Kobe Bryant Feels Like the Old Eric Carmen Song: All by Myself"When I was young, I never needed anyone."--Eric Carmen, "All by Myself"
The last time Kobe Bryant looked this lonely on the basketball court, Bryant was muttering about being armed with "butter knives" in a "gun battle" while Kwame Brown and Smush Parker stumbled and fumbled around. As Pete Vecsey might quip, if the flu-ridden Bryant had not been nauseous prior to game six of the Lakers-Nuggets series he surely was sick to his stomach after that debacle. Bryant scored 31 points on 13-23 field goal shooting in 37 minutes before Coach Mike Brown waved the white flag and sat Bryant down early in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets buried the Lakers under a barrage of fast break layups and wide open three pointers. Bryant could have easily scored 40-plus points even though he needed multiple bags of intravenous fluids to replenish his body after spending the day vomiting because of gastroenteritis. The oddsmakers and various pundits classified the Lakers as legit title contenders before this season began but I wrote that the "Lakers look a lot like the 2006 and 2007 squads that needed superhuman efforts from Bryant just to win games." While I picked the Lakers to win this series--and I still expect them to do so (the Denver role players who thrived at home will not likely repeat those performances on the road in game seven, while Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum surely will compete at least a little harder)--I also noted that "this matchup has more than a slight whiff of upset in the air."
Bynum and Gasol shrank right before our eyes during Denver's 113-96 win. The "stat gurus" and various misinformed media members keep saying that the Lakers' strength is their size--but if that is true then how is it possible that these two supposedly elite big men are being outplayed, outhustled and embarrassed by a frontcourt led by an undersized rookie power forward (Kenneth Faried) and a raw prospect (JaVale McGee) whose most (in)famous NBA play prior to this series was running back on defense while his team still had possession of the ball? Gasol scored three points on 1-10 field goal shooting and grabbed three rebounds in 29 minutes in game six, while Bynum sleepwalked his way (literally, as he loped up and down the court while various Nuggets sped past him) to 11 points on 4-11 field goal shooting in 30 minutes. Bynum, who is significantly bigger and stronger than anyone else playing in this series, did manage to snare 16 rebounds, though several of those caroms came as he gained control of his own point blank misses. Bynum's overall numbers during this series may not look bad on a "stat guru's" spreadsheet but as a purportedly dominant big man he is supposed to be dominating McGee, not watching as McGee dunks on him from various different angles.
This is the second subpar postseason in a row for Gasol; it is no accident that the Lakers tried to trade him prior to this season and it is obvious that his value will only continue to diminish. Since the "stat gurus" are so in love with Gasol perhaps the best hope for the Lakers is that they will find a way to peddle Gasol to Houston's Daryl Morey, who apparently believes that Gasol can be a first option player for a Rockets team that has yet to advance past the first round despite Morey's much-praised mastery of "advanced basketball statistics." Bynum appears to have overcome the physical problems that dogged him early in his career but it is far from certain that he will ever develop the appropriate mental/psychological outlook to be a primary contributor to a championship team. Bynum put up Luc Longley numbers--6.3 ppg/3.7 rpg in the 2009 playoffs and 8.6 ppg/6.9 rpg in the 2010 playoffs--during the Lakers' last two championship drives; now his role on the team has greatly expanded but even though he made the All-Star team this season he has consistently struggled to be productive against double teams and his effort on the defensive end of the court varies wildly from game to game, which is unacceptable for someone who the Lakers are hoping will be their franchise player at some point.
I am sure that some fool will declare that Saturday's game seven is the defining moment of Bryant's career or the most important game of his life--I even have more than a vague idea who is dumb enough to express that sentiment--but that is not even close to being true. Kobe Bryant is a 33 year old veteran with more than 50,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes on his odometer; he came within a final night of the season scoring outburst of becoming the oldest player other than Michael Jordan to win an NBA scoring title and during this series he became the only Lakers player at least 33 years old other than Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times) to score 38 or more points in a playoff game--a feat that Bryant has now accomplished twice versus Denver. The list of shooting guards who have had career-defining moments at 33 years old and/or in their 16th seasons is exceedingly short; Bryant established his legacy during his prime by being an All-NBA caliber performer for five championship teams, by setting many individual records and by perennially being selected to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. If Bryant leads this weak Lakers' team to a game seven win that will add another line to his lengthy Hall of Fame resume but failing to win a title as an older player with a non-championship caliber team is hardly something that will diminish Bryant's legacy in any way--particularly if he continues to shine individually even as his teammates shamefully shrink from the challenge.
It is hardly an encouraging sign for the Lakers that Bryant says that Metta World Peace--whose seven game suspension ends just in time for him to participate in game seven--is "the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with a sense of urgency and play with no fear. So, I'm looking forward to having him by my side again." That comment will no doubt result in some backlash against Bryant for being a bad teammate (apparently no one remembers--or cares--that Larry Bird once called his teammates "a bunch of sissies" after a blowout loss in the playoffs).
Longtime NBA assistant coach Johnny Bach once described a young Michael Jordan's playing style to me by saying that Jordan would "attack the citadels": Jordan would go over, around or through any obstacle. Kobe Bryant has had more than a few "attack the citadels" moments--including scoring 62 points in three quarters versus a championship caliber Dallas team and pouring in an astonishing 81 points against Toronto--but no one can "attack the citadels" forever and Bryant himself is the first to admit that the Lakers will not win the 2012 championship if they expect him to score 40 points night after night; now would be an excellent time for the 24 year old Bynum to attack some citadels, particularly since he is hardly matched up against legendary individual opponents--and this would also be an excellent time for Gasol to make his presence felt in some tangible fashion.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:29 AM