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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kobe: Doin' Work

The latest Spike Lee production, "Kobe: Doin' Work," aired for one and a half commercial-free hours on ESPN on Saturday night. The broadcast schedule was determined well in advance but the timing could turn out to either be ironic or prophetic, depending on the outcome of Sunday's game seven between Bryant's L.A. Lakers and the Houston Rockets. Since some of Bryant's critics have already been quite vocal about calling this particular game seven the most important 48 minutes of Bryant's career it will be very interesting to see how they back themselves out of that corner if Bryant defies their hopes and delivers a big performance in a Lakers' win; don't fret too much for them, though, because even if Bryant drops 50 and the Lakers win by 20 there will always his "scowl" or his assist total or something else to use as a club to bury the lead.

Lee used 30 cameras to track a day in the life of the 2008 NBA MVP--specifically, April 13, 2008, when Bryant's Lakers defeated the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs 106-85, the third of four straight victories to close out the season and clinch the top overall record in the Western Conference. Despite not playing in the fourth quarter due to the comfortable lead, Bryant tied Tony Parker for game-high honors in points (20) and assists (five)--and you can rest assured that if the Lakers had lost this game or the preceding game (versus Chris Paul's New Orleans Hornets, a contest that was billed as a battle not only for the best record in the West but also for league MVP honors) then plenty of people would have decided that those were the "most important" 48 minutes of Bryant's career.

Lee opens the documentary by declaring, "What you will see in this is one of the most driven, passionate athletes playing today." Lee wanted Bryant to provide commentary about the footage and so they made an appointment to record Bryant's thoughts after the Lakers' visit to New York. Of course, Bryant scored a Madison Square Garden record 61 points in that game. In his postgame press conference, Bryant needled Lee, saying that the filmmaker was responsible for inspiring that performance because Bryant did not want to have to go his meeting with Lee and hear him "talk trash about the Knicks, so that was added incentive as well. Seriously" (Bryant had a big grin on his face when he said this, for those of you out there who are tracking the scowl/smile meter).

Bryant's narration begins, "This is a big game for us. We're fighting to have the best record in the Western Conference, which means a lot because the Western Conference is so competitive. Having homecourt advantage is crucial."

Prior to the game, ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy says that Bryant is the best closer in the game and for that reason he expects the Lakers to win if the game goes down to the wire. Interestingly, when Bryant hears those remarks, he offers a different take: "See, I never really thought about it like that. That's not how I viewed this game, at all. It was always about what we're going to do as a ball club to advance."

Van Gundy also declares, "Kobe Bryant certainly is the best player in the NBA and has been for quite a long time."

Lee was granted access to the Lakers' pregame meeting in the locker room. Coach Phil Jackson describes Tony Parker as a "one man fastbreak" and adds "He falls down a lot. You guys know that." Bryant says, "Phil is the best I've ever seen at giving details about teams. He's really meticulous about it and informs us extremely well about players' tendencies." Jackson reminds the players to tell the referees that Tim Duncan and Fabricio Oberto should not be allowed to use their hands when setting screens. Bryant laughs about this (not at the time but while doing his narration) and says, "We tell them that all the time and it doesn't matter. They get away with it still."

When the Lakers gather in the tunnel right before the game, Bryant tells his teammates, "Let's cut them up. This is a statement game for us. It's our time. They had their time." As a narrator, Bryant says, "I have goosebumps right now. This moment gives me goosebumps every time. I've been in the league for years and I still get goosebumps when we run out. It's such a great feeling."

When the camera pans to an injured Manu Ginobili in street clothes, Bryant says, "That's a bad boy right there. I have so much respect for his game. He's an incredible competitor. It's a shame he didn't play in this game. I enjoy playing against him."

Bryant notes, "I'm not a real big hype guy in terms of jumping up and down and stuff like that but my teammates dig it so I do it." It is safe to assume that Bryant will not be clapping chalk-filled hands or pretending to take pictures before games any time soon; Bryant focuses on "all the execution, all the stuff that you need to do, the preparations you've made." I don't mean this to be a criticism of LeBron James' pregame rituals but it will be interesting to see if James still does those things when he is a 12 year veteran or if by that time he decides to conserve his energy.

Bryant fumbles the ball out of bounds early in the game and he narrates, "One thing I hate is turnovers. I absolutely hate turnovers." One of the most fascinating things about the in-game footage--and Lee singled this out when he was interviewed about this film--is to see and hear just how vocal Bryant is on the court and how intimately involved he is in choreographing his teammates' moves both offensively and defensively. He really is like a coach on the floor. I've mentioned this many times in terms of defense--because usually it is a big man who takes on this role, because the bigs are stationed on the baseline and thus can see the whole floor--but Bryant is just as vocal on offense, making sure that the team's spacing is correct and that his teammates are ready to react to whatever the opposing defenders might do.

Bryant mentions three times that "you have to be patient against San Antonio." He also says, "A lot of players hate playing against Bruce Bowen because he grabs and holds but I love it; it reminds me of the 80s when they used to let you hit and grab and hold and scratch and claw. I think that's fantastic."

Shortly after the start of the game, Bryant gathers his teammates and asks each of them, "Are you settled in?" While narrating, Bryant explains, "The reason why I say that is we know it's a big game. A lot of times what happens with your ballclub is you get a little too animated, a little too hyped up, and as a result you start blowing defensive assignments, offensive assignments."

Bryant says, "This game is such a beautiful game" and he admits that just providing the narration is getting him "amped up" and ready to play again even though he has just come off of the court after scoring 61 points "against Spike's beloved Knicks."

Bryant compares his job of reading double teams to what a quarterback does reading a blitz and he says that in both cases you learn to make the correct reads by preparing with film study. Bryant's high school coach told him that you "don't build a house without blueprints," so by the same token you don't go into a game without a plan for every reasonably conceivable situation.

During one sequence, Bryant sets a screen for Derek Fisher, who misses a wide open jumper. Bryant explains, "The reason I did that is I know that San Antonio is not going to leave me, Bruce is not going to take his body off of me, so that's a great opportunity get somebody else involved, to get somebody else a really good shot." Of course, there are no statistics for setting screens, let alone for accounting for a player who is so dangerous that the opposing team would rather double him and leave someone else wide open than fight through his screen or switch defenders to contest the other player's shot. Plus/minus stats account for this indirectly, but only if the player who is left open converts the shot; however, there is an intrinsic value to being so talented that your mere presence creates open shots, whether or not the specific teammates you have at a given point in time consistently make those shots.

After Bryant gets a steal, he drives to the hoop and dumps the ball behind him to Odom, resulting in a turnover. "That's doing too much," Bryant narrates. "Just a dumb play by me." During the game, Bryant immediately said to Odom, "My fault, L."

Later, Bryant faces up Bowen in the midpost and nails a bank shot. "I actually stole that shot from Tim Duncan," Bryant reveals. "I played one on one against him before an All-Star Game a few years back and I learned the bank shot from him. I 'swagger-jacked' him."

People who don't understand NBA defense sometimes bemoan Bryant's selection to the All-Defensive Team because they claim he roams around too much, so it is interesting to hear Bryant's thoughts about defense. Bryant says that against San Antonio he serves as a "roamer" more so than he does against other teams and he adds, "That is actually my biggest strength as a defensive player, to be able to roam around the floor and cause havoc." You may recall that during last year's Finals, Boston Coach Doc Rivers called Bryant the best help defender since Scottie Pippen. Of course, the stat "gurus" and Bill Simmons and the "experts" were calling for Rivers' head years ago, so what does Rivers know, right? He just coached a team to a championship but that doesn't make him an expert or anything, right?

Bryant acknowledges that Bowen is a great shooter but says that he feels like he can help on Parker and Duncan and either recover back to Bowen in time or else have another player rotate to Bowen. It should be obvious that Bryant is playing exactly the same kind of defense versus Houston in this year's playoffs, helping off of Shane Battier to try to get Aaron Brooks under control and to lend some support to the Lakers' soft bigs in the post against Luis Scola and others. Bryant likens his approach to being "an Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu type of defensive player."

Bryant explains his shot selection by saying that basketball "is somewhat of a chess game." He could have taken a certain shot early in the game but he decided to "save it" and get his teammates involved, understanding that that same shot will be available late in the game and that he will take it at that time if the game is close.

While the "experts" wonder why Bryant does not take the ball all the way to the hoop against Houston, Bryant--in his narration of this game--points out that versus the Spurs it is dangerous to overpenetrate; during a stoppage of play, he tells Jordan Farmar that on his next drive he should just take one hard dribble and then go up for his shot because the Spurs will neither foul nor block his shot, they will just "be big." So the mid-range shots that some people are criticizing Bryant for taking versus Houston are actually the shots that you need to be able to make to beat elite defensive teams (which is why LeBron James struggled versus the Spurs in the 2007 Finals and versus the Celtics in the 2008 playoffs, particularly in the first several games of that series). Sure, when there are lanes to the hoop then you should drive all the way but it makes no sense to overpenetrate and commit turnovers or offensive fouls or end up taking a lower percentage shot (i.e., one that is heavily contested even though it is closer to the hoop).

When Ime Udoka enters the game for Bowen, Bryant switches from being a "roamer" to being what he calls "a lockdown corner" (extending his earlier football analogy regarding Reed and Polamalu) because the Spurs run sets for Udoka to get shots.

During the stoppage of play between the first and second quarters, Bryant instructs Pau Gasol, Sasha Vujacic and Farmar about various intricacies offensively and defensively. As narrator, Bryant notes that he is only able to do this because he puts in so much time studying film. Bryant concludes, "There is more to making your teammates better than just passing them the ball. You have to teach them a lot of the things that you know, the way that you prepare for the game. There are so many different levels to making guys better" (emphasis added). I don't think it is an exaggeration at all to say that LeBron James took a PhD level course in the intricacies of basketball while playing alongside Bryant (and Jason Kidd) for Team USA and it is evident that James was a most attentive student; James' preparation and attention to detail--especially on defense--have grown by leaps and bounds.

After Bryant sits out for a few minutes, he shouts out "B. Shaw!" to get the attention of assistant coach Brian Shaw. Bryant narrates with a chuckle, "That's called 'get my ass in the game.' I've been over here long enough"--particularly since the Spurs are making a run.

NFL teams try to hide their signal calls but Bryant says that such efforts are largely pointless in the NBA because there is so much scouting and so much available film that everybody knows what everybody else runs: "In this game it is not knowing what you are going to run but how you execute. It's doing what you can to stop that, that's the big thing. That's the fun thing about the game: teams know what you are going to do. They know where I like the ball. They know what moves I like. It's a matter of stopping that and coming up with counters for that. That is what makes the game fun. It's having so many different levels of execution and the next time you face a team they are going to do something different. So it's a new puzzle, a whole new game." For Kobe Bryant, the game of basketball is an intellectual exercise and this is exactly what I am talking about when I make comparisons between basketball and chess.

Bryant relishes the opporuntity to guard the best players: "This is fun to me. There is no pressure, no fear. A lot of other guys, I think, when they match up with other great players there is a fear of embarrassment to guard them, afraid that they might make you look bad. I don't care. It's just fun going up against them. If you are playing a great player of course he is going to make you look bad sometimes but that's part of the game."

In light of the Lakers' frontcourt struggles versus Houston in the current playoff series, it is interesting to note that a lot of the halftime discussion in the Lakers' locker room during the Spurs game related to the need for the bigs to get tough, to deliver blows instead of waiting to receive them and, as Bryant mentions repeatedly, to use a forearm to brace yourself and hold off the opposing player (much like Bryant did versus the larger Ron Artest in game two of the Houston series on the play when Artest flopped and then ran halfway across the court to argue with Bryant). "You attack on offense, you have to attack on defense as well," Bryant narrates.

The Lakers pull away in the second half as several of Bryant's teammates--following advice that he has dispensed throughout the game and at halftime--make good plays at both ends of the court. Bryant says, "This is what I couldn't do years ago, because I didn't have the personnel on my team that I have now. In the past I would have to score 35-40 points just to keep us competitive. Now I don't have to do that, so you see me directing more so than anything. I am more of a compass, making sure we are going in the right direction, making sure we are executing well because I have the personnel to be able to do that now. It's made my life a lot easier. I am still capable of having big scoring nights but I just don't have to do it." A sequence that perfectly illustrates that point took place when Bryant received the ball at the top of the key, the Spurs tilted their defense toward him and Bryant dished to Derek Fisher for an open three pointer; when the Lakers had Smush Parker instead of Fisher, Bryant's choice was to pass to a player who was going to brick the shot or try to create something on his own--or , as Bryant narrates, "Before that wasn't Derek Fisher, so I'd have to go one on two. Now, I can just make the defense pay (with a pass)."

It will not surprise anyone to learn that Bryant does not become discouraged when he misses shots; he once told me, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." In the narration for the film, Bryant says, "I don't dwell on missed shots at all. I don't think about that stuff. I'm very, very optimistic. If I miss five in a row, that means I'm due for the sixth one. If I miss the sixth one that means I'm definitely due for the seventh one. If I miss the seventh one, that eighth one's going in."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 AM



At Monday, May 18, 2009 12:48:00 AM, Anonymous Jack B said...


A lot of people thought this movie was boring, mostly Laker Fans. But anybody person who loves basketball or understands the game would love the movie because it basically accentuates attention to detail and preparations for the game. Watching this movie gave me a different view of what goes on in Kobe's head. I always thought that he wasn't defending as much as he used to in the past but It seems I was wrong. I don't know if this is true but the movie further proved the point on how soft this Laker front court is and why they make so many dumb plays.
I didn't see one Laker teammate talk or tell the other players what they were doing wrong. Basically everything Kobe told his teammates about what was going to happen actually happened.
For example: When Kobe told Farmar to pull up for the jump shot on the baseline instead of forcing it. Jordan did that and actually scored
I see why the coaches keep putting him on the All-Defensive team year after year.
If you are a basketball fan, then you will love this movie. I'm sure a lot of coaches in particular will like this movie or guys with high IQ for Bball.
But it doens't appeal to casual fan. But it wasn't intended for that neither.

At Monday, May 18, 2009 3:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B:

In this film, Kobe Bryant and Spike Lee provide a very interesting glimpse into the intellectual, strategic and psychological aspects of elite level basketball. I find the movie fascinating, even though I already knew a lot of the technical information because of my own research and from the interviews that I have done with leading players and coaches (including Bryant).

The film provided a particularly meaningful look at Kobe's perspective on defense and showed yet again that the "stat gurus" and fan bloggers who bemoan the All-Defensive Team selections have no idea what they are talking about. The coaches make their choices for good reasons; that does not mean that they are always right--no one is always right--but a sensible critic would try to understand the sport from a coach's perspective instead of acting like a know it all. Of course, a lot of these "stat gurus" are making good money by being contrarians who claim to know more than coaches and GMs do, so it should be pretty obvious that if the "stat gurus" did nothing but agree with coaches and GMs then they would be out of business.

At Monday, May 18, 2009 8:44:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Who said this was the most important game 7 for Bryant?

At Monday, May 18, 2009 5:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I hate to give publicity to someone who doesn't know what he is talking about, barely writes coherently and is already receiving more than his share of publicity but--if you really must know--the guy who spouted that nonsense is John Krolik. You can bet that now that Bryant led the Lakers to victory Krolik is not going to call that the most important game of Kobe's life. This is just like last year, when the late-season Kobe-CP3 showdown was billed as a battle over the MVP--but then Kobe and the Lakers won and the pundits never mentioned that storyline again. Yes, the voters did the right thing by voting for Kobe for MVP last year but my point is that before the game they built up a storyline but since the game did not go the way that they wanted it to they just abandoned that storyline completely.

I have made it clear that I don't think that Kobe is greater than MJ but look at how many great moments in MJ's career were defined by shots made by other players such as Paxson and Kerr; if those guys miss those shots does that really lessen MJ's greatness? He still would have put up the same numbers and had the same impact. The reality is that great players need a supporting cast in order to win playoff series and championships. Kobe did a great job versus Houston's defense from an individual standpoint but the Lakers were not going to win that series unless Gasol, Bynum and the others started carrying their own weight.

For that matter, even the Shaq-Kobe Lakers needed some big shots by Horry and Fisher--and a huge fourth quarter comeback versus Portland--in order to win championships. People act like this year's Lakers team is the first number one seed to be forced to a seventh game.

At Tuesday, May 19, 2009 9:03:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Just wondering. Because thats absurd and most writers write like fans act (with their hearts and not their minds.) I know there is plenty of Bryant hate (definitely not on this blog) but most is due to ignorance.

No it doesnt change Mike greatness. He would of just won the series in the 7th games with a 40 or 50 point game. Those moments made names for Kerr and Paxson because of Jordan.


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