Kobe Takes Over in Second Half, Lakers Topple BlazersKobe Bryant had 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in the second game of TNT's season opening double header. Bryant led both teams in scoring and rebounding and was just one assist shy of tying for game-high honors in that category as well. He shot 9-17 from the field. Pau Gasol added 15 points--all in the first half--and seven rebounds. Gasol shot 7-10 from the field and it is no coincidence that his field goal percentage has soared since he joined the Lakers; he has taken full advantage of the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws and has done a good job--except in the NBA Finals--of catching and finishing around the hoop when Bryant feeds him the ball. Trevor Ariza (11 points) was the only other Laker to score in double figures; Andrew Bynum had eight points, three rebounds, three blocked shots and five fouls in his much ballyhooed return to action, while Lamar Odom added nine points, seven rebounds and one assist as the Lakers' new sixth man. Jordan Farmar made a significant contribution off of the bench with nine points, six rebounds and six assists. The Lakers held the Blazers to 34.5% field goal shooting, sending a message that their commitment to improving their defense and being more physical is not just lip service. Coach Phil Jackson has emphasized that the Lakers must improve in those areas in order to avenge their loss to the Celtics in the Finals and his players seem to have eagerly embraced this task.
Travis Outlaw topped Portland with 18 points and Rudy Fernandez had a very solid NBA debut with 16 points, four assists and no turnovers. Brandon Roy finished with 14 points on 5-15 shooting and it took a hot streak with Bryant out of the game just for Roy to put up those numbers. LaMarcus Aldridge had just eight points on 4-12 shooting. Greg Oden contributed five rebounds but did not score in 13 minutes before leaving the game with what was later described as a midfoot sprain. X-rays of the injury were inconclusive and he is reportedly going to have an MRI on Wednesday. Oden missed all of last season after having microfracture surgery, so basketball fans everywhere can only hope for the best possible outcome for the number one overall pick from the 2007 draft; the fact that the X-rays were considered inconclusive is a worrisome development and I really hope that Oden does not have something serious like the dreaded Lisfranc fracture that often does not show up on X-rays but has ended the careers of some NFL players.
The Lakers jumped out to a 13-4 lead as Gasol scored nine points on 4-5 shooting, with Bryant assisting on two of the baskets. The battle between young seven footers Bynum and Oden mainly generated missed shots and rebounds before Oden's early departure; regardless of when Oden is healthy enough to return to action, it will be a long time before either player is the centerpiece (no pun intended) of his team's offense. While some people inexplicably exaggerate Bynum's importance and skill set, before the game Coach Jackson correctly defined Bynum's role: "He's still a young player on our team. We're not asking him to do anything but rebound and defend. That's basically his job out there." Bynum is not a franchise center at this stage of his career but his size and physicality can certainly be valuable assets for the Lakers.
It is worth noting that the Lakers started Bryant, Derek Fisher, Bynum, Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic. People who don't understand basketball spent a lot of time talking about how the Lakers are supposedly going to trot out a frontline featuring Gasol, Bynum and Odom but--as I have said repeatedly for months now--that is a mismatched trio of players who should not be on the court at the same time because their skill sets overlap. Of course, Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson hardly needs me to explain that to him; he never put those three players in the game at the same time--constantly rotating them so that Bynum always played center and Odom always played power forward--and I would be willing to bet that barring injuries, foul trouble or some very strange circumstance (player suspensions or something else that is unforeseen) those three players will rarely be in the game at the same time this season. Bynum has to play center and it is natural to pair him with either Gasol or Odom at power forward. Gasol can play either position, so he can be paired with either player. Odom has a speed/quickness advantage when he plays power forward--and that advantage is only heightened when he is matched up with second unit players--so it makes no sense to play him at small forward where he enjoys no such advantage. If Odom accepts the sixth man role then he can still be a very productive player for the Lakers. He played 29 minutes--third on the team behind Bryant and Gasol--so the playing time and shot opportunities will still be there for him in this new role. It is a good sign for Lakers' fans that after initially balking at coming off of the bench Odom seems to have finally grasped the reality of the situation and decided to do what is best for the team.
Bryant did his best vintage Jason Kidd imitation in the first half, as he was on pace for a triple double with six points, eight rebounds and five assists. He was quite content to let Gasol and others carry the scoring load as the Lakers were up by as many as 22 before settling for a 49-34 halftime lead. However, Portland closed the half with a 7-0 run and then opened the third quarter with another 7-0 run to pull within eight points. Then, Blazer center Joel Przybilla delivered a hard (but clean) foul to Bryant and that seemed to ignite the 2008 MVP (asked after the game if the foul got him going, Bryant merely smiled and said, "Maybe a little bit"). Whatever the reason, Bryant proceeded to take over at just the moment that the Blazers were rallying and the Lakers were floundering; he scored all 11 of the Lakers' points in the next 3:39 to help build the lead to 60-43. "Clutch" is hard to define or quantify and most people tend to focus their attention on last second shots or plays made in the final minutes of a game but many NBA games are not decided in such an obvious fashion but rather by key runs that take place earlier in the contest, runs that shift the momentum decisively.
Later in the quarter, Bryant posted up on the left block, made a gorgeous spin toward the baseline and completed an up and under move, demonstrating footwork that is superior to that of most post players in the league. TNT's Doug Collins said, "He's the most fundamentally sound player in the game today." Bryant left the game shortly after that, with the Lakers leading 70-51 late in the third quarter.
For a while it seemed like the Laker reserves would not need Bryant's help to maintain that substantial bulge but then they began playing sloppily and Portland steadily whittled the margin down. Roy, who only made two field goals in the first three quarters when Bryant had the primary assignment of guarding him, began to heat up and the Blazers closed to within 83-69 midway through the period. Bryant usually returns to the game earlier than that, so the fact that he was still on the bench makes me think that Coach Jackson really hoped that he could rest Bryant for the whole fourth quarter, particularly with the Lakers playing again on Wednesday night--but with Portland threatening to come back Jackson had no choice but to call on Bryant to restore order. Bryant stemmed the tide by hitting a fadeaway jumper and then he scored his final points of the night on a two hand slam dunk; if all you see is the highlight of the end of that play then you miss what really made it special: Bryant caught the ball on the wing with Outlaw guarding him and proceeded to make four fakes--two jab steps and two pump fakes--to manipulate Outlaw and get him off balance. Only after Bryant gained an advantage with his footwork did he drive past Outlaw and get into the lane. The finish was spectacular and belies any speculation that Bryant has lost much explosiveness in his legs but that play would be great even if Bryant "merely" laid the ball in off the glass: what makes that play great is not the athletic explosiveness that Bryant displayed at the end but rather the footwork and basketball IQ that he employed to get the step on his defender in the first place. If you can comprehend that distinction--and then proceed through Bloom's Taxonomy to the point that you can synthesize that understanding with an awareness of how this differs from how LeBron James plays--then you will be able to see exactly why--even though James is a fantastic player who may one day reign for many years as the best player in the league--right now Bryant is still the best player in the game, the player who 63% of the NBA's GMs say forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. Collins said, "This is what Kobe does. When the game (can go) either way for your team he's going to take over and tonight he's been brilliant."
Before the game, Collins listed four keys:
2) Frontline matchups
3) Bench play
4) Who closes...Roy or Bryant?
The Lakers enjoyed advantages in the first three areas: They controlled the pace of the game by outscoring Portland 15-4 in fast break points, they outrebounded Portland 49-44 while outscoring Portland 42-22 in the paint and their bench outscored Portland's bench 36-27. However, the decisive factor in the game was Collins' fourth key: during the key third quarter stretch and again during his fourth quarter cameo appearance, Bryant made sure that the Lakers maintained control of the game. The Blazers are a talented team that will win a lot of games this year and they might very well have rallied to win this game if not for Bryant's efforts, which Collins rightly compared to how Bryant saved the day for Team USA down the stretch in the Olympic gold medal game this summer; obviously, this game was not nearly as significant as Team USA's victory over Spain but both contests are vivid examples of Bryant's ability to take over in key stretches.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM