Brilliant Bryant Shreds Magic as Lakers Roll, 100-75"You look thirsty, you ain't getting no mercy, mercy/
And ain't no way that you can rehearse for me/
Murder I wrote, murder I wrote is what I figure...
When it comes to this I never smile."--L.L. Cool J, "How I'm Comin'"
Kobe Bryant may not be smiling but L.A. Lakers' fans are wearing ear to ear grins after Bryant led the Lakers to a 100-75 victory over the Orlando Magic in game one of the Finals by producing a nearly perfect game: 40 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals, two blocked shots, one turnover in 38 minutes. He singlehandedly outscored Orlando's three primary offensive weapons--Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu--and scored or assisted on 24 of the Lakers' 41 field goals; the entire Magic team made just 23 field goals. ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy--who must have had his heart in his throat watching Bryant trash the team that his brother Stan coaches--declared, "You know how they say one man can't beat a team? I beg to differ. One man can beat a team. This guy has dominated each offensive possession." Bryant shot 16-34 from the field (.471), which is marginally better than his regular season field goal percentage (.467), but what matters most is that he shot 15-27 and did not have a single turnover in the game's first 34:46 as the Lakers built an 80-56 lead; when I say that Bryant was "nearly perfect" I am referring to his decision making and the control that he exerted over the game: Larry Bird once said that he did not play basketball to score a certain number of points or make every shot but rather for those moments when he took over the game and knew that he was controlling the outcome. That is what Bryant did in game one and this is very significant because game one winners overwhelmingly tend to eventually win the playoff series, as Bryant knows only too well: the last two times he and the Lakers went to the Finals they lost game one and then lost the series. However, Bryant also understands that even though history is on the Lakers' side this is still just one win and the Lakers must continue to play hard and execute at a high level or the Magic could win game two, seize homecourt advantage and gain the opportunity to win a championship by sweeping the middle three games in Orlando. A stern-faced Bryant declared in his postgame press conference that the best thing that the Lakers could do now is forget about this game and focus on taking care of business in game two and he added that he had already delivered that message to his teammates.
Bryant cracked a smile briefly when he said that his kids have been calling him "Grumpy" from the Seven Dwarves for the past week or so but then he looked serious again during the rest of the question and answer session. Bryant's visage has been getting a lot of attention recently but instead of focusing on how he looks it is more important to place his performance--not just in this game but in the playoffs overall--in proper historical context: Bryant joined Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to have a 40-8-8 game in the NBA Finals. This is the first time that Bryant scored 40 points in a Finals game but it is the 10th 40 point game of his playoff career and his fourth 40 point game of the 2009 playoffs, with the Lakers improving to 4-0 in those contests; the three previous 40 point games came in a must win game two versus Houston after the Lakers lost game one at home, game one versus Denver and game three at Denver to reclaim home court advantage in that series after the Lakers lost game two at home. Bryant is convincingly putting to rest the nonsense about the Lakers being better off when he shoots less frequently.
However, as Jeff Van Gundy noted, Bryant is not only a dominant scorer; he also is creating open shot opportunities for his teammates and the remarkable thing about how Bryant is handling those twin responsibilities is that this is the eighth time in 19 playoff games that Bryant has had one or fewer turnovers, including back to back games against Houston--the team that supposedly had used advanced basketball statistics to come up with the perfect game plan against him--in which he did not have a single turnover. Bryant had five other playoff games in which he only had two turnovers each. This is just incredible decision making/efficiency by a player whose team needs him to simultaneously fill the Michael Jordan scoring role and the Scottie Pippen playmaking role.
Bryant received help from his teammates but considering his deft passing and the way that he draws double teams it must be said that he is helping his teammates to help him: Bryant creates open shots for them and they knock those shots down. Pau Gasol had 16 points and eight rebounds and Lamar Odom produced 11 points and 14 rebounds off of the bench. Andrew Bynum had nine points and nine rebounds but, more significantly, he made his presence felt in the paint versus Dwight Howard. Bynum collected four fouls in 22 minutes but, as I said in my Finals preview, foul trouble is not a factor for Bynum as long as he is productive in the 15-20 mpg that the Lakers need for him to play. Derek Fisher and Luke Walton each had nine points and combined to shoot 8-11 from the field, a welcome sight for the Lakers considering how much both players had been struggling with their shooting strokes.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the worst of both worlds defensively, as Dwight Howard put up big numbers--culminating in a 40 point, 14 rebound outing in game six--and the Magic's three point shooters bombed away with impunity; in game one of the Finals, the Lakers had the best of both worlds, shutting down both Howard and the three point shooters. Mickael Pietrus led the Magic with 14 points but he shot just 5-13 from the field, a percentage that the Lakers can live with every game. Hedo Turkoglu had just 13 points on 3-11 field goal shooting. Eastern Conference Finals hero Rashard Lewis scored just eight points on 2-10 field goal shooting. Howard added 12 points and 15 rebounds but he shot just 1-6 from the field; the Lakers prevented him from getting good post position and fouled him whenever he seemed poised to dunk the ball. The Lakers largely used one on one coverage versus Howard--enabling them to stay at home on the three point shooters--though they did often send a defender toward Howard once he put the ball on the floor; you may recall that this is exactly the strategy that I said that the Cavs should have used in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In my Finals preview I wrote, "I don't think that the Magic will be able to contain the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll nearly as effectively as the Celtics did in the 2008 Finals. Even though the Magic won both meetings with the Lakers this season...the Magic struggled to prevent the Lakers from getting good, open shots out of that set, so look for the Lakers to feature it repeatedly." Early in the game the Lakers tenderized the Magic in the paint by posting up Bynum--who scored eight points in the first 6:30--but they took control of the game in the second and third quarters by repeatedly running the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action (a Bryant-Bynum screen/roll also proved to be effective on a few occasions). Eventually the Magic are going to have to trap Bryant hard but that could lead to Bryant having 10-plus assists if his teammates make open shots.
Despite the strong start by Bynum, the Magic led 24-22 after the first quarter. Orlando's All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson returned to action for the first time since February, with mixed results: in his first stint he played well and helped the Magic to build a 33-28 lead early in the second quarter but in his second tour of duty later in the game he was not nearly as effective. Nelson finished with six points on 3-9 shooting plus four assists. It seems like he can hurt the Lakers with his passing in screen/roll situations but it may be too much to expect him to regain his shooting stroke in this series after being sidelined for so long.
Nelson and the Magic built their five point cushion with Bryant on the bench but when Bryant returned to action at the 8:32 mark of the second quarter the tide immediately turned: in less than five minutes, Bryant scored 10 points and had three assists as the Lakers went on a 19-6 run. Bryant then had 18 points in the third quarter as the Lakers turned the game into a rout.
Although a team's basic identity will not change during the course of a series, each game has a unique rhythm and vibe to it. Even if the Lakers continue to play good, sound defense it is extremely unlikely that they will again limit Howard to just one made field goal or hold the Magic to .299 field goal shooting, so the Lakers must continue to crash the boards--they enjoyed a 55-41 rebounding advantage--and execute their offense efficiently; their main edges in this series are Kobe Bryant and homecourt advantage, so it is important for them to be ready to win a tough game two before heading to Orlando: the worst mistake that the Lakers can make is to become overconfident and complacent because of the large game one victory margin.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:49 AM