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Sunday, May 30, 2010

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:
  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 hit six game-winning shots during the regular season but I still insist that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots. So much is said about who makes the most last second shots and who has the best shooting percentage in those situations--but such statistics are a bit deceptive if they are not placed in the proper context. Just looking at a player's field goal percentage on last second shots fails to take into account the time remaining when those shots were taken or the distance involved: does making or missing a half court heave really tell us anything meaningful about a player's ability to rise to the occasion in the clutch? It is much more significant to make a succession of winning plays in crunch time the way that Bryant did to close out the Western Conference Finals. For example, consider Bryant's missed game-winning field goal attempt at the end of game five versus Phoenix: the Suns double-teamed Bryant because he is so deadly and that extra defensive attention helped enable Artest to sneak in for the game-winning putback; statistically, that counts as a missed game-winning shot by Bryant and a made game-winning shot by Artest but the play was created by the effect that Bryant had on the opposing defense. Pau Gasol benefited similarly when Bryant missed a potential game-winning shot in game six of the Oklahoma City series.

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 AM

15 comments

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15 Comments:

At Sunday, May 30, 2010 7:34:00 AM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David,
I'm worried about Pau Gasol heading into the Finals. If Robin Lopez and Amare can do that to him, what will Kevin Garnett do to him? On numerous occasions during game six yesterday I saw Kobe ripping into Pau Gasol for finishing too soft or not putting much resistance to Stoudemire. What really ticked kobe off the most was when he set up Pau with a perfect pass under the basket, and pau went up for a dunk but got blocked by Grant Hill. Kobe was really pissed off about that. It was comical how after that, Pau spent the rest of night looking for compliment from Kobe after every good play he made.(is Kobe that scary to a 7 feet tall teammate?). I'm also not surprised he didn't make any slick comments about not getting any touches.

On Ron Artest: This is why Kobe respects Artest regardless of the occasional mental lapse: Artest never gives up on play(as was evidenced by game 5). He was the only player on the floor moving after kobe took that shot. And he stepped up for 25 points in a game where Pau Gasol decided to go AWOL.(same way Artest was the only player besides kobe answering Korver's baskets during that furious run by Utah in game 3).
On Kobe: I'm amazed at the way this guy played during this series. I'm also not shocked that no espn stats-analysts didn't write any "PER DIEM" about kobe's insane numbers during this series. Last year they had a special article about Lebron's stats after every game. Those shots he hit over grant hill and Dudley were crazy. I just hope he keeps it up against the Celtics. Did you also see how Charles Barkley was forced to admit what kenny Smith has been all year long about kobe? Charles did say that Kobe couldn't go out and get 30+ points/night anymore yet kobe has been averaging over 32ppg on 50% shooting since. now i see why Buss decided to give a 31 year old player that big a contract extension.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 8:12:00 AM, Anonymous Joel said...

To add to your point about clutch play: making a big shot to kill off the opponent's momentum can be just as clutch as hitting a game-winner. Kobe (and Fisher) were making those shots all game long to keep us in the lead before Kobe delivered the knockout blows.

I've seen hundreds of Kobe Bryant games but this one ranks near the top of the list in terms of the number of impossible shots he made. Nash has hit his share as well in this series but Kobe simply upped the ante late in the game. Have you ever seen a player who gets his shot off in any situation as well as Kobe? (I'm asking because I've only been following the NBA for about 10 years, so you should have a better perspective than I do.) That combination of footwork, elevation, shooting touch, and body control is extraordinary.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 12:54:00 PM, Anonymous Dmills said...

The man is quite simply, amazing. It has been an absolute pleasure watching him these past 14 years. The failures and the triumphs.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 4:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

when you showed the graphic him haveing of all time points 2nd 30 5 5 games and 40 point games 11 that told me how great he is but also told me how great mike was i dint know he was so far way ahead in those records.

the lakers won because of kobe this series he shot 52 percent averaged 33 8 7 anbd opened up floor for teammates i dont know how someone could say gasol is better? kobe best player in league last two postseasons no doubt.

for phoenix steve nash ran into spurs in prime now run into kobe he is like miller barkley malone stock ran into jordan all those years it was just bad luck for him. i hope amare stays they can be contenders next year they should pay amare 100 million.

lakers celtics now the lakers are better this year celtics big three arent as good as two years ago but rondo is better. the celts d will be physical can gasol odom and bynum hold up, ron artest will bother paul pierce, if kobe plays as well as he did or near i think they win the ring.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 5:29:00 PM, Blogger Brett Klassen said...

Here's my top 5, it includes Kobe Bryant.
1. Michael Jordan
2. Magic Johnson
3. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
4. Wilt Chamberlain
5. Kobe Bryant

By the end of Bryant's career, he'll probably be in my top 3.

Good post.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 5:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JackF:

There is good reason to worry about Gasol versus Boston's tough, physical bigs. Gasol showed some progress in last year's NBA Finals against Howard but physical toughness and mental focus will always be challenges for Gasol.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 5:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Jordan is the only other player who I've seen who could get his shot off in any situation the way that Kobe does.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 5:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Brett:

That is a solid list, though it is difficult to compare an active player like Kobe with retired greats.

Kareem is too often forgotten in such discussions, so it is nice that you included him.

 
At Sunday, May 30, 2010 5:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

MJ's records are incredible but one thing to keep in mind when comparing him with players from previous eras is that the playoffs have been expanded, so MJ had more opportunities than some of his predecessors. Of course, MJ also created a lot of opportunities by making it to the Finals so many times and it is staggering to see how far ahead of the other players he is in some of those categories.

 
At Monday, May 31, 2010 11:05:00 AM, Blogger The Dude Abides said...

Pau has historically been more bothered by Perkins than by Garnett. The presence of Bynum in the starting lineup somewhat mitigates this situation. Those shots that Kobe hit down the stretch were absolutely insane. However, the two fallaways that Nash hit over Bynum were two of the three greatest rainmakers I've ever seen, the third being a regular season fallaway that Kobe hit over Lebron in the 2009 regular season. Those were some sick rainbows that not only could have brought rain, but could have brought ice.

 
At Monday, May 31, 2010 3:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Dude Abides:

You are correct that if Bynum can play at least 20 serviceable minutes at center then this will greatly lessen the amount of time that Gasol has to be matched up with Perkins. However, in the 2008 Finals Gasol not only had issues defensively but also offensively; he did not set solid screens and/or roll to the hoop aggressively enough to make the Celtics pay for focusing so much defensive attention on Kobe. The Magic showed that it is possible to attack the Celtics with screen/roll plays if such plays are executed with speed and aggressiveness.

 
At Tuesday, June 01, 2010 12:42:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

I agree with the dude abides. Even in 2008, Garnet could not contain Gasol single handily and required help. Perkins could, but now, hopefully Bynum can occupy Perkins and can shoot over him.

David is absolutely right that Gasol sets horrible screens. So did Shaq, so does Bynum-- why can't the Laker staff teach them to screen like Garnet and Perkins. Those guys use all the slack refs permit-- arms akimbo, legs wide and shifting hips, all illegal but rarely called. Defenders seem to stick to them.

So who are today's franchise players? The guys around whom you put a solid group and can carry the team into the conference finals?

 
At Tuesday, June 01, 2010 12:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

9WO:

At any given time I think there are only a handful of true "franchise players"--basically, players who are legit MVP candidates/members of the All-NBA First Team: Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Nowitzki, Wade. I know that a lot of people would put Durant there; I say that he is close but the way that Artest really shut him down (in terms of efficiency if not in terms of raw scoring totals) gives one pause. Duncan was certainly a "franchise player" for many years but I don't think that he is quite at that level now. I don't include any of the Celtics' "Big Three/Big Four" because their success with Boston is really synergistic and I don't think that any one of their stars could carry a team on his own quite the way that legit All-NBA First Team players can.

 
At Sunday, June 06, 2010 4:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

kevin garnett made the all nba 1st team 4 times he got mvp and was 2nd as well so of the big 3 he can be considered a elite player.

But then agian steve nash got 2 mvp and 3 all nba 1st team i would question if he a elite player. i think theres 4 kobe wade lebron howard in the whole league you can make cases for dirk and durant paul as well.


carmelo pierce deron willams brandon roy are fringe elite players never made all nba 1st team all made second team, pau gasol yao ming chris bosh chauncey billups are all star caliber players.

 
At Monday, June 07, 2010 6:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

KG is not an "elite" player now; it has been a couple years since he was an All-NBA First Team player. As I said, at any given point in time there are only a handful of "elite" players in the league. Shaq is another player who used to be "elite" but is not "elite" now.

 

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