Lakers Fall to Bobcats in Double Overtime After Bryant Fouls OutBoris Diaw nearly had a triple double (23 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) as the Charlotte Bobcats toppled the Lakers 117-110 in double overtime. All five Charlotte starters scored in double figures and point guard Raymond Felton came even closer to having a triple double than Diaw did (21 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists). The Bobcats held the Lakers to .434 field goal shooting, outrebounded them 53-42 and outscored them in the paint 54-38. Andrew Bynum had 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots but the rest of the Lakers' frontcourt was missing in action: Lamar Odom sleepwalked to seven points and four rebounds in 33 minutes and Pau Gasol had what Coach Phil Jackson termed his worst game as a Laker, 10 points and seven rebounds while shooting just 4-16 from the field. The task to save the game once again landed squarely on the shoulders of Kobe Bryant, who had 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists before fouling out with 39.8 seconds left in the first overtime. He had just put the Lakers up 103-101 with a pullup jumper on the right baseline but the Lakers were outscored 16-7 after he departed.
The Bobcats have consistently given the Lakers problems, winning five of the last six games between these teams--including three in a row in L.A.--but there are signs that the Bobcats are becoming a decent team, as opposed to a bad team that simply matches up well with the Lakers; since shipping Jason Richardson to Phoenix for Diaw, Raja Bell and Sean Singletary, Charlotte is 12-10, a far cry from the 7-16 mark that the Bobcats posted prior to making that deal. It is interesting to watch Diaw and Bell play central roles in turning this team around, because the storyline in Phoenix was supposedly that Steve Nash turns average players into stars and star players into superstars--but the facts don't support that contention: Nash certainly played at a high level for several years but when he left Dallas the Mavericks became an NBA Finalist and Dirk Nowitzki won an MVP award. Meanwhile, we have seen Mike D'Antoni take his uptempo philosophy to New York and use this approach to get improved performances out of several players. It used to be alleged that many players would love to play with Nash but that it is difficult to play with Bryant but that supposed dichotomy is bogus as well: Shawn Marion was disgruntled in Phoenix, Amare Stoudemire is often complaining about his role and the newly revitalized Shaquille O'Neal--who briefly seemed to accept a lesser role--has been not so subtly suggesting that the offense should be run through him. It is entirely possible that Nash will not even make the All-Star team in his first post-D'Antoni season.
On the other hand, Pau Gasol has played the most efficient basketball of his career in L.A., Bynum's game has grown by leaps and bounds, Trevor Ariza's play has stepped up since becoming a Laker, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar have markedly improved and you can go straight down the line: Bryant sets an example in terms of work ethic and his leadership has rubbed off on his team, particularly after the Lakers wisely got rid of some players who did not have the right attitude, work ethic or skill set to be rotation players on a good team, let alone starters (yes, that is a Kwame Brown/Smush Parker reference). Just this past summer we saw Bryant set the tone for a U.S. Olympic Team filled with All-Stars and All-NBA players--and we saw that when the gold medal game got tight Bryant was the player who saved the day.
I won't let these "old" 2006 and 2007 storylines die because I spent too much time listening to and arguing with people about those very issues (Nash's value, Bryant's unselfishness, how to choose an MVP winner). The truth of the matter is that I was right, they were wrong and that is becoming increasingly evident as time passes.
Getting back to this season, the Bobcats look completely different from the team that I saw in person on opening night but, as I wrote after the Cavs beat them 96-79, "It has been said of Larry Brown that he can watch a play in a game or in practice and instantly recall where all 10 players were and what they did, a kind of athletic photographic memory perhaps akin to the way that a chess grandmaster can process numerous possibilities instantly because he has memorized thousands of standard positions/move orders. If the young Bobcats listen to their teacher and heed his guidance they should improve a lot--eventually." Brown is a tremendous, tremendous coach and he has the Bobcats playing tenacious defense, ranking fourth in points allowed and ninth in defensive field goal percentage; considering their slow start, those numbers are remarkable.
Bynum got off to a quick start, scoring 10 points in the first quarter, but Charlotte led 23-16 after the first 12 minutes; the Lakers' defense in the paint was atrocious and neither Bryant nor Gasol could make a shot. Gasol never did wake up but Bryant quickly got going as soon as he reentered the game at the 7:15 mark of the second quarter. The Lakers trailed 32-26 but Bryant scored 12 points as the Lakers cut the margin to 49-48 by halftime. He got things started with a tough jumper to beat the shot clock, followed that with a turnaround jumper and then picked Raja Bell's pocket before cruising in for a fastbreak dunk; sometimes players get steals by gambling but in this instance Bryant played solid position defense, cut Bell off and then flicked the ball away with his left hand. Lakers announcers Stu Lantz and Joel Meyers noted that Bryant also put his defensive stamp on the previous game by shutting down Manu Ginobili as the Lakers beat the Spurs 99-85 on Sunday. As Lantz said, Bryant likes to guard top notch players from the start and take them out of the game, as opposed to trying to contain them later on after they have already found a rhythm; that is why Bryant guarded LeBron James right from the start when the Lakers beat the Cavs 105-88.
The lead shifted hands several times in the third quarter but then Bryant was whistled for his fourth foul with 2:22 remaining. He also received a technical foul for complaining about the call and after the Bobcats sank the resulting three free throws they led 73-67 as Bryant went to the bench for the remainder of the quarter.
The Lakers trailed 76-70 going into the fourth quarter and Coach Jackson knew that he had to put Bryant back into the game immediately, even with four fouls. It still amuses me to hear people compare the "supporting casts" on various teams and assert that the Lakers are so much deeper than anyone else; LeBron James has had often had the luxury of sitting out most of the fourth quarter while his bench players maintained or even expanded leads, while Bryant has often had to come back and restore order in games that the Lakers seemingly had under control when he went to the bench. Coach Jackson would certainly prefer to rest Bryant for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter and then let him go all out for the final six to eight minutes but he found out the hard way early in the season that this would not work. In this game, the Lakers not only needed Bryant's offensive prowess but they also needed his defense. Ariza, the team's best defender at the small forward position, left the game after suffering a concussion in the second quarter, so the Lakers struggled to deal with the athletic Gerald Wallace. Finally, in the fourth quarter Coach Jackson went with a small lineup, using Derek Fisher or Jordan Farmar at point guard and Sasha Vujacic at shooting guard, shifting Bryant to small forward to guard Wallace. Wallace had 15 points in the first three quarters but did not score the rest of the way.
Of course, Bryant also handled the primary scoring and playmaking duties, scoring 10 fourth quarter points and adding three fourth quarter assists. The Lakers tied the score at 81 after Bryant not only fed Vujacic for a three pointer but set a screen on the play to prevent the defender from closing out on him. A Fisher jumper put the Lakers up 83-81 but then the Lakers' interior defense once again buckled: Diaw scored two baskets and Emeka Okafor converted a putback dunk. Then Diaw drilled a three pointer to put Charlotte up 90-83 at the 3:09 mark. The Lakers had four straight empty possessions on offense: Fisher missed a layup, Bynum committed a three second violation and Vujacic missed two three point shots. Bryant finally took matters into his own hands, hitting a turnaround jumper to cut the lead to five.
Wallace drove to the hoop and Bynum met him with a forearm shiver to the chest. Wallace fell to the floor with a thud, holding his chest and grimacing in pain. Bynum was called for a flagrant foul and Wallace had to be helped off of the court; he was taken to a local hospital to see if he has a broken rib and/or a collapsed lung. One thing that I really respect about Meyers and Lantz is that they are not homers; although they clearly want the Lakers to win, they are objective about their calls during the game and they stated unequivocally that Bynum had committed a flagrant foul and they wished Wallace the best as he left the court.
Bynum's play was bad not only because it led to Wallace being hurt but also because he should be in position to block shots instead of arriving so late that he simply hacks at someone who is driving to the hoop. Due to the flagrant foul call, Coach Brown was allowed to select who would shoot the free throws in Wallace's place (in other cases, if a player leaves a game due to injury the opposing team selects the free throw shooter). Bell is an excellent free throw shooter but the Lakers dodged a bullet when he missed both attempts. On the ensuing possession, Diaw was fouled but he also missed two free throws, so Charlotte emerged with no points instead of possibly scoring up to four points and thereby all but icing the game. After Diaw's second miss, Bynum failed to box out Okafor but Bryant slipped in and stripped Okafor of the rebound. I've mentioned this before on several occasions but it bears repeating: Bryant is an excellent rebounder and he is a great free throw lane rebounder, just another example of the completeness of his skill set.
Bryant hit another turnaround jumper to make the score 90-87 Charlotte but Diaw answered with a jumper to push the margin back to five. A Bryant three pointer shaved the lead to 92-90 and then the teams traded misses, including a wide open Vujacic three pointer from the left corner that was set up by Bryant's dribble penetration. Gasol fouled Diaw in the scramble to rebound that shot but Diaw only managed to split the pair of free throws. The Lakers called timeout. Naturally, Bryant handled the ball on the next possession and after drawing the defense he fed Fisher for the tying three pointer. Felton missed a shot as time expired.
Bryant began the first extra session by hitting a jumper and then he fed Bynum in stride for a fast break dunk. After Bryant used a crossover dribble to drive by Bell and score a layup the Lakers led 99-93. The resilient Bobcats fought back to cut the lead to 101-100. Bryant drove to the hoop, stopped on a dime on the right baseline and made a short jumper, much like a move that Bernard King used to make during his prime with the Knicks. Leading by three with :51 left, all the Lakers needed to do to secure the win was to get one or two more defensive stops and then make their free throws. Instead, Bryant was called for his sixth foul with 39.8 seconds remaining. It was an "excuse me" play in which Bryant backed away and there was little or no contact, a tough way to be disqualified.
Still, the Lakers led by three at home against a sub-.500 team and Bryant's foul did not result in free throws, so all this deep and talented team had to do was hold on for little more than half a minute--but instead they fell completely apart. Lantz spent the whole timeout explaining that the Lakers must not foul nor give up a three point shot and then in the worst case scenario they would have the ball and a one point lead. Literally seconds after he explained that, Odom foolishly left Diaw to double team a driving Felton, who kicked the ball to Diaw for a three point shot--precisely what Lantz had just said the Lakers should not do. The Lakers were equally shaky on offense. They fed the ball to Gasol but he fumbled and bumbled and was not able to get a shot off. As I've said more than once, there are valid reasons that Memphis decided that he is not a franchise player; Gasol is perfectly suited--temperamentally and in terms of his skill set--to be Bryant's "deputy" and to make shots/plays that are created when Bryant is trapped but he is not quite so well suited to be the main guy who gets swarmed by the defense. The Lakers retained possession and Luke Walton was designated to be the inbounder. Coach Jackson often employs Walton in this role but even though Walton is an excellent passer when the ball is in play I am not sold on him as a great inbounds passer; I can recall several occasions when he turned the ball over or made the wrong read, including a 96-95 loss in Cleveland on March 19, 2006. This time, Walton committed a turnover, enabling the Bobcats to call timeout and try to set up a play for a game-winning shot--but Odom snuffed Diaw's jumper, sending the game into double overtime.
If you wondered what the Lakers' offense would look like without Bryant, the second overtime provided a frightening snap shot: seven points on 3-9 field goal shooting. Bynum accounted for all of the points; he made some nice post moves but the Lakers clearly struggled to create good shots--let alone score--without Bryant drawing double teams and either scoring anyway or feeding one of his teammates for an easy field goal attempt. This is why during last year's NBA Finals the Boston Celtics essentially sent their whole team at Bryant and all but dared anyone else to make a shot. After the game, NBA TV commentator Gary Payton offered this analysis:
This game showed me one thing about the Lakers: when Kobe Bryant goes out, these guys do not step up. They do not step up. They're doing just like they did against Boston (in the 2008 NBA Finals). Gasol doesn't have a good game. Lamar doesn't show up. Nobody wants to shoot the ball. Luke Walton turns the ball over in a crucial time in the basketball game when they have to execute. Without this guy (Bryant), this is a whole different team and I think that other teams are going to look at this on videotape and see the same thing, that this team can get beat if you take him out of the game.
The sad thing is that when Mike Wilbon or someone else who has been propped up as an NBA expert--Wilbon is a superb general sports columnist but not someone who I would call an NBA expert or NBA analyst--talks about this game he is going to refer to that stupid, meaningless stat about the Lakers' record when Bryant shoots more than 20 times, as if the Lakers lost because Bryant had 28 field goal attempts; the reality is that if he had not fouled out he would have had one or two more field goal attempts or a few more free throw attempts and the Lakers almost certainly would have won. As Coach Jackson has often said--and he repeated this sentiment during his recent interview with Magic Johnson--Bryant is perfectly willing to share the ball but when his teammates don't step up to accept the challenge then he fills that vacuum or that void. During Bryant's career, the Lakers are 64-30 when he scores at least 40 points--including 16-7 when he scores 50 or more points--so it is ridiculous to assert that any of Bryant's scoring achievements came at the expense of winning.
In a recent post I noted that last season after Bryant suffered an avulsion fracture in the pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand he went through a brief adjustment period in terms of his shooting but quickly regained his form. It looks like that will also be the case this season in the wake of the dislocated ring finger that he suffered on his right hand last week: in the next three games, Bryant shot .333, .364 and .471 from the field before connecting on 15 of 28 field goal attempts (.536) versus Charlotte. No one is even talking about the fact that Bryant will eventually have to have surgery to fix his pinkie and now he is still playing at an incredible level with a brand new injury to his shooting hand. If Brett Favre were doing something like this, someone would build a statue in his honor and SportsCenter might be renamed "RingFingerCenter," but Bryant has proven his toughness and skill level so many times that apparently those things are now simply taken for granted. It is worth noting that fellow MVP candidate LeBron James missed six games last year with a finger injury that was not as severe as either of the ones that Bryant has suffered.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 AM