Finals Scouting Report: Kobe BryantThroughout this season I have repeatedly asserted that teams could not guard Kobe Bryant the way that the Spurs and Celtics guarded LeBron James in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs respectively because Bryant's outside shot is far superior to James'. James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game during the Spurs' sweep of the Cavs in the 2007 Finals; the high number of turnovers were a direct result of the Spurs being able to sag off of James, daring him to shoot outside shots and positioning themselves to intercept his passes. In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as his Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in this year's Western Conference Finals.
James averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game during Boston's seven game victory over the Cavs in this year's playoffs. Bryant has had a rougher time versus the Celtics than he did against the Spurs but after five games he is averaging 26.4 ppg, shooting .422 from the field (including .316 from three point range) and committing 3.8 turnovers per game. Obviously there is at least one more game left in the Finals but so far Bryant has matched James' scoring average versus Boston while bettering his shooting and turnover numbers by a significant margin. It is also worth noting that James greatly increased his averages with his outstanding game seven effort (45 points on 14-29 shooting--including 3-11 from three point range--and just two turnovers); in the first six games, James averaged 23.7 ppg on .325 field goal shooting (including .214 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game.
While Bryant's Finals numbers are down from the tremendous numbers that he put up in the first three rounds of the playoffs, they are within shouting distance of the regular season averages that earned him his first regular season MVP: 28.3 ppg, .459 field goal shooting, .361 three point shooting, 3.1 turnovers per game. The Celtics are a great defensive team that presents a formidable challenge to Bryant and the Lakers but--despite whatever spin is being rotated 24 hours a day, seven days a week from various media outlets--Bryant is not performing terribly in the Finals and the Celtics have not shut him down.
Scoring averages and field goal percentages tend to go down in the playoffs, even for the greatest players of all-time. Michael Jordan is a rare player who increased his scoring in the postseason but even he shot worse in playoff competition than he did in the regular season: Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg on .497 shooting in the regular season, 33.4 ppg on .487 shooting in the playoffs and 33.6 ppg on .481 shooting in the Finals; Jordan did not make the playoffs during his two year comeback with the Wizards and if you don't count those seasons he averaged 31.5 ppg on .505 shooting in regular season play. Larry Bird averaged 24.3 ppg on .496 shooting in the regular season, 23.8 ppg on .472 shooting in the playoffs and 23.1 ppg on .458 shooting in the Finals. Magic Johnson was remarkably consistent: 19.5 ppg on .520 shooting in the regular season, 19.5 ppg on .506 shooting in the playoffs and 19.4 ppg on .516 shooting in the Finals.
Here is a look at Bryant's game by game performance in the 2008 Finals:
Game one: 24 points, .346 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 98-88 loss.
Comment: Bryant tied Kevin Garnett for game-high scoring honors and tied Derek Fisher with a team-high six assists. The Lakers led 51-46 at halftime but scored just 37 points in the second half.
Game two: 30 points, .478 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 108-102 loss.
Comment: Bryant led both teams in scoring and once again led the Lakers in assists (eight). The Celtics built a 24 point second half lead but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win.
Game three: 36 points, .600 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 87-81 win.
Comment: Bryant led both teams in scoring and even though he only had one assist his dribble penetration and postups created open shots for his teammates.
Game four: 17 points, .316 field goal shooting, two turnovers in a 97-91 loss.
Comment: This is without question Bryant's worst playoff game this season and the only time in the 2008 playoffs that he failed to score at least 22 points. Still, he had a game-high 10 assists and he accounted for 16 of his team's 18 fourth quarter points (10 points, three assists). The Lakers built a 24 point lead but scored just 33 second half points.
Game five: 25 points, .381 field goal shooting, six turnovers in a 103-98 win.
Comment: Bryant's 15 first quarter points set the tone for the Lakers early in the game and his seven points and three steals sealed the deal in the fourth quarter.
Bryant has done a very good job of drawing the defense and creating open shots for his teammates. He is the only Laker defender who has had any success against Paul Pierce and his two fourth quarter steals from Pierce in game five preserved that win for the Lakers. However, Bryant's most important defensive contribution has been as a roaming help defender nominally assigned to check Rajon Rondo at the start of games four and five; the disruption that Bryant caused to the Celtics' offense played a major role in the Lakers building huge first quarter leads in both of those games.
Bryant is sometimes accused of "forcing shots" but I have yet to see an objective explanation of what this means. Bryant is the Lakers' leading scorer and the only player on his team who can consistently create a shot for himself and for others; he is averaging 26.4 ppg on 21.8 field goal attempts per game in the Finals but his 5.8 apg average is 2.2 apg higher than anyone else on the team and that number does not reflect how many plays he created by making the pass that initiated a sequence that led to a score but did not qualify as an assist. It is certainly possible to put together a highlight reel from these games that will show Bryant making--and missing--some difficult, contested shots, but a difficult shot is not the same as a "forced" one. I would classify a "forced" shot as a low percentage shot that is taken with more than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The classification of a low percentage shot depends on the player; a midrange turnaround jumper is not a low percentage shot for Bryant but may be a low percentage shot for someone else. The significance of the time remaining on the shot clock is that most of the other Lakers cannot create a shot for themselves and they certainly cannot do so with time winding down; unless one of his teammates is wide open, when the shot clock is winding down the Lakers are probably better off with Bryant shooting the ball than with him passing it. A combination of excellent Celtics' defense and poor Lakers' offensive execution has resulted in Bryant having to take a lot of shots late in the shot clock but he has not taken many low percentage shots early in the shot clock.
The Celtics led this series 3-1 after four games and currently enjoy a 3-2 lead and home court advantage the rest of the way, so there is a perception that they have dominated the Lakers and shut down Bryant. The reality is that none of these games have been decided by more than 10 points--with four of them being decided by six points or less--and Bryant's numbers are only marginally worse than they were during the regular season. There is every reason to believe that Bryant will play well in game six and that the final score will be close. Bryant's performance against elite defensive teams--San Antonio and Boston--in the 2008 playoffs is significantly better than LeBron James' performance against those two teams in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM