Precision Passing by Bryant Carves Up NuggetsKobe Bryant set a Conference Finals scoring record (which was then immediately broken by LeBron James) with 147 points in the L.A. Lakers' first four games versus the Denver Nuggets, but in the pivotal game five the Nuggets elected to aggressively trap Bryant and he made them pay with great decision making/passing as the Lakers won 103-94 to take a 3-2 lead. Bryant still finished with a team-high 22 points but he also had a game-high eight assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes; he now ranks third in Conference Finals history with 169 points in five games (trailing only Amare Stoudemire's 185 in 2005 and Hakeem Olajuwon's 173 in 1995 and just ahead of Michael Jordan's 168 in 1993), though James will easily surpass him on Thursday (James has already scored 169 points in Cleveland's first four games versus Orlando).
Though this apparently has not received nearly as much coverage as his original comment did, Lakers legend Jerry West has backed off of his statement that James has passed Bryant as the best player in the NBA; West told interviewer Jim Rome, "I said something that I wish I wouldn't have said, to be honest with you, because it was in no way demeaning to Kobe Bryant. I love his passion. I want him to win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal because I think it would vindicate him in some respect. If I had to watch a player play, there's about four players I would pay to see play on a regular basis, and Kobe Bryant certainly would be at the top of that list. Late in the game, who are you going to take to make a shot, who are you going to take in the last quarter of a game? Kobe Bryant's still the best in the league. If that comment upset him, I hope he uses it the right way and it propelled him to win another championship. I'm an unabashed Laker fan."
Lamar Odom, who is laboring through a painful back injury that he suffered in the previous round versus Houston but refuses to make any excuses for his poor play in recent games, had 19 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists while compiling a game-best +18 plus/minus rating. Pau Gasol, who recently complained that he is not getting the ball enough, only attempted eight field goals but he contributed 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots. Trevor Ariza (12 points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots, one steal) and Derek Fisher (12 points) also scored in double figures. Shannon Brown made a huge contribution off of the bench that is belied by his stat line of six points on 3-5 shooting in 14 minutes: Brown had a +13 plus/minus number and his rim rattling third quarter dunk over shot blocking specialist Chris Andersen pumped up Brown's teammates and the home crowd.
Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 31 points but he shot just 9-23 from the field and did not score for a 12 minute stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters as the Lakers took control with a 23-5 run; during that crucial time, ESPN's Mark Jackson said, "The question for (Denver Coach) George Karl is, 'Where is Carmelo Anthony?' You need a guy offensively to stop the bleeding." Chauncey Billups had a quiet 12 points and five assists while Kenyon Martin added 12 points but shot just 6-15 from the field as the Lakers invited him to keep shooting his patented no-arc jump shots and awkward runners. J.R. Smith, apparently believing that his salary is linked to three point field goal attempts per minute, shot 1-10 from three point range; this is the third straight game that he has attempted at least nine three pointers while playing 29 or fewer minutes and he has only made seven of his last 29 three point attempts, though he made sure to show the world just how proud he was of his two garbage time three pointers in Denver's blowout game four win.
The Lakers hardly got off to a good start--trailing 6-2, 10-4 and 11-6--but they soon settled down and this game was tightly contested, with the score tied after each of the first three quarters (25-25, 56-56 and 76-76). The Nuggets took their biggest lead--73-66--at the 5:11 mark of the third quarter on a Dahntay Jones tip in but just when it seemed like the Lakers might be in trouble Brown scored five straight points in 30 seconds. First he made an excellent cut to the hoop when Bryant was being double-teamed outside of the three point line and Bryant made a slick feed for an uncontested layup. Then, Gasol stole a pass by Billups, led the fast break and dished to Brown for a dunk over Andersen. The Lakers closed out the quarter by sandwiching an Odom three pointer and a Bryant three pointer around a three pointer by Billups and then they opened the fourth quarter with an 11-0 run. After Billups bricked a three point attempt early in the fourth quarter with plenty of time remaining on the shot clock, ESPN's Jackson declared, "Here's my problem: if Allen Iverson takes that shot, it's a horrible shot. Chauncey Billups is an outstanding point guard but at times (he) will take bad shots." It is worth noting that Iverson averaged 24.5 ppg while shooting .434 from the field and .214 (3-14) from three point range when the Lakers swept the Nuggets in the 2008 playoffs; Billups is averaging 19.8 ppg while shooting .409 from the field and .333 (10-30) from three point range as the Lakers enjoy a 3-2 lead over the Nuggets in this year's playoffs.
The Nuggets made it very clear that they were going to dare anyone not named Bryant to beat them, because they continued to run Martin at Bryant as a double-teamer even when Bryant was well behind the three point line. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy described how Bryant smartly took advantage of Denver's approach: "He is making the first pass out of the double team without overhandling the ball and it's allowing them to play with rhythm and exploit Gasol inside."
Mark Jackson added, "They are using the pick and roll as a weapon to get better post position." This is a very subtle and important point that casual fans and "stat gurus" alike may not understand; they look at Gasol's field goal percentage and come to erroneous conclusions about Gasol's value but the reality is that even though Gasol is clearly a skillful player he had an 0-12 career playoff record as a number one option before joining forces with Bryant last season. Much like the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach is a lot more than the 24 inches that separate their seats on the bench, there is a huge difference between being the number one player who draws double teams and being the second option who benefits from someone else drawing double teams; the end result of Bryant attracting multiple defenders outside of the three point line is often that Gasol receives the ball deep in the post against single coverage--and sometimes that defender is not even a big guy but rather a smaller player who rotated to Gasol. Gasol is much, much more comfortable and effective using his skill set to go one on one deep in the post--particularly against a smaller player--than he is engaging in rough and tumble post play with multiple defenders making physical contact with him; it was very interesting to watch one possession when Gasol tried to leave the paint to set a screen for Bryant and Bryant motioned to Gasol to go back in the paint so that Bryant could feed him the ball to go one on one in the post. This is why Gasol's complaint about not getting the ball enough is so ridiculous; Gasol is not a fire breathing, physically dominant player who is establishing good post position but being ignored by his teammates: he has a tendency to play too passively and often needs encouragement/forceful words from Bryant to remind him of exactly what he should be doing and how he should be playing. How effective do you supposed Gasol would be if he had to contend with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen without having the benefit of Bryant attracting multiple defenders? If you are not sure how to answer that question, just refer back to that 0-12 statistic and also to how Gasol's field goal percentage has jumped from the low .500s to to .560 or better while playing alongside Bryant, including .569 in this year's playoffs.
Bryant did an outstanding job of reading the defense and making the Nuggets pay for how aggressively they trapped him. The Nuggets now face the unenviable choice of reverting to single coverage on Bryant and watching him drop 40-plus points or continuing to trap him while hoping that Gasol, Odom and the other Lakers miss uncontested or lightly contested shots.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM