"He Can't Guard Me": Bryant Says It and Bryant Proves ItKobe Bryant has apparently heard more than enough about Shane Battier's defensive prowess; Battier played good defense against Bryant in Houston's game one win over the Lakers and Bryant still scored 32 points with a solid .452 field goal percentage. In game two, Bryant's actions and words both spoke loudly as he poured in 40 points on 16-27 (.593) field goal shooting in a 111-98 Lakers victory; on several occasions, Bryant loudly proclaimed, "He can't guard me," eventually receiving a technical foul for taunting. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to have at least one 40 point game in four straight postseasons; Michael Jordan had eight year (1985-92) and four year (1994-97) streaks, while George Mikan (1948-51), Elgin Baylor (1959-62) and Allen Iverson (1999-02) each had four year streaks.
Battier has a thick notebook detailing various statistical tendencies for Bryant but Battier admitted to TNT's Craig Sager, "He does pretty much everything better than anybody else. I can't stop him, I just have to make it difficult for him." Battier is a smart, hard working player and I respect how thoroughly he prepares but the whole story about him guarding Bryant has been overdone or at least the emphasis has been placed squarely in the wrong direction; the story has been spun that Battier does such a great job but that is actually burying the real lead, which is that this season Bryant consistently posted great numbers against Battier as the Lakers swept the season series with Houston 4-0. Battier certainly does his best to make Bryant work but in the end it comes down to Bryant making or missing shots; Battier cannot block Bryant's shot, nor can he really control where Bryant goes on the court: watching him guard Bryant is not like watching Bryant play defense for Team USA the past couple years, when Bryant was spinning around opposing guards, making them pick up their dribble and completely disrupting the other team's offensive flow. Battier has his stats and his theories--and he knows where his help defenders are--so he tries to send Bryant in certain directions but for the most part Bryant gets to his spots and takes the shots he wants to take.
Pau Gasol bounced back from his subpar performance in game one; in game two, he scored 22 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, blocked a game-high four shots and passed for four assists. Gasol must use his speed, quickness and shooting ability to outmaneuver Yao Ming, because Yao has the advantage in "trench warfare" if the game slows down and is played in a half court set. Derek Fisher scored 12 points on 4-7 field goal shooting and played better defense versus the speedy Aaron Brooks than he did in game one but Fisher missed the entire fourth quarter after being ejected for committing a flagrant two foul when he elbowed Luis Scola as Scola tried to set a screen. It is possible that the league office will suspend Fisher for game three. No other Lakers scored in double figures and five of the six reserves who played had negative plus/minus ratings. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson moved Lamar Odom into the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bynum; Odom scored just seven points on 2-7 field goal shooting, though he did contribute 11 rebounds and four assists, but Bynum had no points, one rebound and three fouls in nine ineffective minutes. After the game, TNT's Charles Barkley quipped that when people called Bynum the Lakers' "missing player" for their championship quest he did not know that Bynum really would be missing.
Ron Artest led the Rockets with 25 points and five assists but, like Fisher, he watched the end of the game from the locker room after being ejected. With 6:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, Artest was called for a loose ball foul as he and Bryant battled for a rebound. While boxing out the larger Artest, Bryant raised his right forearm/elbow and Artest reared back like he had been shot, complaining that Bryant had elbowed him in the throat. Watching the game on TV, the camera angle used prevents the viewer from actually seeing the elbow connect; you just see Bryant lift his arm as he is grappling with Artest and then you see Artest lean back and get whistled for a loose ball foul. Based on the angle that Bryant's arm was at, it seemed to me that his arm likely contacted Artest in the upper chest, not in the neck area. The referee had a much better angle than the TV camera and all he saw was a foul by Artest, who became incensed and ran over to Bryant--who was walking down court--to give him a piece of his mind. Bryant simply lifted his arms over his head and backed away and the referees immediately ejected Artest. It is absurd for anyone to suggest that Bryant would possibly be suspended merely for boxing out a larger player who fouled him; anyone who has played basketball knows that when you are boxing out a bigger player you have to get your forearm into his chest and try to use leverage to keep him at bay, because if you just put your lower body on him he can use his weight and strength to move you right under the basket, where the only rebound you will grab is the ball going through the net. After the game, Bryant said of Artest, "If you're going to be physical you have to expect players to be physical back." Artest is a matchup problem for the Lakers but he will likely "self check" himself during this series with some combination of poor shot selection and poor emotional control.
Yao Ming finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 26 foul plagued minutes. Carl Landry had 21 points and 10 rebounds off of the bench, nearly outscoring all of the Lakers' reserves combined.
Much like LeBron James set the early tone versus Atlanta on Tuesday night, Bryant came out firing in game two, making six of his first seven shots and scoring 13 points as the Lakers took a 29-16 lead. The Lakers were up 39-25 by the end of the first quarter, with Bryant contributing 15 points on 7-11 shooting. Predictably, the Lakers squandered more than half of that lead in barely two minutes as Bryant rested on the bench; a lineup consisting of Odom, Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown got outscored 12-4 before Bryant returned to action to try to restore order. I think that Bryant should wear a fireman's hat because every time he comes back into a game he has to put out fires that the bench players set. TNT's Doug Collins said of the Lakers' bench, "What was once a great strength is now a weakness." Even last year I was not convinced that the Laker reserves were quite as good as some people said that they were but no sensible person can dispute the truth that Collins spoke about the bench now being a weakness. Landry simply killed the Lakers in the second quarter and the Rockets eventually took the lead, though Bryant tied the score at 57 by hitting a three pointer just before halftime. Collins noted, "Kobe is going to share the ball...Somebody is going to have to start knocking some shots down to give him some space to work." Otherwise, the Rockets will be able to tilt their defense against Bryant much like the Celtics did in the 2008 Finals.
In game one, Bryant played all 24 second half minutes because Coach Jackson knew that he could not afford to take him out of a close game. This time, Bryant solved that problem by scoring 12 third quarter points and giving the Lakers an 84-74 cushion that enabled Jackson to rest him from the 1:03 mark of the third quarter until 8:53 remained in the game. After a sequence in which Bryant had to execute numerous dribble moves and fakes to get free, Collins commented about how hard Bryant was working and he added, "The fourth quarter should be Kobe time. He should not have to carry the team throughout." As Bryant scored 10 points in a little over five minutes, Collins said, "Kobe has thrown out the life jacket; he has thrown out the dinghy and said, 'Everybody get on board here. I'm not going to let us get overtaken by this Rockets team.'"
Things got really chippy down the stretch in the third quarter. It seemed to start after Odom blocked a Luis Scola shot and talked some smack to Scola. Later, Scola fouled Odom on a drive and pulled on his jersey, leading to some more comments by Odom. Then Luke Walton came over and said his piece. Walton, Odom and Scola each received technical fouls. On the next possession, Fisher committed his flagrant foul against Scola.
The histrionics did not ultimately favor either team. The Lakers maintained their lead with Bryant on the bench, a rarity for them in recent weeks. When Bryant returned to action, the Lakers were up 92-81. The Rockets still hung around even after the Artest ejection but then Bryant scored seven quick points to extend the margin to 104-90; his final bucket of the night came after he pump faked Battier, threw the ball off of the backboard, beat everyone to it and converted the layup, a move that we have seen in a few All-Star games but not usually in the playoffs.
In his postgame interview with TNT's Craig Sager, Bryant said, "We're being tested so this is when it's the most fun, to be honest with you, and we're looking forward to going up there." Sager asked Bryant, the 2008 MVP, about his reaction to LeBron James winning the 2009 MVP and Bryant replied, "I'm very happy for him, to be honest with you. He's put in a lot of work and he's very deserving of it." Collins concluded, "I think that those two guys being together the past couple summers (with Team USA), LeBron has learned so much from Kobe."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 AM