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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kobe and LeBron Are in Triple Threat Position

Recently, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have assumed even more dominant roles for their teams than usual. The two best players in the league have both led their squads in scoring, rebounding and assists in each of their past three games.

With Zydrunas Ilgauskas sidelined because of a broken foot, Ben Wallace under the weather and Delonte West out of action due to a broken wrist, it is understandable that the Cleveland Cavaliers have become more reliant on James than ever. James had 30 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a 102-87 win over Memphis, 28 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a 102-93 loss to Chicago and 29 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a 92-78 win over New Orleans. James normally leads the Cavs in scoring and assists but until this recent rebounding surge he narrowly trailed Ilgauskas, Wallace and Anderson Varejao (who were each averaging over 7 rpg at that time) for the team lead in that department. James' 14 boards represents his season-high and his three consecutive double figure rebounding efforts are reminiscent of how Michael Jordan picked up the slack on the glass when Dennis Rodman got ejected from a game for headbutting a referee on March 16, 1996 and then was suspended for six more games; Jordan had a season-high 16 rebounds the night that Rodman was ejected and then Jordan averaged 9 rpg during the next six games, well above his 6.6 rpg average that season.

The Lakers are currently without the services of Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton but the absence of two bench players hardly explains Bryant's recent dominance, particularly on the glass. In the past three games--a win at Houston, followed by a loss at San Antonio and a home loss versus Orlando--Bryant grabbed 27 rebounds, nearly matching the 28 combined rebounds that starting power forward Pau Gasol (21) and starting center Andrew Bynum (seven) tallied. Gasol and Bynum were not stymied by injuries or foul trouble, so there really is no excuse for their poor rebounding efforts.

Bryant took over down the stretch versus Houston and nailed what turned out to be the game-winning three pointer, overcoming tight defense by Shane Battier. The next night, he hit what should have been the game-winning three pointer versus the Spurs but Derek Fisher fouled Roger Mason during a jump shot and Mason's free throw provided San Antonio's margin of victory.

On Friday, Bryant played a masterful game against the Magic for nearly 47 minutes--finishing with his 15th career triple double, 28 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, leading his team in all three categories by large margins--but this is somewhat obscured in the boxscore because he missed his last six field goal attempts, resulting in a 10-26 field goal shooting night. It is actually amazing to attempt six shots in the final 1:16 of a game, make or miss. Is it good to shoot 10-26 from the field or 0-6 in the last 1:16? Of course not--but a careful examination of those final six shots shows that Bryant made the right plays even though the shots did not go down.

The first miss was an open pullup jumper after a screen/roll with Gasol and the second miss was an open three point shot after a steal, one of the best times to fire from distance because the defense is scrambling; Lamar Odom rebounded that shot, made a layup, got fouled, missed the free throw but controlled the rebound after a back tap by Gasol. Odom was then fouled and he split the pair of free throws to put the Lakers up, 101-100. After Dwight Howard also split a pair of free throws, Bryant attacked the rim and missed a runner, but by drawing Howard over to contest the shot Bryant cleared a lane for Gasol to sneak in and get the putback to give the Lakers a 103-101 lead. Back in Allen Iverson's Philly days, Doug Collins used to say that Iverson's low field goal percentage was deceptive because he attracted so much defensive attention that a lot of his misses became de facto assists when his teammates converted them into easy putbacks; this particular shot by Bryant falls into the category of a de facto assist, not that Bryant should get boxscore credit for an assist, of course, but there is a difference between missing a fadeaway jumper without attacking the defense versus penetrating into the lane, collapsing the defense and then shooting--and the fact that statistical analysis systems are incapable of making such distinctions is one reason why such ratings are not always accurate.

Jameer Nelson drained a clutch three pointer to put the Magic up, 104-103. Bryant missed a contested jumper after running a screen/roll with Gasol for the third consecutive possession and then Nelson sank two free throws to make the score 106-103 Orlando. The Lakers elected to inbound the ball on the baseline after the timeout, going the length of the court (with 15 seconds remaining) instead of inbounding at midcourt and possibly having to face a zone or other gimmick defense. Gasol again set a solid screen for Bryant, whose three point shot went halfway down and came out. After Nelson made two more free throws, Bryant missed a tough turnaround three pointer in the corner with four seconds remaining. After that shot, ESPN's Hubie Brown said, "I think that a lot of people will say that he forced up a lot of shots but they're Kobe Bryant shots. Kobe Bryant makes these kind of shots. We know that he had some good looks at the basket, especially when he came down from all the way--they took the ball out of bounds 94 feet away--and he came down and came off of that screen."

Monday's showdown in Los Angeles between the Cavs and Lakers should be an instant classic, a duel between the league's two best players operating at the top of their games and picking up the slack for teammates who are either out of the lineup or underperforming. No disrespect to the other contending teams, but it would be great for the NBA if this turns out to be a preview of the 2009 NBA Finals: a pressure packed seven game championship series featuring Bryant versus James is the stuff of which basketball dreams are made.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM

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