Kobe Bryant's Missed Shots and the Torrent of "Psycho-Basketball Analysis" That They UnleashedKnowledge, wisdom, understanding like King Solomon's wealth
You're a player but only because you be playin' yourself...
Always fakin' moves, never makin' moves--"Ya Playin' Yaself," Jeru the Damaja, 1994
I am mad at Kobe Bryant. All he had to do in game one of the NBA Finals was hit a few more shots that he normally makes and then sensible basketball observers would not be subjected to reams of "psycho-basketball analysis" from people who don't understand psychology or basketball--but Bryant shot 9-26 from the field instead of 12-26 or 13-26 and thus the so-called, self-proclaimed experts have figured out everything about life, basketball and the 2007-08 NBA MVP: Ray Allen is a Kobe-stopper, Bryant should have driven to the hoop more often, Bryant forced shots because the Boston crowd was cheering for Paul Pierce, Bryant stopped trusting his teammates, Bryant is to blame for high gasoline prices, blah, blah, blah. You want to know how twisted this whole scenario is? I fell in to the same trap in the first sentence of this post, blaming Bryant for the fruits of other people's ignorance. Is it his fault that people write and say stupid things after he misses some shots? Of course not. These critics, these so-called analysts--they're all just playing themselves because they have no knowledge, wisdom or understanding.
If Ray Allen is such a Kobe-stopper then why did the Celtics repeatedly tilt the floor defensively toward Bryant? Why did they send a big man over from the weak side to deter Bryant from driving into the paint? Why did the Celtics rotate several different primary defenders on to Bryant during the course of the game? Elite defenders like Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Tayshaun Prince usually have the primary duty on Bryant for most of the game, though they of course also receive plenty of weak side help. The reality is that Allen's job during the period of time when he is the primary defender on Bryant is to do his best to make it difficult for Bryant to get into the paint (knowing that he has help behind him and thus can play Bryant tightly), not go for pump fakes, not foul and contest Bryant's shots to the best of his ability. Allen did all of those things pretty well in game one but the bottom line is that Bryant missed a lot of shots that he normally makes, shots that he has made during his entire career and especially during the first 15 games of this year's playoffs.
Kobe Bryant's shot selection is subject to a play by play microscopic evaluation that I have never seen applied to any other player of his status; literally every time he shoots--or doesn't shoot--someone questions his judgment and motivations, alternately suggesting that he is either forcing the issue or else playing too passively in order to allegedly make some kind of point. All great scorers are expected to shoot the ball 20-plus times a game and shots that would rightly be termed "forced" if someone else took them are not forces if they are shots that the great player has a reasonable chance of making or if the shot clock is winding down and there are no other good options left. Was every single shot that Bryant took in game one an absolutely optimal shot? Of course not. Any player in the history of the NBA who shoots more than 20 times a game will naturally end up taking some less than optimal shots. The only significant and relevant thing to say about Bryant's shot selection in game one is that the vast majority of the shots that Bryant took were shots that he can reasonably be expected to make. Also, the theory that he was forcing shots simply does not hold up when one recalls that he passed up two wide open three point attempts in order to spoonfeed Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for layups. Assists from Bryant accounted for three of Gasol's six made field goals and other Bryant passes to Gasol led to free throw attempts for Gasol or wide open shots that Gasol missed. Frankly, Bryant forced more passes than shots in game one, because a couple of his turnovers came from trying to deliver the ball in tight quarters.
The idea that Bryant should drive into the heart of the Celtics' halfcourt defense is asinine. Of course, Bryant should drive when he has opportunities to do so, either in the half court or in transition--and he did both of those things in game one. However, if he drives into the paint against a set defense he will end up committing a charging foul, turning the ball over or getting a lower percentage shot than the midrange jumpers that he elected to take. Bryant drove on several occasions in the wake of screen/roll plays and those drives led to high percentage scoring opportunities either for Bryant or one of his teammates. In other situations, Bryant countered the aggressive defense of his primary defender by using fakes, quick dribble moves and spin moves to create enough separation to get open midrange jumpers. The bottom line is that he made the right plays for the most part but he did not make enough shots. Bryant and the Lakers need to shoot .450 or better from the field to win this series. It is interesting that no one seems to have figured out that a major reason that Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and others were able to get open looks is the attention that Bryant drew; when considering Bryant's effectiveness it is important to not just look at his field goal percentage but also the field goal percentage of his teammates. For instance, after one Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play, Bryant turned the corner and five Celtic defenders had at least one foot in the paint, so he passed to Sasha Vujacic, who got fouled behind the three point line when Kevin Garnett ran back out to him. If Bryant were not such a big threat then Vujacic's defender would simply stay home and Vujacic would get much fewer open looks. Of course, it is a lot easier for the so-called experts to simply anoint Allen a Kobe-stopper; that takes a lot less energy and effort than actually watching the game with some understanding of what is happening.
As for the idea that Bryant started playing differently in response to Pierce's return to action after his brief absence due to a knee injury, here is what Bryant did in the possessions right after Pierce came back in the game at the 5:04 mark of the third quarter:
4:51: Bryant drives past Allen, gets into the paint and shoots a running hook that goes halfway down and comes out.
4:26: Gasol slips the screen with Bryant and cuts to the hoop, but Pierce steals Bryant's bounce pass to him.
4:13: Instead of shooting a three pointer with a defender running at him, Bryant feeds Odom for a layup.
3:40: As mentioned above, Bryant runs a screen/roll with Gasol, collapses Boston's defense and his pass to Vujacic leads to a foul and three made free throws.
3:12: Bryant gets a defensive rebound, passes ahead to Derek Fisher and receives a return pass that he finishes with a fast break dunk.
2:28: After Fisher aimlessly dribbles around for 18 seconds, Bryant receives the ball with six seconds left on the shot clock, fakes the Kobe-stopper out of his shorts and drills a turnaround baseline jumper over Allen and Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett just before the shot clock expires. That shot puts the Lakers up 71-69, even though they had been outrebounded by double digits up to that point.
Pay attention to the next two entries, because they were the turning point in the game:
1:33: Odom receives the ball on the right wing, drives into traffic, does not see that the much smaller Rondo is checking Bryant due to a rotation and Odom attempts a weak reverse layup that is blocked by P.J. Brown. Hubie Brown often says that in the NBA if you miss a layup the other team will score within a few seconds. Sure enough, the Celtics get the rebound, push the ball up the court and find Pierce in transition for an open three pointer. The Celtics never trail again.
1:10: Gasol sets a screen for Bryant, rolls to the hoop and Bryant hits him in stride with a pass. Garnett meets Gasol at the rim and Gasol throws up a soft, underhand shot that he starts at his waist and that has no chance of going in or drawing a foul. The Celtics again rebound the miss, push the ball up the court and find Pierce in transition for an open three pointer.
Yet some idiot asserts that Bryant forced shots in response to Pierce's return and gullible fools accept this as gospel.
Side note: I definitely don't think that Pierce was faking or even milking his injury. The wheelchair seems a bit over the top in light of how quickly he returned to action but it was not as over the top as when Dwyane Wade was wheeled off for a shoulder injury. NFL linebacker Chris Spielman once vowed that if he ever had to be helped off of the field he would retire--and when that happened he was true to his word--but most athletes don't think that way any more. Also, teams tend to be more cautious, so with Pierce in so much pain right after the initial blow it is understandable that the medical staff did not want him to put weight on that leg. That said, I think that Pierce's return was fueled by adrenaline and that the rest of the series will be a much tougher go for him. A 68 win Celtics team in 1973 saw their championship dreams come up short when John Havlicek injured his shoulder and the 2004 Lakers fell to the Pistons after Karl Malone suffered a knee injury not unlike Pierce's, so there is certainly precedent for an injury playing a role in deciding which team wins the title.
It should be readily apparent from the plays that I have already described that Bryant hardly stopped trusting his teammates in game one. In fact, he created numerous scoring opportunities for them throughout the contest. The Lakers don't have to make radical changes to win game two; they simply have to convert a higher percentage of open shots. Also, Gasol and Odom need to be more active on the boards and Fisher, Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic must play better perimeter defense against Pierce, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell.
OK, enough about Bryant's missed shots and all the nonsense that has been said about his performance. The highlight of game one happened about an hour before tipoff when Ahmad Rashad talked with Julius Erving and Bill Russell. The always eloquent Erving spoke about how winning a championship would mean so much for Garnett, Pierce and Allen because it would prevent them from being included in the answer to the trivia question about great players who never won a title. Erving could certainly relate to their desire to avoid that fate; although he won two ABA championships, Erving's 76ers lost in their first three Finals appearances before adding Moses Malone and rolling to the 1983 title when Erving was 33. Rashad compared Boston's acquisition of Garnett to the Sixers' signing of Malone but Erving astutely pointed out some key differences: Garnett came to a Boston team that had been lousy in 2007, while Malone was the final piece for a Sixers team that had won two Eastern Conference championships in the previous three seasons and had lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the other year. As for the Lakers, Erving praised Bryant for embracing the idea that less can be more, involving his teammates in the action early while conserving his energy to be a closer late in the game.
In the early 1980s, Russell was a color commentator during CBS' NBA broadcasts and he had a unique gift for saying a lot in very few words. Here are some of Russell's thoughts about Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett:
Russell on Kobe Bryant: "I'm a big fan of Kobe and I have been for a long, long time. What he's doing is he's asking his team to help him. We all talk about him helping (his teammates). He's asking his team to help him because I think he will describe his career as a winner--that will be his definition, not how many points he got but was he able to help his team play in a way to help him achieve his goals."
This is so true and it was the source of Bryant's much publicized frustration last summer: he knew that he did not have the right teammates around him to help him return the Lakers to the championship level. What has happened since then is an infusion of talent (Gasol, Fisher) plus a heightened sense of dedication by the younger players to match Bryant's work ethic and intensity. As Odom said recently of Bryant, "You try to compete against him, and there's no competing against him. If we have a 10 a.m. practice, Kobe is there at 8:45 preparing to be the best. And some of that has rubbed off on me and my teammates, and that's why I'm sitting here (at the NBA Finals) talking to you today."
Russell on Kevin Garnett: "He has always played with enthusiasm, intelligence and dedication." Russell also said that he used to call Garnett "the loneliest man in the NBA. He's putting everything on the line every night with no results."
Russell's prediction about this series: "Nobody can actually predict what is going to happen. One thing great players bring is presence. Some of these players are great and some of them aren't authentically great. The authentic players will perform at a high degree of efficiency. Who will that be?"
posted by David Friedman @ 5:34 AM