Clutch Three Pointers by Fisher Lift Lakers to Commanding 3-1 Series LeadCouch potato coaches have been calling for Derek Fisher's head throughout the playoffs but the much maligned 34 year old point guard drained two clutch three pointers--one to force overtime and the second to give the L.A. Lakers the lead for good--as the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-91 in overtime, taking a 3-1 lead and all but clinching the 2009 NBA Championship. Fisher missed the first five three pointers that he attempted but Kobe Bryant repeatedly tells his teammates that you cannot make big shots if you afraid to take them and Fisher proved that he is confident while also justifying the confidence that Coach Phil Jackson has demonstrated in Fisher. Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 32 points and a game-high eight assists, becoming the only Laker other than Magic Johnson to have at least eight assists in six straight playoff games; Bryant has had exactly eight assists in each of the four Finals games, after posting eight assists in game five of the Western Conference Finals versus Denver and 10 assists in the game six series clincher. Bryant also had a strong performance on the boards, grabbing seven rebounds to rank third on the Lakers. Although Bryant shot just 11-31 from the field, he had a strong first quarter (13 points on 4-7 shooting) to keep the Lakers close when their whole frontcourt rotation was in foul trouble, he created open shots for his teammates down the stretch, he made the Lakers' first two field goals in overtime and he drew a double team before passing to Fisher for the key three pointer in overtime.
Pau Gasol added 16 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Trevor Ariza had 16 points and nine rebounds, overcoming a sluggish first half to contribute 13 third quarter points as the Lakers rallied from a double digit deficit. Fisher finished with 12 points, four rebounds, one assist and no turnovers. Lamar Odom, who has apparently already met his quota for effective games in this series, had nine points, five rebounds and five fouls in 27:36; his versatility is often praised and certainly was on display in this game, though not in the fashion that is generally meant by that term: he showed the ability to miss out of control layups with either hand and repeatedly foul jump shooters. Starting center Andrew Bynum had six points, two rebounds and five fouls in just 15:40.
Hedo Turkoglu led the Magic with 25 points, getting the best of Ariza for most of the game, but he shot just 8-13 from the free throw line, including just 3-7 in the fourth quarter. Dwight Howard nearly had a triple double--16 points, 21 rebounds, a Finals single game record nine blocked shots--but he committed seven turnovers and shot 6-14 from the free throw line. The Magic led 87-84 with :11.1 remaining in the fourth quarter when Howard missed two free throws, providing Fisher the opportunity to be the hero. The Lakers hounded Rashard Lewis into scoring just six points on 2-10 field goal shooting, though he did have seven rebounds and four assists. Mickael Pietrus had a solid game (15 points), while Rafer Alston made some shots early in the game but did not play down the stretch and finished with 11 points; Jameer Nelson essentially replaced Alston in the second half and although Nelson created some scoring opportunities for his teammates (three assists) he never found his shooting touch (two points, 1-3 field goal shooting) and he made a critical error at the end of regulation by backing up and giving Fisher room to shoot the tying three pointer. Nelson also left Fisher to double team Bryant, creating the opening for Fisher's dagger three pointer in the extra session. Earlier in the game, Nelson got away with a missed defensive rotation when Bryant did not convert a wide open three pointer. Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy is really in a no win position with his point guard situation: he obviously wants to play Nelson, the 2009 All-Star who missed four months due to injury, but Nelson is rusty and inserting him in the lineup has affected Alston's minutes/role and forced Anthony Johnson, an effective player for the Magic earlier in the playoffs, out of the rotation completely.
Howard played with remarkable tenacity and intensity in the first quarter, grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking three shots and playing a role in getting all three of the Lakers' primary big men (Gasol, Odom and Bynum) in foul trouble, as that trio compiled two fouls each in the first 9:12. The Lakers survived a stretch with Bryant anchoring a lineup featuring D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell, Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar, trailing just 24-20 at the end of the first quarter. Bryant not only accounted for virtually all of the Lakers' points (13 points, one assist), he also was extremely active on defense, all but disregarding his man (Courtney Lee) in order to roam around and disrupt the actions of the Magic's principal offensive threats; Bryant poked the ball away from Lewis in the post (in the official play by play, Ariza received credit for a steal because he recovered the ball) and was very active on the glass--in addition to his two rebounds Bryant did an excellent job of sinking into the paint, putting a body on the nearest player and tipping the ball if he could not control it.
Bryant sat out the first 4:08 of the second quarter--the only rest he received all game--and the Magic extended their lead to 34-27. For the second game in a row, Bryant struggled to find his shooting rhythm in the second quarter after carrying the team with his scoring in the first quarter. ESPN's Jon Barry has been making a big fuss about Bryant shooting too much--a standard theme for Barry and Mike Wilbon, who apparently are neither watching these games nor looking at the box scores: Bryant was 8-15 from the field in the first half of game three and 3-10 in the second half, so perhaps Bryant did not shoot enough down the stretch in that game, because if he had attempted a few more shots and gotten hot the Lakers might have won. Bryant shot 1-5 from the field in the second quarter of game four, so the issue was not that he shot too often but rather that he simply did not pick up where he had left off in the first quarter: what many people apparently do not understand is that for this Lakers team Bryant not only fills the Michael Jordan scoring role but he also has to fill the Scottie Pippen facilitator role; Bryant talked about this a little bit after game three, noting that he has to strike a delicate balance between finding/maintaining his shooting rhythm while also keeping his teammates involved. That is not nearly as simple as it may sound on paper, but Bryant's playoff averages (30.2 ppg, .458 field goal shooting, 5.5 apg) and the fact that the Lakers are one win away from an NBA championship demonstrate just how effective and efficient he has been.
Lewis has been a key player for the Magic throughout the playoffs and in this series as well; in game four Bryant seemed to take a particular interest in defending Lewis: on several occasions, Bryant ended up guarding Lewis after switches and Lewis tried to take the smaller Bryant down to the low post but Bryant aggressively fronted Lewis with perfect defensive technique, denying the entry pass. On one remarkable second quarter possession, Bryant fronted Lewis, denied the pass and then beat Lewis to the rebound, which is very difficult to do against a bigger player who has inside position. That kind of rebound by Bryant is an example of why, in my skill set based comparison of Bryant with Lebron James (during the brief--and in hindsight, remarkably unusual--time that SlamOnline actually displayed an interest in publishing high quality basketball writing), I ranked Bryant as James' equal as a rebounder even though James has a higher rpg average; Bryant plays on the perimeter and does not have the same rebounding opportunities/responsibilities that James does, but when Bryant plays in the paint he is capable of rebounding with anyone at any time, a theme that we will revisit later in this game.
With Bryant neither shooting frequently nor accurately in the second quarter, the Lakers only scored 17 points and trailed 49-37 at halftime. Howard had as many rebounds (14) as the entire Lakers team and while Bryant had 16 points on 5-12 field goal shooting his teammates combined to score just 21 points on 9-30 field goal shooting. Turkoglu led the Magic with 15 points on 5-6 field goal shooting. It is interesting how things are perceived, because a lot of people say that Orlando beat Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals because Orlando enjoyed so many mismatch advantages but Turkoglu averaged 17.2 ppg on .390 field goal shooting versus the Cavs while mainly being guarded by Delonte West (who is listed at 6-3) and he is averaging 19.5 ppg on .491 field goal shooting versus the Lakers while mainly being guarded by the 6-8 Ariza; the reality is that five of the six Cleveland-Orlando games were close and could have gone either way and three of the four L.A.-Orlando games have been close and could have gone either way, but people try to concoct grand story lines based on the final results instead of taking the time to actually analyze what happened.
After the game, Bryant made a very interesting observation, noting that Pietrus has been defending him very well on the perimeter and that the Magic have been very effective at sending help because Bryant has been starting his move so far away from the hoop; Bryant adjusted to this by going to the low post more frequently in the second half, accepting the double team and thereby creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. Bryant assisted on a Fisher jumper to open the scoring in the third quarter and Ariza was able to drive to the hoop for a wide open dunk after Bryant drew a double team, passed the ball and forced Orlando's defense to rotate; Bryant did not get an assist but he created Ariza's scoring opportunity. Bryant then made a three pointer to cut the Magic lead to 51-44, Ariza scored on a runner and Bryant assisted on an Ariza three pointer to make the score 54-49 Orlando. After Ariza split a pair of free throws, the Lakers got a stop and posted up Bryant, who passed to Gasol, who then swung the ball to Ariza for a wide open three pointer that pulled the Lakers to within 54-53. Soon after that, Gasol failed to pass to an open Bryant and ABC commentator Mark Jackson made this comment during a stoppage of play: "On this possession, Kobe Bryant chastizes Pau Gasol: get me the basketball. When you get me the ball, the offense is easy. I will make the proper plays, double team comes and guys will have wide open shots. He is running the point guard from the scoring position. It shows you how great Kobe is. If you single coverage him, he is going to look to score. If you double team him the guy is making the proper play." Jackson's fellow commentator Jeff Van Gundy added, "That is why when people say I have to pass or shoot more--it's not about that. It's about making the right play." As regular 20 Second Timeout readers know, I have been making exactly those points--not just about Bryant but about basketball in general and how it should be analyzed--for years; the fact that Jon Barry and Mike Wilbon apparently are incapable of understanding this is why I keep lambasting their "analysis" and it is why I have no patience for amateur hour writers at various publications and websites who, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about when they write game recaps or try to make player comparisons. Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Hubie Brown consistently note that Bryant does a tremendous job of reading the defense and making the right play, while the amateur hour writers get bogged down in the minutiae of counting how many times Bryant shoots or how many assists he has.
Ariza will be cited as a third quarter hero in most articles--and rightfully so, because Ariza certainly played well--but it is highly unlikely that too many people will mention that 10 of Ariza's 13 third quarter points were directly or indirectly created by Bryant drawing double teams. That is why the whole issue of just how talented the Lakers really are overall is a bit murky; Ariza has been a bench player his whole career until this year, Gasol never won a playoff game until he teamed up with Bryant and Fisher clearly cannot not create a shot for himself but all three players are playing vital roles on a very strong team: those players deserve credit for performing well under pressure but a lot of their scoring opportunities are created by the attention that Bryant draws. The casual fan is mesmerized by the assist totals racked up by Chris Paul, Steve Nash and LeBron James--three players who are excellent passers--but those players monopolize the ball to a much greater extent than Bryant does and are thus more likely to be in position to make the pass that leads directly to a score, while Bryant often makes the pass that leads to the scoring pass (though Bryant is on something of an assist tear, so to speak, in the past half dozen games).
Bryant had eight points and four assists in the third quarter as the Lakers outscored the Magic 30-14 to take a 67-63 lead but arguably his biggest play does not even appear in the boxscore. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was asked after the game to single out the turning point and he chose a play that happened at the 1:28 mark of the third quarter: Howard missed a reverse layup and seemed to control the offensive rebound but Bryant ripped the ball away from Howard and Howard retaliated by fouling Bryant, who sank two free throws (Bryant shot 8-8 from the free throw line in this game after his much discussed 5-10 free throw shooting in game three). The Team USA teammates exchanged words and if you can read lips you know that Bryant told Howard to shut the ---- up and play ball. Earlier I mentioned that Bryant's rebounding prowess is equal to LeBron James' and is underrated by the casual fan; not too many shooting guards are strong enough to take the ball away from Howard. Interestingly, in the official play by play this is recorded as a "team rebound," not a rebound (or steal) for Bryant. In any case, Coach Jackson said that Bryant's play "showed the grit that this team has tried to develop over the last year." You may recall that in game four of the 2008 Finals the Lakers squandered a huge lead at home to fall behind 3-1, so it is an interesting symmetry that this year Bryant made a tough, physical play that helped the Lakers rally from a double digit deficit on the road to take a 3-1 series lead.
Bryant fed Odom an alley oop pass for a layup that pushed the Lakers' advantage to six points at the start of the fourth quarter but the Magic kept their composure and made a run of their own, capped off with a three point play by Pietrus that put them up 76-75 at the 5:38 mark. Jumpers by Gasol and Bryant enabled the Lakers to go ahead 79-76 but then Nelson found Howard inside for a dunk, Turkoglu split a pair of free throws and Nelson passed to Howard inside again, this time resulting in a three point play that gave Orlando an 82-79 lead. Ariza answered with a three pointer--and this shot was one of the few that definitely was not created by Bryant; after a broken play, Ariza ended up with the ball outside of the three point arc with the shot clock winding down and he fired away and hit a very important shot, though Turkoglu responded with a three pointer to put Orlando up 85-82. After Turkoglu's runner at the 1:34 mark gave the Magic a five point lead it seemed like the Lakers were in trouble but Bryant drove to the hoop and spoonfed Gasol for a dunk to trim the margin to 87-84 with :31.9 remaining; that play will likely be forgotten in the wake of Fisher's heroics but if Bryant does not find Gasol then the Lakers would have lost in regulation. Of course, after Gasol scored the Lakers still needed to get a stop but their defense broke down and Howard caught the ball right underneath the hoop, poised to throw down a monster dunk until Bryant fouled him so hard--but cleanly, simply wrapping up the powerful Howard to prevent a three point play--that both players tumbled to the ground. Again, this is another play that the average fan will not remember, but part of the reason that the Cavs are sitting at home now is that they allowed Howard to have three uncontested dunks in the overtime of game four of the Eastern Conference Finals, resulting in Orlando taking a 3-1 lead in that series. Bryant forced Howard to make two free throws--and Howard whiffed on both attempts. After a timeout, Coach Jackson elected to inbound the ball in the backcourt, explaining later that he thought that if the Lakers advanced the ball then the Magic might simply foul immediately. Of course, the Magic trapped Bryant as soon as he caught the inbounds pass but this just created a three on two fastbreak after Bryant passed to Ariza and Ariza fed Fisher. Nelson inexplicably backed up inside the three point line and Fisher drilled the tying shot with :04.6 left.
The Magic called a timeout to draw up a play and then after Turkoglu was unable to inbound the ball they called another timeout. The next time, Turkoglu passed to Pietrus, who missed a jumper. That play was very interesting, because Bryant ended up guarding Howard in the post on a switch. Much like Bryant did with Lewis earlier in the game, Bryant fronted Howard and did a good enough job that Turkoglu did not feel like he could make the entry pass; then, after Pietrus shot the ball, Bryant did a good job of boxing out Howard.
Lewis opened the overtime by hitting a three pointer but Bryant answered with two jumpers. Neither team scored for more than two minutes until Howard split a pair of free throws to tie the game at 91. Ariza missed a layup but controlled the rebound and then Bryant missed a jumper but the Lakers once again retained possession. This time, the Lakers went back to Bryant in the post, Nelson doubled Bryant and Bryant passed to Fisher for what proved to be the game-winning three pointer. Throughout the playoffs some people have questioned why Coach Jackson did not replace Fisher with Jordan Farmar or Shannon Brown. Does anyone really think that Farmar or Brown would have made the two pressure three pointers that Fisher hit in this game? As Mark Jackson said, "The veteran coach stuck with his veteran player and Derek Fisher once again--old reliable, making plays, making shots."
Turkoglu missed a three pointer and the long rebound caromed out to Gasol, who went coast to coast for a dunk. After another missed Turkoglu three pointer, the Lakers passed the ball ahead to Gasol, who dunked despite a flagrant foul by Pietrus, who wound up with two hands and pounded Gasol in the back. Gasol did not take kindly to Pietrus' actions and immediately exchanged words with him. Both players received technical fouls. It will be interesting to see if the NBA upgrades Pietrus' foul to a flagrant two, which results in an automatic one game suspension. Some people made a big deal earlier in the season about a foul that Ariza committed versus Portland but Ariza was clearly going for the ball in that case and Rudy Fernandez just had an unfortunate, awkward fall--but Pietrus made a dangerous play while making no attempt whatsoever to go for the ball, which is precisely why the mild mannered Gasol reacted as immediately and as vociferously as he did.
The Lakers have been maligned for their inconsistent effort at times but they are now 7-0 in the 2009 playoffs after a loss; in other words, they have made it to within one victory of the championship without losing consecutive playoff games: that is impressive.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM