Bryant Scores 26 as Lakers Rout Rockets, Move Within One Win of the Conference FinalsLed by Kobe Bryant's efficient 26 points on 10-19 field goal shooting, the L.A. Lakers bounced back from their embarrassing game four loss to post a dominating 118-78 game five win versus the Houston Rockets. This is the Lakers' biggest margin of victory in a playoff game since 1986 and the Rockets tied a franchise record for their most lopsided playoff defeat. Bryant, who also had four rebounds and three assists, played just 31 minutes and sat out the entire fourth quarter. Pau Gasol had 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots, providing a classic demonstration of why it is so wrong to evaluate basketball players purely by numbers: Gasol's game four line of 30 points and nine rebounds looks more impressive but in game four Gasol was tentative and soft, accumulating what Jeff Van Gundy correctly called "fake" numbers long after the outcome of the game had been decided. In game five, Gasol was decisive and aggressive. Andrew Bynum scored a playoff career-high 14 points, a total that is an encouraging sign for the Lakers but also makes a mockery of the idea that he is a main offensive threat for the team; when your playoff career-high is 14 points, it is charitable to say that you have yet to establish yourself as a dominant postseason scorer. The Lakers need for Bynum to provide a consistent effort defensively and on the boards--and to not let his performance in those departments be affected by how many points he scores. Bynum had six rebounds, no turnovers and two fouls in 20 minutes, shooting 5-6 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line.
Seven Lakers scored in double figures but special mention should be made of Lamar Odom, who was doubtful to even play in this game due to the bruised lower back he suffered in the previous game; Odom came off of the bench to score 10 points and grab six rebounds in 19 minutes. One can question his focus and his decision making at times but no one should ever question his heart; I remember one game when he played for Team USA he was getting IVs at halftime so that he could go back out and play in the second half.
Aaron Brooks again led the Rockets in scoring but this time he had 14 points on just 4-11 field goal shooting, a far cry from his career-high 34 points on 12-20 shooting in game four. Von Wafer added 13 points--mainly in garbage time--and Luis Scola had 12 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Ron Artest has largely escaped criticism in this series--mainly because people are so busy talking about the Lakers--but he finished with just nine points, four rebounds and one assist while shooting 4-15 from the field, including 1-7 from three point range. Artest might have the worst shot selection of anyone possessing a comparable amount of athletic gifts; in this series he is shooting .394 from the field and .294 from three point range, numbers that are inexcusable considering his abilities, particularly because he is launching nearly seven three point attempts per game but only shooting 2.6 free throw attempts per game. You'd think that with all of Houston's well advertised--or self-promoted, depending on how you look at it--emphasis on "advanced basketball statistics" that someone in their organization would figure out that a 6-7, 260 pound athlete should not be jacking up threes left and right, especially when he is not shooting a good percentage. Maybe one of the "stat gurus" should sidle up to Ron-Ron, show him some pie charts and inform him about the intricacies of offensive efficiency.
Shane Battier scored 23 points in game four and some people questioned why Bryant so often roams away from Battier to provide defensive help but the reality is that Battier is a minor offensive threat and that the Lakers needed Bryant's presence elsewhere to try to plug up holes in their defense. Bryant guarded Battier the same way in game five that he did in the previous four games and Battier finished with five points on 2-7 shooting; Battier is averaging 9.2 ppg on .394 shooting in this series, so Bryant's approach is clearly correct.
In game four, the Rockets jumped out to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. The Rockets started off game five in very strong fashion with an 11-4 run but then the Lakers clamped down defensively and they forced some turnovers that led to easy scores in transition. Bryant set the tone by scoring 12 first quarter points on 5-7 shooting and the Lakers led 35-24 after the first 12 minutes. The Lakers' bench has not been a strength for this team recently but with Gasol and Odom serving as anchors playing alongside three reserves, the Lakers pushed the margin to 47-33 while Bryant rested for just over four minutes. When Bryant returned to action, the Lakers' attack at both ends of the court kicked into overdrive and by halftime he had scored 20 points and the Lakers led 64-39.
While the Lakers made a run in game four--even if that run was somewhat "fake"--the Rockets never even hinted at making a comeback in this contest. Bryant went to the bench for good with 1:00 remaining in the third quarter and the Lakers up 90-54.
TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith asserted after the game that the Lakers have the most talented team in the league and even went so far as to bizarrely claim that Coach Phil Jackson and Bryant are taking too "lackadaisical" (Barkley's word) or "arrogant" (Smith's word) of an approach at times. The analysts who have actually been broadcasting these games--Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson for ESPN/ABC and Doug Collins for TNT--have repeatedly and correctly made the point that the Lakers' bench this year has been extremely inconsistent and that several Lakers' bench players (most notably Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar) have underperformed compared to last season. I actually thought that the Lakers' bench was overrated even last year but there is no question that the Lakers' bench is performing worse this season than they did last season--that is obvious to anyone who has followed this team closely and is also quite clear if you look at the statistics of Vujacic and Farmar: Vujacic shot .454 from the field last season, .387 this season and .241 (that is not a typo) so far in this year's playoffs; Farmar shot .461 from the field last season, .391 this season and .406 so far in this year's playoffs.
As for this "lackadaisical"/"arrogant" business, Jackson explicitly warned the Lakers prior to game four to not take anything for granted even with Yao Ming out of the lineup. Bryant certainly does not skip any steps in terms of his preparation or his performance and, quite frankly, if the rest of his teammates--particularly the bigs--had his attitude and demeanor then this series would already be finished.
This is the time of year when everyone becomes an amateur psychiatrist and tries to psychoanalyze Bryant's body language, shot attempts, lack of shot attempts, etc. We saw this phenomenon rear its ugly head during the 2008 Finals and it is cropping up again now. I just read an entire article devoted to criticizing Bryant for scowling. When Bernard King did this everyone praised his "game face"; when Michael Jordan screamed at teammates, punched Steve Kerr in the face or trash talked with opponents and/or courtside fans everyone raved about how singularly competitive he is. How about this: instead of getting sidetracked by Bryant's scowl or about how Houston's Daryl Morey is going to revolutionize the usage of basketball statistics, let's look at the real story of this series, the story that no one is talking about: despite all of Houston's scouting and all of Houston's detailed statistics--and despite having two All-Defensive Team players in Shane Battier and Ron Artest--Kobe Bryant is averaging 29.2 ppg versus the Rockets while shooting .475 from the field and .391 from three point range and he has his Lakers on the brink of advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. Scoring averages and shooting percentages tend to decline in the playoffs because the competition is tougher and because each team can zero in on their opponent's tendencies but whatever advantage the Rockets claim to have in terms of statistical preparation is not showing up where it counts the most: Bryant's raw individual numbers and, even more significantly, wins and losses. Instead of focusing on a scowl or on one play or on one game, it would be nice if members of the media who discuss this series had the necessary attention span/analytical ability/intellectual honesty/communication skills to not bury the lead under a mountain of gibberish.
As I mentioned in my analysis of the New York Times' article about Morey's use of basketball statistics, I respect what Morey is trying to do and I believe that he has a good grasp of both the possibilities and limitations of basketball statistical analysis but I think that a lot of the fans of basketball statistical analysis do not have a similarly nuanced understanding; for that reason, after this series is over the New York Times should do a followup article detailing how Bryant overcame Houston's defensive preparation by utilizing his skill set strengths to maximum effectiveness.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM