Bryant Overcomes Early Injury, Leads Lakers to 105-88 Victory Against ClevelandKobe Bryant dislocated the ring finger on his right (shooting) hand less than two minutes into the game but persevered to produce 20 points, 12 assists and six rebounds as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-88. Bryant shot 9-22 from the field and had five turnovers but down the stretch he made big plays, scoring nine points and dishing three assists in the fourth quarter. Bryant had led the Lakers in scoring, rebounds and assists for three straight games but this time he received some much needed help from Pau Gasol, who paced the Lakers with 22 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 11-13 from the field. Bryant assisted on four of Gasol's field goals--and all of those assists were strictly by the book, none of this business where the recipient of the pass goes through the Kevin McHale low post thesaurus of moves before shooting the ball: Bryant drew double teams and created scoring opportunities that would not otherwise have existed for Gasol and other Lakers.
LeBron James scored a game-high 23 points but he shot just 9-25 from the field, frequently forced low percentage shots as a result of Bryant's excellent position defense and for most of the game he was not able to get into the paint. James also had nine rebounds, four steals and one blocked shot but he only passed for four assists while committing six turnovers. Bryant received some help from his bigs in screen/roll situations--which is standard operating procedure in the NBA--but he also did a lot of excellent one on one defensive work, which is all the more remarkable considering his finger injury. One thing that Bryant did very well that I have not seen anyone else do against James is meet him in the open court, use his footwork to get a good angle and prevent James from getting into the paint without drawing a charge or committing a blocking foul; it was like watching a defensive back preventing a bigger tight end from running the pass route he wants to run. Fans ooh and aah about high flying blocked shots and flashy steals but Bryant's ability to meet James in the open court and head him off at the pass is just as significant. Bryant did something similar in the Olympics, cutting off speedier point guards and making them pivot and turn their backs on the offense but slowing down James is even more impressive.
Speaking of the Olympics, I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that part of the reason that James and Dwyane Wade have elevated their games so much this season is because they practiced with and against Bryant on a daily basis as members of Team USA. Avery Johnson and others have brought this up and it is something worth considering when discussion turns to the subject of who the best player in the NBA is. It is pretty clear that James and Wade have learned a lot from Bryant. He is a good role model to follow and they should be commended for doing so but it is a bit premature to go the next step and say that they have surpassed him.
Before the game, TNT's Kenny Smith and Chris Webber wondered if James would take the matchup with Bryant personally. They noted that in the past James did not seem to do that, at least based on his demeanor. That is actually a very interesting point, because when Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler squared off in the 1992 NBA Finals the media built that up as a one on one matchup. Drexler downplayed that at the time but Jordan seemed to revel in making it clear that he was the best shooting guard and best player in the NBA. Years later, Drexler conceded that maybe he should have taken that matchup more personally. Of course, there is a fine line between taking a matchup personally--accepting the challenge--versus trying to do too much or trying to to things that are out of character. James settled for a lot of tough jumpers versus Bryant and when he drove to the hoop he often shot out of control layups because Bryant--with some help from the Laker bigs--controlled the angles and did not give James a "runway" to take off and do spectacular dunks.
James will surely deny it but it definitely seemed like he was trying to take the game right to Bryant as a scorer, particularly in the early going. On the other hand, Bryant played a much more measured and controlled game, shooting the shots that he wanted to take from the spots on the floor where he likes to operate. Bryant masterfully accepted double teams and then fed open teammates, a point that TNT's Doug Collins repeatedly mentioned during the telecast. I've never believed the stereotype that Bryant is simply a gunner while James is much more unselfish--both players are big time scorers who also create many scoring opportunities for their teammates--but in this game Bryant played more like James is said to play (racking up more assists than field goals made) while James seemed to be making a concerted effort to score. It is interesting to wonder if Bryant made a conscious decision to play in a certain fashion, if he simply was taking what the defense gave him (his standard response when asked about such things) or if the injury forced him to ad lib a bit. It is worth noting that this was Bryant's third straight game with at least 10 assists and his fourth such outing in his past seven games, so the injury alone clearly does not explain how he played. I've always said that if Bryant were asked to do so he could lead the league in assists because he has great court vision and can make every single pass in the book, from bounce passes to wrap arounds, to feeds with either hand to crosscourt passes to three point shooters. Normally, though, the Lakers need Bryant to score 25-30 points or more and the structure of their offense results in him making the pass that leads to the assist as opposed to the pass that directly leads to a score, in contrast to players like James, Chris Paul and Steve Nash who all handle the ball more than Bryant does.
Going into this game, it seemed like the Lakers would have the upper hand because Cleveland's 7-3 starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is sidelined with a broken bone in his foot but the early injury suffered by Bryant certainly evened up the odds. Bryant was trying to steal the ball from James when he jammed his finger less than two minutes after the game started. He instantly doubled over in pain and signaled to the sideline that he needed help. Oddly, the Lakers did not commit a foul and played four on five until Mo Williams hit a jumper to put Cleveland up 4-2. Only then did the Lakers stop play by calling a timeout. Trainer Gary Vitti popped Bryant's mangled digit back into place and then heavily taped it; Bryant went right back into the fray and ended up playing more than his usual number of minutes. Bryant later told TNT's Craig Sager that this injury resulted in the worst pain he had ever experienced on a basketball court, which is saying something considering that in the past he has battled a separated shoulder, severe ankle sprains and a pinkie that was jammed so severely that the knuckle at the base of the finger ended up halfway down his hand (Bryant has yet to have surgery to fix that injury, which was suffered midway through last season).
Naturally, this game was billed as a duel between Bryant--the 2008 NBA MVP--and James, who is widely considered to be the front runner to win the 2009 MVP. Bryant accepted the challenge of being the primary defender versus James for the entire game, though he did have help in certain situations and other defenders occasionally picked up James in transition. James guarded Bryant a significant portion of the time but Sasha Pavlovic and others also took turns checking Bryant. This was by design, as Collins noted before the game: Bryant insisted to Coach Phil Jackson that he wanted to guard James the whole game and try to keep him down, as opposed to waiting to check him until the fourth quarter, which would have likely let James establish a good rhythm against another defender; in contrast, Cleveland's philosophy was to conserve James' energy by not having him guard Bryant full time until the fourth quarter.
Bryant guarded James in a way that few, if any other defenders, do: he bodied up to James and played ball denial defense, trying to prevent James from even catching the ball or at least making James go out well past the three point line to receive a pass. Bryant's defensive footwork was outstanding and he showed that he is stronger than some people may think, because even though James has a much more impressive physique/body frame he was not able to just shed Bryant the way that he brushes off most defenders. As a result of the injury, Bryant tried to do as many things as possible with his left hand, much like he did after he suffered the right pinkie injury last season. Barely two minutes after dislocating his finger, Bryant used his left hand to strip James of the ball on a drive, saving a sure two points.
The Cavs jumped out to an 18-11 lead but then Gasol and Andrew Bynum each scored and Bryant made his first field goal, a turnaround jumper over Pavlovic, who fouled him. Bryant's free throw cut the margin to 20-17 and the Lakers captured the lead at the end of the first quarter after Bryant fed Sasha Vujacic for a three point shot that made the score 26-24.
Collins mentioned that Coach Jackson has told Lamar Odom to be more aggressive offensively but that message seemed to backfire when Odom forced several shots in the second quarter. Collins astutely observed that it is not in Odom's nature to be aggressive offensively and that Odom is most effective when he is cutting to the hoop from the weak side (something that I have repeatedly said about Odom).
The second quarter was tightly contested, with neither team leading by more than six points. Bryant nailed a pullup jumper over James with a tenth of a second left, cutting Cleveland's lead to 50-49 at the half. Bryant had five points on 2-5 field goal shooting plus six assists and three rebounds in the first half, while James had 10 points on 4-11 field goal shooting, adding three rebounds and two assists.
James opened the second half by nailing a jumper over Bryant but Bryant and the Lakers soon took command. Bryant snared a defensive rebound with his left hand, dribbled down court, went behind his back to shake James and snaked his way to the hoop for a tough layup to put the Lakers up 58-54. By the end of the quarter, the Lakers led 75-66.
Neither Bryant nor James sat out to start the fourth quarter--both players played the entire second half until the outcome was decided, with James leaving the game at the 1:09 mark of the fourth quarter and Bryant exiting with :31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Odom scored on a nice drive but then J.J. Hickson answered with a pair of free throws. Bryant drilled a three pointer over James and James replied with a long two pointer over Bryant. After Mo Williams made two free throws, Bryant hit the two defining shots of the game: first, he posted up the larger James on the right block, used his footwork and ballhandling skills to get to exactly where he wanted to go and then hit a high arcing turnaround jumper over James' outstretched hand; on the next possession, Bryant drove down the left side of the court, jumped off of one foot and made a one handed runner from almost behind the backboard while being fouled. Bryant missed the resulting free throw but the Lakers were up 84-72 and they soon pushed that margin to 91-73 after a pair of fast break dunks: Bryant tossed an alley oop to Trevor Ariza and then Ariza returned the favor by passing ahead to Bryant, who glided in for an uncontested left handed dunk.
James and the Cavs then went to work. The Lakers inexplicably put Odom on James for a possession and James blew right by him for a layup, just the second time he had scored in the paint up to that point. That kicked off an 11-0 run that ended with James tipping in his own missed layup. The Lakers called timeout with 3:32 left and a 91-84 lead. Derek Fisher then canned a big jumper to give the Lakers some breathing room. James split a pair of free throws and the Lakers closed out the game by using the play that worked so well for them in the second half of last season and the first three rounds of the playoffs: the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action. When Gasol sets a solid screen for Bryant, the opposing team invariably traps Bryant and another defender rotates to Gasol as he rolls to the hoop. The Lakers counter this by flashing Odom to the free throw line, so if Bryant does not have a passing angle to hit Gasol then he can feed Odom. In this case, Odom then delivered a slick bounce pass to Gasol for a dunk. The play obviously requires two skilled big men--it would not work with Kwame Brown playing either Gasol or Odom's role--but without Bryant's ability to not only draw a double team but make a good pass out of the trap the Lakers would not gain any advantage; as Collins correctly noted, Bryant is the key to the play. On the next possession, the Lakers ran the same screen/roll action and this time they utilized a different scoring option: the open three pointer on the weak side, which in this case was made by Ariza. That put the Lakers up 98-85 with 1:56 left and effectively ended the game.
Bryant and James only face each other twice per season--unless/until the Lakers and Cavs square off in the NBA Finals--and one of the oddest things about their matchups is that Bryant is often either hobbled coming into the game or gets injured versus the Cavs. Sager reminded viewers that in addition to Monday's dislocated finger Bryant separated his shoulder versus the Cavs in 2004 and severely sprained his ankle against them in 2006. You can add to that list the December 21, 2007 game during which Bryant was limited by a groin pull that he had recently suffered. That is why the head to head numbers that people often cite regarding Bryant and James are not all that meaningful. What matters is the differences between their skill sets and the way that they play. They are clearly the two best players in the NBA right now but on this night Bryant showed that even with one hand figuratively tied behind his back he can still be a force at both ends of the court. James made some very good plays but once again his erratic jump shot made it difficult for him to score and/or create opportunities for his teammates against a top notch defense.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 AM