"No Mercy": Bryant Produces, Directs and Stars as Lakers Smash Nuggets"No mercy," Kobe Bryant instructed his teammates during a second half timeout when the L.A. Lakers already enjoyed a double digit lead over the Denver Nuggets and they followed his advice, rolling to a 119-92 game six victory in the Western Conference Finals to advance to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. The Lakers are the first team to make it to the Finals in back to back years since the Detroit Pistons did it in 2004 and 2005. As ESPN analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy noted, Bryant's words resonated with the Lakers because Bryant backed up his talk with actions, producing game-high totals in points (35) and assists (10) while also grabbing six rebounds, making all nine of his free throws and authoring symmetrical 6-10 field goal shooting numbers in the first and second halves. Denver Coach George Karl was very impressed by Bryant's game six performance: "No one in basketball could have covered him. He made about four shots in the stretch that I think Jesus would have had trouble covering him."
Bryant had just one turnover in 42 minutes, amazing efficiency for a player shouldering such a heavy scoring, playmaking and ballhandling load but that is nothing new for Bryant; in four of the six games in this series Bryant had exactly one turnover and he averaged just 2.2 tpg in 42.0 mpg overall versus the Nuggets. Bryant had two turnovers or less in 12 of the Lakers' 18 playoff games this season--including back to back games with zero turnovers in a total of 79 minutes--and averaged 2.4 tpg in 40.1 mpg in those games. Bryant averaged 34.0 ppg, 5.8 apg and 5.8 rpg versus Denver in the Western Conference Finals, shooting .481 from the field, .344 from three point range and .931 from the free throw line; his overall averages in the 2009 Western Conference playoffs are 29.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 5.3 rpg, .466 field goal shooting, .346 three point shooting and .895 free throw shooting. In last year's five game Western Conference Finals victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 5.6 rpg, 2.4 tpg, .533 field goal shooting, .333 three point shooting and .909 free throw shooting in 40.2 mpg; he averaged 31.9 ppg, 5.8 apg, 6.1 rpg, 3.1 tpg, .509 field goal shooting, .295 three point shooting and .814 free throw shooting in 15 Western Conference playoff games in 2008. Bryant has already surpassed the 500 point plateau in this year's playoffs, the fourth time that he has accomplished that feat; only Michael Jordan did this more frequently (eight times).
Bryant is a tremendous leader who has a very high basketball IQ, as anyone can see by watching Spike Lee's Kobe: Doin' Work; Bryant is constantly talking to his teammates and breaking down the game for them, on and off the court. This is very important because, as Mark Jackson said during the game six telecast, sometimes players get tired of hearing from their coach but they will listen to what another player says--as long as he has the game to back up whatever he is talking about. After the big game six win, Bryant said, "We have guys on the team that are very smart basketball players. So I could communicate something to them and they can just take it out on the floor and do it. And we were able to kind of learn on the fly."
Forgive a brief, slightly off topic digression, but isn't it strange how someone who can neither think clearly nor write coherently (hello, John Krolik) ludicrously asserts prior to game seven of the Lakers-Rockets series that this will be the defining moment of Bryant's career but after Bryant and the Lakers prevail over the Rockets that person suddenly loses interest in speaking about Bryant's alleged defining moment? Isn't putting up 35-10-6 in a game that propels the Lakers to the Finals a defining moment? Does writing for ESPN.com's corporate basketball blog and Slam Online's amateur hour commentary section mean that you can only define Bryant by what you expect/hope to be his failures but if he surprises you and succeeds then you simply direct your sloppy grammar and poorly reasoned arguments toward another target?
While Bryant did a Prince-like job of producing, directing and starring in the Lakers' great game six performance, he received strong assistance from co-star Pau Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) and supporting cast members Lamar Odom (20 points, eight rebounds), Trevor Ariza (17 points, four rebounds) and Luke Walton (10 points, three assists). As Bryant mentioned after the game, the timely shooting by his teammates made the Nuggets hesitant to trap Bryant in certain situations and he exploited that by aggressively using one on one moves to create scoring opportunities for himself.
The Lakers' fluctuating effort level has frustrated both their fans and basketball observers in general but the pattern in this year's playoffs has been that the Lakers get the measure of an opponent during the course of a series and then finish that team off; they won the final two games versus Utah in the first round, took two of the final three games versus Houston in the second round and won the last two games versus Denver in the Conference Finals. I've read and heard a lot of crackpot stuff about how Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has lost his touch but the record this year strongly suggests that the Lakers consistently adapt and become more effective over the course of each series and that is a powerful endorsement of his coaching methods.
The Lakers took a 5-0 lead at the start and although the Nuggets were briefly ahead by one point the Lakers led by double digits for more than half of game six. ESPN's Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry strained to fit Bryant's performance into the Procustean bed of their belief that the Lakers are better off when Bryant shoots less often but their postgame narrative did not match what actually happened; they claimed that Bryant somehow conserved energy by being a facilitator early and a "closer" late but Bryant scored 18 points on 6-10 field goal shooting with six assists in the first half and he scored 17 points on 6-10 field goal shooting with four assists in the second half. Barry and Wilbon are also apparently oblivious to the fact that field goal attempt numbers can be skewed by free throw attempts--if a player misses a shot but is fouled that is not counted as a field goal attempt, so in some of the games that Bryant allegedly shot less often and the Lakers won he probably simply went to the free throw line more often.
The only slight adversity that the Lakers faced in game six came when Bryant sat out the first 3:19 of the second quarter: the Lakers went from having a 25-20 first quarter lead to trailing 31-30 when Bryant rejoined the fray. J.R. Smith had come off of Denver's bench to provide a great offensive spark but Bryant--also known as "The Firefighter"--doused that spark before it could become a raging inferno. Mark Jackson said, "I really like what Phil Jackson did: get (Sasha) Vujacic out of the game and put Kobe Bryant on J.R. Smith. This is a situation where you have to treat it like it's game seven. A guy has heated up and somebody has to cool him down."
In addition to his defensive work on Smith, Bryant promptly assisted on a Walton jumper. After Bryant made a nice feed to Gasol (who bobbled the ball but Bryant recovered it and drew a foul), Van Gundy observed, "The guy is such a brilliant passer." Mark Jackson added, "I like that Phil Jackson stood up after that dropped pass by Pau Gasol, yelled at him and said you've got to get tougher. This is playoff basketball." The Lakers slowly but surely pulled away, capped off by a Bryant three pointer four seconds before the halftime buzzer. Carmelo Anthony raced downcourt and it seemed like he was about to score on a coast to coast drive but Bryant leaped up and used his left hand to swat away Anthony's attempt. The Lakers led 53-40 at halftime. Although the Nuggets kept dropping in three pointers in the second half they never mounted a serious charge.
J.R. Smith (24 points on 10-17 field goal shooting and 4-9 three point shooting) is the only Nugget who really played well, though he did not do much other than score (two rebounds, zero assists, one steal, five fouls in 32 minutes). Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points but he shot just 6-17 from the field and had just two rebounds and two assists. It was in many ways a vintage elimination game performance for him--and that is definitely not a good thing. Some people have tried to elevate Anthony into elite status on the basis of a few good playoff games but elite players get the job done every night at the highest level and he has not come close to proving that he can do that: while Bryant's fingerprints and voice were all over this game Anthony was largely invisible and silent. Anthony deservedly received credit for accepting the defensive challenge versus Bryant earlier in the series but it is far too soon to know if he has really turned the corner at that end of the court; he certainly regressed in game six, as Van Gundy noted after one particularly bad sequence: "Carmelo Anthony started in no man's land and never moved defensively. He wasn't rotating back to the corner, back inside--he was just standing and watching."
Chauncey Billups is an excellent player who had a very good season but it really is something that he has maintained his "Mr. Big Shot" moniker despite repeated individual and collective failures at the Conference Finals level (he also has been less than outstanding in elimination games during his career, shooting worse than .400 from the field). Billups finished with 10 points on 2-7 field goal shooting along with nine assists and five turnovers and he had a -28 plus/minus number, seven points worse than any other player. Last year, Billups' Pistons also lost a sixth game elimination battle at home in the Conference Finals and although he played well in that contest (29 points on 9-20 shooting, six assists, no turnovers) he shot .412 or worse from the field in three straight games in that series, two of which the Pistons lost. In Detroit's seventh game loss to Cleveland in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Billups had nine points on 3-7 shooting and passed off for just one assist in 44 minutes. The year before that, the Pistons bowed out to Miami in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference Finals as Billups shot 3-14 from the field and finished with nine points and eight assists. That disappointing track record versus elite competition certainly played a role in Joe Dumars' decision to trade Billups, along with the fact that by getting rid of Billups' contract he obtained much greater salary cap flexibility. Here are two interesting sets of numbers:
1) 24.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.0 rpg, 1.8 tpg, .434 field goal percentage, .214 three point field goal percentage, .697 free throw percentage.
2) 18.2 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 tpg, .397 field goal percentage, .333 three point field goal percentage, .833 free throw percentage.
Which player's performance would you rate more highly? Player 1 is Allen Iverson as a Nugget versus the Lakers in the 2008 playoffs, while Player 2 is Chauncey Billups as a Nugget versus the Lakers in the 2009 playoffs--and keep in mind that the 2009 Lakers are clearly not as deep or talented as the 2008 Lakers, a team that cruised through the Western Conference playoffs.
Billups did some wonderful things for the Nuggets this season but the biggest change for the team--literally and figuratively--was their rebuilt frontcourt, consisting of a healthy Nene and a healthy Kenyon Martin supplemented by rejuvenated free agent acquisition Chris Andersen; those guys anchored Denver's improved defense. The injuries suffered by the Spurs, Jazz, Rockets, Mavs, Hornets and Suns enabled the Nuggets to jump six spots in the standings even though they only won four more games; owning the second seed provided them not only homecourt advantage but also the opportunity to play depleted teams in the early rounds instead of facing a powerhouse right off the bat. By the end of the Western Conference Finals the idea of Denver being an elite team was exposed as a flawed concept, no matter how politely the Lakers praised the Nuggets in their postgame press conferences; the truth of the matter is that the Lakers diagnosed how the Nuggets play at both ends of the court and started to pick them apart and once the Nuggets faced some adversity they promptly reverted back to their ball-stopping, no-defense ways--and Iverson cannot be the scapegoat this time, nor was Billups able to prevent this from happening. Before you assume that the Nuggets laid the groundwork this season to become a perennial contender, consider how much it will cost to keep the roster intact and remember that NBA history is littered with one year playoff wonders who were never heard from again, ranging from the 1981 Kansas City Kings to the 2007 Golden State Warriors.
While the Nuggets' future is uncertain, it is certain that Bryant kept the Lakers very competitive after the team traded Shaquille O'Neal--pushing the stacked Phoenix Suns to seven games in the 2006 playoffs while playing alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker--and as soon as Mitch Kupchak replaced "butter knives" with "guns" Bryant promptly led the Lakers to back to back Finals appearances; if Bryant takes this group to a championship in spite of its noticeably shortened bench and oft-discussed defensive inconsistencies then the last vestige of hope for Bryant haters--that he will fail to win a title without O'Neal--will be destroyed.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 AM