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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Precision Passing by Bryant Carves Up Nuggets

Kobe 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM


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At Thursday, May 28, 2009 8:24:00 AM, Anonymous Jack B said...

Why is Shannon Brown not getting more burn? He has outplayed Fisher all playoffs long. This dude is rapidly turning into a fan favorite because of how hard this guy plays on both ends on the court. Im surprised he never got any minutes playing in charlotte or Cleveland.

ON Cleveland/Orlando
Why is it that now that Cleveland is down 1-3 to the Magics that the stat gurus(geeks) are saying that Lebron James doesn't have any help. isn't that he same team who had the best record in the NBA? I saw John Hollinger writes two long columns that said Lebron wasnt getting any help(Hollinger picked Cavs in 5).
Why aren't they crediting Stan Van Gundy for his gameplan and the Magics for executing the gameplan?
Sidenote: Hollinger also picked Nuggets to beat the Lakers in 6(he based that on the Nuggets stats in the postseason). Now he blames Nuggets mental breakdowns for his missed prediction. He never credited Trevor Ariza, Kobe for carving their defense up and his defense on both Billups and Anthony(for game 1).

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 8:41:00 AM, Anonymous The Peoples Program said...

Passing and the inside game were keys for LA. They worked the ball inside as Pau and Odom had been imploring them to do.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 10:56:00 AM, Anonymous trio said...


I always emjoy reading your post, as usual detailed post-game analysis.

By the way, what you can say about Bickley's take (from azcentral) regarding Lebron:

During the regular season, James averaged only 1.7 fouls per game while playing an average of 37.7 minutes. That's remarkable. He also received 22 first-place votes for defensive player of the year, an award that normally requires physical, aggressive play. Yet James never had more than four fouls in any of the 81 games he played during the regular season.

The numbers don't make sense, and speak to a double standard.

"There was (a recent) story in our paper, a headline about that very issue: 'Magic fans fear referees,' " Magic senior vice president Pat Williams said. "Isn't that something? Before a playoff series in Major League Baseball in October, you never read that headline, do you? 'Local fans worried about umpires' or 'Super Bowl hangs on the refs.' It never happens."

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 11:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the seven turnovers credited to Kobe in the boxscore along with the eight assists?

To me, the Lakers look like a much more effective team when Kobe isn't trying to dominate so much.


At Thursday, May 28, 2009 12:47:00 PM, Anonymous Mike Smrek (not really) said...

Excellent point on how Bryant is coaching Gasol into being better. Like you said about Mo Williams, last year Gasol was "a one-time All-Star who is experiencing his first extended playoff run and he has performed below expectations thus far." This year, Gasol has picked it up and it'll be interesting to see if LeBron & Mike Brown can wring the same improvement from Williams next year.

The Lakers took over the game in the late third with their defense and Gasol was in middle of it, finally protecting the basket consistently and effectively. As you said, he wanders around pointlessly a lot, and Kobe is constantly directing him, which become more evident if you watch the game from a birds’ eye view (like nosebleed seats) instead of on a TV screen or from a stat sheet. Late in the fourth when Gasol went to the line, you could see Kobe standing in front of him and Gasol bent over listening, probably giving a lengthy pep talk about the importance of these shots.

Derek Fisher is a liability, even if he scores 12 points. He simply doesn’t read the floor well and unless a play is designed for him (like the alley oop to start the second half), he cannot make good passes to moving targets or get the ball in the post; I defy you to name an NBA PG with poorer court awareness and passing skills (or, stated another way, how many times does Stu Jackso say, “niiiice” on a Fisher pass?). Defensively, Fisher no longer moves his feet like he used to, failing to rotate when Kobe let Jones go baseline and giving up a dunk and then again, when he reached out and hacked a strung-out, off balance Carmelo in the 4th. Denver cheated off him whenever he was on the floor, which allowed him his open looks. At this point in his career, I don’t know what Fisher brings that ShanWow & Jordan can bring and bring with better D, better driving ability and better contributions to the offense.

Last, in the post game someone asked Kobe about prognosticators jumping on and off the Laker bandwagon, including a part owner (Magic). That reminded me of your excellent series on the Laker-Celtic finals and how Magic performed poorly in his early playoff appearances. He seems to have forgotten that he lost 4 finals and other playoff series and when he won, they didn’t go undefeated. Those posts should be required reading for any Laker fan who thinks Kobe should never lose a playoff game against skilled competition.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 1:49:00 PM, Anonymous Eddie A said...

I'm a Lakers fan, and watched the 4th quarter after checking the final score (the luxury of replay). I agree that Kobe passed intelligently out of the double-teams, but you failed to mention that he also had 7 turnovers.

There were times where I felt like he was forcing the issue and trying to go one-on-one. If my memory serves me correctly, he dribbled into traffic a few times and lost the ball.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 1:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B:

I think that Phil Jackson feels a lot of loyalty to Derek Fisher because of Fisher's clutch performances in the past. Also, there is a risk to vastly increasing the minutes of a player who is not used to having extended playing time; he may not be physically or mentally conditioned to play 35 minutes in a playoff game. There are some players who will give you the same production whether they play 15 minutes or 30 minutes (this is not meant to suggest that Brown could not develop into a 35 mpg player but it is tough to suddenly increase a player's minutes in the middle of a series).

LeBron has help but unfortunately for him that help has not shown up very often in this particular series.

Stan Van Gundy deserves credit for doing a good job but it is also true that Williams is missing the same kind of shots that he made all year long. If he were even shooting just .400 from the field the Cavs would probably be up 3-1 instead of down 3-1.

I think that the Nuggets have had some mental breakdowns but that was predictable, which is one reason why I picked the Lakers to win the series.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 1:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have not made an in depth analysis of fouls that have been called or not called on LeBron, so I am really not sure what to make of this allegation. I watch a lot of Cavs games--and cover many in person--and I do not recall seeing a lot of plays involving LeBron where I thought that he should have been called for a foul but was not, so maybe his ability to avoid foul trouble is a tribute to his great athleticism/basketball IQ.

I don't know what they said before the game but Seattle Seahawks fans sure were not happy after their Super Bowl loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NBA officiating is not perfect but it is better than the officiating in the other major pro sports.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That turnover number in the boxscore is surprising, because it did not "seem" like Bryant turned the ball over that often. There is no question that the way that he played opened up easy scoring opportunities for the rest of his teammates, as both Van Gundy and Jackson noted during the telecast.

It is a vast oversimplification to either say that the Lakers are better when Kobe scores 40 or that they are better when he shoots fewer than 20 times (or whatever the "magic number" is supposed to be). The Lakers' winning percentage during Kobe's career when he scores 40-plus points is outstanding, as I have documented previously. The important point is that Kobe does a tremendous job of reading what the defense is doing and making the appropriate play but when he gives up the ball it is up to his teammates to do something productive with it. Last night, several of his teammates came through, but many of those guys have been inconsistent--or simply unproductive period--during this year's playoffs.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike Smrek:

Kobe is an excellent leader and he does not get nearly enough credit for that. He is the one who does most of the talking on defense, a role that usually is played by a big man, because the big men are stationed on the baseline in most cases and thus can see the whole floor.

Kobe has played a key role in the individual improvement of several of his teammates and the overall improvement of his team; this also became evident with the impact that he had on Team USA, which has carried over into this season with the improvement shown by LeBron, Howard, Wade and other players who played alongside Bryant and learned from his work ethic and his focus on defense.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eddie A:

I disagree that Kobe "forced the action" or went one on one too much. Some of his turnovers bounced off of teammates' hands or happened when he threw the ball to a spot where someone was supposed to be but that player moved; in the NBA, when a player drives to the hoop, his teammates are usually supposed to move to predetermined areas to be ready for a kick out pass, so often when someone seems to have thrown the ball away it is actually the intended receiver's fault. This is different from, say, LeBron's fastbreak turnover late in the last game versus Orlando, when he simply forced the ball into traffic on a key possession.

One of Kobe's turnovers happened when Gasol set a screen and rolled to the hoop and Kobe tried to split the trap but apparently the ball skidded off of Gasol's heel (that is not Gasol's fault, of course, just an unfortunate break for the Lakers).

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:51:00 PM, Anonymous Jack said...

I agree with West that Bryant is a great player, but James has showed a lot of potential. Jerry West is a big hero of mine and I can't wait to see him at the Sports Legends Challenge.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 4:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


kobe played great in gmae nuggets believe they can win and almost did win te lakers made key runs in certain times in games why they winning the series. gasol has been okay odo not playing well but the lakers have played great nonethe less. nuggets will probably win game 6 lakers i 7 kobe not going to let them lpose i believe and nuggets make too many mistakes.

jerry west said kobe was a better closer but he knows like most lebron te beter player now than kobe he said it and meant it.


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