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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 single-handedly 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:18 PM