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Monday, February 09, 2009

Energetic Odom Upstages Ill Bryant, Subpar James

Lamar Odom produced season-highs in points (28) and rebounds (17) as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 101-91. The Lakers finished their East Coast road trip with a 6-0 record and handed the Cavs their first home loss this season after a franchise-record 23 straight home wins. Kobe Bryant added 19 points, three rebounds and two assists but he was noticeably slowed by what John Black (Lakers Vice President of Public Relations) told me is "gastroenteritis," a stomach virus that caused Bryant to vomit and become dehydrated; the 2008 MVP needed IV fluids at halftime and after the game. Pau Gasol struggled a bit with his shot against the taller Zydrunas Ilgauskas (connecting on just 6 of 15 field goal attempts) but he contributed 18 points, 12 rebounds and a team-high six assists. Derek Fisher had a very solid game with 13 points on 5-9 shooting, three assists and no turnovers.

Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 22 points and nine rebounds. Mo Williams (19 points, 3-4 three point shooting) and Wally Szczerbiak (16 points, 4-5 three point shooting) led a barrage from behind the arc that kept Cleveland in the game even though the Lakers killed the Cavs in the paint 62-24 and despite LeBron James' 5-20 field goal shooting. James had a strong floor game with a game-high 12 assists, eight rebounds and just one turnover, though he did not record a steal or blocked shot.

The dominant theme of this game was apparent right from the beginning, as the Lakers outscored the Cavs 18-8 in the paint in the first quarter but the Cavs countered by nailing 4 of 6 from three point range to take a 32-30 lead after the first 12 minutes. Odom had six points and four rebounds and even though that projects to a big game no one could have imagined that he would maintain that pace for four quarters. Bryant got off to a quick start, playing the entire quarter and scoring 11 points on 4-7 shooting. It was not immediately apparent how sick he was, though Black told me after the game that Bryant had vomited in the morning prior to coming to Quicken Loans Arena. Apparently, Bryant's condition worsened during the game, because Coach Phil Jackson said in his postgame standup, "He (Bryant) had chills at halftime and was struggling. But, he said he was going to go out there anyway and play. We just wanted to keep a watch on him and he was just going to let me know how he was going to do out there. He was definitely not himself today."

The score was close for most of the second quarter but the Lakers closed out the half very poorly, enabling the Cavs to build a 61-51 halftime lead; after Bryant's turnaround jumper made the score 57-51, Williams drew a foul and sank two free throws and then he stole the ball from Bryant and raced coast to coast for a layup. After the game, Lakers reserve guard Jordan Farmar said that Coach Jackson told the team to hold the Cavs to under 100 points by the end of the game, so they obviously had their work cut out for them after such a poor defensive showing in the first half.

Much like he did in the first quarter, Bryant got off to a quick start in the third quarter but this time he was unable to sustain it; he hit a couple jumpers to help the Lakers trim the deficit to three points but his energy level was clearly lower than it had been in the first half: during stoppages of play he leaned over and tugged on his shorts (the universal sign of fatigue for a basketball player), on some offensive possessions he simply provided spacing by camping out behind the three point line (drawing a defender away from the paint) without moving much and he did not fight over screens on defense with his usual aggressiveness. This is when Odom took over but he did not do so as the primary attacker but rather by aggressively pursuing the ball from the weak side, either grabbing rebounds or accepting feeds (often from Gasol) for layups; for years, people have waited in vain for Odom to be a guy like Bryant or James who can initiate action but Odom is much more comfortable and effective operating in the shadows, letting someone else start the play so that he can finish it by diving to the hoop. Odom had a double double in the third quarter alone--15 points, 10 rebounds--and the Lakers led 82-77 heading into the fourth quarter. After the game, Odom offered this explanation for why he was able to take over the game in such dramatic fashion: "I told myself, before the game started in my little meditation that Phil (Jackson) has taught me, to put myself in the moment as far as the game was concerned. I told myself that the first rebound I got, that I was going to take it to the hole and score. It kind of opened the game up for myself and I found the flow of the game."

Bryant sat out until the 5:43 mark of the fourth quarter and when he returned to action the Lakers led 90-83. A pair of Ilgauskas free throws trimmed the margin to 93-89 with 3:06 remaining and the Cavs obviously still had a great opportunity to win the game. Bryant had not even attempted a shot since late in the third quarter and had not made a shot since the 9:37 mark of the third quarter but with the outcome in the balance he went one on one versus James and sank a gorgeous, high arcing fadeaway jumper to push the lead back to six points. The Cavs never seriously threatened again. After the game, I said to Fisher that it almost seemed like Bryant had saved up whatever little energy he had left so that he could make that one big shot when the Lakers needed it. Fisher replied, "I knew before the game that he would try to be as efficient as possible, that he wouldn't do a lot of things that would drain his energy and take him to a place where he couldn't recover, so I mean you could arguably say that he saved all of his energy for that shot but definitely for the fourth quarter and some of those plays down the stretch when he had to handle the ball and he made some passes and initiated our offense. He couldn't have done that all afternoon, so he saved as much as he could for the latter part of the game."

Speaking in general about Bryant's overall performance, Fisher said, "It was the ultimate form of leadership on his part. He could have easily declined to play, period, or played in the first half and tried to keep us close and then sat out in the second half. He just kind of laid what he had out there and probably is going to pay for it for a couple days. It says a lot about him."

This game hardly decided the issue of who is the best player in the NBA but it provided some more evidence to consider. I wonder if anyone who drew dramatic conclusions about Bryant based on one aberrant poor shooting performance in Boston--a game which the Lakers won, in no small part because Bryant came through with three fourth quarter three pointers--will similarly come to dramatic conclusions about James based on his performance in this game: James shot worse versus the Lakers than Bryant did against the Celtics and James' team lost. Of course, it would be just as wrong to judge James solely on this game as it would be to evaluate Bryant solely on the Boston game but one important difference is that Bryant has established himself as a very good midrange shooter, so we know that the Boston game was atypical--but James has been a poor shooter outside of the paint during his entire career, so even though his shooting numbers in the Lakers game were even worse than usual they are part of an overall pattern that clearly shows that he struggles mightily to score against elite teams that shut down his drives and force him to shoot jumpers.

Looking at the larger picture than just this game, the Lakers have just completed a 6-0 road trip in which they overcame the loss of starting center Andrew Bynum in the second game and went on to end Boston's 12 game winning streak and stop Cleveland's 23 game home winning streak. The Lakers thus swept the season series against the two leading Eastern Conference teams. The game after Bynum went down, Bryant erupted for a Madison Square Garden record 61 points and in separate postgame interviews in Cleveland both Coach Jackson and Odom mentioned Bryant's performance as a defining moment that really infused the team with a lot of confidence when players could have perhaps started to have doubts (Bryant's ability to uplift his teammates and deflate his opponents inspired this post during last year's playoffs). During this road trip, there have been gripes about Bryant's 0 rebounds in the 61 point game and about his field goal shooting versus Boston but consider Bryant's total body of work in one of the best road trips in Lakers history: 32.8 ppg, .486 field goal shooting, 5.2 rpg, 4.5 apg.

Anyone who said that the MVP race is over better reconsider that thought, because the reality is that Bryant is playing even better than he did when he won the MVP last year and his team is even more dominant. Bryant and James are the two best players in the NBA and overall I consider them to be closely matched but I would still take Bryant at this stage of their careers--and it is certainly foolish for anyone to assert in February (let alone in December or January, when such talk began) that James had all but clinched the MVP; nobody in the NBA clinches anything in December, January or February.

Here is an interesting perspective by veteran NBA writer Mark Heisler on Kobe versus LeBron, though the article is really more about Bryant's evolution and how he is perceived than it is about him versus James:

LeBron may be the future, but the future isn't now

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

In Coach Jackson's pregame standup, he said that what concerned him most coming into this game was whether or not the officials would allow Bryant to defend James as physically as he did in their previous encounter in L.A. (as I mentioned in my recap of that game, Bryant did an excellent job of confronting James in the open court and angling him away from the paint). I asked Coach Jackson, "Against Boston, you tend to use Kobe more as a roamer or as a help defender but against Cleveland you use him more as an on-ball defender against their best player. Explain a little bit your philosophy or what factors go into your decision making about when to use Kobe as a roamer and when to use him as the defender against the other team's best offensive player."

Coach Jackson answered, "Chasing Ray Allen off of multiple picks--especially the ones that move as much as Boston's do (this aside drew some chuckles from the assembled media members)--is just not feasible. He'll wear himself out and get run into by Perkins and Garnett. So, that's the best policy. Plus, Rondo's speed and quickness is a factor that we have to address, so that (putting Kobe on Rondo) makes sense to us."

Coach Jackson spoke at length about the homecourt advantage possibly affecting this game and said that passionate fans can influence calls made by the officials (I'm not sure that the NBA will be thrilled with those remarks). He said that he does not pay particular attention before a game to which officials have been assigned but he recalled that when he was an assistant coach in New Jersey, Coach Kevin Loughery said that they should "scout the referees and forget about scouting our opponents."

I asked Coach Jackson, "Do you think that Cleveland enjoys a bigger homecourt advantage than other teams or are you just speaking of the general nature of homecourt advantage in the league?"

He replied, "There are some places that are more difficult to play. I think that all of you know that Utah is one of the most difficult places to play because the fans are literally sitting on the floor and they have extreme bias. New York is an educated crowd that is not as biased perhaps but they still are packed in. There are many places that are difficult to play but I think that this court (Cleveland) is obviously the toughest court in the league to play on because they have won 23 in a row."

***

I spoke with Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz briefly at halftime and asked his opinion of a player comparison that has been on my mind for a while: Archie Clark and Mo Williams. Clark, a two-time All-Star during his 10 year NBA career, averaged 16.3 ppg and 4.8 apg, peaking at 25.2 ppg and 8.0 apg in 1971-72; Williams has averaged 13.1 ppg and 4.8 apg in his five-plus NBA seasons but the past two-plus years he has averaged more than 17 ppg. Lantz, who averaged 18.5 ppg in 1971-72 after scoring a career-high 20.6 ppg the year before, agreed that there are similarities between the two players. The two differences that Lantz identified are that Clark was a little bigger (listed at 6-2, while Williams is very generously listed at 6-1) and that Clark was more of a "side to side, shake and bake" ballhandler than Williams; Clark had a killer crossover before that term really came into vogue.

***

L.A. Times columnist (and Around the Horn panelist) Bill Plaschke was at the game; you can read his column about Odom's performance here. I ran into him as we were heading toward our seats prior to tipoff. Plaschke was unfamiliar with the layout at Quicken Loans Arena, so I led the way; just a few short years ago, I had come to this facility--then known as Gund Arena--for the first time as a media member and Michael Reghi--who at that time handled the local television play by play duties for the Cavs--had helped me to find the media room and I always think back to that when I have the opportunity to help someone else find their way around, even if that someone has in this case actually been in the business a lot longer than I have (but most likely had never had any reason to cover a basketball game in Cleveland before).

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:29 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Monday, February 09, 2009 10:01:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Clark is a very underrated guard that most dont mention when the guards of those days are mentioned.

That was the best Ive seen Odom play in years. If he plays like that (maybe 18 and 10) the Lakers will win the title. He was aggressive and finished in the paint, which is game.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

I know Odom doesn't play that aggressively every single game, but it's amazing how people seemed to have forgotten that the Gasol-Odom 1-2 punch was good enough to get the Lakers to the Finals last year. I even read about a mooted deal (could have just been a blogger's overactive imagination) that would have sent Odom to Sacramento for Brad Miller. Brad Miller? The same Brad Miller who couldn't guard a door in his prime, let alone now?

Whether or not Bynum comes back this season, I don't think the Lakers need to make a major trade for another big. (A guy like Joe Smith would be very useful though.) Gasol and Odom are obviously good enough to handle Cleveland and Boston if they approach the game with the correct mindset.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 7:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I said the exact same thing to Lantz about Clark and he agreed. Some names have just slipped through the cracks.

The problem is that Odom most likely won't play that way--not necessarily the numbers but rather the high energy level--consistently. However, as a starter I think that he can average 15 ppg and 9-10 rpg (as he has done in the past) and that should be a big enough contribution to help the Lakers win the title (assuming that Bryant and Gasol remain healthy and productive, naturally).

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 7:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I agree that the Lakers as presently constituted have enough talent to win a championship. Odom will not play at this level consistently but what he can provide (15-9) should be enough as long as Bryant, Gasol and the other players perform to their potential. Obviously, Bryant is the key player and he must play at a very high level for the Lakers to win the championship.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 10:04:00 PM, Anonymous Jonty said...

David,

A question for you...I am basketball fan but have not played basketball at any level..my question is the triangle offense looks like one with great flexibility and gives opportunity to score a lot in the paint (high percentage) but I don't see anyone else running this offense apart from the Lakers..?? is it the personnel or the complexity of the system that shies people away from it??

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 11:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jonty:

That is an excellent question. Tex Winter developed the Triangle decades ago and he used it at Kansas State and as the head coach of the Rockets long before Phil Jackson hired him as an assistant coach in Chicago and L.A.

It takes a certain amount of time to teach players to run the offense correctly and in order for the Triangle to be successful you must have unselfish, intelligent players who can make the proper reads, pass the ball and shoot. Some coaches and teams have tried to run the offense in the NBA but Jackson is really the only coach who has been in one place long enough to acquire the right personnel and develop the right continuity to be successful with the Triangle.

 

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