No More Butter Knives: Kobe Bryant and His "Guns" Shoot Down SpursThe L.A. Lakers never trailed for the fourth time in this year's playoffs en route to a 101-71 game two victory over the San Antonio Spurs, the worst loss by the defending champions in this postseason. Kobe Bryant had game-high totals in points (22), assists (five) and plus/minus rating (+24); he also had five rebounds and he shot 10-17 from the field. Lamar Odom continued to thrive as the third option, scoring 20 points on 7-10 field goal shooting and grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds. Odom also did an excellent job roaming on the weakside of the defense, amassing a game-high four blocked shots. Derek Fisher got off to a quick start (seven first quarter points) and finished with 11 points on 4-5 shooting while also having three assists and no turnovers. Pau Gasol had a quiet game (10 points, seven rebounds) but his length and mobility made him a factor on defense. The Lakers' bench made a significant impact, with Jordan Farmar providing scoring (14 points on 5-7 shooting), Luke Walton authoring a good all-around game (seven points, five rebounds, four assists) and Sasha Vujacic scoring seven points and being a real irritant on defense. The Lakers shot 39-71 (.549) from the field and won the rebounding battle 44-36. As TNT's Marv Albert said to Doug Collins long after the game entered "gar-bage time," it will be difficult for Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to find much to complain about.
The Spurs shot 30-87 (.345) from the field, including 6-23 (.261) from three point range. Gasol guarded Duncan one on one for the most part, though Odom or others sometimes trapped when Duncan put the ball on the floor; whether the Lakers' single covered Duncan or trapped him, they made sure that the perimeter players did not get open looks from behind the three point line, taking away a critical part of San Antonio's attack. Duncan had 12 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 13 points but he shot just 6-15 from the field and he had as many turnovers as assists (four). Manu Ginobili was largely invisible (seven points on 2-8 shooting, two rebounds, two assists). There is a lot of talk about his injured ankle but that did not seem to be an issue when he had a game-high 26 points in San Antonio's game seven win over New Orleans. To his credit, Ginobili refused to make any excuses, repeatedly saying simply that he was "terrible" and must be more aggressive next game. The reality is that Ginobili enjoyed a significant mismatch advantage against anyone on the Hornets who tried to guard him; that is why I said before that series that he would be the X factor. Ginobili does not have a similar advantage when facing the Lakers and that is why he has struggled all year against this team, not just in the first two games of this series.
The Lakers took early 7-2 and 11-6 leads, deftly using drives, screen/roll plays and postups to create easy scoring opportunities in the paint. I mentioned in my game one recap that Odom squandered several point blank scoring opportunities by missing layups, committing offensive fouls and losing the ball. After Odom missed a layup in the first quarter of game two, Collins said that Odom is "broad jumping" on his drives to the hoop and trying to draw fouls as opposed to going up strongly while focusing on finishing the play. There is an element of truth to that but I maintain that Odom is not an explosive leaper and is not great at finishing in traffic--perhaps that is why he is trying to draw fouls. Odom is at his best when he is posting up smaller players (or slower players who he can defeat with his quick spin move) and when he cuts to the hoop from the weak side to catch passes for easy finishes (as opposed to creating his own shot in traffic off the dribble). Again in game two Odom misfired on several easy scoring opportunities early in the game after driving to the hoop. Of his seven field goals, only two came on moves that he initiated (and one of those was a postup against a smaller defender); three of them resulted from alley-oop lobs and two of them were jumpers.
The Lakers led 21-16 after the first quarter and Collins spent a lot of time talking about how difficult it is for the Spurs to match up with the Lakers defensively and to score against them at the other end of the court. The second quarter had a strange rhythm to it, as Collins noted near halftime when he mentioned that if you did not look at the scoreboard you would swear that the Lakers were up by 10 points--they just looked like the better and more active team. Yet, when he made that comment the Lakers only led 37-35 and then a trademark Duncan bank shot tied the score. It looked like the Spurs might even eke out a halftime lead--but then the Lakers delivered a quick, sudden knockout blow, scoring nine points in the last 1:55, after which the Spurs never mounted a serious threat. Bryant started the run by driving to the hoop, breaking down the defense and spoonfeeding a gorgeous pass to Gasol for a layup. Then Bryant drew the defense and passed to Vujacic for a jumper, though I disagree with awarding Bryant an assist on the play because Vujacic used an escape dribble to elude a defender who closed out to him. Good ball movement led to a Vujacic three pointer and then Fisher went coast to coast to score a layup. In the first half the Lakers shot .543 from the field while limiting the Spurs to .348 shooting. As Charles Barkley said during the halftime show, "The Spurs have no margin for error" versus the Lakers.
Everyone understood that the first five minutes of the third quarter would be a critical time. Either the Spurs would come out strongly, take the lead and ultimately level the series at 1-1 or the Lakers would hold on and assume a commanding 2-0 lead. When Bill Russell was a CBS commentator he used to say that what is important is not just how many points a player scores but when he scores them. Bryant scored seven points in the first 1:55 of the third quarter, making a driving layup and two jumpers, plus a free throw after he was fouled on the second jumper. Bryant's outburst pushed the Lakers' lead into double digits, where it remained the rest of the way.
Bryant has mentioned with glee on a few occasions that we will all find out "what's up" now that he no longer has to go into gun battles with "butter knives." In case the meaning of that message is not crystal clear, allow me to translate: "How the hell could anybody reasonably expect me to lead the Lakers out of the first round with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker in the starting lineup?" To his credit, Bryant does not say this explicitly; in fact, in a postgame interview with TNT's Inside the NBA crew, Bryant said, "Kwame's my man" when Barkley and Kenny Smith talked about how the Lakers "swindled" Memphis into trading Gasol for Brown and other considerations (of course, the Grizzlies understood that they were not getting equal value in return and they simply wanted expiring contracts so that they can rebuild; that is why they did not trade Gasol to the Bulls, who made a better offer). Bryant has repeatedly praised his teammates for how hard they have worked and how well they have played--and they readily acknowledge how he has helped to shape and mold their mindset: as Farmar said after the game, "Killer instinct, that's right. We are starting to pick it up from Kobe, the guy who had the most killer instinct that's ever been. We're really trying to get that killer instinct of Kobe's, because we know that's the one thing that can help us grow into a championship team."
Magic Johnson told Bryant that he also had to wait a long time to win his first regular season MVP and he asked Bryant to describe how he felt about finally winning the award. Bryant responded that it means so much now because the standard that is being applied is making one's teammates better, something that Bryant had been accused of failing to do. Bryant also said that it is great that the Lakers are a close knit group with whom he can truly share this honor. An overlooked part of the Lakers' success this season is that the other players have followed Bryant's example in terms of preparation, work ethic and focus. A major reason that Bryant was at odds with Shaquille O'Neal is that O'Neal does not share Bryant's zeal for mental and physical preparation--but the current Lakers have bought into the importance of working hard before the game as opposed to simply showing up and trying to dominate based on talent alone.
There is a tendency to overreact after blowout losses, particularly in the playoffs. Keep in mind that the Spurs fell behind 2-0 versus the Hornets and that those teams traded blowouts several times before the Spurs ultimately advanced. Like most teams in this year's playoffs, the Spurs are a different team at home--where they have yet to lose a game in the postseason--than on the road, so anyone who is even thinking of uttering the word "sweep" needs to relax until we see how both teams react when this series shifts venues.
That said, there is a strategic difference between playing the Hornets and playing the Lakers. Against New Orleans, the Spurs were able to make an important adjustment, switching Bruce Bowen off of Chris Paul and on to Peja Stojakovic, with the idea being that the key to beating the Hornets was to shut down the perimeter shooters; the Spurs felt that Paul would put up certain numbers no matter who was on him but they decided that they could live with that if they contained everybody else. That approach won't work against the Lakers because Bryant can get his shot whenever he wants to and if he is trapped then he will feed Gasol, Odom or an open perimeter shooter. The Lakers are playing well as a group but let's not kid ourselves about the major reason for this: it is no coincidence that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson played Bryant for virtually all of game one--including all 12 fourth quarter minutes--and that Bryant hardly got a rest in game two until the Lakers had a commanding lead. Without Bryant on the court there are significantly fewer opportunities to throw lob passes to Gasol and Odom and it is much easier to cover the perimeter shooters--and there is no adjustment or switch that the Spurs can make that will affect Bryant's dominance in this series. The Lakers are 3-2 on the road in this year's playoffs, so I expect them to play well in San Antonio; still, the Spurs will shoot better and play with more energy at home so the Lakers will have to perform at a very high level to win there.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM