A Performance for the Ages: Kobe Drops 39 as Lakers Eliminate SpursAttack like a cat when I'm trapped and I'm closed in
Sharp...claws, and I break all laws
In a while all jaws, cause I'm perfect, no flaws
Now I'm back to Farmers on some new improved
I'm makin' moves, not fakin' moves--"Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)," L L Cool J (and other artists)
Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 39 points while shooting 16-30 from the field as his L.A. Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs 100-92 to eliminate the defending champions 4-1. He had 26 points in the second half, 17 points in the fourth quarter and eight points in the final 2:22. This outburst capped off a remarkable Western Conference Finals for Bryant, who averaged 29.2 ppg on 64-120 (.533) field goal shooting, the best percentage he has ever shot in a playoff series. One basketball player can have a much greater impact on the outcome of a game than one baseball player or one football player but Bryant takes that concept to a whole other level that very few players have ever reached: he plays his best against the best competition and when the most is on the line. In doing so, Bryant infuses his team with confidence and instills fear, doubts and confusion in his opponents.
While Bryant was conducting his heroics against premier perimeter defender Bruce Bowen and premier interior defender Tim Duncan, I immediately thought of LeBron James' 48 point effort versus Detroit in game five of last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Remember that James scored 30 points in regulation and then added 18 points in two overtime sessions. Considering the context, Bryant's game has to rank right up there with what James did: the Spurs were the reigning champs and in last year's Finals they shut down James but they had no answers for Bryant in this series. I can't honestly say that this surprises me, because I have emphasized repeatedly that a big difference between Bryant and James is that Bryant has a fully developed offensive repertoire in terms of footwork, free throw shooting and being able to shoot all the way out to three point range; for those reasons, a team cannot guard Bryant the way that the Spurs (and the Celtics this year) guarded James, playing him so softly on the perimeter that he had great difficulty driving or passing. Bryant's deadly midrange jump shot meant that the Spurs had to defend him closely on the perimeter but that opened up lanes for Bryant to drive and/or pass. Bryant said after game one that he can score whenever he wants to and no one could disagree with that after this series--and this game in particular: in the fourth quarter, Bryant repeatedly worked his way free from Bowen's sticky defense, caught the ball and even when he was forced out well past the three point line he used his footwork and dribbling skills to maneuver his way into high percentage scoring areas. Bryant put on an absolute clinic in terms of midrange jump shooting, he managed to get to the hoop on several occasions despite the Spurs' best efforts to keep him out of the paint and he used the three point shot judiciously and effectively, shooting 2-6 from long range in game five and 10-24 (.417) in the series.
TNT's Kenny Smith said, "Watching Kobe Bryant down the stretch, that was a special performance. That is one, if you are a basketball fan, you put in as a demonstration to show kids what to do because the composure he had down the stretch...in the last four minutes of the game there has only been one other player in my lifetime who I have seen do what he did in the last four minutes and his name is Michael Jordan. And now the comparisons do start because I've never seen anybody be that composed in that stressed environment besides him...This is one of the greatest performances I've seen." Magic Johnson added, "He didn't take a bad shot." I never thought that Bryant's shot selection was as bad as some people said--and even on occasions when it was questionable, a "bad" shot for Bryant was better than the alternative of passing to players who couldn't catch and/or couldn't shoot. That said, Bryant's shot selection during this year's playoffs is off the charts; he is shooting .509 from the field while leading the league in playoff scoring average (31.9 ppg). I have studiously refrained from comparing Jordan and Bryant other than to say that I consider Jordan to be the more accomplished player but Bryant is playing at a Jordanesque level in this year's playoffs. There is still one more round to go, so I won't say anything further on that subject until after the Finals but when the best player in the game somehow takes his game up to yet another level that simply must be acknowledged; as great as Bryant has been previously--and I am on record saying he should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs--in this year's playoffs he is definitely "on some new improved," as L L Cool J would say.
Other than Bryant, the Lakers shot 22-55 (.400) from the field. Lamar Odom is not Scottie Pippen by a long shot but he had a solid, quintessential Horace Grant-type game, scoring 13 points on 5-10 shooting and grabbing eight rebounds, plus he did a good job using his length and mobility defensively. Both Collins and Johnson said exactly what I have been saying about Odom all along: he is much more suited to being the third option than to being the second option. Pau Gasol showcased his strengths and weaknesses in equal measure: he is versatile enough to haul in 19 rebounds (a playoff career-high), pass for five assists and block four shots but he was very soft around the hoop in terms of finishing his shots, shooting just 5-15 from the field and only scoring 12 points. Sasha Vujacic (nine points, three steals) and Jordan Farmar (eight points, three assists) provided good energy off of the bench.
Tony Parker had a good game (23 points on 11-22 field goal shooting, four assists) but it is interesting that he had his best playoff performances by far this year in the first round against the Phoenix Suns and two-time MVP Steve Nash. During the Western Conference Finals, Parker produced at roughly the same level that he did during the regular season. Tim Duncan had a triple double (19 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) but he shot just 7-19 from the field. The Lakers continually used different defensive looks against him throughout the series, sometimes going with single coverage from Gasol, sometimes double-teaming on the catch and sometimes waiting to trap until he put the ball on the floor. Duncan averaged 22.4 ppg, 17.4 rpg and 4.8 apg versus the Lakers but he shot just .426 from the field and was never able to put his stamp on a game at will the way that Bryant repeatedly did. Based on how much everyone talked about Manu Ginobili's injuries I expect him to check into a hospital for about a week now that the series is over. Did you know that he has a sprained ankle and a torn fingernail? Apparently, TV announcers must think that we have short attention spans, because these facts were brought up almost every time Ginobili touched the ball. I began to think that it was a miracle that the guy could get up and down the court. In case you forgot--and it would be easy to do so since no one talks about it--Bryant is playing despite the fact that his mangled right pinkie finger will require surgery and he recently had some fairly intense back spasms. Ginobili finished with nine points, seven rebounds and three assists. He was a complete non-factor and it will be interesting to hear the "stat gurus" tell us that our eyes deceived us and that Ginobili really is just as good as Bryant. I don't care if you give Ginobili a bionic ankle, Flo Jo's nails and Karl Malone's Rogaine, the likelihood that Ginobili could lead a team to the Finals with Gasol and Odom as his primary helpers is exceedingly small. Ginobili is a solid All-Star player who the Lakers match up with very well--he averaged 10.8 ppg on .311 field goal shooting versus the Lakers during the regular season and I don't think that he was on his deathbed for those games the way that everyone acts like he was during this series, when he actually improved on those numbers (12.6 ppg, .358 field goal shooting).
The Lakers began the game with a very nice action, posting up Gasol on the left block and then having him deliver a bounce pass to a cutting Vladimir Radmanovic, who missed a layup; Gasol took advantage of the defense collapsing on Radmanovic, sneaking to the hoop for a tip dunk of the errant shot. TNT's Doug Collins said that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson must have anticipated that the Spurs would play pressure defense, so he ran what Collins called a "pressure release" play. Bryant can obviously score out of any offense, but the Triangle Offense does a great job of organizing the rest of the team, creating good spacing and presenting scoring opportunities to anyone who understands how to read the defense. Unfortunately for the Lakers, that opening sequence was the highlight of the first quarter. The Spurs shot 12-19 (.632) from the field to take a 28-15 lead after the first 12 minutes, while the Lakers shot just 7-24 (.292) from the field. Gasol shot 2-9 from the field and Collins kept a running tally of how many "soft shots" Gasol timidly offered. One time, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and fed Gasol a behind the back pass that should have led to a layup and/or a foul. Instead, Gasol kind of flipped the ball weakly at the rim. "That is one of those (soft) shots that Phil Jackson complains about," Marv Albert commented. "Could not agree with you more," Collins replied. The paradox with Gasol is that he is seven feet tall, he has long arms and good hands, he is very intelligent, he passes the ball well and he is obviously willing and able to battle for rebounds--yet he does not consistently finish aggressively at the hoop; he does it sometimes, maybe even half of the time, but not as often as he should.
Jackson gave Bryant his customary rest at the start of the second quarter. The bench players only scored one point in the first 3:27 as the deficit swelled to 33-16 but then Farmar scored six straight points for the Lakers to trim the lead to 33-22. Bryant returned to the game at that point and scored nine points in the final 5:33 of the quarter as the Lakers pulled to within 48-42 by halftime. Considering that the Spurs blew a 20 point lead in game one and had led by as many as 17 points in this game, even a team as resilient as they are had to be pretty demoralized. George Foreman, Muhammad Ali's opponent in the famous "Rope a Dope" fight, once recalled that after he pounded Ali with body shots for the first several rounds Ali asked him, "Is that all you got?" Foreman remembered thinking to himself, "Yeah, that's about it" right before Ali knocked him out. Although the Lakers' slow start was surely more a result of their young players' overconfidence in the wake of winning in San Antonio than a deliberate "Rope a Dope" plan, the first half was like the "Rope a Dope" in the sense that the Lakers took the Spurs' best body shots and were still standing unscathed; once Bryant started throwing his punches, the fight was over.
The Spurs still had some punches left in the third quarter, briefly pushing the lead back to 10 points before Bryant went to work, hitting a couple jumpers and then driving to the hoop, drawing the defense and feeding Gasol for a dunk to make the score 58-56 San Antonio. "Here is Kobe imposing his will on the game," Collins said. The Lakers took their first lead since Gasol's tip dunk on the opening play when Bryant drilled a three pointer to make the score 60-59. On the Lakers' next possession, Bowen closed out so hard at Bryant to deny him the three point shot that Bowen slipped and Bryant dribbled past him and hit a midrange jumper. A Radmanovic three pointer put the Lakers up 64-63 heading into the fourth quarter.
Bryant began the fourth quarter by making another three pointer and as he ran back on defense he gestured to the Lakers' bench as if to say, "Keep feeding me the ball." Jackson normally rests Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter but he did not do this in game five or in game one when the Lakers made their big comeback. Building trust in the bench players is fine but Jackson knows better than anyone that his team rides or dies with what Bryant does. Collins said, "Phil Jackson recognizes that this is a time to strike for his team." The Lakers repeatedly ran the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play that was so effective throughout the series and Bryant hit a number of tough shots right in Duncan's face. Once when Bryant missed a jumper Gasol took advantage of being guarded by a smaller defender and easily tip dunked the ball into the hoop. Later, Bryant fed Gasol for what should have been a dunk but the much smaller Ginobili--apparently briefly healed--blocked Gasol's shot. However, the screen/roll play put San Antonio's defense into full rotation mode and Odom gathered the rebound and scored to put the Lakers up 83-76 at the 5:40 mark. The Spurs refused to die, cutting the lead to 83-81 after a Brent Barry three pointer and a Parker drive. Bryant then hit a tough floater over Duncan and a fadeaway jumper over Duncan to make the score 87-82 Lakers. Gasol blocked a Duncan shot and Bryant drove his way through the Spurs' defense to score a layup. Ginobili made a deft feed to Duncan for a layup to pull the Spurs within 89-84 with 1:41 remaining. Radmanovic missed an open three pointer that resulted from the Spurs rotating to stop Bryant but with the Spurs' defense scrambling Gasol got the offensive rebound. Bryant reset the offense and eventually drew a foul, making both free throws to put the Lakers up 91-84. While Bryant shot those free throws, Collins said, "I look at Kobe Bryant out there and I think: competitor, incredibly skilled, strong willed but Marv, is there a better conditioned player in the NBA?"As time ran down and the Lakers' victory was assured, Collins concluded, "The Lakers had the younger, fresher team and--more importantly--they had the best player on the floor in Kobe Bryant. When the game was in the balance, he took it and ran with it."
Hall of Famer Jerry West, who made the deal for the Lakers to acquire Bryant in 1996, presented the team with the Western Conference championship trophy. West said, "I would really be remiss if I didn't mention one player here. I've seen a lot of great players in my life but you people in Los Angeles are very privileged to see this young man here, Kobe Bryant. He's something special. For all you young kids out there who aspire to be something really special, look at his work ethic and dedication and what it does, the leadership ability he has."
If Bryant can carry a team to the Finals after losing one center early in the season (Andrew Bynum) and adding another center near the end of the season (Gasol), what would he have been able to accomplish the past several years if Shaquille O'Neal would have been willing to work hard and defer to Bryant the way that O'Neal deferred to Dwyane Wade in Miami? O'Neal may think that he one-upped Bryant in some fashion by winning a ring with the Heat in 2006 but if he had been as dedicated and focused as Bryant has always been then the two of them could have won three or four more rings together.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:12 AM