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Friday, June 18, 2010

Lakers Repeat as Champions, Kobe Bryant Earns Second Finals MVP

The L.A. Lakers recovered from a 3-2 deficit to defeat the Boston Celtics in one of the most dramatic seven game series--and dramatic game sevens--in NBA history; game six was a happy go lucky romp for the Lakers but game seven was a brutal war: eight current or former All-Stars participated and only one of them (Kevin Garnett) made more than half of his shots from the field. Kobe Bryant won the Finals MVP for the overall brilliance that he displayed during the series; he became just the seventh player in NBA history to score at least 20 points in each game of a seven game NBA Finals series, joining a list that includes Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West (who did it three times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon. Bryant's impact went beyond mere numbers, though; as Boston Coach Doc Rivers noted after game seven, "Kobe makes you trap and that's what we don't really want to do because of the mismatches." A major theme throughout this series--and any series that involves Bryant--was how much Bryant's presence distorted the opposing team's defense and thus created both open shots and offensive rebounding opportunities for Bryant's teammates.

Bryant averaged 28.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 3.9 apg in the Finals while shooting .405 from the field and .883 from the free throw line. Bryant led the Lakers in scoring, assists and steals (2.1 spg) during the Finals and, for all of the talk about the Lakers' imposing frontcourt length, he ranked second on the team in rebounding. During the Lakers' 23 game postseason run he averaged 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 5.5 apg while shooting .458 from the field and .848 from the free throw line, numbers that are remarkably consistent with those that he posted during the 2008 playoffs (30.1, 5.7, 5.6, .479, .809) and the 2009 playoffs (30.2, 5.3, 5.5, .457, .883). That is a very impressive body of work as the best player on the team that posted the best record in the competitive Western Conference for three straight years, advanced to the Finals each time and captured back to back championships.

Even though Bryant, like most of the players on both teams, struggled with his shot in game seven (finishing with a game-high 23 points on 6-24 field goal shooting) he pulled down 15 rebounds--five more than any Celtic--and he helped to seal the deal by producing 10 fourth quarter points. Ron Artest played suffocating defense on Paul Pierce while also contributing 20 points, five rebounds and five steals; Pau Gasol (who shot 6-16 from the field) added 19 points, a game-high 18 rebounds and four assists. Andrew Bynum deserves special mention even though he posted pedestrian numbers (two points, six rebounds in 19 minutes): he gutted it out during the Lakers' long playoff run despite suffering a knee injury in the first round that will ultimately require surgery; his size and length proved to be important for the Lakers at various times throughout the playoffs even though he did not have a huge impact in game seven.

Pierce led the Celtics with 18 points and 10 rebounds but he shot just 5-15 from the field in a game-high 46 minutes. Garnett scored 17 points but only grabbed three rebounds, while Rajon Rondo had a near-triple double (14 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds).

In his postgame interview, Bryant--who loathes talking about his injuries--candidly admitted "I was hurt," adding that he could not make it through another entire season with his right knee and right index finger in their current conditions. Bryant said that it frustrated him that people kept talking about his age when the reality was that his injuries were limiting him: he noted that he simply cannot grip a basketball without taping his finger and that it is hardly a coincidence that he started reeling off 30 point games after getting his knee drained during the first round series versus Oklahoma City. Earlier in the playoffs, LeBron James talked about being a "no excuse" player while he rubbed his elbow and grimaced but there is every reason to believe that Bryant had at least two injuries that were much more severe than whatever was wrong with James' elbow (Bryant's sprained ankle--which had to be retaped during halftime of game six of the Finals--may also have been worse than James' elbow).

This series turned out to be epic in the literal sense of the word, a lengthy story with many twists and turns featuring the exploits of several heroic figures. Here is a chapter by chapter look at how the Lakers avenged their 2008 Finals loss to the Celtics, won a repeat title and claimed the 16th championship in franchise history.

Lakers Produce Solid Game One Effort

The Lakers built a 50-41 halftime lead in game one and were ahead by 20 after three quarters. Bryant set the tone at both ends of the court. On defense, he sagged off of Rondo in order to help out in various areas, denying passing angles to Boston's primary offensive options. Rondo burned the Lakers a couple times by cutting to the hoop but overall the positives of Bryant's roaming outweighed the negatives as the Celtics shot just .433 from the field. On offense, the Lakers used a Bryant-Bynum screen/roll action to good effect. Bynum set very physical screens, giving the Celtics a taste of their own medicine; the Celtics' defense collapsed on Bryant and this opened up multiple offensive options for the Lakers. Instead of asking Gasol to assert himself physically, the Lakers put him on the move, enabling him to take advantage of his mobility and length as opposed to engaging in trench warfare versus the Celtics. Bryant finished with 30 points, seven assists and six rebounds, shooting a respectable 10-22 from the field. Gasol took advantage of the extra attention that the Celtics paid to Bryant, accumulating 23 points and 14 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass. Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points and nine rebounds, but he put up most of his numbers in garbage time when the outcome was no longer in doubt; when the game was up for grabs, Artest's physical defense kept Pierce in check.

The funniest thing about the NBA Finals is to watch/listen to the game by game reactions; the team that has won the most recent game is hailed as an unbeatable juggernaut, while the team that just lost supposedly faces a hopeless task. The reality is that historically speaking the game one winner overwhelmingly does tend to ultimately win a playoff series but those statistics are somewhat skewed because many of those previous series were mismatches--the superior team had homecourt advantage, won that first game at home and then eventually prevailed; however, in a championship series between the league's two most recent champions it should be obvious that it is extremely premature to declare the fight over after one round no matter how good (or bad) one team looked.

Game Two Reveals Cracks in the Lakers' Armor

In game two, foul trouble limited Bryant's minutes and prevented him from ever getting into a good rhythm; he scored 21 points on 8-20 field goal shooting and led the Lakers in assists (six) and steals (four) but he also had five turnovers and was forced to play cautiously in the fourth quarter after picking up his fifth foul with 11:15 remaining and the Celtics clinging to a 74-72 lead.

Meanwhile, Ray Allen got so hot early in the game that the Lakers had to switch Bryant off of Rondo and on to Allen--but then Rondo got loose, finishing with a triple double (19 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists). The Lakers' defensive problems echoed the troubles that they experienced in the 2004 and 2008 Finals, when Bryant had to play a "firefighter" role defensively, trying to put out various "blazes" as Detroit and Boston respectively exploited various matchup advantages on the perimeter. Although Artest did an excellent job on Pierce, who finished with 10 points on 2-11 field goal shooting, Allen's tremendous shooting (32 points on 11-20 shooting, including a Finals record eight three pointers) and Rondo's all-around excellence carried the day for the Celtics. Gasol (25 points, eight rebounds, six blocked shots) and Bynum (21 points, six rebounds, seven blocked shots) put up some gaudy individual numbers but this belied the reality that the Celtics pushed the Lakers around, winning the rebound battle 44-39 and outscoring the Lakers 36-26 in the paint.

NBA TV's Chris Webber made a very cogent observation after game two: "When Kobe doesn't score it makes it hard for everybody else on that team to get open shots. No one (else on the Lakers) really can really create their own shots except for Pau Gasol. Bynum, you have to get him the ball." NBA TV's Kevin McHale declared, "Bynum should get 20 points--he's not being guarded half the time because his man is leaving him and going over to the strong side to load (against Bryant)."

Game Three: Fisher Steps Up (After Celtics Trap Bryant)

In the wake of the Lakers' 91-84 game three victory in Boston most of the talk centered around what happened in the game's closing moments. People tend to focus on end of game situations; those sequences are certainly important but the last time I checked every single basket counts the same throughout the game, so good plays--and bad plays--that happen early in a contest are also very important. Gasol got off to a terrible start in game three: first he let Garnett catch the ball deep in the post and offered little resistance as Garnett scored an easy hoop, then Gasol twice failed to hustle back on defense, enabling Garnett to get an easy fast break dunk and an uncontested fast break layup. Those kinds of plays not only can change the outcome of a particular game but they can also help a player who is struggling to get going; while Gasol did a good job defensively against Garnett in the first two games, those easy opportunities early in game three paved the way for Garnett to break out with 25 points on 11-16 field goal shooting. Conversely, Gasol's offensive effectiveness dipped, as he finished with just 13 points on 5-11 field goal shooting. In general, the Lakers were very passive offensively and this resulted in Bryant having to fire a lot of "hand grenade" shots--the ball frequently ended up in his hands with the shot clock dying so he had to hastily shoot before the shot clock "exploded." Thus, Bryant shot just 10-29 from the field en route to scoring a game-high 29 points. Despite the low shooting percentage, Bryant's productivity was important in a game during which neither team shot particularly well; also, Bryant had an outstanding floor game (seven rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, two steals and just one turnover in a game-high 44 minutes).

So much is made of Gasol's productivity and efficiency but the reality is that he benefits greatly from the defensive attention that Bryant attracts. For instance, at the 4:01 mark of the first quarter in game three, three defenders trapped Bryant after he drove to the hoop--and the other two defenders were looking in Bryant's direction; Bryant made a slick pass to Gasol, who scored an uncontested layup. Many people are calling Gasol the best big man in the NBA and marveling at how much he has supposedly improved. Gasol has added strength and he has increased his mental toughness but it is incorrect to suggest that his skill set per se has actually changed significantly; he was a pretty skilled player in Memphis but the difference is that he was the team's number one option so defenses could focus on shutting him down. In contrast, as a Laker he is rarely if ever the primary focal point of the defense. Years ago, TNT's Kenny Smith used to say of Bryant that he was the best one on one player in the NBA who gets to play one on one (because Shaquille O'Neal drew so many double teams). Instead of calling Gasol the best big man in the NBA it would be more accurate to say that he is the best All-Star big man who gets to play one on one.

Game three snapped Bryant's streak of eight straight NBA Finals games with at least 20 points and five assists, a run that tied Jerry West's NBA record; most of Bryant's teammates seemed tentative throughout game three, so Bryant did what he always does in similar situations: attempt to "fill that vacuum" (as Coach Phil Jackson has called it on previous occasions). Bryant helped the Lakers to build a 17 point first half lead but he exerted so much energy on both ends of the court during his game-high 44 minutes that he seemed a bit fatigued down the stretch. Fortunately for the Lakers, Derek Fisher scored 11 points on 5-7 field goal shooting during the final stanza. Fisher made perhaps the biggest play of the game when he drove coast to coast for a layup/three point play at the :48.3 mark of the fourth quarter to put the Lakers up 87-80; while he clearly created that opportunity on his own, several of his other shots were created by Bryant: Bryant and Fisher ran the unusual, rarely seen 1-2 (point guard-shooting guard) screen/roll and when the defense naturally trapped Bryant this freed up Fisher to drive or shoot--and the Lakers smartly ran this action to the left (Fisher's strong hand). Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw explained, "It was one of those things last night, if Fish and Kobe weren't making the plays, everybody else out there was scared to make the plays. So we had to go with our two 14-year veterans." Boston Coach Doc Rivers noted, "I think people fail to realize the reason a lot of the other guys are open is because Kobe Bryant is on the floor."

After game three, Fisher said that he played as hard as he could because he did not want to have to look back in five or 10 years and wonder if maybe he could have done more to help his team win. Has LeBron James figured out that in five, 10 or 15 years he will look back in shame on his disgraceful lack of effort in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals? Many people just assume that James will eventually win multiple championships but competition--and life itself--does not work like that; the reality is that James may very well never play on a team as good as the 2010 Cavaliers and he may never have a better chance to win a championship than the golden opportunity that he squandered this year.

Ray Allen shot 0-13 from the field, a stunning contrast to his record setting performance in game two. ESPN's Avery Johnson noted that the Lakers were able to slow Allen down not merely because of Fisher's defensive efforts but also because Allen had to expend a tremendous amount of energy guarding Kobe Bryant.

Bryant's defense against Rajon Rondo again proved to be a significant factor. Fisher explained, "(It's) intelligence, you know, being smart about how to use his length and his size to bother him (Rondo). I think it changes (Rondo's) passing angles, which I think was another little subtlety in some of Ray Allen's struggles shooting last night...When Kobe is guarding the ball handler, Rondo, (Russell) Westbrook, whoever, his length changes their ability to make tighter, crisper passes... for shooters (to catch in) rhythm...Even though he (Rondo) was still effective, it was mostly in transition and a lot of that comes from us executing poorly at times."

Game Four: Celtics' Reserves Dominate

Pierce (19 points, six rebounds, five assists) led six Celtics in double figures as Boston won game four 96-89. Bryant tallied a game-high 33 points on respectable 10-22 field goal shooting but he received little help from his teammates; Gasol scored 21 points but he shot just 6-13 from the field--a poor percentage considering the high quality shot attempts he receives as a result of Bryant being trapped--and Gasol spent most of the night being pushed around at both ends of the court: on offense, the Celtics repeatedly forced Gasol to receive the ball well outside of the paint and on several occasions they stripped the ball right out of his hands and/or blocked his shot, while on defense the Celtics scored at will in the paint on his watch. None of this should have been terribly surprising; the Lakers' bench was awful for most of the season and Gasol is a skillful player who is not at his best in a rough and tumble game. Gasol is able to finish when Bryant draws multiple defenders and then dishes to him for layups, dunks or wide open short jumpers but when Gasol has to battle for post position and score one on one against a physical defender he often struggles.

Lamar Odom (10 points) was the only other Laker to score in double figures. Bynum's knee woes limited him to just two points and three rebounds in 12 minutes and the Celtics took advantage of his absence to dominate inside, winning the rebounding battle 41-34 and outscoring the Lakers in the paint 54-34.

In game four, the Celtics' bench dominated the Lakers' bench, outscoring them 36-18. I previously explained the difference between talent and depth: the 2008 Lakers were a relatively deep team (in terms of having eight to 10 players who could competently play at least 10 mpg) but they were not particularly talented at the top of their rotation, especially when compared to previous NBA Finalists that had multiple Hall of Famers in their starting lineups; since 2008, the Lakers have added talent to their starting lineup but trades, injuries and other factors have decimated their depth. The Lakers were never as deep as some people asserted and now it is clearly false to suggest that they have quality depth at all; in fact, their bench play is a major weakness. Furthermore, while the Lakers do have a talented starting lineup that quintet does not compare favorably to the starting units of championship teams from the past two decades, as I documented after the Lakers won the 2009 championship (swapping Ariza for Artest in 2010 is an upgrade but does not significantly change my analysis or the conclusions that I drew in 2009).

During a regular season game this season, one of the "Wired" segments captured Phil Jackson during a timeout imploring Bryant to "activate the ball"--that is Jackson's way of saying "No one else is getting anything accomplished, Kobe, so please take over the game with your scoring and stop passing to players who are unwilling and/or unable to score." The Lakers had an "activate the ball" moment in the second quarter of game four: as ESPN Radio's Hubie Brown pointed out, after the Lakers' offense completely bogged down Bryant decided to simply rise up and shoot the ball immediately as opposed to surveying his options and this change in tactics resulted in three straight jumpers by Bryant--two of them three pointers--as the Lakers broke a 29-29 tie and built an eight point lead. However, the Celtics fought back and cut the margin to 45-42 by halftime. During the halftime show, all that the "experts" talked about was how badly Boston was playing; a lot of what they said was true but did they not realize that it was just a three point game and that the Lakers, in their own way, were playing just about as badly as the Celtics were?

The Lakers' offense would have completely died in the third quarter if not for Bryant's three three pointers. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers' defense fell apart and even though they managed to score 27 points their offense was ragged; Bryant supplied 12 of those points.

Bryant shot 5-8 from the field in the first half and 5-14 from the field in the second half. This was not the first game this season in which Bryant became worn down because no one else on the team could create a shot and the bench could not be trusted to be on the court by themselves for much more than a couple minutes at a time.

A Tale of Two Game Fives: LeBron Quits, Kobe Fights

Bryant authored a tremendous individual performance in game five--scoring 38 points in 44 minutes while also grabbing five rebounds and leading the Lakers with four assists--but the rest of the Lakers did not show up and the Celtics won 92-86. Gasol (12 points) was the only other Laker to score in double figures but he shot just 5-12 from the field as the Celtics repeatedly bullied him out of the post. The Celtics used screen/roll plays with Pierce to good effect, forcing switches that enabled Pierce to evade Artest's physical defense; Pierce scored 27 points on 12-21 field goal shooting and he also received ample support from Garnett (18 points, 10 rebounds), Rondo (18 points, eight assists, five rebounds) and Ray Allen (12 points).

Even though the Lakers lost, game five demonstrated the gulf that exists between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in terms of championship character. While James has more raw physical talent than Bryant at this stage of their careers and James has also dramatically narrowed the gap between them from a skill set standpoint, Bryant is still ahead of James in terms of understanding what it takes to be a winner. I am generally reluctant to compare the NBA game to the FIBA game but it is striking to note that the version of Team USA led by James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony had no answer in the 2006 FIBA World Championship when things got tough versus Greece; few people probably remember that Team USA took an early lead in that game, prompting James to haughtily declare in reference to Greece, "They don't know what to do." It is easy to be a front runner--James' Cavs did a lot of laughing and dancing as they cruised through the 2010 regular season--but it is not quite so easy to know what to do when your opponent punches you in the mouth; after Greece figured out what to do James had no response as Team USA went down in flames. In marked contrast, the 2008 edition of Team USA won the Olympic gold medal after Bryant took over down the stretch versus Spain in the championship game; in fact, when Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout during a key segment of the fourth quarter versus Spain he went to Bryant--not James or anyone else--and specifically said that it was time for Bryant to take over.

What does that have to do with game five of the Finals? When the going got tough in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James quit playing aggressively, setting the tone for a monumental collapse by the team with the league's best regular season record; when the going got tough in game five of the NBA Finals, Bryant did whatever he could to keep the Lakers afloat even as his teammates disappeared. Bryant spent the early part of the contest trying to get his teammates involved offensively. During the first quarter, ESPN Radio's Hubie Brown declared, "Kobe is the story. He's making them double team him and he's finding the free people." Brown later called Bryant "the best player in the playoffs" and he criticized the Lakers for not running more offensive actions/sequences to create easier shots for Bryant. Brown also said that on several possessions Artest messed up the offensive flow because he did not pass the ball to an open player in the post (sometimes Bryant, sometimes another player). ABC's Mark Jackson made a similar observation when he said that sometimes Bryant pops open off of screens but the Lakers' passes "are not on point" and that this lack of precision/timing enabled the Celtics' defense to recover.

It is amazing, dumbfounding and infuriating to listen to Mike Wilbon repeatedly act like it is somehow Bryant's fault when the Lakers go through stretches in which none of his teammates can make a shot. When Wilbon talks about Bryant he uses the classic "heads I win, tails you lose" kind of faulty thinking: if Bryant's teammates play well then this "proves" that Bryant has a great supporting cast but if Bryant's teammates play poorly then Bryant is supposedly being selfish. The reality is that the Lakers have a good (not great) starting lineup and a terrible bench; Bryant is responsible for creating a large portion of the Lakers' offense and he is also the eyes/ears of the defense. Bryant's teammates combined to shoot 18-51 from the field in game five even though most of them got wide open shots because Bryant faced double and triple teams. Was it selfish of Bryant to shoot more often in the third quarter or was he just exercising common sense? The truth about game five is that in the first half Bryant repeatedly set up his teammates, as Hubie Brown mentioned, but when it became apparent that his teammates had nothing to offer Bryant took it upon himself to "activate the ball." If LeBron James or Dwyane Wade had scored 19 points in a quarter Wilbon would have fallen over praising them but when Bryant does it this supposedly is a reflection of some kind of character flaw.

It is also odd that Wilbon kept insisting that Boston's strategy was to let Bryant score and shut down everyone else. If that were the case then why did the Celtics send three or four bodies at Bryant if he even got close to the paint? Why did the Celtics trap Bryant with two defenders several feet behind the three point line? No, Boston's strategy was to make Bryant work hard for every shot even if that meant that other Lakers would get wide open shots; the Celtics certainly made every effort to recover to Bryant's teammates when Bryant passed the ball but the Celtics showed that they were quite content to watch any Laker but Bryant shoot wide open shots (as long as those shots were not layups).

Game five did much to destroy the bizarre myth that Gasol has become the best big man in the NBA. Gasol is a solid All-NBA Third Team player but he is not an "elite" player or a "franchise" player if those terms are used in any meaningful way. Gasol played extremely passively throughout game five, getting his shot blocked repeatedly, setting soft screens while failing to roll aggressively to the hoop and committing many defensive gaffes. Gasol does not need to elbow people in the head or get technical fouls; that has nothing to do with being tough and it has nothing to do with why Gasol is often labeled "soft." Gasol does not consistently display the mental and physical toughness to do what his team needs him to do based on his skill set and role. In this series specifically, the Lakers needed for Gasol to establish an aggressive post presence at both ends of the court; he did so at times and he ultimately came up big in game seven but during game five (and at other points during the series) he got bullied far too often when he played defense and he allowed Garnett and especially Boston's starting center Kendrick Perkins--who guarded Gasol whenever Bynum went to the bench and Gasol shifted to center--to push him almost out to the three point line on offense; don't just take my word about that: after game five, Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen said, "Pau has to do a better job of holding position."

After Bryant scored 19 straight third quarter points (and 23 straight points overall) he called a play for Gasol, but Gasol failed to hold off Garnett in the post, so Garnett tipped and stole Luke Walton's entry pass, a turnover that resulted in a fastbreak basket for the Celtics. It is a major fallacy to look at Gasol's high shooting percentage and declare that he should get more shot attempts; Gasol's field goal percentage is high precisely because he is primarily shooting dunks, layups and wide open jumpers, shots that are obtainable for the most part only when Bryant creates them. That is not to say that Gasol never makes a good one on one move but many of his high percentage shots are the result of Bryant drawing a double team, whether or not Bryant gets the assist on the play--that is one reason that I call the assist a "semi bogus" stat, because it does not really indicate how an open shot is actually created; the other reason is that scorekeepers do not strictly adhere to the rule book definition of an assist.

Earlier in the third quarter, Garnett scored an easy layup after Gasol messed up a defensive coverage; as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy pointed out, Bryant was correctly playing off of Rondo to cut down his passing angles to shooters coming off of screens but since Bryant was not pressuring the ball and there was no weakside help it was Gasol's responsibility to play behind Garnett--but instead Gasol fronted Garnett and Rondo simply lobbed the ball Gasol's head to an unguarded Garnett.

While we are examining myths and misconceptions that game five helped to debunk, let's return for a moment to a point that I made earlier during the playoffs: it became chic among some media members in Cleveland to assert that former Cavs Coach Mike Brown is a good game planner but that he is not good at making in game adjustments. I explained that this is a nonsensical distinction because the most important aspect of coaching is game planning; most of the so-called "in game adjustments" are in fact simply examples of a team following what was detailed in the game plan relating to the most likely scenarios to happen in a given game (i.e., if the opposing team goes small then we will react a certain way, if the opposing team posts up Player X then we will double team off of Player Y, etc.). If you don't believe me that this whole "in game adjustment" idea is nonsense then take heed of what Van Gundy said during ABC's game five telecast: responding to a question from play by play announcer Mike Breen, Van Gundy stated that playoff series are not decided by in game adjustments because "You are who you are by this time of the year and you have to go with your best stuff and expect them to go with their best stuff."

Bryant is his Usual (Great) Self, Gasol and the Bench Step up as Lakers Rout Celtics to Force Game Seven

In game six, Bryant delivered another outstanding performance--26 points, 9-19 field goal shooting, 11 rebounds, three assists, four steals and just two turnovers in 40 minutes--but this time he received much more support from his teammates and the Lakers cruised to an 89-67 rout. Gasol added 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine* assists (see below for why I put an asterisk by Gasol's assist total). Artest took the same wide open three pointers (and questionable jumpers after bizarre, seemingly aimless dribbling forays) that he took in the first five games but this time he shot 6-11 from the field to contribute 15 points. No other Laker scored in double figures and the Lakers shot just .418 from the field overall but they played with such tremendous defensive energy that they held the Celtics to .333 field goal shooting. Ray Allen led Boston with 19 points, finally ending the three point shooting slump he had been in since his record setting game two performance (Allen made two of his five three point attempts and shot 7-14 overall).

Prior to game six, Van Gundy delivered this blistering refutation of some of the nonsense that has been spouted about Bryant: "Through five games of the Finals, Kobe Bryant has hands down been the MVP and despite an amazingly efficient game five his critics--particularly in the media--insist that his trust with his teammates is an issue. Trust me, he has an appropriate amount of trust for his teammates and the criticism that he takes is unjust and unwarranted for a body of work that can only be marked by greatness." Early in the game, Van Gundy returned to this issue and declared, "If he (Bryant) had a different personality where he tried to suck up to people and was warm and cuddly all the time not one person would have commented that it wasn't a great game five performance because when LeBron James scored 25 (straight points) and beat Detroit everybody raved about how he carried a team. Or when Jordan used to get 50 in a playoff game (people raved) about his greatness. They're talking about 'trust' after that type of game? That's a joke." During the fourth quarter, ABC's Mark Jackson said that even if the Celtics somehow won game six Bryant would still be the Finals MVP and Van Gundy replied, "Any other vote would be nuts."

Bryant dominated the first quarter, scoring 11 points on 5-8 field goal shooting as the Lakers built a 28-18 lead. Winning the first quarter proved to be very important during this series; the team that led after the first 12 minutes won each of the first six games (fortunately for the Lakers, they broke that trend in game seven).

After the game, Coach Jackson said that a major key for the Lakers was that they ran their offense well, thus limiting Boston's opportunities to get out in transition: "That was all Kobe. He made good plays, got good shots, got the ball to people who had good, open shot opportunities."

Bryant did not get his first rest until the Lakers were up 35-23, a big enough lead to enable their reserves to play with confidence. Van Gundy later said, "It is easier playing with a lead" and he questioned if the Lakers' reserves would be as effective in game seven if the Celtics would be able to keep the score closer in the early going (this proved to be a moot point, because in game seven Coach Jackson hardly used his bench at all--other than Odom, who is a de facto starter due to Bynum's limited minutes).

Perkins injured his knee at the 5:30 mark of the first quarter with the Lakers up 18-12. Perkins was unable to return to action, which proved to be a great boon for Gasol, who was able to move around the court much more freely and also establish deep post position on offense. The Lakers ran a lot of screen/roll sets and other actions that resulted in Bryant being double-teamed; Bryant then passed to Gasol and when a defender rotated to Gasol he swung the ball to the open man. Bryant created the open shots but Gasol ended up with nine assists, yet another example of why I consider assists to be a "semi bogus" statistic: according to the way that "stat gurus" analyze basketball, Gasol gets all of the credit for those plays, even though Bryant actually created those opportunities. Moreover, assists are not just "semi bogus" because they can at times fail to properly credit the player who really created a shot; assists are a very subjectively tabulated statistic. Consider the play during which Gasol registered his ninth assist: the Lakers ran a "guard around" action--a staple of the Triangle Offense in which a big man sets a screen and then passes the ball to a guard who cuts around him--and Gasol passed to Bryant, who then took two dribbles, stopped, pump faked and scored on an up and under move. The assist statistic has no meaning if an assist is awarded on a play in which the player who scored makes multiple moves/fakes: Bryant's offseason work with Hakeem Olajuwon had more to do with that score than Gasol's routine pass. In contrast, Bryant's assists to Gasol usually consist of Bryant drawing two defenders and making a tough pass in tight quarters to a wide open Gasol for an easy dunk (with no extra dribbles or fakes being required).

Also, speaking of up and under moves, one of my biggest pet peeves is when an announcer loosely uses that term to describe any number of moves that are not in fact up and under moves; an up and under move is when an offensive player in the post fakes like he is going straight "up" to shoot and he then goes "under" the defender's arms to get the shot off after the defender reacts to the initial fake. Kevin McHale absolutely mastered this move and Vlade Divac also made good use of it. Mike Breen, who is generally a solid play by play announcer, misuses "up and under" constantly; if a player drives to the hoop, jumps in the air on one side of the lane and then shoots a reverse layup that is a reverse layup, not an up and under move, but Breen invariably will exclaim that the player went "up and under."

Even though Gasol played well overall in game six he still had some flashbacks to game five; he shot just 6-14, which is not a good percentage considering the wide open, easy shot opportunities that he got as a result of Bryant being constantly double teamed. One time Gasol missed a shot and lingered in the backcourt to complain that he had been fouled; Mark Jackson noted that Gasol's move had been very passive and Jackson concluded, "That's not a foul. That's just a bad play offensively."

Bryant's 11 rebounds were two more than any Celtic and second on the Lakers to Gasol's 13. Some people scoffed a couple years ago when I asserted that Bryant is as good a rebounder as LeBron James even though James has a higher rpg average; it is important to remember that they play different positions and often have different responsibilities. Bryant has an uncanny ability to get free throw line offensive rebounds and other rebounds in critical situations but because he plays guard--and is sometimes assigned to defend point guards--he does not have the same number of rebounding opportunities that James does; however, Bryant can go out and get double digit rebounds when this is required, much like Michael Jordan grabbed 16, 11, nine and 11 rebounds in a four game stretch during the 1995-96 season when Dennis Rodman was out of action: Jordan averaged 6.6 rpg that season but that number did not tell the complete story about his capabilities as a rebounder.

Odom again shot poorly from the field (3-9) but he snared 10 rebounds, including a game-high nine on the defensive glass; Odom is an erratic shooter and his passing/ballhandling skills are overrated but his most valuable trait--by far--is his ability to rebound and Van Gundy alluded to this when he said that if Odom is going to play 30-plus mpg in the Finals he must be a double figure rebounder.

Lakers Rally From 13 Point Second Half Deficit to Win a Grimy, Defensive-Minded Game Seven

Game sevens are beautiful in theory but this particular game seven was hardly an aesthetic treat: the victorious Lakers shot just .325 from the field (27-83), while the Celtics shot .408 from the field (29-71); rebounding turned out to be the difference in this game, as it was in every game of this series: the Lakers won the battle of the boards 53-40, including a 23-8 advantage on the offensive glass. This game reminded me very much of the Chicago Bulls' 88-83 game seven victory over the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals: the Bulls shot just .382 from the field but bludgeoned the Pacers 50-34 on the boards and grabbed 22 offensive rebounds compared to just four for the Pacers. Michael Jordan scored a game-high 28 points but shot just 9-25 from the field, while Scottie Pippen had 17 points on 6-18 field goal shooting--but Jordan had nine rebounds and Pippen had a game-high 12 rebounds, much like Bryant and Gasol overcame their poor shooting by dominating the Celtics on the glass. I said before the series that the Lakers' two big trump cards in this matchup would be Kobe Bryant's brilliance and home court advantage and that is exactly how things played out: Bryant was brilliant for most of the series and did what he had to do in game seven, while each team won one road game but--as I expected--it proved to be too much for the Celtics to get a second win in L.A.

Although it was not pretty, this game seven certainly was dramatic, particularly during the closing moments, when we saw--and heard--improbable things:

1) After both teams struggled to score all game long, they combined to put up 20 points in the final 2:14.

2) In a span of barely 30 seconds, the teams combined to make three straight three pointers without a miss: Rasheed Wallace's trey cut the Lakers' lead to 76-73, Ron Artest answered from long distance to make the score 79-73 and then Ray Allen responded to again trim the margin to three points.

3) The Lakers seemed to have the championship wrapped up with less than 20 seconds remaining after Ray Allen missed a three pointer, but Rondo tracked down the ball, dribbled out behind the three point arc on the right baseline and coolly sank a trey to bring the Celtics within 81-79. Rondo shot just .213 from three point range during the regular season and he made one three pointer in four attempts during the first six games of the Finals.

4) There were at least four future Hall of Famers on the court in the waning seconds (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) but the final points of the game, the series and the season were scored by none other than Sasha Vujacic, a little-used Lakers' reserve who averaged just 2.8 ppg in the regular season but calmly sank the two free throws that ultimately sealed the Lakers' victory.

5) After the Lakers won, Artest delivered perhaps the most heartfelt, surreal postgame interview ever, delivering "shout outs" to a wide range of people, including his friends from his "hood" and his psychiatrist. It is well documented that Artest has done many things wrong but the way that he seems to genuinely be trying to do right--even when he cannot quite figure out what he is supposed to do, on the court or off--is very touching; don't forget that the groundwork for Artest becoming a Laker was laid two years ago after the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the Finals and Artest wandered into the Lakers' locker room and told Bryant that he wanted to team up with Bryant so that the Celtics would never push the Lakers around like that again. It might seem crazy for a player from a team that was not even involved in that series to literally step into the shower with Bryant but I think that moment really embodied Artest's desire to become part of something bigger than himself and to make a meaningful contribution. For all of his faults, Artest willingly accepted his role on the Lakers and he allowed Coach Jackson and Bryant to lead him in the right direction.

Shortly after game seven began, Mark Jackson said, "You can tell that the Celtics' mindset is to try to put one and a half to two guys on Bryant early on and not allow him to catch fire." The difference this time was that in previous games Bryant either found at least one teammate who was willing/able to make shots and/or he "caught fire" despite the Celtics' best efforts; in game seven, though, the other Lakers started out 3-11 from the field and Gasol missed two free throws before Bryant even attempted a shot. Bryant obviously sensed that his teammates were nervous, so he reacted to their tentativeness by being too aggressive, forcing shots even when he was trapped. Bryant scored just three first quarter points on 1-7 field goal shooting and the Lakers trailed 23-14. Mark Jackson declared, "I don't think I've seen Kobe Bryant play a worse 12 minutes of basketball." Bryant candidly admitted after the game that he tried too hard in the early going and that the harder he tried the worse he played. There is no doubt that Bryant played poorly in those initial moments but I'd rather have a guy who is trying too hard to win as opposed to a guy who acts like it is too hard to try at all to win; I'll take Kobe Bryant spraying shots wildly but leaving his guts on the floor over LeBron James playing passively and looking disinterested in anything other than his impending free agency.

Wallace replaced Kendrick Perkins--who has two torn knee ligaments--in Boston's starting lineup and Wallace played a solid game (11 points, eight rebounds) before fouling out; he scored some baskets in the low post versus Gasol and in certain sequences the threat of Wallace potentially making outside shots helped to create some driving lanes for other Celtics.

Although Bryant and the other Lakers shot poorly, they stayed in contact with the Celtics by playing great defense. The Celtics only led 40-34 at halftime even though Bryant (3-14) and Gasol (3-12) combined to shoot 6-26 from the field in the first 24 minutes. However, some cracks began to show in the Lakers' defense early in the third quarter. Much like he did in game five, Gasol inexplicably fronted Garnett in the post even though Bryant and the other Lakers' guards (correctly) backed off of Rondo. After Garnett converted an easy three point play versus Gasol to put the Celtics up 45-36, Van Gundy said, "You cannot front if there is no ball pressure. There is no need to front if you are Gasol." Again, it is easy to look at a boxscore and talk about various statistics but these kinds of lapses--which do not show up explicitly in the numbers--are potentially very costly; if the Lakers had lost this game then you can bet that everyone would talk about Bryant's shooting percentage but no one would remember Gasol's defensive lapses.

Rondo's runner pushed the Celtics' lead to 47-36 and led to an uncustomarily early timeout by Jackson. Van Gundy expressed surprise at Bryant's inability to get going offensively: "He has been so efficient through six games, I am absolutely shocked that he has struggled as much as he has. He is rebounding but he has to find a way to get better quality shots." Another Rondo bucket gave the Celtics their biggest lead of the game, 49-36, and things certainly did not look good for the Lakers but they responded with an 8-2 run. The Lakers had weathered the storm and they only trailed 57-53 by the end of the third quarter.

Artest's three point play at the 7:28 mark tied the game at 61. Bryant nailed two free throws with 5:56 remaining to give the Lakers their first lead since early in the game, 66-64, and then 34 seconds later he hit a jumper to give them a bit of separation--a four point lead may not seem like much "separation" but with the way both teams struggled to make shots four points seemed like about 10 points, at least until the game's furious final two minutes.

A key factor down the stretch was that the Lakers not only got into the penalty early in the fourth quarter but that the Celtics then continued to commit fouls--some of them against players who were not in position to score--so that the Lakers could maintain their tenuous lead without making any field goals; the Lakers went nearly four minutes without a field goal after Bryant's jumper yet the Celtics were unable to gain any ground during that time because the Lakers made six out of eight free throws.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the Wallace-Artest-Allen three point barrage, followed by Vujacic's free throws and Artest's wonderfully implausible postgame interview with Doris Burke that concluded with Burke nervously signing off as Artest talked about his upcoming album before apologizing and hugging her.

The Lakers' rebounding dominance in game seven--and the fact that the Celtics still have not lost a playoff series with their regular starting lineup intact--lends credence to the idea that Perkins' absence played a role in the final outcome but it is only fair to hasten to emphasize again that Bryant was far from 100% physically during the playoffs and Lakers' starting center Andrew Bynum is already scheduled to have surgery to repair the right knee injury that he suffered during the first round; I am confident that the Lakers would have been willing to face a fully healthy Perkins with a fully healthy Bryant and Bynum. The reality is that injuries are a part of the game, so you cannot single out Perkins' injury as a critical factor without acknowledging the injuries that the Lakers overcame.

Postscript #1: Debunking "Advanced Basketball Statistics"

"Stat gurus" can pump up Gasol all that they want--and I am sure that they will insist that Gasol deserved the Finals MVP--but the reality is that Gasol's skill set has not changed much since Gasol played for Memphis; in the past couple years, Gasol has added some muscle and lost some explosiveness but his game has not changed very dramatically: the two main statistical categories in which he has improved as a Laker--field goal percentage and offensive rebounding--are connected in large part to the defensive attention that Bryant draws. It is important to remember that Gasol had not won a single playoff game--never mind a series--in six full seasons prior to teaming up with Bryant.

One of the few writers who does not buy into the Gasol hagiography is Kevin Ding. After game five he wrote an excellent account of Gasol's failures in the clutch as a Laker, noting that Gasol has repeatedly disappeared in big playoff games, particularly on the road. Gasol certainly played better in games six and seven than he did in game five but games six and seven took place at home with Perkins out of the lineup for all but five and a half minutes. Gasol is stronger and tougher than he was two years ago and he is certainly a highly skilled All-Star big man but it should be obvious that the Celtics' defense focused on Bryant during this series, not Gasol. Gasol did just enough in this series for the Lakers to win but that is no reason to get carried away and suggest that he is greater than he actually is; it is not an insult by any means to call Gasol an All-NBA Third Team level player, because that means that he is one of the 15 best players in the league.

The difference between statistical analysis of baseball and statistical analysis of basketball is that a baseball game consists of a series of discrete interactions and the result of each of those interactions can be accurately recorded and quantified; in contrast, a basketball game consists of 10 players in constant motion, so when something happens--a shot, a rebound, a steal, etc.--it is not so easy to correctly apportion credit/blame on an individual level. There may be some legitimate value in looking at "advanced" basketball statistics on a team level--i.e., using a statistically significant sample size to determine the relative effectiveness of various five man units. If Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen simply played one on one then their "player ratings" would be absolutely accurate; in fact, we would not even need "player ratings" because we could just look at the final score. However, the NBA game is not a one on one game: it is a five on five game and within that five on five game there are at times various two on two and three and three "games within the game." Several of the traditional statistics--including assists, steals, blocked shots, turnovers and even rebounds--are subjective to some degree, so it really is folly (or arrogance) to declare that there is a way to create a formula that combines those numbers together to produce a very accurate individual "player rating." I am not a statistical Luddite; I think that it is great to attempt to create such ratings but what I object to is when some "stat gurus" act like they have finished a job that they really have only just begun. The margin of error of the various "player ratings" is so great that they can tell us stuff we could figure out on our own--LeBron James is better than Danny Green--but they are not very useful in determining the answers to more difficult questions, such as how to correctly rank the league's 10 best players.

Postscript #2: Doc Rivers is a Great Coach

Boston's Doc Rivers did a brilliant coaching job this season; four-time Indy 500 Champion Rick Mears once said "to finish first you first have to finish" and that is an apt way of explaining Rivers' philosophy regarding the 2009-10 regular season: Rivers understood that the Celtics are an aging team, so he carefully monitored the minutes of the "Big Three" of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with the idea of nursing those players along so that they would be fully functional come playoff time. This approach paid off as the Celtics upset the teams with the top two records--Cleveland and Orlando--en route to returning to the NBA Finals.

Rivers is not just a good coach, he is a great coach and he has done a tremendous job inspiring and motivating the Celtics. He did not just recently become a great coach, either; he earned the 1999-2000 Coach of the Year award after leading the undermanned "Heart and Hustle" Orlando Magic to a 41-41 record. I hate to link to garbage but if you wonder why I have often said that Bill Simmons is an entertainment columnist (and he is genuinely funny--sometimes), not a competent NBA analyst, then just read the first line of What's Up, Doc?: "Doc Rivers stinks as an NBA coach" (later in that same article, Simmons absurdly declared, "Kobe is an inherently selfish guy"). While that particular piece of nonsense is an old article, this is not old news: Simmons grumbled about Rivers' coaching this season even as Rivers was doing everything in his power to set the Celtics up for a good playoff run. Simmons should be doing standup comedy somewhere but instead ESPN/ESPN.com/other ESPN platforms pass him off as someone who has deep, meaningful insights about sports. It is glaringly obvious why most media members refrain from speaking the truth about Simmons and other writers from the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader: they are fearful that speaking out might damage their careers. I give the L.A. Times' Mark Heisler a lot of credit for penning this blistering and honest appraisal of Simmons:

For a fan's perspective, we have ESPN's Bill Simmons, who predicted the first-round demise of his Celtics ("a decrepit, non-rebounding, poorly coached, dispirited, excuse-making, washed-up sham.")

Three rounds later, born again as a diehard fan, Simmons big-footed himself a second-row seat with the press corps 20 rows back, insisting he needed it to do his job, which consisted entirely of posting precious comments during games.

Maybe the wireless reception is better in the second row.

With his great view, Simmons railed about the Celtics' Game 3 loss, citing fixer Tim Donaghy's warning that games could be fixed and ripping (heavenly music) Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for joking with Kobe Bryant afterward.

In other words, the event exists to give Simmons a vehicle to displace anger in an entertaining manner, which explains his stardom and the fact he'll be cited by future archaeologists as an example of where 21st century society veered off.


Postscript #3: Kobe Bryant's Finals Resume

I compiled Kobe Bryant's NBA Finals resume prior to last year's NBA Finals, so that document needs some updating now: Bryant has added two championships and two Finals MVPs.

It is odd that so much is made of the fact that Bryant's teams have twice lost in the Finals; perhaps Bryant receives this particular criticism because he is so often compared to Michael Jordan and a major part of Jordan's mystique is that he went 6-0 in the NBA Finals (though Jordan did play all or part of nine other NBA seasons during which he did not win a championship). Not enough is made of the fact that Bryant's teams have reached the Finals seven times in 14 seasons (and Bryant was only a full-time starter in 12 of those seasons); that is quite an accomplishment. Check out the Finals won/loss records of some of the greatest players in pro basketball history (this is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all of the league's greatest players or greatest champions, so don't have a fit if "your" guy was left out):

Bill Russell, 11-1
Sam Jones, 10-1
John Havlicek, 8-0
Bob Cousy, 6-1
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 6-4
Michael Jordan, 6-0
Scottie Pippen, 6-0
Kobe Bryant, 5-2
Magic Johnson, 5-4
Tim Duncan, 4-0
Shaquille O'Neal, 4-2
Larry Bird, 3-2
Julius Erving, 3-3 (2-0 in the ABA, 1-3 in the NBA)
Wilt Chamberlain, 2-4

The Boston Celtics own the first four spots on this list. Bill Russell was the dominant player on each of his 12 teams that made it to the Finals. Sam Jones began his career as a reserve behind Hall of Fame guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman; Jones eventually became Boston's number one offensive option but he was never a more important/dominant player than Russell. Havlicek began his career as a sixth man, emerged as an All-Star and was the best player on Boston's 1974 championship team when he won the Finals MVP, though that squad also had Dave Cowens, the 1973 regular season MVP. Havlicek was the fourth leading scorer during the regular season for the 1976 Boston team that won the championship.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the dominant player on most of his teams that advanced to the Finals; you could argue that even though Magic Johnson won the 1980 and 1982 Finals MVPs he did not completely supplant Abdul-Jabbar until the Lakers won the 1987 championship (Abdul-Jabbar won the 1985 Finals MVP and he played a huge role during each of the Lakers' previous trips to the Finals).

Michael Jordan was the best player during each of the Bulls' six championships, though Scottie Pippen gave him a run for his money for Finals MVP on a couple occasions; when Jordan received the MVP after the 1997 Finals, he said to Pippen, "You're MY MVP" and then added, "Scottie Pippen and I--we're a tandem. It's hard to split us up. He means a lot to me when I go out to play on the basketball court. He relieves a lot of the pressure that I have to deal with. I try to do the same for him. It's hard to take this MVP by myself. I'll take the trophy. He may get the car."

Magic Johnson won three Finals MVPs but he also played on two championship teams when other players (Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy) won Finals MVPs.

Larry Bird won two Finals MVPs but during his first championship run Cedric Maxwell won that honor and Maxwell also had a huge game seven performance in the 1984 Finals (24 points, eight rebounds, eight assists).

Julius Erving won the Finals MVP twice in the ABA and was clearly the best player on the 76ers during their first three Finals runs in the late 1970s and early 1980s; Moses Malone won the Finals MVP when the 76ers took the title in 1983, though Erving was still a First Team All-NBA player and a top five finisher in regular season MVP balloting.

Wilt Chamberlain won one Finals MVP and surely would have won another one if the award had existed in 1967 when he led the 76ers to the championship; Jerry West won the very first Finals MVP in 1969 when the Chamberlain-West-Elgin Baylor Lakers lost to the Russell-Havlicek Celtics.

Kobe Bryant now stands above all of his contemporaries as an NBA champion: he has won five championships, one more than Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan. Bryant was an All-NBA Second Team player during his first two championship runs when O'Neal was clearly the team's best player but by 2002 Bryant was an All-NBA First Teamer and top five finisher in MVP voting, much like Erving in 1983. Duncan's 4-0 Finals record and three Finals MVPs are certainly impressive but Bryant has been a key player on two separate repeat championship squads, a feat that no one has accomplished since Jordan and Pippen did that in the mid-1990s.

Championship rings are not the only way to evaluate all-time greats and Kobe Bryant still seemingly has several years left to accumulate more individual and team accomplishments--but it is clear that by any reasonable standard he already ranks very highly in pro basketball's pantheon.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:00 AM

61 comments

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61 Comments:

At Friday, June 18, 2010 10:57:00 AM, Anonymous J said...

Great write-up. Missed the game-by-game write-ups, and am glad you had this put together so quickly. Hope all is well in your offline world.

Very happy about last night's result. I'm glad you caught and compiled so many of the smart (or "high basketball IQ" comemntary as they might be called) about this series, from assistant coaches to Doc Rivers to Kevin Ding. From the constant trapping, it is obvious that the Celtics consider Bryant the Lakers' best player and stat gurus should ask themselves why Boston is so defensively pre-occupied with stopping the supposedly second-best player on the Lakers.

You also hit on a major problem I have with big Gasol-backers, who cite his efficient scoring and good shooting % numbers. That Kobe creates so many high percentage opportunities is obvious, but often overlooked is the other point you mention -- Pau's failure to get good positioning. I'll see stat gurus say, "Look, Gasol shot 8 for 12 -- why didn't the Lakers go to him more instead of letting Kobe hog the ball, etc, etc" Well, the answer is that, if you watched the game, the Lakers do very often try to get Gasol the ball, but often there are long stretches where Gasol lets KG or Perkins shove him practically out beyond the elbow or to the baseline 3-pt line, and getting him the ball in those positions is not smart. Or, if the Lakers do get it to him in one of these bad positions, often he takes some dribbles, fails to get a good position, and winds up giving Kobe (or someone else) a hand grenade to fall on from the outside.

Finally, while Rondo played very well for long stretches in this series, it remains baffling to me that some commentators picked him as the top or a very, very top performer in the playoffs. A player who can barely needs guarding at the perimeter and whose defender can afford to sag off and play help defense is simply not an elite player, no matter how astoundingly well he dishes assists or grabs rebounds or makes steals. He is nowhere near a complete player, even if he is truly excellent at 60 to 80% of other facets of the game. That said, if he puts major time into developing a reasonably decent 15 to 18 ft jump shot or step-up jumper, he would surely vault into the conversation of the league's best. But that's a pretty big if, in my view.

Thanks again David.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 11:21:00 AM, Anonymous J said...

As an addendum to my comment, in particular about the difficulties of going to Gasol when he fails to establish good position, is that he seems to have his shot blocked a fair bit when he tries dribbling to the hoop. From glancing at the box scores, he had one attempt blocked in Games 1 and 3, three attempts blocked in the crucial road Game 5, and five attempts blocked last night in Game 7. As JVG or Mark Jackson might say, that's a fair bit of "bad offense." Watching the games, I swear I recall more instances of KG or Perkins or even Big Baby stuffing Pau on a weak lay-up attempt that began with a drive from the outside, but maybe some of those were not ruled blocks and were just good defense causing a shot adjustment and a miss.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 1:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

kobe is great player i would rank him in the top 8 behind kareem oscar wilt bill mike larry magic i believe he is a all timer even though he struggled yesterday shoooting the ball and for the series somewhat he gutted like all the rest of the lakers.

pau gasol is a number 2 option but i have a newfound respect for him he played hard and great in series for 5 of 7 games he proved he is a legit top 12 to 15 player in nba.

artest was game mvp in 6 and 7 if you ask me he kept them in the game in first half when lakers played terrible his defense was on point as well.

the celtics had plenty of chances in games to win it they are a great team especially defensively and lakers were fortunate to get by them ray allen 3-14 didnt help kg only 3 boards 2 years ago averaged 13 a game he was out played by pau especially in la the 4 games, pierce played well in spots but was inconsistent so was rondo the lakers d and offfensive rebounding won this game.

ultimately i think this is the lakers kobe last one he 31 could he go through another season like this banged up injured and get rejuvenated in playoffs? it hard to win a conference 4 times straight. and i believe next season lebron james will emerge orlando wont be same and boston wont and lakers will slip enough for cleveland.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 3:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

The biggest fallacy in the way that "stat gurus" evaluate Gasol--and, by extension, the way that they view basketball in general--is the failure to understand the value of being able to create shots for oneself and others. Gasol is a good one on one player and he can create shots for others at times but he is not nearly as good at either of these skills as Bryant is; that is why the Lakers run their offense through Bryant and that is why every single team that they faced in the playoffs focused on trying to contain Bryant.

"Stat gurus" act as if a team can distribute shot attempts very easily, that Bryant's missed shots "should" have been closer attempts by Gasol but this is completely unrealistic; Bryant often goes out of his way to create shots for Gasol but Gasol has trouble establishing post position against tough, physical defenders. Gasol uses his length to get rebounds (and he gets a lot of his offensive rebounds because the defense is scrambling after trapping Kobe) but you are exactly right that many of the times the Lakers fed Gasol they got nothing out of the possession except for a Kobe "hand grenade."

Gasol does get his shot blocked far too often for a player of his size/skill. When he is close to the hoop he should always go up with two hands in traffic so that he either dunks the ball or gets fouled; Hubie Brown talks about that all the time,not just in reference to Gasol but in general about big men.

Rondo plays very much like a young, skinnier Jason Kidd. I think that your overall evaluation of Rondo is a little harsh and does not give Bryant enough credit for how well he defended Rondo. I had to laugh during the Cleveland series when members of the Cleveland-based media bashed Mo Williams' defense against Rondo and criticized Coach Mike Brown for putting Williams on Rondo. I would ask them, "Forgetting the salary cap and any other such considerations, if you could bring anyone here to guard Rondo who do you think could do the job?" The Cleveland media acted like it should be so easy to deal with Rondo but Rondo proved to be a tough cover throughout the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs.

As the Fisher quote in my post explains, Bryant used his length and savvy to disrupt Rondo's passing lanes. Earlier in the playoffs, Kenny Smith said that playing off of Rondo is a bad idea because it gives Rondo sight lines but Bryant showed that by playing the angles correctly it is possible to disrupt the Celtics' entire offense. In 2008, Doc Rivers said that Bryant is the best help defender since Kobe Bryant and we saw that again in this series; Bryant's defense against Rondo is probably the most overlooked aspect of this series. I touched upon it to some degree in the post and I could have said even more about this subject, but the post was already some 10,000 words long so I had to stop at some point!

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 3:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

By any reasonable standard Kobe has certainly moved up on the all-time list of greatest players; the intriguing thing is that he still may have several years left to add significantly to his legacy.

Gasol played better against Boston this time than he did in 2008 but KG is not the same player that he was back then and Perkins was out of action for game seven and all but six minutes of game six. Gasol is an excellent second option for the Lakers because he is highly skilled and he has good chemistry with Kobe; Gasol does not have a burning desire to be the number one option or to be viewed as the number one option, so this Lakers' dynasty does not have the off court issues that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers did.

Kobe was the MVP of game six. Game seven was a collective effort, though Artest's performance was certainly noteworthy; I hesitate to just say that Artest was the MVP of that game, though, because he was open by design because the Celtics left him to trap Kobe. Were John Paxson or Steve Kerr MVPs when they hit shots because opposing teams trapped MJ? Artest is obviously a better all-around player than Paxson or Kerr but the same principle applies.

It is way too soon to say whether or not this is Kobe's last championship. We don't know where the ballyhooed free agents will end up, nor do we know how healthy Kobe and Bynum will be next season (or if Phil Jackson will come back). If the Lakers return with this same group and they are reasonably healthy then they have an excellent chance to win the title again.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 4:52:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

The series and game 7 proved several things:

- the Boston Celtics are extremely tough and very well coached, as David said. They have played tremendous defense, and have forced the Lakers to play at a very high level, physically and technically, in order to win.

- the Lakers are much more than Kobe Bryant, who despite a great overall performance displayed several shortcomings during the series. Bryant had a poor FG%, mostly due to poor shot selection and good defense by the Celtics (although the "hand grenade" situation also played a small role on occasion): .405 is a pretty poor FG% for the superstar of the team -and far, btw, from the .450 FG% by Bryant that David said would determine Lakers chances in this series.

Furthermore, Bryant has been defended one-on-one for the most part, with Tony and Ray Allen doing a very good job on him; only infrequently has he been double-teamed with the intention of taking the ball out of his hands -most of the time traps came after he put himself in an uncomfortable position and picked up his dribble, particularly in game 7 (note to Bryant: when 2 players come after you and you have picked up the dribble, passing to a teammate has a much greater chance of success than heaving a long-range fadeaway shot with two hands in your face).

His shooting was particularly bad from 3pt range (less than 33%) and downright abysmal (less than 30% as I recall) in the fourth quarters. The best example was game 7, when his teammates had to take over in the last few minutes and win the game for the Lakers with little relevant participation by Bryant, who was clearly winded. Maximum points for Bryant on defense, intensity and leadership though, he left his heart on the floor and led his team. Based on this, and his overall production, consistency and toughness, he was always the clear MVP if the Lakers won, David is right on that one.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 5:03:00 PM, Anonymous Stephen said...

Avery Johnson's comments about Ray Allen's struggles possibly being tied to covering Kobe are the first I heard (other than my own theory in my head).

I think it's worth noting that Allen's best all around game coincided with the same game that Bryant was in foul trouble.

I thought it was very telling how late in the game Boston continued to send waves of defenders at a player that was shooting 5-20 at the expense of leaving "the best big man in the game" wide open.

This is something I've never got a clear answer to from the people that insist LeBron is a WAY better player than Kobe:
Why would defenses focus so much on Kobe (supposedly inferior to LeBron) at the expense of leaving Kobe's supposedly MUCH better supporting cast wide open? The exact opposite should be true.

Great writeup as usual; I look forward to your future posts.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 5:12:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

(cont'd)
- Gasol was absolutely instrumental in the title. His stats tell a big part of the story: 19ppg (.478 FG% and .721 FT%), 12rpg, 4apg, 2bpg, while committing only 2 turnovers per game, in spite of his many touches and of the stifling Boston defense. Add to that the many fouls he has drawn (probably more than anyone else in the series -he has also shot more FTs than anyone else in these 7 games) and the fact that he's never been in foul trouble in the series (only major player to do that), and you have what is clearly a very, very good performance.

The other part of the story is just seeing the guy play. He's been the only Laker big man who's seen substantial minutes consistently, and he's had to fight, mostly on his own, with the extremely physical and defensively talented Boston frontcourt, focused on taking him out of the game. He's been subject to great physical punishment for very extended periods (less than 6 minutes of rest per game), while Boston was bringing fresh legs all the time, and overall he's dealt with it very well. Gasol's made jumpers and been generally aggressive while limiting his turnovers, he has rebounded well, he's protected the paint adequately and he's played at a high level in the two crucial closeout games. He's attracted defensive attention and created numerous opportunities for his teammates, including Bryant, and has generously shared the ball; it is no exaggeration to say that he has barely taken an ill-advised shot in the whole series. Moreover, contrary to what David says, Gasol's remarkable production has been to a large extent self-generated and not the result of openings created by Bryant, occasional examples to the contrary notwithstanding. And his defense, with its ups and downs, has been good throughout these 7 games; the specific matchup with Garnett, key to the series, has been decisively won by Gasol.

Gasol's game 7, with all its shortcomings (mediocre shooting, couple of defensive lapses, FTs missed), showed what it's all about, in those crucial last few minutes: Gasol made 2-2 FGs, 3-4 FTs, dished out two assists, made the key block on Pierce and captured several rebounds, including the all-important offensive rebound with 30 seconds left (Lakers only 3 pts up)that all but clinched the title (and led, as I recall, to the only Kobe points in those last few minutes, on two free throws). He was the offensive anchor in the absence of Bryant and he clearly delivered.

Only a couple of (related) shortcomings have kept Gasol's performance in this series from being truly outstanding: inconsistency (bad game 3, terrible game 5, average game 4), occasional lack of intensity (probably due to exhaustion) and playing markedly worse on the road than at home, something that still separates him (and many other alleged super-stars, including all the Celtic team) from true super-stardom.

Overall, a very, very good performance by Gasol. It is absolutely unthinkable that the Lakers would have won this without him. I can think of very few big men, if any, that could have helped the Lakers as much as Gasol has helped them in these 7 games (and throughout the playoffs).

- Bynum truly has guts and can be a very good center if he can stay healthy (big if). With Kobe still near his prime, Gasol in his prime and an improving and healthy Bynum it will be very difficult to stop these Lakers in the next couple of years.

- Non-Kobe Lakers (Artest, Fisher, Vujacic) deserve much more respect than they get from many Kobe fans.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 5:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You did not let down, David. This post was well worth the wait.

I found out that one of the votes that went to Pau Gasol for Finals MVP came from ESPN Boston columnist Chris Sheriden, who stated, "He received my Finals MVP vote because he was the best player on the court for the Lakers in the final six minutes, which is when the championship was won."

Apparently everything that happened before those final six minutes is to be disregarded. Anyway, good luck with your other pursuits; you work here is definitely appreciated. I'll look forward to having your coverage again for another season.

-Forest

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 5:41:00 PM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David
What can Kobe do to silence his critics? Dude doesn't win, his legacy takes a hit. Dude wins, his legacy still takes a hit. I watched Bill Simmons write that Kobe's legacy still took a small hit after a game based on how bad he shot for the game. A Celtics columnist said that Gasol was the MVP. Terrence Moore(NBA Fanhouse) said that Kobe can be considered best right now but he is not among the top 10 greatest of all time. I saw Mariotti erroneously quote that Kobe admitted to wilting under pressure, while Kobe never uttered that. only thing Kobe said is that he was rushing things. Hollinger right after the win said that rebounding not legacies won the championship and went on to take a shot at Kobe's awful shooting. Yet when Lebron was shooting bad in game 6 agaisnt Boston and still added a triple double(most uneffective triple dub you'll ever see) He complimented Lebron for doing the little things. Will kobe ever win with his critics?

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 5:48:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Always great stuff. Missed your commentary badly. Lots of emotional pieces out there that fluctuated wildly between games. Appreciate all the hard work and effort you put into your columns, and the lack of emotional ups and downs that make your insight so even-keeled and right on.

While you wrote a lot about the Lakers, was wondering what your thoughts are on this Celtics team going forward. Also, and more along your lines, the series that some of these guys had.

While there's been lots of talk about how badly Ray Allen shot the ball, I believe that a huge reason for that was the fact he was checking Kobe for 30 plus minutes a game in addition to the job Fish did on him. So, not only did Kobe play great defense on Rondo, he also played defense with his offense by tiring out Boston's most potent outside threat. Where's the statistic for that?

Your thoughts on Jordan Farmar's series and future?

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 5:55:00 PM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David

On Ron Artest: As good a defensive player he is, Ron is a mental midget. his postgame interview further cemented that. If this team didn't have Phil and Kobe on it, I doubt he would have been an effective player. Ariza would have made the Lakers younger but its hard to disagree with the Artest move since they won championship and Artest's defense was big.

On Fisher: Again Phil proved that most columnists and some analysts dont know that they are talking about. If you listen to stats geeks, Fisher is the worst PG in the NBA yet without this so called worst PG, there's no way Lakers win Championship. The way Fisher stayed with Ray Allen through screens was surprising. he even got under Allen's skin with his play.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 6:00:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

One other thing. While I believe Rajon Rondo is a beast and will continue to improve (especially with a potent jumper and at least a decent FT percentage), I can't help but think the "Kobe" effect has to do with him as well, only, it's the "Big 3" effect. I mean, I read some writers expressing their belief that he was a top 3 point guard. While he very well could rise that high, he's for certain not there yet. After all, at various points throughout the series, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or KG became the focal point of the Lakers double teams.

Unlike those three and Kobe, Rondo, never demands a double.

And finally, while the Lakers were somehow favored coming into this series, do you think that this is one of the best championship wins considering how dominant the Celtics have been over the past three years with a fully healthy team?

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 8:01:00 PM, Anonymous Happydaze said...

I have enjoyed your articles all season. 20 Second TO and Behind the Boxscore have been staples in my morning reading the past three seasons and have given me a lot to watch in terms of "the games within the game." Thanks for another great season of coverage. Looking forward to reading your articles again next year.

Happydaze

P.S. -- I would be interested in hearing your take of the various free agents and wear you think their talents would be best utilized in the best situation, due to coaching, offensive and defensive systems, etc. And not just the big stars. Maybe a few role players as well. I know you usually shy away from blind speculation but it would just be for fun. Thanks again for the great reads. -H

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 8:09:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

On-point analysis as always David.

Reading the quotes you cited from van Gundy and Jackson reinforces why I appreciate the way they call the game. They aren't perfect, but I think they really try to be fair and unbiased, and they call the game as it happens - not how they want it to happen.

As for Simmons, I don't know that ESPN really markets him as having "deep, meaningful insights". I think they know he's jingoistic Celtics fan who draws a lot of attention with his style and subject matter. The Worldwide Leader just wants people visiting their site, and Simmons attracts visitors. I have more of a problem with writers (I won't name names here) who try to give the impression of objectivity while regularly engaging in what can only be described as fishing for reactions with their columns.

Funny how things work out: I spent the whole season worrying about whether we could beat Cleveland or Orlando. I have to give credit to the Celtics (but I won't make a habit of it) for their heart and competitive spirit. All three teams have some tough decisions to make this offseason, but at least the Leprechauns can say they maxed out their potential in the postseason.

 
At Friday, June 18, 2010 9:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of the commentary here, I do not agree that Kobe creates a lot of high percentage opportunities for Gasol. I would say that Bynum has been the more consistent beneficiary of Kobe's dimes in the paint as he has the length and athleticism to convert alley-oops. Gasol has a much more refined post-up game than Bynum, and as a result is much more adept at creating offense for himself.

Don't get me wrong; Kobe is an excellent passer...when he wants to be. I've seen him force up his share of contested or double- or triple-teamed jumpers during these playoffs to know that he goes through stretches of prolonged tunnel-vision. Is he talented enough to convert these tough shots? Sure. Would he be better served passing out of the double-team in a lot of these situations? I think so.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 3:04:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Nice analysis, David. I missed your commentary during the Finals. I hope we aren't seeing the end of 20secondtimeout. It's difficult to sit through all the "heads I win, tails you lose" analysis that you referred to.

Game 7 was one of the most intense, hotly-contested basketball games I have ever seen. I agree with many people who expressed the sentiment during and after the game that it was a shame that one of the teams had to lose.

A close Game 7 is very exciting to watch and appreciate. On the other hand, I've always been bothered by the extreme conclusions people draw after them. After watching the game, I felt as I did after watching some other recent Game 7s (2005 Spurs-Pistons finals, 2006 Spurs-Mavs series are two examples): the two teams are essentially evenly matched and I remain unconvinced that one is truly better than the other. If they played 100 7-game series, each team would probably win 50. Of course, that's why the game is played and that's what makes a close series so fun to watch. That's fine and I understand that. But a few different bounces or calls here and there, and people would be (incorrectly) going on about how much Kobe Bryant choked or how Ron Artest single-handedly ruined the Lakers, etc. However, the reality would be pretty much the same no matter who won or lost such a game.

For instance, would Frank Selvy hitting an open shot have made Elgin Baylor or Jerry West better than they were? No. Did his miss make them worse than they really were? No. I think anyone who tries to think logically can see why. But you can't deny how much the popular perception of the legacies of Baylor and West (and Russell and others) were affected by one shot. No one likes a complicated, nuanced analysis. One-line recaps and exaggerated characterizations involving terms such as "choked" or "mystique" are more fun. This is one of the reasons why I think counting rings to determine the greatness of an individual in a team sport is horribly flawed.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 3:33:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Some other thoughts:

I think Ron Artest has been treated very unfairly by Lakers fans and the media in general. As you correctly noted, his defense on Pierce was huge and a big part of the difference between the 2008 Finals. He came up big in series clinching games in several rounds this year. Artest clearly has some issues, but he seems like a decent guy, and you've gotta admire his intensity and unselfishness on the court.

While watching Kobe gather all those rebounds and get to the free-throw line, I also thought of the Bulls-Pacers game from 1998 and how Jordan and Pippen weren't hitting shots but somehow managed to outwork the Pacers to secure the victory. That's a good comparison.

I think the Celtics are a great team and deserve more credit than they are going to get after falling short by a few points. They somehow came back to life in the postseason and almost climbed to the top even though everyone seemed to keep picking against them round after round. I'll remember Rasheed Wallace's tremendous defense and vintage post moves, even though he was playing through a lot of pain. It was incredible watching Ray Allen, who was never thought of as a good defender, miss shot after shot but more than prove his worth on the floor through his unrelenting defense. And yes, Doc Rivers is a great coach.

The Celtics just seemed to run out of energy at the end and couldn't come up with points. I'm reminded of Angelo Dundee's description of the Thrilla in Manila: "Both guys ran out of gas, only my guy had an extra tank."

Jeff Van Gundy is a good commentator.

Why does everyone keep talking about how Kobe Bryant is now one championship away from tying Michael Jordan? I've already expressed why I think judging individual players by championships is flawed. But if people insist on doing so, why do they keep saying "Michael Jordan's six championships" as if it is some sort of record? Bill Russell has 11. Kareem also has 6. But I guess they don't count since Russell played in black-and-white and Kareem was moody and didn't "capture people's imaginations." It will be interesting to see if the ring-counting crowd change their goalposts if Kobe ends up with 6 or 7 rings.

I was happy when Mike Breen started to inform the audience of the origin of the "Beat LA" chant. He correctly referred to Game 7 of the 1982 ECF, but he incorrectly said that Boston fans started the chant because "there was no way they could cheer for the Lakers" in the upcoming Lakers-Sixers Finals. Someone should have told Breen that at that point, the 76ers were the Celtics' biggest and most hated rivals (since they played in the same division and each team had eliminated the other several times in the playoffs). The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was hardly a rivalry from the Boston point of view since it had been one-sided up to then.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 5:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

Bryant only had two bad shooting games out of the seven--game three (10-29) and game seven (6-24)--and the Lakers managed to win both of those games anyway, in no small part due to Bryant's other contributions. Take out those two aberrant games and Bryant shot .455 from the field while averaging 29.6 ppg in the other five games. By the way, even in Bryant's two poor shooting games he still averaged nearly a point per shot because of his ability to draw fouls and shoot a high FT%. Other than KG, none of the principal players shot particularly well in game seven, so the overall defensive milieu should be taken into account. That said, Bryant obviously forced some shots in game seven and he is the first to admit that--but I agree with Jeff Van Gundy that Bryant was very efficient in the first six games of the series.

Bryant scored 10 points and had four rebounds in the fourth quarter with the game up for grabs; he drew the double team and made the assist pass for Artest's big three pointer and prior to that he scored the four straight points that gave the Lakers a lead that they never relinquished. I think that Bryant's fourth quarter performance is being overlooked in the haste to give credit to other players--which is not to say that the other players did not also make significant contributions. Still, 10 and four in one quarter projects to 40 and 16 for a game, so that is nothing to sneeze at in a winner take all 12 minutes of action.

Bryant was not "defended one on one for the most part." His primary defender shaded him to his left, where help was always waiting. Tony Allen and Ray Allen both did excellent jobs as the primary defender but don't pretend that they were out there on an island by themselves.

You repeatedly mentioned Bryant's shooting percentages but Bryant had the third best three point shooting percentage on the Lakers in this series: Ron Artest shot marginally better, while Sasha Vujacic shot .400 but only had 10 three point attempts. Bryant shot better than Ray Allen from long range even though Allen set a record for three pointers in one Finals game. Both teams played great defense during this series and the shooting percentages reflect that.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 5:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

While I agree that Gasol played an important role for the Lakers, you provided a very selective and skewed account of his performance. You made a big deal about Bryant's shooting but neglected to mention that Gasol shot significantly worse from the field than he did in the regular season; while Bryant often had to deal with multiple defenders, Gasol's field goal attempts either came close to the hoop or on uncontested jumpers, so he really should have been able to shoot a better percentage: he had his shot blocked far too often, particularly by smaller players. Also, Bryant's free throw percentage went up during the Finals compared to the regular season, while Gasol's free throw percentage declined significantly. You mentioned that Gasol led both teams in free throw attempts but you left out the very important detail that Bryant made nine more free throws than Gasol despite having just one fewer attempt. Bryant led both teams in free throws made by a wide margin.

I agree with you that Gasol's ability to log heavy minutes without getting into foul trouble is an important asset for the Lakers; I disagree with you about the ratio of "self generated" shots that Gasol had compared to shots created by Bryant but after writing 10,000+ words about this series--plus thousands of other words about Bryant and Gasol in previous posts, responses to commments, etc.--I am in no mood to cite more case by case examples of how much Bryant's presence eased Gasol's task. I have covered that ground quite extensively and I have proven my case beyond any reasonable doubt. I understand that Gasol is your favorite player, I respect your admiration for him and I agree that Gasol is an excellent player even though I do not think he is quite as good as you think he is.

I can't speak for what others have said, but I insisted all along that the Lakers were right to essentially swap Ariza for Artest.

Fisher is a tremendously important glue guy for the Lakers but, objectively speaking, he was the worst starting point guard in each of the Lakers' series--and in most cases the mismatch was significant enough that the Lakers actually had to put Bryant on the point guard. Fisher's guile, toughness and ability to hit clutch shots are admirable but as he ages and a new crop of young, quick point guards emerge in the NBA it will be difficult for the Lakers to continue to use Fisher as a starter.

Vujacic was useless for the vast majority of the season but I give him credit for coming in cold and hitting two huge free throws in game seven.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Stephen:

During game seven, I made the comment that--according to the
"conventional wisdom" of many media members and "stat gurus"--the Celtics must be idiots: even with Bryant shooting poorly while playing alongside the alleged best big man in the NBA the Celtics continued to trap Bryant and try to force him to give up the ball.

It is amazing how so many people can fail to draw what should be an obvious conclusion based on watching how the Lakers' opponents--and not just the Celtics, mind you--defend against Bryant; the whole reason that the Suns went to the zone defense was to make sure that they could flood the area of the court where Bryant was located. Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry even explicitly said that the Suns would stop playing their "girlie zone" if the Lakers would agree not to pass the ball to Bryant. Funny that Gentry never mentioned Gasol. So much was made of Amare Stoudemire's comment that Odom had been lucky but I noticed that most media outlets took Stoudemire's remarks out of context: what Stoudemire actually said was that Odom did not appear on their defensive game plan and he was able to sneak in and get rebounds while the Suns focused on Bryant. Stoudemire then asserted that Odom would not be able to repeat this performance if the Suns merely made the effort to box him out. Perhaps Stoudemire should not have been so candid and provided "bulletin board material" but he spoke the truth: contrary to how the media raves about Odom, he is actually an afterthought at best in opposing teams' defensive game plans. Their primary concern is to stop Bryant.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Forest:

I saw that comment by Sheridan. The Finals MVP is supposed to be based on the whole series, not just a handful of minutes. Gasol disappeared completely for most of game five and that alone should have taken him out of any Finals MVP consideration. As Jeff Van Gundy said during game six, a vote for anyone other than Bryant would have been "nuts"--and I did not hear Van Gundy take that back even when Bryant struggled with his shot in game six. The team that won the rebounding battle won every single game in this series and Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds from the shooting guard position in game seven. That is huge! Not only that, but Bryant outrebounded every single Celtic over the course of the series and he outrebounded every Laker other than Gasol. Bryant led the Lakers in scoring, assists and steals. Bryant was both more productive and more consistent than Pierce was when Pierce won the 2008 Finals MVP the last time these teams squared off.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

There is nothing that Bryant can do; idiots will be idiots regardless of how many points Kobe scores, what percentage he shoots or how many championships he wins. Kobe will never "win" with his critics because his critics are not rational.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

I said more about the Lakers than I did about the Celtics because the Lakers won the series and, even more importantly, there are more misconceptions about the Lakers and Kobe Bryant than there are about the Celtics. The general (and correct) consensus is that the Celtics are a gritty, tough, defensive-minded team that showed remarkable resolve and determination in beating Cleveland and Orlando before extending the Lakers to the waning seconds of the seventh game of the NBA Finals.

I thought that I made it clear that Bryant essentially took out two Celtics: Rondo with his defense and Allen with his offense.

Farmar hardly played in this series, averaging fewer than 13 mpg. He shot poorly even by the standards of this defensive-oriented series (.321) and he had more turnovers (eight) than assists (six). He has a point guard's size but I don't see him as a true point guard and I definitely have trouble seeing him as a starting point guard for a championship level team.

The biggest question mark for the Lakers--assuming that Phil Jackson returns and Bryant and Bynum successfully heal during the offseason--is what they will do about the point guard position. Fisher is getting older and slower but the Lakers do not have one reliable, legitimate backup point guard on the roster. Jackson monitored Fisher's minutes in the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs but in the postseason he increased Fisher's playing time and slashed Farmer's.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

Artest is quirky but you have to give him credit for his contributions to this championship run: he did not have one single serious incident on court or off court this season and he tried his best to fill the role that Jackson created for him. Artest's defense was tremendous, particularly in the playoffs versus Durant and Pierce. I agree with you that Artest would have been less effective/focused without Jackson and Bryant but the same thing could actually be said about every single Laker to some degree. Gasol was a one-time All-Star before he landed in L.A. and now he is likely heading to the Hall of Fame.

I have tremendous respect for Fisher but, objectively speaking, he is the worst starting pg among the elite teams. Would you take him over Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo or Jameer Nelson? Cleveland's Mo Williams is a more productive player than Fisher, too, though Mo Will is a very suspect postseason performer. Fisher has tremendous character and heart and he fills his role perfectly but he too benefits from playing with Kobe because Kobe takes care of a lot of the ballhandling and playmaking. Much like Paxson and Kerr likely could not have did what they did for too many other teams, Fisher would have a much smaller role if he played on a different team and did not have Bryant alongside him.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

While Rondo does not command double teams, he is a tough matchup--and, unlike many of the league's top point guards, he plays both ends of the court. He was Boston's best and most consistent player this season, which is really saying something considering that the Celtics have three future Hall of Famers, even if those HoFers are all past their prime.

I don't know how to define which championship is "best" but Kobe said that this was the "toughest" of his five, so that certainly is significant.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Happydaze:

Thank you for your kind remarks. The free agency situation is in far too much flux to do the type of article that you suggested; all of the coaching vacancies have not even been filled yet, so it would be pretty difficult to make educated speculation about where the marquee free agents will go/should go. LeBron's decision will obviously have a ripple effect and his current team has a new GM and no coach at the moment.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

ESPN recently published a massive basketball book by Simmons that is supposed to be a definitive look at the history of the sport, so I disagree with your contention that they are not hyping him as a basketball expert.

I never thought that the Lakers would have much trouble with the Magic; I thought that the Cavs and Celtics would pose the biggest challenges--literally, because both teams had the necessary size to match up with the Lakers. We just saw the Celtics give the Lakers all they could handle even though the Lakers had home court advantage and I still think that the Cavs matched up even better with the Lakers--and the Cavs would have had home court advantage if they had made it to the Finals. I just never thought that I would see LeBron quit the way that he did; I am still shocked and disappointed by that (not because I am rooting for one team over another but because it is bad for the sport when a great player does not strive to reach his maximum potential).

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You are correct that Bynum benefits more than Gasol does from Kobe's presence, which is just another way of saying that Bynum's offensive game is less refined than Gasol's. However, Bryant is the Lakers' primary offensive option and he is the primary focus of all opposing defenses. Whenever Gasol sets a screen for Kobe, both defenders trap Kobe and Gasol has a free run to the hoop; when a rotating defender tags Gasol he has an easy passing lane to whoever the rotating defender just left. That is how Gasol got his nine* assists (which were actually eight or possibly fewer) in game six.

The only game in these playoffs when Bryant really forced shots was game seven of the Finals. Bryant certainly has more "hand grenades" (shots that he has to take because the shot clock is dying and the ball is in his hands because no one else was willing/able to create anything) than shots that he truly "forced" when better options were available.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 7:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Thank you for your comments. You have consistently made very thoughtful contributions to this site.

In general I agree with you that players in team sports should not be judged primarily by championships won and you are right that many championships hinged on one or two plays. As Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter says, "Everything turns on a trifle." Nevertheless, there is something to be said for finding a way to win such games and both Bill Russell and Michael Jordan had an uncanny knack for coming out on top in the Finals. They obviously did not do this by themselves but they also obviously played pivotal roles in the success of their respective teams. My postscript about the Finals' resumes of various great players is intended to provide context and spark thought as opposed to being considered some kind of definitive ranking methodology.

I think that Kobe is constantly compared to MJ (as opposed to Russell) for several reasons. MJ played much more recently, he and Kobe played the same position and have comparable body types and they play for the same coach in the same offensive system. Rightly or wrongly, there is a great mystique about MJ because he never lost in the Finals. I think that Kobe deserves credit for making it to more Finals than MJ--why should Kobe be "punished" for losing one round later than MJ did? If Kobe adds another championship next season then I think that his Finals resume is more impressive than MJ's because Kobe would have led his team to the championship round in more than half of his total seasons despite not even being a starter in his first two years. I am not convinced that 6-2 in this instance would be worse than 6-0, though I am sure that this is a minority view. That said, I still don't think that Kobe's overall skill set quite matches MJ's, though Kobe is obviously much closer to doing so than anyone else who has come along since MJ retired.

Like you, I have tremendous respect for this Boston team and my respect is not diminished because they came up a few points short.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 8:41:00 AM, Anonymous Joel said...

"Bryant has been defended one-on-one for the most part"

Excuse me? Were you and I watching the same series?

I wish Boston had defended him that way. The Lakers would have won a lot sooner.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 3:38:00 PM, Anonymous Yogi said...

David,

Welcome back! Thanks for a great, sensible review.

I too was immediately reminded of that game 7 between the bulls and pacers.

I find it interesting that the Lakers came out so tight. I thought that with all the stress that phil jackson lays on "being in the moment" that the Lakers would be a lot more relaxed.

Kobe, who has experienced Phil's philosophy for more than a decade, really disappointed me. By now he should have learned not to worry about the outcome of the came and just "be in the moment".

To me, this proves that Kobe still doesn't get it. Yes, he is a fantastic player, but he is still too concerned about what people will think about him. I think MJ, at some point in his career - especially in his last three titles - learned that everyone playing together without worrying about the result and other people's perception, is the best possible way to play the game.

I think people sense Kobe's refusal to give in to the moment - and the group - and therefore they begrudge him his dues.

Other than that, I still think that if the lakers played within their offense they would have handled the Celtics much easier, and no game 7 would have been needed. But since they did not, they should consider themselvs very fortunate to be champions - they hardly deserved it. If any one of the Celtics had gotten hot, the Lakers would have been toast - and goats.

Yes indeed, everything turns on a trifle.

Have a good summer, David!

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 5:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I have learned that in many cases people simply choose to see what they want to see. If you freeze framed almost any possession in which Kobe had the ball it was very obvious that the Celtics "loaded" their defense toward him; there were some possessions in which all five Celtics literally had their eyes on Bryant, with several of them in close proximity to him. The Celtics did a great job of helping and recovering but, as Hubie Brown always says, the second pass out of the trap is when things open up; we saw a perfect example of that in game six, when Kobe repeatedly passed to Gasol and Gasol made the assist pass to the open man after the defense rotated to Gasol.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 5:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

I think that you are being a little harsh on Kobe. As I said in my article, I'd rather have a player who is trying too hard than a player who acts like it is too hard to try at all (i.e., LeBron versus the Celtics).

No key player other than KG shot particularly well in game seven; the game came down to defense and rebounding and Kobe excelled in both areas. It is really very interesting that so many people are just glossing over the fact that Kobe had 10 points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter. Yes, Kobe received some timely help from other players--players who were open in no small part because Boston's defense focused on Kobe--but Kobe was not exactly a mere bystander in the game's final stanza. As I have repeatedly said, I think that it is more important and valuable to be able to have an impact over long stretches in a game than to be able to make a last second, game-winning shot (though Kobe obviously is quite adept at doing both of those things).

I don't think that the way Kobe played proves that he is too concerned about how people think about him. If you watched the game then you know that he did not even take a shot until his teammates were already a combined 3-11 from the field. It is not like he came out firing wild shots and completely ignoring his teammates; he tried to get them involved in the early going, so instead of your theory it is more plausible to say that Kobe felt the championship slipping away because his teammates were too tentative and Kobe reacted by becoming a bit too aggressive and forcing the issue. I seriously doubt that in the heat of battle Kobe was thinking about MJ.

The Lakers had trouble playing "within their offense" because for most of the series Gasol struggled to establish good, deep post position, Artest never quite learned how to operate comfortably in the Triangle, Bynum was limping around on one leg, Odom was largely MIA and Fisher did not hit a single three pointer until game seven. It is funny that people harp on Kobe's field goal percentage and seem to be completely oblivious to what his teammates are doing (or not doing).

Your comment that the Lakers don't "deserve" to be champions is baffling. It would be more accurate and gracious to say that both of these fine teams deserve to be champions but, unfortunately, only one team could win.

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 6:37:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

Yogi,

I could understand if you said you thought Kobe was trying to win the game by himself, but the notion that he was worried about how people would 'perceive' him in the middle of a Game 7 is puzzling to me. I think you're reading far too much into a situation where Kobe was (by his own admission) actually overwhelmed by the moment - a rare sight indeed. He just looked out of sorts and overly aggressive, but he calmed himself down in the second half.

It has to be said that Kobe has had a lot of team success for someone who supposedly doesn't 'get it' and has to re-learn how to 'trust his teammates' every single year...

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 10:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I do rememeber coming across Alvin Gentry saying that part of the reason they went to a zone was to also stifle Pau Gasol because he was killing them in Game 1 of that series. I remember several times where the Suns defenders would disregard the player making the post entry pass (unless it was Kobe) and literally sandwich Gasol with two defenders from the front and back to prevent him from getting the ball. Although, that could just speak more of Amar'e Stoudemire's defensive failings.

It's unfortunate that Gasol is being hyped up the way he is by "stat gurus" and "analysts" because it ignores Kobe's overall effect and the result is the need to put Gasol's abilities and impact into proper context. A good amount of your post dealing with Pau had to do with his miscues and shortcomings and rightfully so; you did also gave him credit for coming through when he did and on being a top 15 player in the league. You do a good job of balancing objective praise and criticism of Pau Gasol with a bent of disproving the idea that Pau Gasol is a "franchise" player. I think having to debunk myths and misconceptions about Pau Gasol take away from opportunities that can point out the strides and contributions he has made to this Lakers team.

I mean, here's a guy who was given a lot of criticism -- he did deserve his fair share -- for the championship loss in 2008, but a lot of people overlook the fact that he came to this team mid-season, a team that wasn't even projected to make it to the post-season, and was thrown into an offense that is notoriously difficult to pick up and all of a sudden finds himself in the NBA Finals when he hadn't even won a single playoff game before becoming a Laker; not only that, he was up against a very physical front court the likes of which he had never faced in a playoff situation before and if rarely in his career. Being the finesse player that he is, it wasn't a surprise that he played the way he did in the 2008 Finals... the story however, should really be about how he bounced back from that.

Cont...

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 10:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cont...

He certainly committed himself to becoming stronger physically and in giving more effort and focus on the defensive end. It's clear he appreciates the opportunity he has in being able to play with a player like Kobe Bryant and to be able to play for championships because he's taking advantage of it by putting in the work to improve and that really can't be said for a lot of players who have had the same or similar opportunities. I believe the final 6 minutes of Game 7 when Gasol took control from the post position was really the culmination of the work and effort he has put in since that 2008 Finals loss and I feel that it showed in how emotional he was when the final buzzer sounded and instead of a joyous outburst, he looked at Derek Fisher and broke into tears. On a play that Phil Jackson said in his post-game presser was the play that "changed and gave us renewed energy," it was Gasol who posted up and drew the double team that created the open look for Fisher's trey that tied it at 64. Pau also made his impact on defense by making a crucial block on Paul Pierce's drive with under 2 minutes left and the Lakers nursing a 4 point lead. His offensive rebound off of Kobe's missed trey and converting his last shot even though it was blocked and with three defenders practically on top of him capped off a string of tough play... all of this while having struggled so much for most of the game. Afterwards, Kevin McHale praised Pau by saying he had a "gutty, hard-fought game" and that he had more respect for Gasol now after that gritty performance where he struggled with his shot but still battled and didn't give up anything than he would have had if Gasol had a game where he was on a roll offensively because it's easier to be good when things are going your way. Chris Webber agreed with McHale and noted that Gasol did it without Bynum there. In a series where rebounding was paramount, Gasol averaging 3.0 rebounds more per game than the next highest player from both teams (Kobe with 8.0 per game) speaks for itself and although he wasn't consistently "tough" throughout the series, especially while in Boston, there really is no bigger stage or situation than a Game 7 of the Finals, and against the same Boston team that basically manhandled him two years before, for him to prove that he could come through when it was truly needed of him. Winning back-to-back Championships, with one at the expense of the team that basically became the demon that he had to overcome, and being a key part in winning those Championships is really a great story of redemption and a testament to Gasol's character... and in that respect I wouldn't mind calling him underrated. Kobe has said many times that Gasol is under-appreciated and I think that aspect of Gasol is, for the most part, what he is referring to.

-Forest

 
At Saturday, June 19, 2010 11:41:00 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

You know what the saddest thing about this blog is? That it gets updated so infrequently. I love your stuff David. I kept coming back between games to see if you'd posted anything new and would dejectedly check other blogs when there you hadn't.

I admit, I really enjoy Simmon's work (his podcast more than his articles), but once the Celtics bias and Kobe bashing start, I am reminded that I like him mostly because he makes me laugh.

Just wondering if you've read his basketball book and if so, what you thought of it.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Well put; the reality is that Kobe "got it" back around 2000 and played a key role in the Lakers' threepeat; he led those teams in assists and even though I consider assists to be a "semi-bogus" stat in this instance the numbers do reflect the reality that he was the Lakers' primary playmaker.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Forest:

Your comment is very well thought out. You are right that I spend a lot of time trying to place Gasol's role in proper context because so many "experts" try to inflate his contributions at the expense of Bryant. I try to provide an objective and fair evaluation of Gasol (and every player); Gasol is one of the top 15 players in the NBA and one of the top four or five big men but it is stretching the truth to call him the best big man in the league. That is just hyperbole and even the people saying this must not really believe it because Gasol has never been voted to the All-NBA First or Second Teams nor has he ever received a single fifth place vote in MVP balloting.

It is true that to some degree the zone helped Phoenix to put some extra bodies around Gasol but that was secondary to the primary purpose of making sure that Bryant always played in a crowd. I seriously doubt that the Suns would have used a zone if Bryant were not a Laker; the Suns' defense improved a lot during the second half of the season and I don't think that they ever used a zone until they faced the Lakers (other than maybe to guard an inbounds play or for some other short term purpose).

You are right that Gasol did an excellent job of quickly fitting in with the Lakers during the 2008 season and I gave him credit for that in the articles that I wrote at that time.

I also agree that Gasol deserves credit for hitting the weight room and improving his overall mental and physical toughness--but I also think that Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant played a huge part in that process because they raised the bar for Gasol in terms of what the Lakers expect from him on a consistent basis.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jeff:

I used to update this site on a daily basis but in the past year or so I scaled back the quantity of posts.

You may be interested to peruse the right hand sidebar of the main page to check out the site archives and also the links to articles that I wrote for various publications over the past several years.

I am very familiar with the contents of Simmons' book but I have no intention of purchasing it (or reading it from cover to cover). He can be entertaining at times and he possesses a certain amount of writing talent but his work lacks objectivity and, while some of his analysis is good, a lot of his analysis lacks depth; for instance, in his book he provided a pretty well balanced account of Scottie Pippen's career but his evaluation of Julius Erving's career was not well thought out: perhaps this is because Pippen and the Bulls were never a big rival for the Celtics but Erving's 76ers beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 10:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Eric btw

David,

Again, as usual you have done a fine job of providing spot on analysis. It it clear that you actually understand the game and give mindful commentary that many others do not. Many in the mainstream media do not seem to really understand NBA basketball and give biased opinions.

Admittingly, I'm a long-time Lakers and Kobe fan. I agree with the notion that Kobe is not Michael Jordan. Can't we just appreciate him for his individual and team greatness? He did shoot poorly in two games during the Finals and during the other five games he shot well enough. He defends well, he rebounds well (very well for a shooting guard), is a willing and albe passer, and last but not least he is the unquestioned leader of the Lakers. The defense must account for him at all times. His teammates (particularly Artest, Gasol, and Bynum) greatly benefit from the amount of attention Kobe receives.

The "experts" want to focus on Kobe's poor game 7 shooting percentage or some other perceived deficiency. These same individuals want to dilute his five championship rings by giving a disportionate amount of credit to Shaq (although he certainly deserves a lot of credit for the three rings that he won while a Laker) and Pau (I acknowledge that Pau was certainly very important to the Lakers' winning two more championships). However, Lakers do not have 5 championships is the last 11 years without Kobe Bryant period!

To the detractors: stop comparing him to Jordan and appreciate him for what he is...an all-time great player, 5 time NBA Champion, 2 time finals MVP, Regular Season MVP, Olympic Champion (without Kove the USA does not win the gold in Beijing), many time all-nba, many time all-defense. Stop focusing on these mythical deficiencies and focus on all that he has accomplished and will likely still accomplish. Give the man his due and stop with this nonsensical rhetoric.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 11:01:00 AM, Anonymous Luis said...

David,

I also understand that Kobe is your favorite player (your website is mostly devoted to praising him), and have huge respect for his ability, his drive and love for the game. You´re right that I like Gasol´s play and approach to basketball, solid, somewhat understated, team oriented and far removed from the divaish world of NBA superstars.

You say that Kobe's stats were fine if you just take away his worst two games, and that the Lakers found ways to win those two games. This is a very weak argument: two games out of seven is a lot, to just state the obvious; if you take away Gasol´s games 3 and 5, then you would have a very strong case for MVP... but that´s meaningless because you can´t take those games away. The fact that the Lakers found ways to win the games in which Kobe played worst is, again, testament to the fact that this is a team and that others can deliver when Bryant doesn´t. The Lakers were really a Kobe-centric team pre-08, but they have gradually shed their complete dependence on Kobe and that´s part of why they have succeeded (while he is still very important and obviously the best player in the team).

Bryant´s good fourth quarter was valuable but concentrated in the first few minutes. Due to exhaustion, he had a secondary role in the last minutes of the quarter, when the game was on the line. His pass to Artest was fine, but Artest had a defender on him, and he made the three essentially because the Celtics were happy to take the risk and his defender didn´t seriously contest the shot; I´m pretty sure Kobe´s pass was not an assist -if it was, put an asterisk beside it. His other two points in the last minutes came after Gasol´s offensive rebound and pass to Bryant, with the defense in disarray and an easy path to the basket before him.

Projecting Bryant´s performance during the fourth quarter to the whole game is not something especially meaningful in my view; again, if you do that for Gasol you get 36 pts and 20 rebounds, 4 blocks and 8 assists. Fine, but you can´t overlook his shabby first half -and neither can you do away with Bryant´s poor and often ill-advised shooting in that period. That "is" a selective reading of Bryant´s performance.

Re how Bryant was defended: shading a player is not the same as double-teaming him, by a long stretch. Simply put, when you double team you leave a man open, when you shade you don´t. A huge difference in terms of creating defensive imbalances. You may also have noticed that Gasol, even if defended one-on-one, often had the attention of several other defenders, including the defender of the cutting man, who often roamed trying to disrupt Gasol´s move to the basket (he made them pay for this in the last minutes of the game, by passing to Artest for a 2+1, while Pierce was lurking, waiting for the move by Gasol).

Re 3pt shooting. Comparing Bryant´s terrible percentage (31%)to that of his teammates (all of them relatively poor 3pt shooters) is pretty meaningless as well. When you are the team´s superstar, and a relatively high-volume 3pt shooter, "31% but third-best on the team" is not in any significant way better than "just 31%".

Although to me, his extremely poor fourth quarter shooting was what stood out most, as well as the not infrequent lack of judgment in shot selection in several games, notably game 7 (but also game 3 and others).

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 11:10:00 AM, Anonymous Luis said...

(cont´d)

As regards Gasol, he shot some uncontested jumpers because the Celtics were giving him some space to prevent him from driving to the basket, where he was creating trouble and being frequently fouled. He made them pay for that tactic by draining the jump shot pretty consistently. I agree that his shot was blocked more often than it should have, probably due to exhaustion and lack of elevation; as you know, those are missed shots for all purposes and are therefore part of the reason why he shot 48% and not more.
And the idea that with this Celtic interior defense your main (and for the most part your only) big man should have shot better than 48% while playing 42 minutes a game is frankly outlandish in my view.

Free throws: point taken, I agree that Gasol has been merely adequate in this field, while Bryant has been outstanding. This is part of the reason why Kobe is the MVP of the series in my view. My point was that Gasol has received a lot of fouls (I believe more than anyone else in both teams, although I haven´t seen this stat for the whole series); this helps your team by creating foul trouble in the defenders and by accelerating the shift to the bonus situation. It has a large value on its own, quite apart from whether the player then converts the FTs; although Gasol should definitely have converted a few more.

Last, re Gasol generating his own offense: having watched all seven games, I don´t think there is a doubt that he did. As you say, no player is an island and all teammates benefit from plays by others; but GAsol´s points and rebounds were to a very large extent hard fought and produced by himself. I´m not sure what you have proved previously in this regard, but I would think that anything written before the finals proves little about what happened in the finals.

Relatedly, the argument by David and others that GAsol is basically the same as in 08, just benefitting from playing with Bryant, was always suspect and hopefully will be put to rest for good after these finals. He is clearly a better player, technically and physically.

Anyway, thanks for the writeup and the answers. It´s always interesting to exchange views with you

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 3:54:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

Joel

Kobe Bryant was certainly defended one-on-one throughout most of the series. There were very few instances in which he was trapped outright to make him give up the ball.

This is compatible with:
- Other defenders helping when Kobe got by the first one. This is done when any player gets by his defender and drives to the hoop. It´s called team defense
- He (and Gasol) receiving extra attention when they went against their one-on-one defenders
- Kobe being trapped when he was put in tough spots by the defense and had picked up his dribble. Some of the Kobe shots you may remember with two or three defenders draped around him came from such situations, not from outright double teams, which have been very infrequent. Furthermore, as mentioned before, those shots were mostly ill-advised and should never have happened

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 3:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

I don't need you to tell me who my favorite player is; I have made it quite clear on numerous occasions that my favorite player, by far, is Julius Erving. My second favorite player is Scottie Pippen. My analysis of those two players is objective, as is my analysis of active NBA players.

My website is not "mostly devoted to praising" Kobe Bryant. Check out the right hand sidebar of the main page; if my website is "mostly devoted" to anything it is "mostly devoted" to setting the record straight about neglected aspects of basketball history while also providing objective analysis of the modern game. I have written a lot of articles about Kobe Bryant because he has been the best player in the league for the majority of the time that this site has existed.

All that I said about Kobe's FG% is that for five of the seven games his shooting was in line with what I said the Lakers would need for him to shoot in order to win the series. In one of the other games Kobe got stuck with several "hand grenades," while game seven was a defensive war in which only one primary offensive player (KG) shot well. There is a difference between excusing things and providing meaningful context. When you say that Gasol shot the most free throws but leave out the important information that Kobe made the most free throws--by far--you are intentionally distorting the truth (making excuses). That is the sign of someone who is shading things to support his favorite player and this is the way a fan watches the game--and that is fine; as I said, I respect your admiration for Gasol, who is without question an excellent player who is worthy of your devotion. However, I am not writing here as a fan of any particular player or team; I am providing objective commentary.

As I have said repeatedly, after writing 10,000+ words about this series plus literally tens of thousands of words about the Lakers during the past several years I just don't have the interest to endlessly go through play by play refutations of what you are asserting. Your pro-Gasol bias is clear and my fact-based commentary speaks for itself. All I will add about the fourth quarter is that Bryant scored the four straight points that gave the Lakers a lead that they never relinquished; anyone who understands basketball--and championship level play in general--realizes how important such points are after one team has led for the vast majority of the game.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

The reason that I projected Kobe's fourth quarter stats over an entire game is that it seems to me that a mythology is already forming that Kobe was essentially a bystander while the championship was won. This is incorrect; Kobe certainly received help but he also had a very productive fourth quarter.

Kobe was given an assist on the pass to Artest. I have already said that assists are a "semi-bogus" stat but that assist was certainly more legit that Gasol's game six assist to Kobe when Kobe took two dribbles and did an up and under move before shooting. The larger point is that, regardless of what the scorekeeper ruled, Artest was open because the Celtics had to give up something in order to "load up" on Kobe.

You are perhaps the only person who thinks that Kobe was guarded one on one in this series. Tony Allen and Ray Allen certainly played good one on one defense versus Kobe but that is not the same thing as saying that Kobe was guarded one on one. The Celtics' whole defensive philosophy versus Kobe, in both the 2008 and 2010 Finals, was to "load up" on Kobe while conceding open shots to Lakers such as Artest and Odom. As I cited in my article, Kevin McHale said that Bynum should be able to average 20 ppg because the Celtics were not even guarding him in many situations.

When Kobe had the ball initially, the Celtics primarily focused on him; once he passed the ball, they rotated to Gasol to make Gasol pass to someone else. When Gasol had the ball initially, the Celtics tended to guard him one on one with Garnett or Perkins. Sometimes another Celtic would "dig" at Gasol once Gasol started to dribble because Gasol is not nearly as good of a passer off of the dribble as he is when he is holding the ball but the Celtics did not focus on Gasol the way that they focused on Kobe.

I am quite confident that there is no way to convince you that you are wrong about this and I am equally confident that anyone who watched the series with open eyes will realize that I am correct.

My point about the three point field goal percentages is that both teams did a great job of defending against the three point shot; wide open three pointers were simply not available very often during this series.

Jeff Van Gundy said that Bryant played highly efficiently in the first six games and that Bryant's shot selection early in game seven was an aberration. I somehow doubt that Bryant is his "favorite player" and I trust his analysis more than I trust yours. At several times during the series, Hubie Brown mentioned that the dominant story of the series was how Kobe Bryant--who he called the best player in the entire playoffs--was creating shots for himself and his teammates. Brown thought that the Lakers should actually be doing more to create shots for Bryant (by running Bryant off of screens and also by passing to him in certain spots in the Triangle when Bryant was open but Artest failed to deliver the correct pass on time).

I am certainly not a slave to what JVG or Brown say but I often find that I independently reach the same conclusions that they do; sometimes when I am watching a game, I will say something to whoever I am watching the game with only to hear JVG say basically the exact same thing right afterward. The reason for this is that I have trained myself to watch NBA basketball from the point of view of a coach/scout and that is a lot different from watching a game with a rooting interest for a certain team or a certain player.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

gasol numbers was 19 12 kobe was 28 8 i think kobe won finals mvp because kobe had 100 points in 4 games in la and 100 in 3 in boston whereas gasol had 84 point in la and 45 in boston he averaged 9 boards in boston 13 in la wheras kobe was more consistent than gasol thats why he won it even though alot of people like bill plaschke bob ryan say gasol should of won it which is false to any real logic.

ray allen did play great indivudual d on kobe i did not think ray allen was that good of defender. but he really is good obvisouly he got help and they boxed kobe in but there was some great d played by him and he forced kobe into tough shots problem is kobe can make them un like any other nba player today.

rondo was bothered by kobe and lakers size when he went to the whole he had to always launch the ball high off the glass or he was always looking for gasol or bynum. and really the celtics especially in boston game 3 and 4 missed alot of layups around the basket they werent as good as 2 years ago from that perspective.

bill simmons skip bayless sometimes they make sense sometimes they do not know what they are talking about. bill simmons said kobe played the same way in 09 finals as he did in 08 even though the numbers were in 08 finals 25 5 5, 09 32 7 5. he said the points were higher because he took more shots even if he took the same shots 22 he shot 43 percent so he would still score 29 30ppg so how is 30 7 5 the same as 25 5 5 that made no sense.

bayless claims shaq was better laker than kobe i dont know his logic he said it on first take the other day but shaq got 3 rings with lakers kobe 5 kobe 2 finals mvp to shaq 3 kobe played with lakers 14 years has every record shaq had a great 8 years but he might not be in the top 5 lakers all time.

overall lakers proved they deserve the championship i think the winner next year will be lebron james.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 4:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

As for Gasol's improvement, our earlier discussion about this subject related mainly to Gasol's regular season numbers; I told you that the only statistical areas in which Gasol has significantly improved as a Laker are FG% and offensive rebounding, two areas in which a player does not tend to get better as he ages: Gasol's numbers went up in those areas because Kobe attracts so much defensive attention that Gasol gets free runs to the hoop for layups and putbacks.

There is no specific way to quantify this (unless one has access to information about Gasol's body fat %, maximum bench press, etc.) but it is evident that Gasol has improved his strength, adding some upper body muscle mass while also making his lower base more solid so that he can better hold position on the block (though Perkins still can push Gasol around with ease). I would also agree with those who say that Gasol has become more mentally tough--and, while there is no way to prove or measure this, it certainly is reasonable to suggest that Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant had a lot to do with toughening Gasol up. During the ESPN special about the Lakers, Jackson could be heard telling Gasol to do something and Gasol muttered, "It's not so easy," whereupon Jackson got right in his face and said, "Of course it's not easy. That's why we're professionals." During timeouts, Kobe can frequently be seen and heard giving Gasol encouragement to play harder and go faster. I actually think that Kobe and Gasol have a very beautiful relationship based on mutual respect: Gasol respects Kobe's talent and drive, while Kobe respects Gasol's versatile skills and has helped Gasol to become more focused and aggressive. This is a marked contrast to the way that Kobe and Shaq seemingly butted heads every step of the way.

Gasol's defensive rebounds are largely his own doing but a significant part of his scoring and offensive rebounding burden is eased by Kobe's presence. I am not saying that Gasol cannot create his own points or offensive rebounds but rather that he would be much less effective and efficient if he had to do so without Bryant--and I have six years of Gasol's stats in Memphis to back up my assertion, in addition to what I have seen with my own eyes by watching Gasol play.

I would like to add that I appreciate your interest in my work and the fact that you care enough to comment this extensively about your views, even though I disagree with your perspective. I probably come across as abrasive at times but I am just very dogged and persistent about stating what I believe to be the truth, so please don't take anything that I said as a personal attack against you; just consider the factual merits of what I have stated vis a vis Bryant and Gasol.

 
At Sunday, June 20, 2010 5:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

Charley Rosen, who has been known to both praise and criticize Kobe, offered an interesting perspective on game seven:

" • Even though Kobe’s shots hit more iron than net, he resorted to other aspects of his game — like rebounding and hitting key free throws — to put the Lakers over the top.

• Except for his trying to force the action early in Game 7, Kobe also made effective adjustments when the Celtics opted to two-time him. His willingness to trust his teammates in clutch situations was a distant echo of Michael Jordan passing to Steve Kerr for the jumper that closed out Utah in the 1997 finals."

Note that Rosen mentions the Celtics "two-timing" (double-teaming) Kobe and also that he makes it clear that after Kobe forced the action early in game seven he settled down and played a significant role the rest of the way.

You will no doubt appreciate that earlier in the article Rosen says that with Bryant and Gasol the Lakers have "two creative and reliable point-makers as the focal points of their offense." I have no problem saying that Gasol is a great second option; as I mentioned when the Lakers first acquired Gasol, that deal balanced out their roster by giving Bryant a legit second option and relegating Odom--who is not consistent enough to be the second option--to tertiary (or, at times, even lower) status.

 
At Monday, June 21, 2010 11:46:00 AM, Anonymous JackF said...

@David
So Luis think that Pau Gasol should have beent he MVP? The same pau gasol who got rejected by about everybody on the road? The same Pau gasol who every time he had a bad game blamed it on bad ball movement rather than blaming himself for being forced out of position which forced lakers to go elsewhere with the ball. What people fail to realize is that everytime Andrew was out the game, it was like 2008 all over again so all this talk about Pau toughening up is just premature.
On Kobe: What does it say about Kobe that he is universally loved by coaches and Gms around the league? From Popovich to Jack Ramsay. Even UCLA great John Wooden said Kobe was the best player he had ever seen play(Bill Simmons was so shocked he tried to blame it on wooden going senile). Jack Ramsay himself said that Kobe should be mentioned in the same breath as Michael.
On Lakers Offseason Moves: Word is that both mike Miller and Tmac are strongly interested in signing with the Lakers. If I'm Mitch Kupchak I sign Mike Miller instead of McGrady who has had MicroFracture surgery. Mike miller can be really productive in the Laker Offfense.

 
At Monday, June 21, 2010 12:20:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

David

You don't need me to tell you who your favorite player is. And I don't need you to tell me who my favorite player is, as you did previously. That's the point I was making when I teasingly talked about "your favorite player". Let's drop this childish stuff.

I'm a fan of the game and like team-oriented players. Hence my preference for Gasol and others (Nash, Duncan etc), while not being blind to their respective shortcomings. Hence my dislike of superstar-focused narratives, even if I share your criticism of simplistic mathematical approaches to the game of the Hollinger variety.

Re Bryant's ridiculous "assist" to Artest. Artest is guarded and he takes a couple of seconds until he releases the ball. Not an assist by any stretch of the imagination, I suppose we'll have to get the asterisks out.

Re free throws. I already explained the point I was trying to make when I highlighted the FTs shot by Gasol -he was getting fouled, and that is important on its own. I thought I made this clear in the previous response.
Generally, I think I have a pretty balanced view of Gasol (I mentioned his shortcomings in the finals in my first response, including FTs missed in game 7). I suppose the only reason I focus my responses on him is because a) he is extremely important in this team and b) your writeups are excessively centered on Bryant IMHO. David, the idea that you have an impartial view of Bryant... let's just say I don't share it: in your blog his negatives are excused or mentioned in passing while his positives are exalted repeatedly while defending him from Kobe-haters or stat geeks. That's your perspective and it is your blog, so nothing wrong with that -it just doesn't seem objective to me.

Re how Kobe was defended: maybe it's a semantic thing. For me, double teaming is sending a second defender as soon as a specific player touches the ball, in order to take it out of his hands; as happened often to Duncan in his prime, and is increasingly happening to Lebron in recent years. As I see it, anything else is being guarded one-on-one, while receiving close attention from the defense.

Re Gasol's improvement. Statistics tell only part of the story. The guy is simply a better player -physically, mentally and technically: improved jumper, better defense, better passing etc. Everybody who has minimally followed his career knows this, although you were questioning it as late as the 2010 Utah series ("he is the same player as in 08, only now he plays with Bryant"). He benefits from playing with Bryant but Kobe also benefits from playing with one of the premiere 2/3 post players in the league and sharing the workload -something that most other NBA stars don't have (think Lebron, Wade and almost everyone except Nash).


To finish, on the Charlie Rosen article: he mentions the value of endurance. Not enough has been said about Gasol's endurance in this series. 42 minutes per game for seven games against Perkins-Garnett-Wallace-Davis has been a huge physical test. He has passed it with a very good grade. The sight of Garnett (31 minutes per game in the series, 38 mins in game 7) panting in the last few minutes of game 7 while Gasol (42 minutes per game and 42 in game 7) contributed in most of the key plays to his team's victory was something to behold, even taking into account the difference in age. Gasol's efficiency (FG%, TS%, rebounding %, turnover %) given such heavy usage and the physical punishment he received is truly remarkable.

(David, I don't take anything personal in the internet and I'm also pretty blunt about my opinions: no need to worry on that score)

 
At Monday, June 21, 2010 5:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

You make two excellent points:

1) Except for game four versus Utah--the closeout game of a sweep (i.e., hardly a pressure packed game for the Lakers)--Gasol was not particularly effective on the road during the 2010 playoffs. Here are some "highlights": 13 ppg in three road games versus OKC in the first round, culminating in nine points on 4-11 field goal shooting in the closeout victory in game six (Gasol did have 18 rebounds in that game, though); 15.7 ppg in three road games versus PHX, capped off by nine points on 2-9 field goal shooting in the closeout victory in game six; 15.3 ppg (while shooting just .444 from the field, an awful percentage for a big man playing mostly in the paint) in three road games versus BOS, the last one being 12 points on 5-12 shooting as the Lakers squandered an opportunity to close out the series. Notice the pattern? Gasol disappeared, particularly on offense, on the road and he was not an effective offensive option in any of the Lakers' potential road closeout games with the exception of game four in Utah when the Lakers were already up 3-0.

How did Kobe do in those same road games? He struggled during the first two road games versus OKC. I did not say a lot about Kobe's injuries during the playoffs but it is worth noting that after the Finals ended Kobe mentioned that he has two injuries (knee, finger) that are so severe that they will have to be fixed in some way or he won't be able to make it through next season--and he also has a troublesome ankle as well. Kobe got his knee drained after his two subpar road games versus OKC and he clearly was a different player (i.e., back to his old self) after having that procedure done. In the game six closeout game versus OKC, Kobe was magnificent (32 points, 12-25 shooting). Kobe destroyed Utah in both road games during that series (35 points on 13-24 shooting in game three, 32 points on 11-23 shooting in game four). Kobe was also brilliant in all three road games versus PHX, scoring 36, 38 and 37 points while shooting .542, .682 (!) and .480 from the field. Kobe got stuck with some "hand grenades" in game three versus Boston but he scored a game-high 29 points as the Lakers recaptured homecourt advantage. Kobe's valiant efforts in games four and five in Boston (33 points on 10-22 shooting and 38 points on 13-27 shooting) were wasted because Gasol and the other Lakers largely disappeared.

Jeff Van Gundy said it best in game six when he said that Kobe had played very efficiently throughout the series against Boston, that he should be the MVP even if the Lakers lose the series and that a vote for any other player would be "nuts."

I honestly don't see how someone can seriously suggest that anyone other than Kobe was the MVP of the Finals this year. Gasol played well at times but he is supposed to play well at times: he is his team's second best player and the Celtics were pulling out all of the stops to make it difficult for the best player to beat them.

2) Gasol does have a lamentable tendency to blame "ball movement" after games in which he was not aggressive and/or shot poorly.

I don't know that it is quite correct to say that Kobe is "universally loved." It is more precise to say that he is "universally respected" by people who understand the game and the reasons for that are simple: Kobe has worked hard so that he has no skill set weaknesses, he plays while he is injured without making complaints or excuses and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is willing and able to take over games down the stretch when everything is on the line.

 
At Monday, June 21, 2010 6:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

I have written about a wide range of subjects pertaining to pro basketball past and present and I have explicitly stated that my favorite player is Julius Erving and my second favorite player is Scottie Pippen; as far as I can recall, most if not all of your comments argue that Gasol is a vastly underrated player. I honestly cannot recall you posting a comment about any other subject, though I did not go back and check. Therefore, I have every reason to suspect that Gasol is your favorite player and that you view his performance through that lens. That is fine, but there is a difference between watching the game as a fan and analyzing the game objectively.

Here is what actually happened on the Bryant assist to Artest: the Celtics double teamed Bryant outside of the three point line with Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace to prevent him from driving. After Allen "leveled off" Bryant, Wallace rotated back into the paint. Pierce was playing well off of Artest and not even looking at him, focusing instead on Bryant, who passed to Artest. Artest received the ball at the 1:04 mark and released the shot with 1:03 showing on the clock. By rulebook definition, an assist is supposed to be awarded for any pass that leads "directly" to a score. Bryant drew the attention of three defenders and passed to an open man who shot within one second without faking or taking a single dribble. How can you honestly say that the Celtics did not double team Bryant during this series but that Artest was "guarded" during this three point shot? If you have access to a recording of this game, freeze frame the picture at the 1:05 mark on the clock: you will notice Ray Allen right on top of Bryant with Rasheed Wallace in close pursuit while Artest spots up at the three point line and Pierce has both of his feet inside of the free throw line to prevent Kobe from driving. Naturally, when Kobe passes the ball Pierce closes out on Artest but that is not the same thing as being closely guarded. Have you ever played basketball at any level? Trust me, as a spot up shooter I would love to be "guarded" the way that Artest was "guarded" on that play.

I just don't think you really understand "double team," "trap" and "load up" as these terms are used in reference to NBA defense. Doc Rivers himself explicitly said that Kobe forces teams to "trap" and that Rivers hates to trap because this can open things up for other players. It is no great secret that the Celtics sent multiple defenders at Bryant. Your "definition" of double team is so limited that it is meaningless; you are only acknowledging one kind of double team. If you talked to NBA coaches about defense--as I have--then you would know that depending on the situation some teams choose to send a double team when the pass is in the air, some teams send it when the pass is caught, some teams send it on the first dribble, some teams send it only after the primary defender has forced the man with the ball to spin in a certain direction, etc. There are also multiple ways to defend screen/roll actions--and if you watched the Finals closely then you saw that virtually every time Bynum or Gasol set a screen for Kobe the Celtics sent both defenders to Bryant and then rotated another defender to Bynum or Gasol. That is how Gasol got nine* (actually eight) assists in game six: Gasol received a pass and then made an assist pass to the player who was left wide open after his man rotated to Gasol.

 
At Monday, June 21, 2010 6:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

I agree with you that Gasol is stronger mentally and physically than he was in 2008 but I am not sure how to quantify this. The only quantifiable "improvements" in Gasol's game come in the two areas (FG%, offensive rebounding) most impacted by the defensive attention that Bryant receives. Your contention that Gasol is a better shooter is easily refuted: just go to NBA.com's "Hot Spots" page and look at Gasol's shot charts from the past several seasons. As a Laker virtually all of Gasol's shots come in the paint and he is shooting a higher percentage on those shots than he previously did. In other words--as I have repeatedly said--Kobe is drawing double teams that enable Gasol to get wide open layups/dunks and easy putbacks.

Yes, Gasol drew a lot of fouls during the Finals and that is important; I have always made that point in reference to Shaq and Dwight Howard--but Kobe both drew fouls and actually made a high percentage of his free throws! Really, the way that you keep mentioning Gasol's FTAs makes it obvious that you are writing from a fan's perspective. When you first brought this up you simply asserted that Gasol drew more fouls than any other player in the series, without mentioning that Gasol led Kobe in FTA by just 61-60 while Kobe led Gasol in FTM 53-44. How can you possibly say that the combination of the information that you provided and the information that you left out does not show a definite bias on your part?

 
At Monday, June 21, 2010 6:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

Obviously, Bryant benefits from playing with Gasol. No one would be silly enough to suggest otherwise--but the Lakers were one of the top teams in the West in 2008 with Bynum as the primary big man before Gasol arrived. One reason that the Lakers made that deal after Bynum got hurt was that they realized that with even one competent big man they could be a contending team. Gasol arrived in L.A. as a one-time All-Star who had never won a single playoff game. He has now teamed up with a three-time champion/perennial All-NBA First Team player to win two championships. It is baffling that anyone would think that Kobe "needed" Gasol more than Gasol "needed" Kobe. Kobe, like every other great player, obviously has to have a good supporting cast around him in order to win championships--but in order to win a championship Gasol had to go somewhere where he could be the second option. Kobe got to the playoffs with Smush Parker as his starting point guard and Kwame Brown as his starting center, so I can visualize a lot of different scenarios in which Kobe could lead the Lakers to a championship--many of those scenarios might not be as ideal as having Gasol as the number two option but they would be workable scenarios. I cannot visualize a scenario involving Pau Gasol winning an NBA championship as his team's best player, nor am I convinced that he would win back to back championships as the second option if the best player playing with him were someone other than Bryant. Yes, these are hypothetical statements, but Gasol's disappearing act on the road during the playoffs and the way that Perkins pushed him around for the first five games of the Finals before getting hurt early in game six do not inspire confidence about Gasol's ability to be the best player on a championship team. The best player has to draw double teams and bring a high level effort every single night, at home and on the road. Gasol is a very good player but he is just not at that level.

You know what the interesting test of this could be? If the Lakers largely stay intact for the next few seasons there may eventually come a tipping point when Bryant--due to age/injuries--is no longer the best player on the team. At that point, Gasol would be about the same age that Bryant is now but with less miles on his "odometer" than Bryant currently has. It will be interesting to see if Gasol can truly lead the Lakers to a title in that kind of situation. We caught a glimpse of that possible future during the first round when Kobe was hobbled by his knee injury; do you honestly think that the Lakers would have won that series if Kobe had not gotten his knee drained so that he could not only be more effective on offense but also take on the task of guarding Russell Westbrook? Without Kobe in top form for those last two games versus OKC, the Lakers would have been eliminated in the first round, which would have actually been a quite familiar situation for Gasol.

 
At Tuesday, June 22, 2010 8:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gasol is far too often criticized for "lack of toughness" but I think it's totally unfair.
Of course he will be pushed by Perkins. Perkins is stronger and has a lower base. Do you think KG could hold his ground against Perkins? What did KG and Rasheed do against a hobbled Bynum and a "soft" Gasol?

Garnett is headed for the Hall of Fame, but I think he is actually softer than Gasol. KG has repeatedly come up short in big games. As the focal point or as a second banana, time and again he has demonstrated that he is not tough. Rasheed Wallace is a big softie too. He takes himself out of games when calls don't go his way. He whines even when the referee clearly got the call right.

The Celtics' "tough, physical frontline" is all Kendrick Perkins.

Gasol is and will always be a finesse player but he is a lot tougher than "dunk and scream" players like KG and Kenyon Martin.

 
At Tuesday, June 22, 2010 4:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't think that "criticisms of Gasol's toughness are totally unfair"--at least not the specific and measured criticisms that I have made in my articles. Gasol has certainly shown a lack of toughness at times and has been called out publicly by Phil Jackson because of this. That said, Gasol has shown improvement in this area.

During the Finals, Kevin McHale said that if Gasol would have battled against Perkins more instead of letting Perkins push him around then Gasol would have been able to draw fouls against Perkins because of the way that the officials were calling the games very tightly. Instead, when Perkins put his forearm in Gasol's back Gasol simply allowed Perkins to walk him outside of the paint. No matter how strong Perkins is, if Gasol had established deep post position and tried to hold his ground it would have been difficult for Perkins to move him without committing obvious fouls.

Your observations about KG are valid. If you go back and look through the archives here you will note that I made very similar criticisms of KG when he played for Minnesota and I also cited a quote by Scottie Pippen, who said that KG put up good numbers in the first three quarters but would disappear down the stretch. KG is similar to Gasol in the sense that he is much more suited to being the second (or, in KG's case, sometimes even the third) option offensively. However, KG--particularly before the knee injury--was a much better rebounder and defender than Gasol has ever been or likely ever will be. KG is clearly not the player that he used to be.

Wallace has always been a paradox; in his prime he possessed the necessary talent and skill set to be one of the top five players in the NBA but he always lacked the desire to perform at that level consistently. He is like a bigger, more talented Lamar Odom--a guy who is loved by his teammates and can contribute to a winning team but only in a role that is much smaller than you would think he can handle based on his skills. Wallace played a huge role for Detroit's championship team and even in his currently hobbled state he gave the Celtics a lift in game seven with his post offense.

I agree that Martin's "toughness" is a complete facade. I've never seen him challenge a player his size or bigger; that is why Tim Thomas infamously called Martin "fugazi"--essentially, a fake tough guy.

 
At Tuesday, June 22, 2010 8:14:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

David, in closing

- Gasol's improvements may be unquantifiable, but they are obvious to the trained eye. That was my point. Many things in basketball are not quantifiable, that doesn't mean they're not real; I thought this was one of the "raisons d'etre" of your blog as opposed to Hollinger's "statistical" approach.

- I have played basketball pretty extensively, thanks. Being defended one-on-one doesn't mean that if you blow by your defender, help doesn't come; or that the defense isn't focused on you or tries to lead you in the direction where other defenders can help with less disruption to the defense. It does mean that you can work against the defender individually until you get relatively close to the paint (pump fake and shoot, one-dribble-and-shoot etc). This has happened most -not all- of the time to Bryant in these series. Not so different (although Bryant did receive more defensive attention) from the case of Gasol, who was defended one-on-one although the defense tended to collapse on him when he drove to the basket.

- You do have a point on the Kobe assist. I definitely think it's questionable but having watched the segment again it's not as outrageous as I remembered it.

- Fan vs "objective expert" perspective: one man's fan is another man's impartial observer. To give an example, in your writeup you have chosen to neglect Kobe's abysmal 4th quarter shooting throughout the series, a statistic that many would think relevant. Meanwhile, I have brought up Gasol's many FTs shot clearly (read the first message) as a proxy for the fouls he received, since the NBA doesn't publish that statistic; and I have mentioned that he had a bad FT shooting game (game 7 -in the other six games he's been roughly at his season average) while criticising his poor performance in games 3 and 5. But you think I am biased and you are not -fine.

- In previous iterations of this discussion, I have said that Kobe is clearly a better player than Gasol, so you don't need to convince me of that. I'm not in the Gasol for MVP or "Kobe wouldn't be anything without Gasol" camp -that's a straw man. My view is that Gasol has brought balance, skill and especially team focus to a Lakers team that needed all three, and that he's made huge contributions in these playoffs and finals. But you still see many narratives -including yours- treating the Lakers as if it was 2007 all over again, Kobe and a handful of mediocre role players: consigning Gasol's (and other Lakers') contributions to simple footnotes; or demanding the impossible of Gasol, as you do ("he should have shot more than 48%" -against the best frontcourt defense in the league!; "he was pushed around by Perkins in games 1-5" -when Gasol had the Boston big men for lunch in games 1-2; etc) while contextualising Kobe's mistakes (he shot badly from three but others shot worse; he only shot badly in two games -out of 7!; he shot terribly in game 7 but he got many rebounds etc).

When this is done by Kobe fans it is not interesting. Among experts it is different: I read a lot of basketball commentary and you are the only knowledgeable guy I have read who is still sticking to this Kobe-centric narrative (selective quotes from coaches notwithstanding). That's why I find it interesting to exchange views with you.

Anyway, I'll leave it here and look forward to your commentary on the 2011 playoffs

Best regards,
Luis

 
At Tuesday, June 22, 2010 8:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

It is obvious that on several issues we will have to agree to respectfully disagree.

My site does not exist merely to rebut "stat gurus," though I have spent a fair amount of time doing so as their work has been more widely disseminated.

Regarding Gasol's improvement, I agree that he has added mental and physical toughness but I just don't know how to quantify his change in that regard. In terms of his actual basketball skill set (i.e., shooting, passing, rebounding, ballhandling, etc.) the only significant improvement that can be quantified is that he shoots a higher FG% and gets more offensive rebounds, two changes that can be directly linked to the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws. Gasol is not a significantly more skilled shooter, passer, ballhandler or defensive rebounder now than he was before, whether you want to go by numbers or simply by what one can observe; he was already very skilled when he played for Memphis.

I don't know what else to add about double-teaming. We just seem to be speaking different languages here. I watched the games and saw one thing--and heard it described that way by coaches, ex-coaches turned commentators and even Boston's coach himself, who admitted that Bryant forces opponents to "trap" and that this opens up opportunities for others. You apparently saw something different.

You are correct that I did not explicitly mention Kobe's fourth quarter FG% but I certainly talked quite extensively about his shooting (good and bad) throughout the series. I don't think that I gave a false impression of how Kobe shot.

I completely agree with you that Gasol "has brought balance, skill and especially team focus to a Lakers team that needed all three": that is a beautiful way to summarize his impact. I disagree that I have equated Gasol to being some kind of role player. I have explicitly said on several occasions that I consider Gasol to be one of the top 15 players in the NBA. I ranked him as an All-NBA Second Teamer in 2009 (he made the Third Team in the official balloting) and the main reason I left him off of my Third Team this season is because he missed so many games due to injury. I disagree with those who equate Gasol to Pippen or to Bryant circa 2000-02 but I give Gasol full credit for clearly being the Lakers' second best player.

Gasol was pushed around by Perkins in the first five games; when Gasol did well he was mainly guarded by KG but as Bynum's knee worsened Gasol had to spend more time at center facing off with Perkins. That was never a good matchup for the Lakers during this series. I think that you misunderstood my comment to mean that Gasol played poorly in the first five games when what I actually meant was that he played poorly versus Perkins in those five games. I thought that my point was clear based on what I said in the article but perhaps I should have made this clearer in my specific response to you.

I doubt that there are many "knowledgeable" people who are touting Gasol as the MVP of this series and I certainly do not think that my article is wrongly "Kobe-centric": Kobe is the best player on a team that just won consecutive championships; logically, any article about the Finals will "center" around him to a large degree.

 

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