause) . . . No, I don't think he has any." On his athleticism: "There are probably 10 (with more) in the league"--he names Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith as examples--"but no one uses his as well as Kobe. Just watch his footwork sometime." And on his focus: "There's a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year-round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the s--- before the lights come on."
This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player's ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he'll need therapy to recover. One thing's for sure: You can't teach it. If so, Eddy Curry would be All-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass. But people know it when they see it. G.M.'s, coaches and scouts cite only a few others who have a similar drive--Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginóbili, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams--though they make clear that none of those stars are in Kobe's league. (In an SI poll earlier this season Bryant was a runaway winner as the opponent players feared most, at 35%.)
Even some of the great ones lacked it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that when he was young, rather than challenging everyone as Kobe does, he "just wanted peace." "I think it's a quirk of personality," says Abdul-Jabbar. "Some of us are like Napoleon, and some are Walter Mitty."
Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.
"If he's a ruthless s.o.b., I kind of respect that," says Ravin. "Why should he be passing up opportunities? Why pass it to a guy who doesn't work as hard, who doesn't want it like you do?"
So, you see, this is Kobe, all of this. Sometimes childish, sometimes regal, sometimes stubborn, always relentless. This is a guy who, according to Nike spokesperson KeJuan Wilkins, had the company shave a couple of millimeters off the bottom of his signature shoe because "in his mind that gave him a hundredth of a second better reaction time." A guy who has played the last three months with a torn ligament in the pinkie of his shooting hand. A guy who, says teammate Coby Karl, considers himself "an expert at fouling without getting called for it." (Watch how Bryant uses the back of his hand, not the front, to push off on defenders and a closed-fist forearm to exert leverage.) A guy who says of being guarded by the physical Bowen, "It'll be fun" -- and actually means it. A guy who, no matter what he does, will never get the chance to play the one game he'd die for: Bryant versus Jordan, each in his prime. "There'd be blood on the floor by the end," says Winter, who has coached them both.
This is Kobe Bryant, age 29, in pursuit of his fourth NBA title. Even if it's hard for us to understand him, perhaps it's time that we appreciate him.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:34 AM