Kobe Bryant Adds to his Glittering Playoff Resume, Carries Lakers to Third Straight NBA Finals Appearance"Was that Kobe or was that Michael?"--Phoenix Suns Coach Alvin Gentry
"Kobe's so good he he makes incredible normal for us."--Lamar Odom
Kobe Bryant capped off perhaps the best playoff series of his career (33.7 ppg, 8.3 apg, 7.2 rpg, .521 FG%, .432 3Pt FG%, .881 FT%) by pouring in 37 points on 12-25 field goal shooting as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 111-103 to win the Western Conference Finals four games to two. Bryant scored nine points in the final two minutes after the Suns had cut an 18 point Lakers lead to just three. The Suns did their best to encourage Lakers not named Bryant to shoot and most of them fired blanks, with a notable exception being Ron Artest, who poured in a season-high (regular season and playoffs) 25 points on 10-16 field goal shooting. Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum chipped in 11 and 10 points respectively, while Pau Gasol had a forgettable nine points on 2-9 field goal shooting; memo to the "stat gurus," Spanish fans and others who keep insisting that Gasol is the Lakers' best player: Stop the madness! Gasol is a very skilled big man who generally thrives in a secondary role to Bryant but he is not a "franchise player" unless one expands the definition of that phrase to the extent that it has no real meaning. This is not a knock against Gasol, for there are very, very few true "franchise players." Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 27 points but he shot just 7-20 from the field, grabbed only four rebounds and he had no assists for the fourth straight game--a truly staggering statistic. Steve Nash scored an efficient 21 points on 8-11 field goal shooting and he had nine assists and five rebounds while committing just two turnovers.
Bryant literally limped through the first few games of this postseason but he has been a different player since having his balky right knee drained late in the Oklahoma City series--or, rather, that procedure enabled him to resume being the best player in the game. Bryant has scored at least 30 points in 10 of his last 11 playoff games--and the one time he failed to reach that mark he had a playoff career-high 13 assists in the Lakers' 124-112 game two victory over Phoenix. Bryant has set a host of personal and/or league records:
- He has tallied at least one 40 point game in five straight postseasons; the only other player who accomplished this feat is Michael Jordan, who had at least one 40 point game in eight straight postseasons (1985-92).
- Bryant is tied with Hakeem Olajuwon for sixth on the all-time NBA list for 40 point playoff games (11); Michael Jordan leads the way with 38 and Jerry West ranks a distant second with 20 but the next three players are well within Bryant's reach: Shaquille O'Neal (12), Wilt Chamberlain (13) and Elgin Baylor (14).
- Bryant's game six performance versus Phoenix marks the eighth straight time that he has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, extending a league record that he already held (Baylor ranks second with six such games).
- During one stretch Bryant scored at least 30 points in six straight playoff wins, matching the NBA record held by Olajuwon and O'Neal (that streak was snapped when Bryant had 21 points and 13 assists in the aforementioned game two victory over Phoenix).
- Bryant now has scored at least 30 points in 75 career playoff games, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second on the all-time list behind Jordan (109). West (74) ranks fourth, while Baylor (60) is fifth.
- Bryant recently moved into fourth all-time on the NBA-ABA playoff career scoring list, trailing only Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal. If Bryant continues to score at or near his current pace and the Lakers have deep playoff runs the next two years then Bryant could pass Jordan during the 2012 playoffs.
- Twice during this postseason Bryant has come within one rebound or one assist of notching his first career playoff triple double. His near triple double effort in game five versus Phoenix (30 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists plus four blocked shots) was his 33rd career 30-5-5 playoff game, moving him past Larry Bird for third on the all-time list. Jordan is the all-time leader in that department (51), with West ranking second (35).
Bryant's presence on the court and the completeness of his skill set distorts the defense and makes the game easier for his teammates; I have been saying this for years and we are seeing this repeatedly throughout the playoffs: the whole reason that the Suns played a zone defense in the latter stages of the series was to try to corral Bryant, a point that Coach Gentry made explicit when he declared that he would stop using his "girlie zone" if the Lakers stopped passing the ball to Bryant. Gentry did not mention Gasol, because elite teams do not focus their game plans on dealing with Gasol; you can bet that in the upcoming NBA Finals the Boston Celtics will concentrate on trying to contain Bryant and making other people hit shots.
The much discussed Lakers' frontcourt length is certainly an advantage but the Lakers' first and foremost advantage is Bryant's all-around skill set; just watch how many times an action starts with Bryant being trapped and ends with Gasol, Andrew Bynum or another Laker getting an easy shot.
LeBron James earned the regular season MVP with his outstanding performances over the 82 game grind but for the second year in a row Bryant is reasserting himself as the game's best player in the games that matter the most.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 AM