20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kobe Bryant's All-Star MVP Performance Provides a Flashback--and a Possible Playoff Preview

TNT's Charles Barkley keeps insisting that Kobe Bryant has "slowed down a lot" and yet Bryant led the West to a 148-143 victory over the East in the 60th NBA All-Star Game by delivering slashing moves to the hoop and a smorgasbord of eye-popping dunks, including a two-handed facial to deny a "chase down" block attempt by LeBron James. Bryant poured in 37 points, fought his way to 14 rebounds and tied Bob Pettit's record by winning his fourth All-Star Game MVP. Bryant fell just short of Wilt Chamberlain's single-game All-Star scoring mark of 42 points and vaulted to fourth place on the career NBA All-Star Game scoring list with 244 points, trailing only Michael Jordan (262), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (251) and Oscar Robertson (246), though it must be noted that if ABA records are included (which they should be, just as the NFL includes AFL records) then Julius Erving is the all-time leader with 321 career All-Star points.

While many of the younger All-Stars goofed around before the game and in the game's early moments, Bryant played hard at both ends of the court right from the start; Bryant's bucket at the 8:51 mark of the first quarter gave the West a lead that they never relinquished and his 21 first half points helped the West push their advantage to 76-64 by halftime. Bryant showcased his full offensive repertoire but he did most of his damage in the paint, reminiscent of how he played in his younger days; in recent times, Bryant has conserved his legs (and his energy) by relying on his deadly midrange game, much as Michael Jordan did during his second three-peat years (1996-98).

TNT made much of LeBron James' sideline exhortations to his East teammates after the West took command of the game but Bryant set the tone from the jump, as he explained after the game: "I feel like we have a sense of responsibility and we are voted in for what we do during the season, which is play hard. And we come here, that's what the fans want to see. They want to see us go at it and see us compete and that's what I try to do and that's what I try to tell my teammates to do." Flashy plays can be fun to watch but, like junk food, they provide no intrinsic value; ultimately, it is more entertaining--and more respectful to the game--to play hard at all times (something that Bryant's Laker teammates unfortunately fail to do).

Bryant dominated to such an extent that the East began trapping him, something that probably has not been seen in All-Star play since Coach George Karl infamously infuriated a young Shaquille O'Neal by double-teaming him on the block. Bryant's exploits provided a flashback to the time when he not only singlehandedly outscored a championship-contending team for three quarters but he matched Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor by posting 45-plus points for four straight games and he averaged 43.4 ppg for an entire month, something that had not been done since Chamberlain routinely scored 40-50 ppg in the early 1960s.

Does this mean that Barkley is wrong about Bryant's alleged decline? The answer to that question is not simple. Purely from a skill set standpoint, Bryant is still the best, most complete player in the NBA: he not only has no skill set weaknesses but he is exceptional in most departments. I would still take Bryant over any player in the NBA for one game (provided that one game is not the fourth game in five nights), one playoff series or one playoff run of four series; however, Bryant does not seem to be able to dominate for extended stretches without fatigue the way that he did a few years ago and he even seems to be a bit more susceptible to wearing down within one game: I don't think that Bryant's creaky right knee would permit him to average 40-plus ppg for a month now and Bryant candidly admitted that he was a bit gassed by the fourth quarter of the All-Star Game. In contrast, while James lacks Bryant's complete skill set (his post skills and midrange game lag well behind Bryant's and he has yet to prove that he can take over a playoff series against an elite defensive team) James has a motor that enables him to consistently overpower opponents throughout the entire regular season. James made some awesome plays as the East furiously rallied to pull within two points late in the All-Star Game but Bryant's early heroics (plus some clutch fourth quarter hoops from Kevin Durant, one of which came on a feed from Bryant) provided just enough of a cushion to preserve the win.

The 2011 All-Star Game provided a very telling glimpse of what we will likely see during the 2011 playoffs: Bryant can still get 30-40 points almost at will and he can deliver a 20 point quarter (and probably a 30 point half) but if he kicks it into gear early then he will need more closing help than he used to, while if the Lakers expect for Bryant to deliver 20 point fourth quarters then they would be well advised to get very solid production from their other players early in the game so that Bryant can preserve his energy a bit--and Coach Phil Jackson has repeatedly said that his desired formula is for Bryant to get his teammates involved early in the game to set the stage for Bryant to go on a scoring spree late in the game (if necessary). Bryant's 2010-11 per minute rates for scoring, free throw attempts and rebounds are all above his career norms, so he does not fit the profile of a player who is in some advanced state of decline; with the extra time off between playoff games he likely can maintain that per minute production even with increased minutes, so Bryant will probably again average around 30 ppg in the postseason, matching the exceptional, Jordanesque playoff numbers that he has posted during the Lakers' three straight trips to the NBA Finals.

During his Farewell Tour, a 37 year old Julius Erving said, "Not for a whole game, but in the right circumstance, I could probably muster up enough energy to do almost anything I've ever done one more time. If it's there, I will"--and he proved that those words were not an idle boast, exploding for 36 points in the first three quarters of a late-season game versus the Indiana Pacers to become just the third NBA/ABA player to score at least 30,000 career points; much like Bryant yesterday, Erving reached back into time to showcase vintage moves that he used regularly in his prime. Bryant is not going to score 81 points in a game again or average 40-plus ppg for a month but there is no reason to think that he cannot dominate during a 25 game playoff run.

However, there is so much media hype about the supposedly deep and talented Lakers that it is easy to forget that the Lakers would have been a seventh or eighth seed last season if a hobbled Bryant had not nailed so many game-winning shots. The 2009 Lakers were one of the least deep championship teams in recent memory, while the 2010 Lakers added some talent--most notably Ron Artest--but also seriously lacked depth and the 2011 Lakers have not been as deep as expected due to injuries plus some disappointing performances by key players (including Artest, who seems to be resting on his laurels from last year's playoffs). This season, Coach Phil Jackson has limited Bryant's minutes to keep Bryant fresh for the playoffs and on several occasions Bryant's teammates have failed to keep games close enough for Bryant to provide a finishing kick and/or game-winning shot. Coach Jackson once implored his Chicago Bulls, "Don't leave Michael (Jordan) yet. It's not time"; that exhortation rings true for this year's Lakers, who cannot "leave" Bryant too early; their big men must perform better in the paint and their perimeter players must shoot better and defend more zealously so that Bryant does not have to wear himself out just for the Lakers to earn the second seed in the West. The San Antonio Spurs have essentially wrapped up the top seed but it is important for the Lakers to finish second; that would ensure homecourt advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs and mean that the Lakers could theoretically make it back to the NBA Finals by winning just one road game versus the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. The key thing to watch during the closing sprint of the regular season is if the Lakers can grab that two seed (and, also, how much energy Bryant has to expend to accomplish that goal).

While Bryant was the "star of stars" (the line that Commissioner David Stern usually utters when delivering the All-Star MVP award) and his performance provided an intriguing microcosm of where he is at in his career, three other players also had noteworthy performances: LeBron James notched just the second triple double in NBA All-Star history (29 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists), showcasing his amazing blend of power and speed to bull his way to the hoop for layups, boards and dishes to open teammates; Amare Stoudemire had 29 points and six rebounds, helping the East to rally late in the game; Kevin Durant scored 34 points and hit some key fourth quarter baskets after Bryant's energy waned a bit. It is rare for a player from the losing team to win the MVP, so James and Stoudemire did not have a realistic shot at the award, but Durant's closing burst gave him a puncher's chance for the honor and I can understand why some people think that he should have received it for being more "clutch" than Bryant--but Bryant's early scoring gave the West a big lead in the first place, Bryant played a more complete game than Durant (who had just three rebounds and two assists), Bryant shot better from the field than Durant and the West outscored the East by four when Bryant was in the game but were outscored by seven during Durant's minutes. Plus/minus numbers contain a lot of noise--particularly in small sample sizes--but if you watched the game you saw that Bryant had a much greater impact at both ends of the court than Durant, who was mainly content to shoot long jumpers.

Labels: , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 6:18 PM

17 comments

links to this post

17 Comments:

At Tuesday, February 22, 2011 1:59:00 PM, Blogger ChowNoir said...

I'm glad you mentioned the double team of Kobe. It's amazing to me that this wasn't a larger point made by the broadcasting crew. When the game got close, Kobe was doubled and forced to give up the ball. That just doesn't happen in All Star games and also speaks to the respect other coaches and players have for Kobe.

It also illustrates a point you have made repeatedly in the past, Kobe's statistical impact can't be easily measured since the D is tilted towards him. He may not have a direct contribution to the succeeding basket. But by virtue of his presence, the D is focused on him and opens things up for his teammates.

 
At Tuesday, February 22, 2011 5:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ChowNoir:

Exactly; TNT kept replaying footage of LeBron talking on the sidelines but did not draw any attention to the fact that the East was trapping Kobe in an All-Star Game!

This was just an exhibition--and LeBron also had an outstanding game--but Kobe put on a remarkable display, demonstrating what I have been saying for years about his skill set completeness. Some readers may recall that when I did a skill set comparison (for SlamOnline) of LeBron and Kobe I called it a draw in rebounding, citing LeBron's size and Kobe's savvy. Recently, we have seen evidence of Kobe's rebounding prowess not just in the All-Star Game but also in game seven of the NBA Finals. Kobe is a remarkably gifted rebounder, though his shooting guard duties at times take him away from the hoop.

 
At Tuesday, February 22, 2011 11:05:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

Great job, David. I agree with every word of this article. If Ron Artest can elevate his individual game, even just a little bit coming down-the-stretch, and Andrew Bynum can stay healthy, the Lakers are going to be a good bet to make it back to the NBA finals this spring ... given the energy level that Kobe displayed on Sunday ... now that Carmelo Anthony has been traded out of the Western Conference. Any talk of their demise this year is grossly premature, IMO.

 
At Wednesday, February 23, 2011 2:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding those 4th quarter traps of Bryant. When was the last time a player was triple teamed, in an all-star game?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ypFdxbd6C0
(Double: Johnson-James, Howard)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaENMiSAHTQ
(Double: Johnson-Howard/Stoudemire)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaENMiSAHTQ
(Rose/Johnson, Stoudemire run out)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaENMiSAHTQ
(Triple: James-Stoudemire-Bosh)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaENMiSAHTQ
(Johnson, guarding out to 40-feet)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaENMiSAHTQ
(Johnson, guarding out to 40-feet)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaENMiSAHTQ
(Johnson in his jersey at 3-pt line)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9atspJCB-Gk
(Double: Johnson-Bosh, James)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9atspJCB-Gk
(Double: Bosh-Johnson, iso switch)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9atspJCB-Gk
(Double: Johnson-Rose/James)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9atspJCB-Gk
(Triple: Stoudemire-Bosh-Rose)

 
At Wednesday, February 23, 2011 4:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

Thank you.

 
At Wednesday, February 23, 2011 4:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

As the video clips you submitted indicated, the East took extreme (at least in terms of All-Star play) measures to get the ball out of Kobe's hands, particularly in the second half; it is interesting that one of those plays resulted in an easy putback for Gasol, exactly the type of shot that has opened up for him very frequently since he became a Laker: as I have mentioned in previous articles, Gasol's field goal percentage and his offensive rebounding numbers are the two main stats that have increased since he started playing alongside Kobe.

Even though Kobe cooled off in terms of his shooting percentage down the stretch, the defensive attention he drew still created open shots for the West--and Kobe had the assist on Durant's big three pointer that put the West up seven late in the game, all but assuring victory.

 
At Wednesday, February 23, 2011 11:16:00 AM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

Good article! I like the parallels you drew between this game and the Lakers season. I was thinking the same things as I watched Kobe play! He may not be able to dominate for 48 minutes like he did at 22, but he's still amazingly good. And with enough support from his teammates, the Lakers are still an elite squad.

As for Charles Barkley's constant reminders that Kobe is decrepit, Sunday night showed that Bryant can still be a force in determining a game. And the double teams used on him (in an All Star Game, nonetheless!!!) showed that other players/coaches think so too.

 
At Wednesday, February 23, 2011 4:47:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

David -- good article. One thing I haven't seen mentioned much recently about the Lakers & some of their supposed struggles is the loss of Matt Barnes. Barnes was averaging 20 mpg until his knee injury in early January. So now for almost two months the Lakers' rotation has been significantly short-handed, particularly at the weak SF position where Artest has been less than stellar this year.

I thought Barnes was a key pick up for the Lakers, and he has played well in the games I watched this year. He was also a key part of a 59-win Magic team last year (averaging 25 mpg). I will be very interested to see how the Lakers look over the next month, now that they have been refreshed a little from the All-Star break, given (yet another) wake-up call in their terrible 3-game losing streak before the break, culminating in the loss to the woeful Cavs, and with a hopefully healthy Barnes back in the mix. They still will likely not catch the Spurs, but I would not be surprised to see them grab the second best record in the league.

 
At Thursday, February 24, 2011 1:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

kobe got lebron in the intagibles department. he has lifted a team from a leader ship stand point where lebron has not so far. to me miami will struggle vs chi and boston this year. lakers will struggle vs dallas and spurs. i like lakers to win it all agian. kobe resolve should get them over top with gasol and bynum. miami got too have wade play at high level vs celts if they want to get to finals and win title. i think dallas is weak mentally and spurs will slow down late.


the all star game is a exhibition kobe played great lebron played as great and durant scoreing points in 4th quarter. the game means not topo much at all who gets doubled vand trap;ped etc.

 
At Thursday, February 24, 2011 5:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

I thought that with the additions of Barnes and Blake the Lakers would actually have something resembling the depth that so many people have wrongly asserted that they had in 2009 and 2010--but Barnes got hurt and Blake has not been as effective as I expected him to be. I agree with you that Barnes' imminent return to action should provide a boost for the Lakers.

 
At Thursday, February 24, 2011 5:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

The only team in the East right now that can beat Miami in a seven game series is Boston (I say "right now" because a trade before today's deadline and/or injuries later in the season could possibly change things). Chicago may be able to push Miami to six but I can't see the Bulls beating the Heat in a playoff series this year.

A healthy, motivated Lakers team will not struggle versus Dallas but a Lakers-Spurs series will be a six or seven game classic.

Obviously, the All-Star Game is an exhibition but it is still significant (1) that Kobe has enough athleticism to explode to the hoop around and over younger players and (2) that down the stretch in an exhibition game the opposing team found it necessary to trap him despite having several well regarded individual defenders on the roster. Kobe may have lost something but what he has left is more than enough to cause major problems for opposing teams and that will be even more true during the playoffs with the extra time off between games.

 
At Friday, February 25, 2011 2:02:00 PM, Anonymous Matthias said...

The Heats Bench and their frontcourt are to weak, as everybody Gould See against the Bulls. I think the powershift from West to East will make it a lot easier for the Western Conference Champion. The second and third playoff round will be very competitive and one of the Top three in the EC will have to play the to other. I don't see Miami in the finals without the first seed in the east because of their bench. Yesterday they had to play 4 starters with 40+ min against a deep Chicago Team in a back to back. The celtics and Bulls are playoff build Teams with experience or youth as their biggest advantage. Miami could only win once against the top 6 teams this season.

 
At Friday, February 25, 2011 2:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matthias:

The Bulls did have a nice win over Miami yesterday but Bosh shooting 1-18 is a bit of an anomaly; I still would pick Miami over Chicago in a seven game series.

 
At Friday, February 25, 2011 6:11:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Hey David,

I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding the recent major trades, particularly the Celtics-Thunder trade. I was very surprised that the Celtics traded Perkins. It's not often that a title contender will trade away such an integral part of their team in the middle of the season. Also, size had been one of Boston's main advantages over Miami, but that may no longer be the case, considering this trade and the health issues of Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal.

Most writers are saying this was a long-term decision on Danny Ainge's part made largely because of the difficulty Boston anticipated in re-signing Perkins. Do you think there is any way this deal could actually help Boston win a title this season? Could Ainge think that Jeff Green could make a big difference against perimter-oriented teams like Miami?

 
At Friday, February 25, 2011 6:25:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree with your take that the All-Star game Kobe is the one we might see in the playoffs. I think this season, more so than in the past, we've seen Kobe try to pace himself a bit and preserve himself for the playoffs.

I don't see any way that the Spurs can beat the Lakers in a playoff series outside of the Lakers completely imploding. The Spurs have an excellent record. If you look more closely, however, Manu Ginobili has been shooting a horrible percentage over the last few months. None of San Antonio's big three have been playing close to their peak levels of previous years. The Spurs have a great record because of their depth and because they have regularly beaten the teams they are supposed to beat. But in the playoffs, it usually comes down to the stars and how well they perform. Given Ginobili's struggles and Tim Duncan's obvious decline, the Spurs don't have a superstar who can carry the load. There's also no way that 6'6" Dejuan Blair can credibly guard Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum for extended minutes. Like the Celtics of last year, I think the Spurs will be too old and tired and they will miss having a a superstar who can take over and score points when they really need it.

 
At Saturday, February 26, 2011 2:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I am working on an article about some of the key trades and I am also working on a separate article about the Spurs; those two articles will address the issues/questions you raised in your two comments.

 
At Saturday, February 26, 2011 8:57:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Looking forward to those two articles.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home