Bryant Outduels Anthony, Carries Lakers Past NuggetsKobe Bryant scored 40 points--including 18 in the fourth quarter--and alternated between guarding All-NBA players Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony as the L.A. Lakers rallied from a 13 point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets 105-103 in game one of the Western Conference Finals. Bryant shot 13-28 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line but in the fourth quarter--during which the Lakers trailed by as many as seven points--Bryant shot 4-5 from the field and made all nine of his free throws, including six pressure-packed free throws in the final :30.5. Bryant played a game-high 43 minutes--including all 24 minutes in the second half--and he also contributed six rebounds and four assists, two of which resulted in big Derek Fisher three pointers, one at the first half buzzer to put the Lakers up 55-54 and another with 2:30 remaining in the game to put the Lakers up 97-96, their first lead of the fourth quarter.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the 17th time that Bryant has scored at least 10 points in the fourth quarter of a Lakers playoff win when the Lakers trailed in the fourth quarter, a statistic that is much more meaningful and relevant than the misleading statistic that some people--including ESPN's Mike Wilbon--mistakenly believe proves that the Lakers would win more frequently if Bryant attempted fewer shots (there is a difference between correlation and causation but I will address that whole issue in a separate article); anyone who thinks that the Lakers would have won this game if Bryant had attempted fewer shots needs to have his head examined.
Bryant should be called "The Firefighter" because whenever there is a raging inferno threatening to destroy the Lakers' season he puts out those flames. Billups came into this game shooting well over .500 from three point range as his hot hand burned New Orleans and Dallas in the first two rounds of the playoffs, so Bryant volunteered to pour cold water on Billups; Bryant guarded Billups for virtually the entire first half and Billups did not make a single first half field goal against him (Billups drained a jumper on the first possession of the game with Derek Fisher guarding him but then the Lakers switched assignments). Unfortunately for the Lakers, while Bryant was putting out one fire another raging inferno erupted, as Carmelo Anthony scorched Trevor Ariza for 20 first half points. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy noted that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson faced a quandary: "They have Billups under control because Bryant is on him, so that's a difficult decision: do you put Bryant on the guy who has it going the best or do you try to keep Chauncey Billups under control?" Bryant actually ended up guarding sixth man J.R. Smith for some possessions (the potentially explosive Smith finished with eight points on 2-7 shooting) but down the stretch Jackson put Bryant on Anthony, shifting Ariza on to Billups. Jackson has always liked to put bigger defenders on point guards in the playoffs, dating all the way back to when he had Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen defend Mark Price and when he used Pippen to check Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Mark Jackson. This is why I favor skill set evaluation over statistical evaluation, because what ultimately matters is what a player is capable of doing against elite level competition down the stretch in playoff games; if you have Pippen or Bryant chasing around point guards for 82 regular season games then you may wear down your most valuable defensive resource but the fact that those players are capable of shutting down elite point guards in playoff games is more important than figuring out their supposed "defensive efficiency" versus the Clippers during their third game in four nights. There are few if any 6-6 or 6-7 players in NBA history who can play defense the way that Pippen did and Bryant does but "advanced basketball statistics" have no way to measure that, which is why NBA coaches annually put Bryant on the All-Defensive First Team while "stat gurus" prance around like know-it-alls and declare that the coaches are wrong.
Anthony scored just five points in the final five minutes of the game but, without Bryant hounding him, Billups got loose for two big three pointers, the first one putting Denver up 99-97 with 1:38 remaining while the second one pulled the Nuggets to within 103-102 with six seconds remaining, forcing Bryant to make two free throws to seal the win.
Adding to the drama of Bryant's performance is the fact that late in the game he dislocated the ring finger on his right (shooting) hand, reaggravating an injury that he suffered in the early moments of the Lakers' 105-88 victory over Cleveland in January; Bryant did not miss any playing time in that game and his defense against LeBron James--harassing the 2009 MVP into 9-25 shooting and six turnovers--was a key factor in the outcome of that contest. Of course, Bryant is also playing with an avulsion fracture in his right pinkie finger that he suffered in February 2008 and has yet to be surgically repaired; during All-Star Weekend 2008, Bryant described that injury to me: "There is no ligament there holding it in. I got lucky. This knuckle right here (points to the base of the finger) was down here (points midway down his hand) but I didn’t hurt this one (points to the middle of his pinkie finger). So I’m not going to have any damage or any fingers that look like Larry Bird’s."
Bryant never talks about those finger injuries unless someone asks him about them, nor has he missed a single regular season or playoff game in the past two years, so it is easy to forget that he is in fact playing hurt without making any excuses (unlike, say, last year's NBA champions, a team that has a player who is in a wheelchair one moment and then making big jumpers the next moment and a team that, in the wake of Sunday's game seven loss, found it necessary to publicly state that virtually their entire starting lineup was playing hurt--as if no other NBA team is facing any health problems at this time of the year).
The start of this game certainly provided no foreshadowing of how it would end: the Nuggets jumped out to a 10-2 lead as the Lakers' frontcourt players once again looked like the incredible shrinking men, disappearing completely from sight as Denver players paraded unimpeded to the hoop for dunks. Van Gundy said after one such play, "No rotation, no help from the other Lakers. That's inexcusable." One time, Bryant had Billups bottled up on the baseline but Pau Gasol inexplicably wandered over to provide an unnecessary double team, leaving a wide open lane for Nene to power through for an easy dunk. Gasol finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds but while he used his length to good effect on the offensive glass he was a sieve defensively for most of the game--and starting center Andrew Bynum (six points, six rebounds, five fouls in just 16 minutes) was even worse, while Lamar Odom delivered his customary "triple single" with seven points, eight rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes.
By the 1:53 mark of the first quarter the Nuggets led 27-14 and Anthony had already scored 14 points. Bryant had eight points on 4-8 shooting at that juncture and he had completely shut down Billups but the Lakers were in danger of getting blown out because of the soft play of their bigs and the hot shooting by Anthony. Gasol stopped the bleeding by scoring his first points of the game on a three point play and when Bryant sat out for his only rest of the game the Lakers' bench finally stepped up as Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic drilled a pair of three pointers to help cut the margin to 31-23 by the end of the quarter. Those were the only shots that Brown and Vujacic made but overall the Lakers' bench players performed better than they have during most of this postseason and that was very important considering that Carmelo Anthony (39 points), Kenyon Martin (15 points) and Nene (14 points) outscored the Lakers' starting frontcourt of Gasol, Bynum and Ariza 68-25.
Anthony's performance--39 points on 14-20 field goal shooting, six rebounds, four assists--deserves special mention; quite simply, this is the best all-around NBA game that I have ever seen him play: not only did he shoot well but his shot selection was outstanding, he was extremely aggressive without forcing things and he played by far the best defense that I have ever seen him play. He took up the challenge of guarding Bryant for extended stretches and he made Bryant work for everything that he got. Now that Anthony has demonstrated just how effectively he can play at both ends of the court the onus is on him to play this way night in and night out, the way that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James do; that does not mean that Anthony must score that many points or shoot .700 from the field but he should play with that same energy, determination and focus.
The Nuggets could have had an even bigger lead early in the game but they missed five of their first six free throw attempts; that is easy to forget about by the end of the game but in what ultimately turned out to be a one possession game those squandered opportunities were likely the difference between winning and losing. The Lakers battled up hill for most of the first half, took the lead briefly, lost it again but then gained some momentum going into halftime when Bryant drew a double-team from Billups and fed Derek Fisher for a corner three pointer as time expired to put the Lakers up 55-54 at intermission. Fisher shot just 5-13 from the field but he ended up with 13 points and six assists. He was the only Laker other than Bryant and Gasol to score in double figures.
Midway through the third quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop and missed a shot but Gasol got the rebound and slammed the ball through the hoop, prompting Van Gundy to reiterate an important observation that he made during the Lakers' 89-70 game seven victory over the Rockets on Sunday: "That miss by Kobe Bryant might as well be an assist, because help has to come to support Dahntay Jones (who was guarding Bryant), Gasol (got a) free run to the rim, cleans it up, easy basket." Why is Bryant's missed shot "better" than someone else's missed shot or how does it differ from the off balance, long jump shots that Ron Artest regularly flings at the hoop? Bryant puts constant pressure on the opposing team's defense by attracting multiple defenders and this creates rebounding opportunities for Bryant's teammates but when a lesser player forces a shot it is much more likely to spark a fast break opportunity for the opponent than it is to lead to an offensive rebound. Earlier in the game, a variation of this happened when Billups fronted Bryant on the post and Fisher took a shot instead of passing the ball to Bryant--Bryant used the fact that he had inside position on Billups to get the offensive rebound. If Bryant were not such a low post scoring threat then defenders would not have to front him. These nuances of the game are not measured statistically, nor are they noticed by casual fans, but they play a critical role in game planning and in determining who wins and who loses.
Dahntay Jones is a scrappy, physical defender but he gives up several inches and quite a few pounds to Bryant, who repeatedly took Jones to the low post and either scored, got fouled or drew a double team that opened up some other opportunities. At one point, ESPN's Mark Jackson commented, "The same thing that worked against a smaller guy like Chris Paul (in the first round of the playoffs) is not going to work against Kobe Bryant." This is actually a very important observation; as I recently explained, size--specifically height--matters in the NBA and that is why it is almost impossible to conceive of a scenario in which Chris Paul could be better or more valuable than LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. Many of the "stat gurus" are absolutely in love with Paul and they have convinced themselves that he is better than Bryant but their "analysis" fails to take into consideration important skill set differences and important size differences: Bryant is a 6-6, 220 pound player who can guard three positions and who can see over defenders to score or pass, while Paul is a 6-0 (if that), 175 pound point guard who simply cannot impact a game against elite competition in the same way that Bryant (or James) can. How many players comparably sized to Paul have been the best player on an NBA championship team? Isiah Thomas is the only one. Bob Cousy won an MVP but when he won championships he was not the best player on his team. Nate Archibald won a scoring title and an assist title in the same season but when he won a championship he played alongside the Bird-McHale-Parish Hall of Fame frontcourt. I agree with those who say that Paul is the best point guard in the NBA right now--but Paul is not in the same class as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.
The Nuggets led 76-74 going into the fourth quarter and they pushed that margin to 89-82 by the 7:28 mark in the final stanza. Then Bryant took over, scoring 14 points in the last 6:48 while also containing Anthony at the other end of the court. Bryant's jumper with 3:12 left made the score 96-94 Denver and then after a Lakers' defensive stop Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a double team and passed to Fisher for a right corner three pointer. Gasol had an opportunity to give the Lakers a little breathing room but he missed two free throws and then Billups hit a three pointer to put Denver back on top, 99-97. Gasol got fouled again and this time he made both free throws to tie the score. Odom tied up Chris Andersen and won a key jump ball. Bryant missed a jumper but the Lakers retained possession and Bryant drew a foul, sinking both free throws. The Nuggets called timeout and inbounded at midcourt but Ariza shot the gap and stole Anthony Carter's pass; Bryant played a key role in that play as well--but don't take my word for it, listen to what Ariza said after the game: "The play was for Carmelo, but Kobe had him covered, so they had to go to Billups, and I was there."
The possession after Ariza's steal ended with two Bryant free throws to put the Lakers up 103-99 but then Billups drained a long three pointer after it looked like he had stepped out of bounds. Bryant again made a pair of free throws and then Phil Jackson deviated from his usual strategy and instructed his players to intentionally foul to prevent the Nuggets from attempting to tie the game with a three pointer. J.R. Smith made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second one but Bryant got the rebound and time ran out as he threw the ball in the air a la Magic Johnson versus the Portland Trail Blazers nearly two decades ago.
After the game, Billups noted that the Nuggets did not have one game that was this competitive when they were swept by the Lakers in the first round last year, but Denver Coach George Karl
understands that the margin of victory is irrelevant: "There's no moral victories in playoff basketball. The next 48 hours are going to be difficult. We're going to try to regroup and re-energize." In recent years the Nuggets have been a frontrunning team that could bully their way past teams with inferior talent but crumbled like a tent in a tornado at the first sign of adversity. This year's Nuggets have shown more maturity and play with much more defensive intensity but this 1-0 deficit is the first adversity that they have faced in a long time; game one winners win NBA playoff series roughly 80% of the time and a 2-0 deficit would likely be insurmountable, so it will be very, very interesting to see how the Nuggets respond on Thursday night. By the same token, the Lakers have been a team that sometimes lacks energy and focus, so it will also be interesting to see if they get "fat and happy" or if they seize the opportunity to put a quick death blow on the Nuggets.
How does Bryant's clutch performance affect the "great debate" about Bryant versus James? I am not a big believer in changing one's opinion back and forth from game to game. I have listed, in detail, why I ranked Bryant as the best player in the NBA from 2006-08; last season, I felt that he was only slightly ahead of James but this season James shored up his defense, free throw shooting and three point shooting and because of that I now put James slightly ahead of Bryant. We are heading inexorably toward a Finals showdown between the game's two best players, which will be fun to watch but I think that I will have to completely stop reading or listening to any NBA analysis during that series, because I already can see the erroneous story line that will be told: when the Cavs beat the Lakers this supposedly will prove that James is much better than Bryant, even though the reality is that Bryant simply does not have a supporting cast that is good enough, tough minded enough or focused enough defensively to contend with the playoff-tested, veteran crew that James leads into battle on a nightly basis. Still, it will be fun to watch the two best players go at it hammer and tongs, even if I will have to plug my ears and close my eyes as soon as each game ends.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:47 AM