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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