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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Injury Hobbles Kobe Bryant as Warriors Beat the Lakers

The L.A. Lakers have some promising players and the bench has played well this season--but anyone who thinks that Kobe Bryant's contributions are not vitally important to the team's success should have watched the closing moments of Golden State's come from behind 108-106 victory over the Lakers on Friday night. Bryant suffered a groin pull (though some early reports called it a slight tear in his left quadriceps) in the fourth quarter as the Lakers clung to a small lead against a team that they had beaten in 14 of their previous 15 games, including a 123-113 decision last Sunday. Bryant led both teams with 28 points and eight assists in that game while also playing a big role in holding Baron Davis to three points in the second half.

On Friday, Davis struggled for most of the game before scoring eight points in the final 3:19 and delivering a key assist during that time. He finished with 22 points (6-15 field goal shooting), six assists, three rebounds and three steals. Al Harrington also scored 22 points, Stephen Jackson added 20 and Monta Ellis contributed 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Bryant had 21 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one blocked shot but he shot just 6-23 from the field, including 0-4 after he sustained his injury. Lamar Odom had 18 points, 15 rebounds and five assists but did not distinguish himself down the stretch, while Andrew Bynum authored yet another double double (17 points on 8-10 shooting, 16 rebounds).

Bryant struggled with his shot during Friday's game even before he got hurt but ESPN's ubiquitous microphones did a good job of capturing the impact of Bryant's verbal leadership on the Lakers' defense; as Coach Phil Jackson noted, this is an exceptional role for a shooting guard to assume because usually a team's defense is led by a dominant big man who is stationed deep in the paint (because all of the action happens in front of such a player, who can call out picks and alert his teammates to everything that is happening).

With Bryant's mobility drastically curtailed in the closing moments, the Lakers truly faced a no-win situation: leave him on the court and hope that he could gut it out and lead the team to victory or relegate him to the bench and count on Odom to take command; as it turned out, neither plan worked. For several possessions, Bryant kept waving to the bench to not take him out of the game but at one point during a stoppage of play he went up to Odom and, according to ESPN's broadcasting crew of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, told him that he would have to step up because of Bryant's injury. On offense, Bryant set screens, directed traffic and missed a few standstill jumpers but it was clear that he could not make any explosive moves; he did manage to sucker Stephen Jackson into fouling him on a jump shot but he only split that pair of free throws, giving the Lakers a 103-98 lead with 2:38 left. Bryant did his best to stay with Davis next time down the court but he got picked off by Jackson; Luke Walton switched but Davis faked him out and buried a three pointer to pull the Warriors to within two points.

Derek Fisher used a Bryant screen to get open on the next possession but Fisher missed a running bank shot. Davis caught the outlet pass at three quarter court and simply blew by the limping Bryant, eventually feeding Jackson for a reverse layup. Phil Jackson decided to remove Bryant from the game with the score tied and 1:27 left, giving everyone a good glimpse of what the Lakers would look like without Bryant. Fisher split a pair of free throws that resulted from a loose ball foul that was committed right before Bryant sat down. The Lakers played decent defense on the next possession but Andris Biedrins tipped in Ellis' missed jumper to put Golden State up, 105-104. Some people say that Bryant is holding Odom back and that the ball should be in his hands more often; well, those people got their wish, a decision that Mark Jackson immediately criticized: "I say bring in your best player and allow him to create a mismatch or get someone else an open shot." Instead, Odom received a dribble handoff outside the three point line with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. He spent the next ten seconds dribbling aimlessly before stumbling into the lane and wildly flinging the ball off of the backboard. Trevor Ariza was wide open on the baseline; granted, Ariza is not a great jump shooter but what Odom threw up had zero chance of going in. After that disastrous possession, Davis hit a three pointer to effectively seal the win for Golden State.

I'm not saying that the Lakers would have automatically won if Bryant had been healthy; Davis made some clutch shots and maybe he would have made them right in Bryant's face--but if Bryant had not been hobbled then Davis would have had a tougher time and the Lakers would not have had two offensive possessions end in an Odom shot that defies description or explanation and a difficult runner by Fisher. Bryant would have either taken those shots himself or created a wide open shot for a teammate by breaking down the defense with dribble penetration. Without Bryant's ability to create off of the dribble on offense and guard the other team's top perimeter player on defense, the Lakers--for all of their improvements--are not a great team or even a good one. Scoring runs by bench players against bench players in the middle of games are great and they provide opportunities to rest Bryant and keep him fresh to close out games but those bench players--or even the other starters--are not going to be taking over late in the fourth quarter of close games. Bynum had a strong game but without Bryant to either attract the defense or feed him the ball he is not a crunch time scoring option at this stage of his career.

In addition to the Kobe Bryant-Manu Ginobili storyline in Thursday night's Lakers-Spurs game, another interesting subplot in that game was the pace, which is always an important factor when Golden State is involved--but not necessarily the way that a lot of people think that it is; I recently pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, teams should not be afraid to run against the Warriors. That led to an interesting discussion in the comments section of that post about the significance of pace as a strategic factor in the NBA. Prior to the Lakers-Spurs game, TNT's Doug Collins listed four keys that he thought would determine the outcome and one of them was tempo (which is another way of saying pace); Collins explained that the Lakers were 11-3 when scoring at least 100 points (studio analyst Charles Barkley added that the Spurs could only win if they kept the score in the high 70s or low 80s, because without Duncan and Parker they did not have enough firepower to score enough in a fast paced game). Sure enough, the Spurs led after a low scoring first quarter (19-18) but fell behind in the second quarter when the Lakers sped the game up to take a 51-43 halftime lead en route to a 102-97 victory.

How did pace figure into Friday's game? Obviously, the Bryant injury skews things, because the Lakers scored just 21 points in the fourth quarter after putting up 28, 26 and 31 in the previous three. However, prior to when Bryant got hurt, we saw plenty of evidence that reaffirms what I have been saying about this. For instance, consider two first quarter plays: first, Odom faced up Stephen Jackson on the wing, held the ball (allowing the defense to get set) and then drove; Baron Davis stripped the ball and five seconds later Ellis converted a fast break layup. On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant attacked the paint with a drive in transition before the defense could get set. Even though he missed his initial shot he was able to get the rebound because the Warriors' defense was all scrambled. Bryant got fouled and made both free throws. When the Warriors set up their half court defense they take advantage of their quick hands and their tenacity to cause problems even though they are undersized and sometimes have mental lapses; in contrast, their transition from offense to defense is much slower than vice versa, so there are plenty of opportunities to score on them in fast break or even semi-fast break situations before they are able to set up their traps and rotations. When teams try to slow the game down against Golden State what happens is that they spend 20 seconds fighting to get off a shot against quick defenders who have active hands--and then the Warriors get the rebound and race down court to score a layup (or an uncontested three pointer) in just a few seconds; that was last year's Golden State-Dallas series in a nutshell, with Dallas trying to fight trench warfare and Golden State answering with a lightning fast attack.

If you think that coaches are not concerned about pace/tempo or if you think that Phil Jackson does not believe that the Lakers can run on Golden State, consider what he said to Ric Bucher after the first quarter, when the Lakers led 28-19: "We've gotten the play at the pace we want. One shot and done (defensively) and we're pacing the game the way that we want to pace it." In other words, he was happy that the Lakers were on pace to score 112 points. You might think that any coach would be happy with that but keep in mind that when the Lakers almost upset the Suns in the 2006 playoffs, Jackson used the "Inside Man" strategy of slowing the game down and going inside because he knew that the Lakers could not beat the Suns in a fast paced game. Most teams have to slow the game down against the Suns because the Suns are so efficient in an uptempo game; the Warriors' shot selection and accuracy are not as good as the Suns', so it is possible to successfully run against them.

The next part of the interview had nothing to do with pace or anything else in this post but it is too funny to not reprint here. Bucher asked what would be the key to limiting the Lakers' turnovers and Jackson smiled wryly as he offered this priceless answer: "Don't bring the ball in traffic. Kobe's having a hard time handling it right now. It's a highly pumped ball. It's a taut ball, so it's a little bit quicker than usual." Bryant had two assists and three turnovers in the first quarter and when Bucher later asked him what adjustment he made to stop turning the ball over (Bryant had two turnovers in the last three quarters), Bryant did not use the "taut ball" defense but simply said, "Hold on to the damn ball."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:33 AM



At Sunday, December 16, 2007 5:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David, long time reader - love the blog.

I agree Kobe's injury left the Lakers without a crunch time scorer but our (im a die hard Laker fan btw) offensive execution was terrible down the stretch even with Kobe in there.
As much as Bynum's game is still raw he has no problem scoring on the small front line that the Warriors put out. The problem is he rarely gets the ball even when he has good post position. Kobe is a great post entry passer (something he did to great effect with Shaq) but he only seems to pass to Bynum when he can catch and finish either with alley oop plays or drive and dishes. Bynum put some great post moves on Biedrins the last week when they played and with his size advantage could pretty much score at will with just a power dribble and a jump hook. I beileve thats where we should have gone for our offense late in the game especially with Kobe shooting so badly even before the injury. Both Davis and Jackson played Kobe as well as i've seen and if Kobe has one flaw in his game its his need to show that he cant be stopped. He missed a wide open Bynum under the hoop late in the game to force an off balance long jumper with two defenders on him.
In crunch time i'd like to see us go to post ups especially against small teams like the Warriors, we have Kobe, Lamar and Bynum who can get quality shots in the post and also find cutters or shooters if they are doubled. Why we continued to dribble around the permiter and allow the Warriors to use their speed advantage on defense was vey puzzling and frustrating for this Laker fan.
Having said that when you're up 6 or 8 with 3 mins to go all you really need to do is get stops, so why Luke Walton was in there instead of Ariza is crazy. Ariza played well last week against the Warriors and is a very disruptive defender, he also makes an impact offensively without needing the ball in his hands to create unlike Walton. I like Lukes game but with Kobe clearly struggling defensively Ariza should have been out there to close out the game.
Anyway thats enough rambling from me, this is the most frustrating loss i've endured this season and im really liking the way my team is looking this year. Thanks for letting me sound off.

At Wednesday, December 19, 2007 10:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW ... I enjoyed reading your hoopshype article yesterday about Thunder Dan. In general, I think you do a good job with the "profiles" you write about real life people involved with basketball.

Keep up your good work, in that area. :-)

Live Long & Prosper


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