Kobe Bryant's NBA Finals ResumeKobe Bryant is about to make his sixth NBA Finals appearance in the past decade, more than Shaquille O'Neal (five) or Tim Duncan (three since 2000, four overall). If Bryant's L.A. Lakers win the championship he will own more rings (four) than Larry Bird (three) and only trail Magic Johnson (five) by one. Here is a look at Bryant's NBA Finals resume:
2000 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers defeat Indiana Pacers, 4-2
Bryant's numbers: 15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.2 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring and assists and third in rebounding.
The backstory: Bryant averaged fewer points than he did in the regular season (22.5 ppg) but that is largely because he had just two points in nine minutes in game two before a sprained ankle sidelined him for the remainder of that contest. The Lakers won an ugly game without Bryant, with Shaquille O'Neal shooting 18-39 from the free throw line as the Pacers resorted to the "Hack a Shaq" tactic in the fourth quarter. Bryant missed game three and the Pacers earned their first win of the series as Reggie Miller erupted for 33 points (he had scored just seven points on 1-16 field goal shooting versus Bryant in game one). Bryant returned in game four and finished with 28 points, five assists and four rebounds; after O'Neal fouled out in overtime, Bryant took over and carried the Lakers to a 120-118 victory, giving them a commanding 3-1 series lead. Bryant had eight of the Lakers' 16 overtime points, falling one short of the Finals record of nine.
Bryant struggled in game five as the Lakers got blown out but he produced 26 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the series-clinching game six, though he shot poorly from the field (8-27). The Pacers again used the "Hack a Shaq" and O'Neal's 1-4 bricklaying down the stretch enabled Indiana to pull within 110-109 with 1:32 left. Glen Rice answered by making a pair of free throws and then Bryant closed out the scoring by sinking four straight free throws to clinch the championship.
Bryant did not have a great series statistically but he made his impact felt with his defense against Miller and with his clutch play in the overtime of game four and in the closing moments of game six. When the Lakers needed fourth quarter scoring in this series, they often abandoned the Triangle Offense and simply gave the ball to Bryant in a 1-4 set so that he could create a shot for himself or a teammate.
Note: The Lakers would not have made it to the Finals in the first place without Bryant's epic performance in game seven of the Western Conference Finals versus Portland: he led the Lakers in points (25), rebounds (11), assists (seven) and blocked shots (four), while O'Neal had 18, nine, five and one respectively. The next time someone tries to tell you that Bryant simply rode O'Neal's coattails to three championships, just cite this boxscore as evidence to the contrary.
2001 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers defeat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1
Bryant's numbers: 24.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.8 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring and rebounding and led the team in assists.
The backstory: This is the first season that O'Neal and Bryant were truly options 1A and 1B throughout the entire season and playoffs, as opposed to O'Neal clearly being the first option; in the 1999-2000 campaign, O'Neal outscored Bryant by a wide margin in the regular season (29.7 ppg to 22.5 ppg) and in the playoffs (30.7 ppg to 21.1 ppg) but in 2000-01 O'Neal only led Bryant by a slight margin in regular season scoring (28.7 ppg to 28.5 ppg) and in playoff scoring (30.4 ppg to 29.4 ppg), though O'Neal had a larger edge in the Finals (33.0 ppg to 24.6 ppg).
Allen Iverson scored 48 points in Philadelphia's 107-101 game one overtime win, then the Lakers swept the next four games to finish with a 15-1 playoff record, the best in NBA history. In game two, the Lakers' big guns took turns dominating: Bryant scored 12 first quarter points and then O'Neal scored 12 second quarter points. By the end of the game, Bryant had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while O'Neal had 28 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists as the Lakers won 98-89. Bryant played 47 minutes and O'Neal played 45 minutes after they each played 52 of a possible 53 minutes in game one.
Bryant (32 points) and O'Neal (30 points) again provided a devastating one-two punch in a 96-91 game three victory. O'Neal handled the brunt of the scoring load in game four (34 points) while Bryant just missed posting a rare Finals triple double (19 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) in a comfortable 100-86 win.
The Lakers closed out the series in game five with O'Neal (29 points) and Bryant (26 points) again leading the way, though Rick Fox (20 points) and Derek Fisher (18 points) provided some timely scoring as well.
2002 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers defeat New Jersey Nets, 4-0
Bryant's numbers: 26.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.3 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring, fourth in rebounding and first in assists.
The backstory: The Lakers completed just the seventh sweep in NBA Finals history (the Spurs became the eighth team to sweep the NBA Finals when they defeated the Cavs in 2007). Statistically this was Bryant's best overall Finals performance, featuring his top Finals scoring average as well as his best field goal shooting (.514) and three point shooting (.545) in addition to his always excellent floor game. O'Neal dominated the series with his scoring (36.3 ppg) and high percentage shooting (.595) but even though the Nets did not win a game, three of the four contests were close: games one, three and four were decided by five, three and six points respectively. In game three, Bryant scored 36 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, including 12 points in the fourth quarter when the outcome hung in the balance; Bryant hit a short jumper with 19 seconds remaining to put the Lakers up 104-100 and that proved to be the decisive basket, though Jason Kidd answered with a three pointer and Fox closed out the scoring by making two free throws. Although O'Neal took a back seat in the fourth quarter (which was often the pattern during the Lakers' championship reign), he finished with 35 points on 12-19 field goal shooting. Game four followed that customary pattern as well, with O'Neal dominating (34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting) and Bryant serving as the closer (tallying 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter).
2004 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons defeat L.A. Lakers, 4-1
Bryant's numbers: 22.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.4 apg; Bryant ranked second on the Lakers in scoring and tied for the team lead in assists.
The backstory: The Lakers owned homecourt advantage and were considered the heavy favorites in this series but with Karl Malone hobbled by injury, Gary Payton moving like he was about 50 years old and Derek Fisher limited by torn cartilage in his right knee that he suffered in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers simply could not keep up with Rasheed Wallace or the Pistons' All-Star backcourt duo of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton; during this series Bryant had to play a "firefighter" role defensively, trying to snuff out the blazing infernos that resulted from Payton's matador defense, but the Pistons smartly responded by simply running their offense through whichever guard Bryant was not checking. The Pistons rolled over the Lakers 87-75 in game one. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson declared on page 229 of his book The Last Season, "The real factor was Chauncey Billups, who completely outplayed Gary, scoring 22 points, eight in the first quarter." Hamilton only scored 12 points on 5-16 shooting with six turnovers versus Bryant but Bryant also struggled offensively, scoring 25 points but shooting just 10-27 versus the long-armed defense of Tayshaun Prince. It seemed like Prince hit Bryant's arm on several jump shots, but Bryant made just four trips to the free throw line. Malone shot 2-9 from the field and Fisher shot 1-9. O'Neal led the way for the Lakers with 34 points on 13-16 shooting as the Pistons largely played him one on one in an effort to keep everyone else in check.
Bryant played the key role in the Lakers' only victory in the series, leading the Lakers with 33 points and seven assists in a 99-91 game two overtime win. Bryant nailed the clutch three pointer that forced overtime and he scored a total of 14 points in the fourth quarter and the extra session to ensure that the Lakers would not fall behind 2-0. Billups again torched Payton, outscoring him 27-2. A big part of the problem for the Lakers was O'Neal's poor screen/roll defense, as Jackson explained on pages 232-233 of The Last Season: "The conversation with the coaches in the video session turned to the issue of Shaquille and his defense on screen roll, which was largely ineffective again. 'When I'm all done,' (assistant coach) Tex (Winter) blurted out, 'I'm going to expose this guy as overrated.'" Jackson mentioned that Winter complained that O'Neal "has terrible footwork, he's not coachable, he can't make free throws" but Jackson answered Winter by saying that O'Neal was the reason he came to coach the Lakers in the first place. Later, during a film session with the whole team, O'Neal--according to Jackson (page 233)--told Winter to "shut the ---- up. We don't need to hear from you about this ----." Jackson wrote (page 234), "I keep asking myself if I had failed him, this wonderful eighty-two-year old man who has meant so much to me, by not defending him more aggressively in front of the whole group." O'Neal apologized to Winter the next day.
The Pistons started game three with an 8-0 run and never trailed en route to a dominating 88-68 win. Bryant had just 11 points on 4-13 shooting, "the worst game I've ever seen him have in the playoffs" according to Jackson (page 237). O'Neal scored 14 points on 7-14 shooting. The two stars combined to attempt only five free throws. The other Lakers were completely invisible. In the wake of that disheartening performance, several of the veterans from the Lakers' three championship teams--including Bryant, Fox and Fisher--implored Jackson to bench Malone and Payton and go with the players who had won those titles, even though Fisher was ailing and Fox was not a power forward. Jackson promised to give all of those players some time on the court together but he felt that Malone's best chance to be effective was to start the game as opposed to languishing on the bench tightening up.
Billups again torched Payton in game four as the Pistons won 88-80 to take a 3-1 lead. Jackson finally switched Bryant onto Billups in the latter stages of the game. O'Neal had 36 points and 20 rebounds but Bryant shot just 8-25 to finish with 20 points. Bryant felt very strongly that Prince was getting away with fouling him but Bryant knew that it would not do any good to complain about this publicly. Owner Jerry Buss told Jackson (pages 243-244), "I think our young man has hit the wall. The whole weight of the whole season has finally caught up to him. He just looked so tired out there tonight that he didn't have the energy to finish this game off the way he's done in the past." Jackson agreed with that assessment.
During the walkthrough prior to game five, Bryant volunteered to check Billups. Jackson was not sure if he wanted to do that but Bryant later privately told Jackson his real motive for speaking up (page 245): "I just said that to see if Gary would say, 'No, let me have him. He's mine.' I think he's scared. He doesn't care if I take Billups or not." Bryant checked Billups for part of game five and Billups had his lowest point total of the series (14) but in the end the Lakers had too many matchup problems and the Pistons closed out the series with a 100-87 win.
Note: Scoop Jackson recently called game two of the 2004 Finals "the game where many Laker insiders now admit the decision was eventually made to keep Kobe and exit everyone else." O'Neal wanted the Lakers to re-sign him for maximum dollars and maximum years but there were plenty of sensible reasons not to do this (just read Winter's critiques cited above). Bryant had established himself as an All-NBA First Team player, an All-Defensive First Team member and a perennial top five finisher in the MVP race, so the Lakers decided to build the team around him.
In the wake of their Finals loss, the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first round draft pick. After one season the Lakers shipped Butler to the Washington Wizards to acquire Kwame Brown, who they eventually dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies to obtain Pau Gasol. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2004-05, mainly because Bryant played in only 66 games due to injury (Odom also missed 18 games). In 2006 and 2007 Bryant almost singlehandedly kept the Lakers competitive, winning two scoring titles while also making the All-Defensive First Team each year. Finally, the Lakers upgraded his supporting cast, with the biggest move being the addition of Gasol. Bryant no longer had to go into gun battles with "butter knives"; he promptly led the Lakers to the number one seed in the West in 2008 and averaged 31.9 ppg, 5.8 apg, 6.1 rpg, 3.1 tpg, .509 field goal shooting and .814 free throw shooting in 15 Western Conference playoff games as the Lakers returned to the NBA Finals.
2008 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics defeat L.A. Lakers, 4-2
Bryant's numbers: 25.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 5.0 apg; Bryant led the Lakers in scoring and assists and ranked fourth on the team in rebounding.
The backstory: The Celtics cruised to the best regular season record in the NBA (66-16) but they were pushed to seven games twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs while the 57-25 Lakers went 12-3 in the tough Western Conference playoffs as Bryant put up the phenomenal numbers mentioned above. The Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play proved to be very difficult for even the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to deal with and that was a major reason that I predicted a Lakers' victory over the Celtics. Instead, Gasol and the other Laker bigs played very tentatively, enabling the Celtics to simply send waves of defenders at Bryant while daring anyone else to make shots. Here are links to my recaps of each of the six games, plus some excerpts from each of those posts:
Celtics Ride Strong Second Half Defense to 98-88 Game One Victory: "In the heavyweight match of the Celtics' league-leading defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense, score round one for the defense; the Celtics held the Lakers to 37 second half points, survived an injury scare involving Paul Pierce and emerged with a 98-88 victory. Pierce had to be carried off of the court at the 6:49 mark of the third quarter after spraining his right knee but he returned just 1:45 later and a few minutes after that he nailed two big three pointers to give the Celtics a 75-71 lead that they never relinquished...
The way that the Lakers had to keep switching Bryant on to someone to cool him off is reminiscent of what happened in the 2004 Finals, when whichever Detroit guard was being checked by Gary Payton had a field day while Bryant contained the other guard.
The tendency after each playoff game is to overreact and think that the winning team will not lose a game and that the losing team cannot possibly win. This series is a battle between Boston's strengths in rebounding and defense versus the Lakers' high-powered offense; what most commentators will probably neglect to mention about this game is that the Celtics only shot .421 from the field and committed 13 turnovers compared to just eight turnovers by the Lakers: the Lakers' defense is better than many people think and it will not take a dramatic offensive improvement by the Lakers to win game two and thus seize homecourt advantage. Make no mistake, though, losing game one should not be easily dismissed, because game one winners end up winning the series nearly 80% of the time; the onus is on the Lakers to win game two but they did enough positive things in game one to show that they are certainly capable of doing just that."
Celtics Build 24 Point Lead, Survive Huge Lakers Rally to Win Game Two, 108-102: "The Boston Celtics led the L.A. Lakers 95-71 with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter but the Lakers pulled to within 104-102 before the Celtics escaped with a 108-102 win. Paul Pierce, showing no ill effects from his game one knee injury, led the Celtics with 28 points on 9-16 shooting from the field. He also had eight assists and four rebounds...Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds, shooting 11-23 from the field. He had 13 points and two assists during the Lakers' 31-9 fourth quarter run that almost turned into the biggest comeback in Finals history. Pau Gasol had decent numbers (17 points on 8-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, four assists) but for the second game in a row he was very quiet offensively in the second half (four points)...
I picked the Lakers to win this series because I thought that the Celtics would not have an answer for the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play and that their success with this action would be enough to cancel out the slight rebounding deficit that I expected them to suffer. As Van Gundy noted during the telecast, the Lakers have in fact enjoyed success with that set. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have not run it enough and their rebounding (in game one) and defense (in game two) have been poor. We have seen many instances in these playoffs of teams performing much differently at home than on the road, so the likelihood is that the Lakers will win game three and probably game four--maybe even by large margins. However, there is no way around the fact that the Lakers face a steep uphill climb to win this series because they will have to beat the team with the best regular season record in the NBA four times in five games. That is not impossible but history suggests that it is not very likely, either."
Bryant's Big Performance Saves Lakers in Game Three: "Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 36 points on 12-20 field goal shooting, willing the Lakers to an 87-81 game three win over the Celtics. Bryant earned 18 free throw attempts with his aggressive play and the only blemish on his performance is that he missed seven of them. Still, he set the tone for the Lakers right from the start, scoring 11 first quarter points, and he scored nine points in the final 6:55 to seal the deal...
This was a big win for the Lakers, because a loss would have meant that a Boston championship would just be a matter of time. That said, the Lakers must put together two more similar efforts just to get the series back to Boston without facing elimination and then they will have to figure out how to win a game there. It would be most helpful if Gasol would start playing with more aggressiveness and if Odom would actually check in to the series mentally."
Celtics Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Win 97-91 to Take 3-1 Series Lead: "The Boston Celtics recovered from the largest deficit at the end of the first quarter in NBA Finals history to post a thrilling 97-91 victory that all but assures that they will win a record 17th NBA title. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with a game-high 20 points on 6-13 shooting but just as importantly he had a team-high seven assists and he played excellent second half defense against Kobe Bryant...Kobe Bryant shot just 6-19 from the field but he had a game-high 10 assists to go along with his 17 points and four rebounds. Bryant scored 10 of the Lakers' 18 fourth quarter points and assisted on three of the other four field goals that the team made, accounting for virtually all of their offensive production in the final stanza...
Towards the end of the game, Van Gundy offered this explanation for why the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll did not work as well in the second half as it did in the first half: 'The Celtics have made some great adjustments in their pick and roll defense. They're softer on the screener, which has taken away that high-low pass that we saw in the first half.' I agree with Van Gundy to an extent but I also think that the Lakers did not execute properly in several ways: Gasol did not set his screens with authority, he failed to roll aggressively to the hoop and no one popped to the free throw line the way that Odom had been doing. Gasol's passive play enabled the Celtics to simply stay on their own men instead of having to either trap or switch. Therefore, Bryant was left handling the ball with the shot clock winding down and no good options. After the third quarter, Coach Jackson told Michele Tafoya, 'We just did things offensively that put us in bad situations. They got their transition game going and their half court game going.'"
Lakers Advance From "Elite Eight" to "Final Four": "No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals but prior to game five Kobe Bryant compared the Lakers' situation to the NCAA Tournament, suggesting that they must win in the Elite Eight (game five), the Final Four (game six) and the Championship Game (game seven) in order to be crowned the 2008 NBA Champions. The Lakers advanced past the 'Elite Eight' on Sunday night with a 103-98 victory. Bryant led the Lakers with 25 points and a game-high five steals. He also had seven rebounds and four assists."
Celtics Overwhelm Lakers, Claim 17th Championship: "For the first five games of the NBA Finals, the heavyweight match between the Celtics' league best defense and the Lakers' high powered offense was a close bout but in game six the Celtics landed a stunning knockout punch, posting a 131-92 victory to claim the franchise's 17th championship. After a competitive first quarter, the Celtics completely dominated the Lakers in every conceivable way, finishing with a 48-29 rebounding advantage, outscoring the Lakers 16-2 in fast break points, demolishing the Lakers 44-29 in points in the paint and forcing 19 turnovers while only committing seven. The Celtics set a Finals single-game record with 18 steals and held the Lakers to a Finals record low two offensive rebounds, which is particularly remarkable considering that the Lakers shot just .422 from the field. The Lakers had absolutely no defensive presence, recording 0 blocked shots while letting the Celtics shoot .494 from the field, including 13-26 (.500) from three point range...
The Celtics were determined to not let regular season MVP Kobe Bryant beat them and, other than a quick 11 point burst in the first quarter, they forced Bryant to take contested shots or pass the ball to teammates who lacked focus, discipline and purpose. Bryant finished with a hard earned 22 points on 7-22 field goal shooting, plus three rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. Bryant would never admit to being tired but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said that Bryant seemed a little leg weary as the game wore on; that is hardly surprising considering that this team depends on him to score 30 points while shooting a good percentage, create scoring opportunities for players who cannot do so for themselves and have a major impact defensively by either guarding a top notch scorer such as Paul Pierce or Ray Allen or by being a Scottie Pippen-like help defender who roams around covering up the defensive shortcomings of his teammates. I've said my piece on the stupid and superficial Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons but any objective comparison of these two players has to begin with an incontrovertible fact: when Michael Jordan won six championships he played alongside a Top 50 player in Scottie Pippen, a guy who was the team's leading playmaker and who shouldered a major load defensively. In contrast, the Lakers essentially need Bryant to be Jordan and Pippen--scorer, facilitator, primary defender and help defender--while critics are interpreting Bryant's failure to be both guys to mean that he is not as good as Jordan was. I don't think that Bryant is as good as Jordan was but this series did not really shed any new light on that subject: the Celtics have three future Hall of Famers plus a number of excellent role players, while the Lakers have Bryant and a supporting cast that is not nearly as good as advertised, a point that I made repeatedly during the playoffs even as I correctly picked the Lakers to win the West precisely because I rightly expected that Bryant's greatness would be enough to mask the team's weaknesses."
Bryant played a key role on three championship teams. Even though he had a subpar performance in the 2004 Finals loss he is the main reason that the Lakers did not get swept and he showed enough during that season and that series to convince the Lakers to rebuild the team around him; Bryant has rewarded that faith by leading the Lakers to the best record in the West for two straight years, culminating in two appearances in the NBA Finals. The only missing line on his Finals resume is a Finals MVP; leading the Lakers to the title while earning that award will forever silence critics who contend that Bryant cannot win a championship without O'Neal.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:00 PM