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

Monday, May 01, 2006

Virtuoso Artists Kobe and LeBron Make the Playoffs a Joy to Watch

The NBA playoffs will culminate in June with the Finals, most likely featuring a rematch between San Antonio and Detroit (don't sleep on New Jersey, as I mentioned in my playoff preview, but that's a subject for another day). The Finals are a celebration of two finely tuned quintets playing in perfect harmony. In the first round we are seeing two virtuoso soloists perform wondrous feats.

Neither Kobe Bryant nor LeBron James figure to be playing basketball in June when the NBA title is decided. Most likely, Detroit and San Antonio will be the two teams left standing at that time; the first round of the playoffs is just a warm-up for them. There is a reason that, given a choice of games to broadcast in the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs, ABC kicked off its coverage on Saturday April 22 with LeBron—I mean Cleveland—versus Washington and then featured Kobe—I mean the Lakers—versus Phoenix on Sunday April 23.

There are interesting storylines in each playoff series, but everyone—from diehard fans to casual observers—wants to see how LeBron James plays in his first postseason series and how Kobe Bryant does in his first playoff series without Shaquille O’Neal. With every step now James is entering new territory—his first playoff game, his first “second” playoff game (i.e., his first game involving the kind of adjustments that can only be made in the postseason when you face the same team over a one to two week stretch) and his first road playoff game. Soon he will participate in his first elimination game.

James’ first playoff game was nothing short of breathtaking—in a 97-86 win he completely controlled the game to such an extent that it is easy to overlook that he forced some shots, shooting only 12-27 from the field. The eye tends to not dwell on shooting percentage when there are other gaudy numbers to peruse, such as 32-11-11-48, his points, rebounds, assists and minutes. He is the second youngest player to have a postseason triple double and just the third player to have one in his first playoff game.

James had a bit of a setback in game two, producing 26 points and nine rebounds but only two assists in an 89-84 loss. When James wryly noted that he narrowly missed another triple double—he had 10 turnovers—it was clear that neither his confidence nor his sense of humor had been shaken. Washington’s newfound grip on home court advantage did not last long because James scored 41 points in game three, the most an NBA player has ever scored in his first road playoff contest, breaking the mark of 40 points held by David Thompson and Kelly Tripucka. He shot 16-28 from the field and had five rebounds and three assists. The low assist total is deceptive because he made some great passes that were followed by missed shots—a problem that has afflicted Bryant throughout the year. ESPN commentator Steve Jones noted the obvious—to get an assist the recipient of the pass must make the shot. James made a brilliant pass to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who hit a short shot to tie the game at 67. The ball whizzed by the ear of Wizards’ center Brendan Haywood like it had been shot out of a cannon yet arrived so softly in Ilgauskas’ hands that it seemed like the pass was laser guided. After Gilbert Arenas’ spectacular three point play gave the Wizards a 96-95 lead with only 23 seconds to go, James bulldozed to the hoop and muscled in the game winning basket with less than six seconds left.

Other than Wizards’ fans it is hard to imagine that anyone is disappointed by James’ first three playoff games. What will he do in his second road playoff game? Before the playoffs began I suggested (at 20 Second Timeout) that this series would return to Cleveland knotted at two, that James would have a tremendous game five to lead Cleveland to victory and that the Cavs would close out the series in six in Washington. That still sounds about right; Washington’s “Big Three” figures to have a great performance in game four and the Cavaliers do not seem quite ready to take this series by the throat with two consecutive road wins.

Kobe Bryant’s scoring feats this year are only matched by Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. We all know the numbers—81 points in a game, outscoring Dallas 62-61 for three quarters, averaging 35.4 ppg (eighth best ever) while having 27 games of 40-plus points, including six games of 50-plus points. Critics have sniped that anyone could score 81 against Toronto but that begs the question of why no one in the six decade history of the NBA has scored more points in a game except for Chamberlain. Purists cringed at how many times Bryant shot the ball but anyone who watched the team play realized that if Bryant did not do this then the Lakers had no chance to win. His teammates were simply not equipped to pick up the scoring slack. When the Lakers visited Cleveland for a March 19 game against the Cavaliers, Phil Jackson told me that Bryant’s field goal attempts and scoring would decline as soon as the rest of the team mastered the triangle. This is happening just in the nick of time—against Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs.

Jackson’s game plan against the Suns is to attack Phoenix inside for most of the game while using Bryant as a facilitator and then to have Bryant “finish” the game at the end, either by scoring or by drawing double teams and passing to open shooters. After three games the Lakers are up 2-1. Bryant is averaging 22.7 ppg in the series but has increased his assists to 5.7 apg from 4.5 apg in the regular season. All five Lakers starters have scored at least 10 points in two games after doing so only three times in 82 games in the regular season. Bryant’s willingness to execute Jackson’s game plan makes those who have questioned Bryant’s desire to win look very foolish. Also, Jackson has done a fantastic coaching job, not only coming up with the right approach to take against Phoenix but developing his players’ skills over the course of the season so that the team is peaking at the right time. Jackson and his staff have helped guys like Kwame Brown and Smush Parker play far better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Even Lamar Odom, always a talented player, has played better down the stretch and in the playoffs than he has previously played during his career.

When Bryant passed the ball to the other Lakers early in the year—or when he was resting on the bench—the results were not good because his teammates were tentative and ineffective. Bryant’s prodigious scoring carried this team to the postseason. Now, after a season of Jackson’s coaching, the other players are ready to step up and Bryant is proving that what he has said all along is true—his primary concern is winning games, not padding his statistics.

After a close loss in game one, Bryant scored 29 points (12-24 from the field), had a game-high 10 rebounds and had five assists in L.A.’s 99-93 win in game two, swiping home court advantage from the second seeded Suns. Since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 16 teams in 1983-84, the seventh seeded teams are 53-130 (.290) in games versus the second seeded teams and have won only four of 44 series (.091). The Lakers are a long way from winning the series but what they have already accomplished thus far is quite a testament to Jackson’s coaching and Bryant’s abilities. To this point we are not getting the scoring show that we expected from Bryant in the postseason but we are watching something that is even more impressive and meaningful—the best player on the court controlling the game and leading his team to victory against a deeper, favored opponent that is coached by last year’s Coach of the Year and has last year’s (and probably this year’s) winner of the MVP award, Steve Nash.

Bryant had 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds and four steals in L.A.’s 99-92 game three win. Parker led the Lakers with 18 points. Bryant passed the ball beautifully throughout the game, threading the needle on several occasions and delivering sweet behind the back dishes that often led to Phoenix Suns’ fouls against the cutting recipients. A lot of these passes did not become assists because the shots were not converted, but these are winning plays because they led to free throws for the Lakers and foul trouble for the Suns.

The later rounds of the playoffs will offer ample opportunities to appreciate the beauty of two finely tuned five piece orchestras playing in perfect harmony—but right now is the time to savor the stylings of two splendid soloists. Whether they are shooting or passing, it doesn’t get any better for a basketball fan than to watch Bryant and James in action. If we’re lucky, sometime soon the ensembles surrounding them will improve enough so that their encores will reverberate into June.

Postscript: On Sunday afternoon Kobe Bryant added another chapter to his storied career by hitting the game tying shot in regulation and the game winning shot in overtime as the Lakers took a commanding 3-1 lead over the favored Phoenix Suns. Bryant scored 24 points on 9-14 shooting from the field and also had eight assists and four rebounds. This year's MVP race is reminding me more and more of the 1995 duel between eventual winner David Robinson and 1994 MVP Hakeem Olajuwon, who finished fifth in 1995 balloting. Robinson received the MVP before a playoff game versus Olajuwon and Olajuwon absolutely torched him in the game and the series. I'll never forget watching the postgame press conference on TV, Olajuwon and teammate Clyde Drexler giggling like little kids when a reporter asked if Olajuwon deserved the award. "What do you think?" Drexler replied. It has been reported that Steve Nash will win the MVP again this year. Will he receive the award at home before the Suns' next game versus the Lakers? That could be an interesting scene. If the NBA doesn't present it to him then they might have to give it to him in TNT's studios while he poses for one of Kenny Smith's "fishing trips," because very few teams come back from 3-1 deficits and no one has ever done it against a Phil Jackson coached team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM



At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 3:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Arenas is an All-Star and Gordon has had some electrifying performances, but neither player is at the level skillwise of Kobe and LeBron. Also, other than fans of their teams, I don't think that people are tuning in specifically to see them play. As I write in the article, there is a reason that ABC chose the Cavs and Lakers games on opening weekend.

At Friday, May 05, 2006 5:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Gordon is not as effective offensively as LeBron or Kobe. He is much smaller, so he is not a postup threat like those guys are, and he is not nearly as good of a passer. He is a streaky scorer who does not even start most of the time. He is fun to watch, like Eddie House or Earl Boykins, but he is not even an All-Star caliber player, let alone an MVP candidate.

Arenas is definitely All-Star caliber and a borderline MVP candidate, but he also is significantly smaller than LeBron or Kobe. As he himself said about one of LeBron's shots over him in the last game, "6-8 versus 6-3." I like watching Arenas and Gordon play, but neither one is of the same caliber as Kobe or LeBron. That is not a knock against them as much as it is a tribute to how great Kobe and LeBron are.

At Saturday, May 06, 2006 5:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I admit that Arenas was impressive in the playoff series versus the Cavs--and all year long for that matter. He is an excellent player who will probably make the All-Star team for the next several years. Kobe and LeBron are something different, though--they are the best of the best. Think of it this way--if you lined up those three guys and told NBA General Managers that they could only choose one do you honestly think that even one GM would pick Arenas over LeBron or Kobe?

After Memphis got swept by Dallas, Memphis GM Jerry West--who knows a thing or two about being among the best of the best--said that Pau Gasol is an All-Star but not an elite player and that there is a difference between the two. That is the distinction that I am making here--and yes, I realize that Arenas is a better player than Gasol. Also, just because I called Kobe and LeBron virtuosos does not mean that other players cannot be virtuosos as well. I have no problem using that term to describe Arenas. He is a virtuoso--just not at quite the same level as Kobe and LeBron. The premise of the article is that these two guys are doing things that few if any players have done--Kobe's 35 ppg, 81 points, etc. and LeBron's 31-7-7, plus his various records for being the youngest to reach certain statistical plateaus--and that this is the reason that ABC chose to focus its opening week coverage on them. As great as Arenas has been, LeBron had the last word statistically and on the scoreboard.

As for Gordon, part of him being double teamed has to do with who his teammates are versus who House and Boykins' teammates are; nobody is leaving Shawn Marion or Carmelo Anthony to double team House or Boykins, but the Bulls usually have at least one non-shooter on the court with Gordon. I agree that Gordon is better than House and Boykins but he is the same type of player--a sixth man who provides scoring off of the bench. He is a lot closer in skill and playing style to them than he is to Kobe, LeBron or Arenas. Gordon has averaged 16 ppg on 42 percent shooting in two seasons. Boykins has bounced around the league, but in his last two seasons in Denver he has averaged 12.5 ppg on 41 percent shooting. He gets more assists and fewer rebounds than Gordon. House's career numbers are not there with the other two guys, but this year he scored 9.8 ppg in less than 18 minutes per game while shooting 42 percent. His points per minute and shooting percentage are comparable to Gordon and Boykins. I love watching all three of these guys, just like I loved watching old school off the bench gunners like Vinnie Johnson and Dell Curry--but none of those guys are anywhere close to Kobe, LeBron or Arenas.

As for Bryant's passing, I completely disagree. He is a willing and able passer. In order to get assists guys must make baskets. We saw LeBron have a triple double in one game and then have a game where he almost went a whole half without an assist. LeBron didn't suddenly forget how to pass in that game. A lot of times Kobe's good passes are squandered. Also, sometimes he makes the pass that leads to the pass that is an assist. Not sure which open guys you think he missed in the last game, but he passed the ball frequently. Sometimes guys are open because Bryant is being double teamed late in the shot clock and there is not time to make a pass; sometimes guys are left open because they are not likely to make the shot from where they're at on the floor. Look at Smush's percentage in the past couple games; would the Lakers have had a better chance to win with him shooting more and Kobe shooting less? The Lakers were one defensive rebound away from winning and Kobe's off the charts performance is a big reason why they were in position to win the game. Kobe Bryant has got to be the only player in NBA history who can score 50 points on 57 percent field goal shooting with eight rebounds and five assists and be criticized. Look up the other guys who have scored 50 points--let alone 50 points in a playoff game--and see how many shot that kind of percentage. You might be surprised at the shooting percentages put up by all-time greats like West and Rick Barry in some of their high scoring games. If Arenas had that kind of game you might put him up for instant Hall of Fame induction :)

Seriously, did you see the three pointer that Kobe hit that gave the Lakers the lead and should have been the game winner? Who else can hit that kind of shot in that situation? I know that Arenas hit a game tying three in game six from about 27 feet, but Murray was playing well off of him. That was a very good shot, but Kobe hit a fallaway from the corner with guys draped all over him and the shot clock winding down. The shots that he hit in game four to send the game to overtime and then to win the game were simply off of the charts--and Kobe has been doing this for his whole career. He clinched the Lakers' last division title with some amazing shots versus Portland and he prevented the Lakers' from being swept in the 2004 Finals with a game winning three.

At Thursday, May 11, 2006 1:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the 3 Kobe hit in the 2004 finals was not a game winner; it tied the game. (Final score was 99-91 in OT.) you just watch all these games on TV, right?

At Thursday, May 11, 2006 3:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are of course correct that the Bryant three pointer that I referred to from the 2004 Finals tied the game at the end of regulation and was not a "game winner." I should have written that he forced overtime with a game saving three pointer and then made numerous big plays in the overtime. Good catch on your part and I apologize for the error.

Here is a quote from the NBA.com game recap of that particular contest:

"LOS ANGELES, June 8 (Ticker) -- Kobe Bryant figured out the defense of the Detroit Pistons, just in time to save the Los Angeles Lakers' season.

Bryant buried a tying 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation, then took complete control of overtime as the Lakers scrambled for an emotional 99-91 victory over the Pistons that evened the NBA Finals at one game each.

Again showing his outstanding clutch tendencies, Bryant scored 14 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter and overtime as he pulled the Lakers from the brink of facing an obstacle no team had ever overcome.

Los Angeles was seconds from dropping the first two games at home, and no team ever has won the title after doing that."


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