Energetic Lakers Shut Down Rockets in Game SevenIt has often been said that defense wins championships--and the reason this is often said is because it is true. The L.A. Lakers' vaunted frontcourt finally played defense with energy, hunger and determination, resulting in an 89-70 game seven victory over the resilient Houston Rockets. This is the second biggest game seven victory margin in the history of the Lakers franchise. Pau Gasol led both teams in scoring (21 points) and rebounds (18) but the numbers alone don't tell the full story of how well he played; in game seven, Gasol was much more effective than he had been when he produced 30 points and nine rebounds in a 99-87 game four loss to the Rockets: Gasol dominated the paint at both ends of the court, contesting shots, scooping up six offensive boards and finishing with authority. It was like someone flipped a switch and Gasol suddenly figured out that as a talented 7-footer going against players who are four to six inches shorter than he is he should be able to use his length to his advantage. Andrew Bynum apparently experienced a similar revelation, adding 14 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Gasol shot 10-19 from the field, while Bynum made six of his seven shots. Trevor Ariza contributed 15 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, scoring nine points in the first 6:52 of the game as the Lakers opened the game with a 13-2 run, never trailed and built the lead as high as 31 points. Lamar Odom added six points and seven rebounds off of the bench; he played OK but the sad thing is that if you look at his numbers it is hard to tell whether he is still hampered by his back injury or if he is just displaying his typical inconsistency, because even when Odom was fully healthy during the season it was not uncommon for him to follow up a double double with a "triple single."
In game six, Luis Scola abused Gasol in the post like Gasol had stolen something from him but right from jump in game seven Gasol made it clear that this would not happen again. On Houston's second possession, Gasol blocked a Scola jumper and recovered the ball, leading to a Kobe Bryant "semi-transition" layup. That play and that phrase are very interesting, because when Bryant scored I made a note about "semi-transition" only to hear ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy use the exact same adjective to describe the play; Bryant's layup was not technically a transition or fast break score but Gasol's blocked shot enabled Bryant to get the ball in the open court and attack the Rockets before they could set up their half court defense. Van Gundy noted that such "semi-transition" plays are a perfect time to drive to the hoop. People who assert that Bryant should have been driving all the way to the hoop more often in previous games simply don't understand basketball; in those games the Lakers generally had few transition or even "semi-transition" opportunities because their defense was so poor. Driving all the way to the hoop against an entrenched half court defense as good as Houston's leads to turnovers, offensive fouls and low percentage shots. Against Houston in this series, Bryant drove to the hoop when he had high percentage opportunities to do so but he resisted any temptation to overpenetrate.
This game was billed in some quarters as the most important 48 minutes of Bryant's career; of course, it is utter nonsense to say such a thing about a player who has already won three NBA championships in addition to coming through in the clutch in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics--but, sadly, utter nonsense is what I have come to expect from mainstream NBA coverage and that goes double when the subject is Kobe Bryant. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told Bryant before the game to be a playmaker and get all of his teammates involved but Van Gundy expressed some skepticism about that plan: "I would want him to be a playmaker by shooting 30 times if necessary to win. He should play the entire game or until it's decided." Bryant averaged 34.7 ppg on .600 field goal shooting in the games after the Lakers' first three losses in this year's playoffs, so there certainly was good reason to think that he might score a lot of points in game seven in the wake of the Lakers' disappointing game six defeat but Bryant followed Coach Jackson's advice and made sure that his big men got involved early in the game. Bryant finished with 14 points on 4-12 field goal shooting while playing just 33 minutes; he only made a 97 second cameo appearance in the fourth quarter and did not attempt a shot in the final stanza. Much like Gasol's box score numbers do not fully convey the difference between his performances in game seven and game four, Bryant's point total and shooting percentage do not reflect his impact on this game; he had seven rebounds (tied for second on the team with Odom), five assists (tied for game-high honors), three steals and two blocked shots.
Although journalists masquerading as psychoanalysts have propounded all kinds of kooky theories about Bryant's performances in certain games, Bryant has always insisted that he makes his decisions to shoot or pass based on reading what the defense is doing. Since the Lakers' big men played so lackadaisically for most of this series it is not surprising that the Rockets focused most of their defensive attention on Bryant, who responded by doing a lot of things at both ends of the court that created opportunities for Gasol, Bynum and others to be productive. For instance, at the 3:32 mark of the second quarter Bryant made a hard drive to the hoop and missed a contested layup but Gasol got the rebound and converted a putback dunk. Van Gundy said, "There was a blow-by by Bryant. That's an assist--he missed but because Scola had to come over to help no one was there to put a body on Gasol." Years ago, Doug Collins made a similar point about Allen Iverson when the "Answer" led the 76ers to the NBA Finals but "stat gurus" steadfastly maintain that anyone can miss shots, completely failing to understand just how significant it is to break down a defense with dribble penetration (provided, of course, that the dribbler does not overpenetrate, as mentioned above)--and it most assuredly is not true that "anyone" can dribble penetrate as effectively as Bryant (or Iverson). There is a huge difference between driving to the hoop, collapsing the defense and missing on a high percentage shot versus overdribbling on the perimeter before launching a low percentage fadeaway jumper; certain opening move sequences in chess are named after their most famous practitioners and it would be fitting if the latter basketball maneuver would be named after Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury or Ron Artest, the Rocket who went down in an inglorious blaze, making just four of his final 26 three point attempts in this series, including a 1 for 6 outing in game seven.
In addition to his rebounding, passing and dribble penetration, Bryant was also very active defensively; his boxscore numbers (three steals, two blocked shots) give some sense of that but you had to watch the game to fully appreciate the multiple efforts that he made on many defensive possessions, sliding into the lane to deter drivers, hustling back out to contest perimeter shots and just being a disruptive force in general. As Bryant explained in "Kobe: Doin' Work", he reads situations and understands when to be a "roamer" like NFL defensive backs Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu and when to be a "lockdown" defender zeroed in on one man. On one play early in the game, Aaron Brooks blew by Derek Fisher but Bryant flew in out of nowhere, contested Brooks with his left hand and forced Brooks to miss a layup. That play by Bryant did not even generate a stat and it certainly was not as beautiful or flashy as one of LeBron James' "chase down blocks" but it was very effective and very important.
The contrast between Bryant's efficient contesting of Brooks' shot and James' dramatic, high-flying blocks is an example of why I think that Bryant is almost like a human Rorschach test: people look at him and see whatever they want to see; ESPN blogger Henry Abbott is obsessed with the idea that James is effective but not beautiful to watch, while (according to Abbott) Bryant is beautiful to watch but not as effective as James. Abbott's whole conception about both players is just a contrived notion that Abbott thought up to try to make himself sound clever, but if you actually think it through logically it does not sound clever at all because it really makes no sense: James is a powerful, explosive athlete who literally covers the court in leaps and bounds, soaring through the air for incredible dunks, rebounds and blocked shots. Who could watch James and not dream about being able to fly in such a beautiful, artistic way? Although Bryant's game contains some elements of beauty, one could argue that it was more beautiful when he was younger and more regularly apt to fly through the air. Bryant's game now is less based on beauty and much more based on technical precision. I agree with the general consensus that James has surpassed Bryant as the game's best player but I think that the reasoning that most people give to justify that claim is completely incorrect. I maintain that Bryant was the best player in the NBA from 2005-06 through 2007-08 and that he received his most serious challenge for that title from James--but until this season, James had several notable skill set weaknesses, including defense, free throw shooting, midrange jump shooting and three point shooting. James' powerful and beautiful athleticism (to give James the credit that Abbott bizarrely denies him) compensated somewhat for those weaknesses but not enough to give him the overall edge versus Bryant. This season, James eliminated all of his skill set weaknesses except for the midrange jump shot, so he is now a beautifully athletic player who has also refined his skill set from a technical standpoint. The difference in value between James and Bryant is still small but I give the edge now to James, whereas last year I gave the small edge to Bryant. If you read the "great debate" about this issue--as discussed seprately at ESPN.com and in Slam Magazine--then you will note that the "experts" do not mention the factors outlined above. When comparing the relative value of two players it should not really matter which player's game is more "beautiful" but the suggestion that Bryant's game is more beautiful while James' game is more effective sounds like something a seventh grade creative writing teacher would come up with--"Class, compare and contrast the beauty of Bryant with the efficiency of James"--as opposed to the serious and objective skill set comparison that someone who understands basketball would make.
Bryant's all-around ballhawking combined with the heightened activity levels of Gasol and Bynum in the paint made life very difficult for the Rockets. Three players who hurt the Lakers significantly during Houston's wins in this series--Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola and Carl Landry--were non factors: Brooks finished with 13 points, three assists and five turnovers while shooting 4-13 from the field, Scola had 11 points and six rebounds while shooting 4-12 from the field and Landry ended up with four points and two rebounds while shooting 2-10 from the field. Artest had a solid floor game--eight rebounds, five assists--but his overdribbling and poor shot selection caused ABC's Mark Jackson to repeatedly say that point guard Brooks needed to assert control over Houston's offense by making sure that Artest did not have the ball in his hands so much.
Van Gundy does not think that this series either strengthened the Lakers for what lies ahead or provided much of a blueprint for other teams to use to attack the Lakers; he says that they are who they are, a team with "great competitors in the backcourt, a little inconsistent in the frontcourt."
The most important thing to understand about this game seven and this series in general is that the Lakers won for two reasons: Kobe Bryant and homecourt advantage--and those reasons actually go hand in hand, because without Bryant's regular season play the Lakers would not have had homecourt advantage in the first place. As discussed above, Bryant's play created opportunities for his teammates to excel. Without Bryant's presence, Gasol does not put up 21-18, nor does Bynum play as solidly as he did; in fact, if this game seven had taken place in Houston, those guys may very well have not come through even with Bryant leading the way (and that is an ominous thought for Lakers fans considering that the Cavaliers will enjoy homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals, assuming that both teams make it that far).
In my series preview I wrote, "This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use 'advanced basketball statistics' to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range." While Bryant did not match his exceptional regular season production versus Houston, during this series he still averaged 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting and .344 three point shooting. Bryant averaged just 1.6 turnovers per game in the series despite being guarded by All-Defensive Team members Artest and Shane Battier and despite being almost constantly double and triple teamed; Bryant had no turnovers in two of the games and his series-high four turnovers took place in the Lakers' 118-78 game five rout. Bryant averaged 26.7 ppg and 2.6 tpg in the regular season while shooting .467 from the field and .351 from three point range, so there is an 11 game sample size (four regular season games versus Houston plus this playoff series) that suggests that even with two All-Defensive Team members at their disposal the Rockets' "stat gurus" have not been able to prove--on the court, where it counts, as opposed to in newspaper articles--that their "advanced metrics" give them any kind of real advantage versus Bryant. In fact, after the Rockets seized homecourt advantage with a game one win and could have taken control of the series with a game two victory Bryant bounced back with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting, a clutch performance in a must-win game for the Lakers. I absolutely agree that the Rockets are correct to try to use statistics to gain some kind of advantage and I respect that Houston General Manager Daryl Morey seems to understand the limitations of basketball statistical analysis but I think that it is unfortunate that some people act like the search for the basketball statistical "Holy Grail" is over when that search has really only just begun.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM