Maestro Bryant Orchestrates Lakers' Championship, Wins Finals MVP"I don't have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore."--Kobe Bryant, the 2009 Finals MVP trophy by his side, at the press conference after game five of the NBA Finals
Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 30 points, led the L.A. Lakers in assists (five), blocked shots (four, tied with Pau Gasol) and steals (two, tied with Trevor Ariza) while also grabbing six rebounds and committing just one turnover as the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86 to win the NBA Finals 4-1. Bryant earned Finals MVP honors after averaging 32.4 ppg, 7.4 apg and 5.6 rpg in the series; only Allen Iverson (35.6 ppg in 2001), Jerry West (33.8 ppg in 1965) and Shaquille O'Neal (33.0 ppg in 2001) averaged more points in a five game NBA Finals.
The Lakers won the championship one year after being bounced out of the Finals in six games by the Boston Celtics; don't underestimate the significance of a team having the mental toughness to pull that off, because the last time a Finals loser won the championship the next season was 1989, when the Detroit Pistons swept the Lakers after losing to them in seven games in 1988.
Lamar Odom contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds off of the bench after subpar performances in games three and four. Trevor Ariza added 15 points, five rebounds and two steals, while Pau Gasol had a very efficient stat line: 14 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and the aforementioned game-high tying four blocked shots. Game four hero Derek Fisher scored 13 points on 4-7 field goal shooting. Starting center Andrew Bynum played his usual limited minutes (16:54) but fired up 11 shots during that time, making just three of them. The Lakers' much vaunted depth was scarcely evident, particularly if you count Odom as a de facto starter (Odom played 31:43): only three other reserves played and they combined to score just four points.
Rashard Lewis led Orlando with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he shot just 6-19 from the field; the hero of the Cleveland series shot .405 from the field versus the Lakers, had just two good games out of five and shot 2-10 from the field in both game one and game four. Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston scored 12 points each. Dwight Howard, who punished Cleveland inside to the tune of 25.8 ppg on .651 field goal shooting--including a playoff career-high 40 points in the clinching game six--finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Magic shot 8-27 (.296) from three point range and even that number is inflated, because it includes some late three pointers that boosted their percentage but did not really threaten to alter the outcome of the game.
Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy mused earlier in the playoffs that most members of the media come to games with two preconceived storylines and that after a game is over they just run with whichever one fits. For instance, if a well-rested team is playing against a team that just finished a grueling seven games series then these writers have a "rust" storyline ready and a "rested" storyline ready and simply use the one that proves to be relevant. The storylines before game five for those kinds of writers most likely revolved around the Magic either being "resilient" (if they won) or "devastated by the game four overtime loss" (if the Lakers won). Reality is not so cut and dried. The Magic have long since proved their resiliency, so anyone who imagined that they would just meekly submit to the Lakers is not very intelligent. The Magic took a quick 15-6 lead and were ahead for most of the first quarter. Bynum shot 0-6 during Orlando's initial burst, prompting ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy to note, "Sometimes you're open for a reason." Even more worrisome for the Lakers than Bynum's bricklaying was that Bryant reinjured one of the damaged fingers on his shooting hand when Lewis stripped the ball from Bryant--but, as is almost always the case with Bryant, the injury quickly became a nonstory and he did not miss any game time or seem to be the least bit impaired (Bryant has not missed a game in more than two years despite logging heavy minutes and enduring a host of ailments, including two significant finger dislocations on his shooting hand). As iron man quarterback Brett Favre once said about injuries, they are simply a case of "mind over matter": "if you don't mind, they don't matter."
Bynum finally scored midway through the first quarter when he got an offensive rebound/putback. Van Gundy observed, "Here's another byproduct of the double teaming of Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard had to rotate out (leaving) the smaller Hedo Turkoglu on Andrew Bynum." This is a nuance of the game that many fans (and most "stat gurus") fail to understand; they look at Bynum's shooting percentage (when he is healthy) or the shooting percentages of Gasol and Odom and say that those guys should get more shots and Bryant should shoot less frequently--but the Laker bigs shoot so well precisely because Bryant creates easy shots for them but he cannot create 25 easy shots a game for each player. Meanwhile, Bryant's shooting percentage is dragged down by having to take shots at the end of the shot clock and in other scenarios when the offense has broken down. If Gasol, Odom or Bynum shot 20-25 times per game their shooting percentages would drop and the Lakers would not be as effective as they are with Bryant as the main scorer/facilitator and the other players in complementary roles.
Although the Magic clearly had the right mindset entering this game, the Lakers withstood the initial flurry and only trailed 28-26 by the end of the first quarter. Bryant's prowess as a closer is correctly respected and feared but in this series he also proved to be a good "opener," keeping the Lakers in contact in several first quarters when the Magic came out smoking and the other Lakers could not get much going; in this instance he had 11 points and one assist. Bryant rested for the first few minutes of the second quarter and the Lakers fell behind 34-28 before rallying to trim the margin to 34-31 just prior to his return. Then, Bryant almost immediately sparked the run that, essentially, decided the outcome of the game, registering three assists (all on three pointers) and nailing a jumper as the Lakers outscored the Magic 11-0 in 1:20, turning a 40-36 deficit into a 47-40 lead. Though the Magic obviously were still in contact, they did not seem to have quite the same spirit the rest of the way; after several rounds in the famous "Rope a Dope" fight, Muhammad Ali famously asked George Foreman if that was all he had and Foreman recalled thinking, "Yeah, that's about it" before Ali moved in for the kill. Something similar seemed to happen to Orlando in this game--not that the Lakers were intentionally using a "Rope a Dope" approach but rather that the Magic hit the Lakers with their best shot, the Lakers withstood the blow and then it seemed like the Magic grasped the disheartening reality of trailing 3-1 versus a team that has answers for everything that they do. The Lakers led 56-46 at halftime.
The Magic briefly got to within five early in the third quarter but then the Lakers went up 73-57 and were ahead by double digits the rest of the way. Odom hit back to back three pointers during that burst. One of those treys came after a double-teamed Bryant passed to Ariza, who swung the ball to Fisher, who kicked it to Odom in the left corner; Fisher got the assist but Bryant created the shot by drawing the double team.
Although the Lakers enjoyed a comfortable lead for most of the second half, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson did not take any chances with his inconsistent reserves and opted to give Bryant just 1:14 of rest at the tail end of the third quarter with the Lakers leading 74-59. Bryant returned at the start of the fourth quarter and then played the rest of the way, scoring nine points in the final stanza to make sure that the Magic did not pull off a comeback.
The relative lack of drama down the stretch gave Jeff Van Gundy and fellow commentator Mark Jackson plenty of time to wax poetic about Bryant. After Bryant hit a tough jumper, Jackson said, "I really don't think that people appreciate how great this guy is." When play by play announcer Mike Breen mentioned in passing how much better of a teammate Bryant has become in recent years, Van Gundy interjected, "I think it's overplayed how hard he was to play with. He plays hard, he works hard in practice; when he is single covered he takes a shot and when he is double covered he passes. I think that a lot of that (stuff) about him not being a good teammate had as much to do with the guys he played with."
Jackson added, "If you go out and compete the same way this guy competes in practice and in game situations he's not a problem to you because he is not talking to you when he demands that you raise your level of play."
Van Gundy concluded, "He will have problems with guys--and rightfully so, just like a coach would--who compete to a point but maybe not has hard as is necessary to win it all."
Over the years, I have caught some flak from uninformed hacks--some of whom write for prominent publications--for stating that Bryant is the league's best player because he has no skill set flaws; I don't say that as a fan but rather as someone who watches the sport with an educated eye--and I have talked to enough coaches, scouts and players to know that they are seeing exactly what I am seeing. As Mark Jackson said during the third quarter, "He has no flaws as a basketball player. People got upset with me for putting Kobe Bryant in the same discussion with Michael Jordan. At the end of the day, just look at this guy's body of work. Look at the great players and listen to the way that they acknowledge that he's the best. It's incredible." The disconnect between how some fans and self proclaimed experts perceive Bryant and the way that informed basketball people view Bryant reminds me of the disparate perspectives about Scottie Pippen: basketball purists understand just how great he was but casual observers act as if he was an innocent bystander to Michael Jordan's brilliance.
Julius Erving's words of wisdom after this year's Hall of Fame press conference proved to be prophetic when he answered a question about what separates Kobe Bryant and LeBron James: "The years of experience, the fact that there is no substitute for that. In terms of his individual ability, he does things in a little bit more of a traditional sense to get it done. LeBron is kind of like a bull in a china shop. He is a fantastic talent. I don't think he knows how good he is. Looking at him coming full speed at 270 pounds, that is like Shaq playing point guard. It's like, 'All you little boys need to move out of my way.' But, the combination of offense and defense, finesse and power, Kobe is the package--and I think that LeBron would probably admit that. Well, maybe because of their egos neither one would admit anything! But, that is part of it, don't give anybody any quarter or do anything that will put you at a disadvantage. Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line."
James was my choice for regular season MVP this year, narrowly edging out Bryant; though the national media selected James in a landslide, I concluded my article on the subject with these words: "This year's playoffs may reveal whether Bryant truly passed that torch to James for good in March or if Bryant merely needed to get his second wind in order to recapture the torch during the crucible of postseason competition." During the 2009 playoffs, Bryant averaged 30.2 ppg, 5.5 apg and 5.3 rpg while shooting .457 from the field, .349 from three point range and .883 from the free throw line, mirroring the outstanding numbers that he posted in the 2008 playoffs: 30.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.7 rpg, .479, .302 and .809. Bryant led the NBA in total playoff points scored both years and had the highest playoff scoring average in 2008 (he ranked second to James' 35.3 ppg this year).
James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.
In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the 2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.
It is fitting that Bryant joined West on the list of Finals MVP winners and that he is the first recipient of that award since it was officially named in honor of Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the league's history (11 championships in 13 seasons) who, ironically, never won the Finals MVP (West won the first Finals MVP during Russell's final NBA season); no rational person can exclude Bryant's name from the short list of the greatest players in the history of the sport. When I wrote my five part series about pro basketball's Pantheon I limited the discussion to retired players but in part five I mentioned four active players who have performed at a "Pantheon level": Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Interestingly, prior to game five, TNT/NBA TV commentator Kenny Smith said that a fourth championship for Bryant would cement Bryant's place on Smith's list of the top 10 NBA players of all-time (this is the order in which Smith mentioned the names, though it is not clear if this is the order in which he ranks these players): Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant. It is difficult to take anyone's name off of that list but it is also difficult to leave out guys like Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving.
Bryant's Finals MVP caps off an extraordinary season in a special career: last summer, Bryant's clutch fourth quarter scoring carried Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, in February he shared the All-Star MVP with Shaquille O'Neal and then Bryant finished second to James in regular season MVP voting after leading the Lakers to the best record in the West for the second year in a row. Only Willis Reed (1970), Michael Jordan (1996, 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) won the regular season MVP, the All-Star MVP and the Finals MVP in the same season, so Bryant's second place finish and two first place finishes in voting for those three awards in 2009 are impressive. Bryant is also on a very short and distinguished list of NBA players who have won at least four championships, one regular season MVP and one Finals MVP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.
While this is Bryant's fourth NBA championship--not his first, despite what you might have heard--Lakers Coach Phil Jackson passed Red Auerbach by claiming his 10th NBA title and after the game he proudly wore a cap designed by his children and adorned with the Roman numeral "X." Jackson is renowned for his ability to make adjustments during playoff series and this year's playoffs provided more evidence of that, as the Lakers won two of the final three games in the Houston series and three of the final four games in the Denver series, including the last two. During this year's playoffs the Magic proved to be a team that provided a lot of matchup challenges but in game five the Lakers managed to simultaneously limit their three point shooters and hold Howard well below his usual scoring average, a most impressive defensive accomplishment that speaks both to Jackson's gameplanning and to how well his players executed what he designed. Of course, it helps to have a player like Bryant bringing those chalkboard designs to life while also exhorting his teammates to match his energy and effort even if they cannot match his skill: on one possession, Bryant very effectively double-teamed Howard on the left block and then sprinted all the way to the right corner to contest Lewis' three pointer and harass him into shooting an airball. Players know which players just talk about hard work and which players actually are willing to sacrifice, so when Bryant plays that hard on defense that attitude becomes contagious. As Van Gundy and Jackson noted during the telecast, Bryant's attitude and work ethic had precisely that kind of positive effect for Team USA, too.
While always giving Gasol the credit that he deserves for his well-rounded skill set, I have also insisted that Bryant has played a major role in bringing out the best in Gasol. Jerry West, who acquired Bryant for the Lakers and ran the Memphis franchise when Gasol was that team's number one option, recently said of Gasol, "His effort is certainly greater than it was in Memphis, I'll tell you that, and it's because Kobe Bryant has driven him to that point." Anyone who follows the NBA closely and understands the game realizes that even though the trade that brought Gasol to L.A. looks lopsided on the surface, the method to Memphis' "madness" is that the Grizzlies seriously doubted that Gasol could ever be the main performer on a championship caliber team; that is why they dumped his salary in exchange for young players and draft picks in order to basically hit the "reboot" button and start over. Gasol has found a perfect niche with the Lakers as the number two option; this is definitely not a case of the Lakers having two "alpha males," as Bryant rightly described the situation when he and Shaquille O'Neal were the two best players on three Lakers' championship teams from 2000-02: as Bryant said in his postgame press conference after game five, those teams were unique precisely because they had two "alpha males" instead of the more clearly defined hierarchy that typically exists on teams.
Although the middle three games of this series were close, the Lakers routed the Magic in L.A. in game one and then eliminated the Magic in Orlando with a decisive game five win. Not coincidentally, those were Bryant's two best games of the series, as he dropped 40-8-8 in the opener and 32-6-5 in the finale while only committing one turnover in each of those contests. A lot will be said in the coming days, weeks and months about how this performance will impact Bryant's legacy--and if it was not immediately obvious how foolish it was for John Krolik to suggest that Bryant's career would be defined by game seven versus Houston it certainly is glaringly apparent now; all of the excessive attention paid to Bryant's facial expressions was also silly: as West said, when it came time to win championships you did not see Michael Jordan laughing and giggling, either.
Perhaps Kevin Garnett, who had his own critics to answer after spending most of his career getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, put it best last year as he exulted just moments after his Boston Celtics won the championship over Bryant's Lakers: "What can you say now? What can you say now?"
posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM