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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Kobe Bryant's Missed Shots and the Torrent of "Psycho-Basketball Analysis" That They Unleashed

Knowledge, wisdom, understanding like King Solomon's wealth
You're a player but only because you be playin' yourself...
Always fakin' moves, never makin' moves--"Ya Playin' Yaself," Jeru the Damaja, 1994

I am mad at Kobe Bryant. All he had to do in game one of the NBA Finals was hit a few more shots that he normally makes and then sensible basketball observers would not be subjected to reams of "psycho-basketball analysis" from people who don't understand psychology or basketball--but Bryant shot 9-26 from the field instead of 12-26 or 13-26 and thus the so-called, self-proclaimed experts have figured out everything about life, basketball and the 2007-08 NBA MVP: Ray Allen is a Kobe-stopper, Bryant should have driven to the hoop more often, Bryant forced shots because the Boston crowd was cheering for Paul Pierce, Bryant stopped trusting his teammates, Bryant is to blame for high gasoline prices, blah, blah, blah. You want to know how twisted this whole scenario is? I fell in to the same trap in the first sentence of this post, blaming Bryant for the fruits of other people's ignorance. Is it his fault that people write and say stupid things after he misses some shots? Of course not. These critics, these so-called analysts--they're all just playing themselves because they have no knowledge, wisdom or understanding.

If Ray Allen is such a Kobe-stopper then why did the Celtics repeatedly tilt the floor defensively toward Bryant? Why did they send a big man over from the weak side to deter Bryant from driving into the paint? Why did the Celtics rotate several different primary defenders on to Bryant during the course of the game? Elite defenders like Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Tayshaun Prince usually have the primary duty on Bryant for most of the game, though they of course also receive plenty of weak side help. The reality is that Allen's job during the period of time when he is the primary defender on Bryant is to do his best to make it difficult for Bryant to get into the paint (knowing that he has help behind him and thus can play Bryant tightly), not go for pump fakes, not foul and contest Bryant's shots to the best of his ability. Allen did all of those things pretty well in game one but the bottom line is that Bryant missed a lot of shots that he normally makes, shots that he has made during his entire career and especially during the first 15 games of this year's playoffs.

Kobe Bryant's shot selection is subject to a play by play microscopic evaluation that I have never seen applied to any other player of his status; literally every time he shoots--or doesn't shoot--someone questions his judgment and motivations, alternately suggesting that he is either forcing the issue or else playing too passively in order to allegedly make some kind of point. All great scorers are expected to shoot the ball 20-plus times a game and shots that would rightly be termed "forced" if someone else took them are not forced if they are shots that the great player has a reasonable chance of making or if the shot clock is winding down and there are no other good options left. Was every single shot that Bryant took in game one an absolutely optimal shot? Of course not. Any player in the history of the NBA who shoots more than 20 times a game will naturally end up taking some less than optimal shots. The only significant and relevant thing to say about Bryant's shot selection in game one is that the vast majority of the shots that Bryant took were shots that he can reasonably be expected to make. Also, the theory that he was forcing shots simply does not hold up when one recalls that he passed up two wide open three point attempts in order to spoonfeed Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for layups. Assists from Bryant accounted for three of Gasol's six made field goals and other Bryant passes to Gasol led to free throw attempts for Gasol or wide open shots that Gasol missed. Frankly, Bryant forced more passes than shots in game one, because a couple of his turnovers came from trying to deliver the ball in tight quarters.

The idea that Bryant should drive into the heart of the Celtics' halfcourt defense is asinine. Of course, Bryant should drive when he has opportunities to do so, either in the half court or in transition--and he did both of those things in game one. However, if he drives into the paint against a set defense he will end up committing a charging foul, turning the ball over or getting a lower percentage shot than the midrange jumpers that he elected to take. Bryant drove on several occasions in the wake of screen/roll plays and those drives led to high percentage scoring opportunities either for Bryant or one of his teammates. In other situations, Bryant countered the aggressive defense of his primary defender by using fakes, quick dribble moves and spin moves to create enough separation to get open midrange jumpers. The bottom line is that he made the right plays for the most part but he did not make enough shots. Bryant and the Lakers need to shoot .450 or better from the field to win this series. It is interesting that no one seems to have figured out that a major reason that Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and others were able to get open looks is the attention that Bryant drew; when considering Bryant's effectiveness it is important to not just look at his field goal percentage but also the field goal percentage of his teammates. For instance, after one Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play, Bryant turned the corner and five Celtic defenders had at least one foot in the paint, so he passed to Sasha Vujacic, who got fouled behind the three point line when Kevin Garnett ran back out to him. If Bryant were not such a big threat then Vujacic's defender would simply stay home and Vujacic would get much fewer open looks. Of course, it is a lot easier for the so-called experts to simply anoint Allen a Kobe-stopper; that takes a lot less energy and effort than actually watching the game with some understanding of what is happening.

As for the idea that Bryant started playing differently in response to Pierce's return to action after his brief absence due to a knee injury, here is what Bryant did in the possessions right after Pierce came back in the game at the 5:04 mark of the third quarter:

4:51: Bryant drives past Allen, gets into the paint and shoots a running hook that goes halfway down and comes out.

4:26: Gasol slips the screen with Bryant and cuts to the hoop, but Pierce steals Bryant's bounce pass to Gasol.

4:13: Instead of shooting a three pointer with a defender running at him, Bryant feeds Odom for a layup.

3:40: As mentioned above, Bryant runs a screen/roll with Gasol, collapses Boston's defense and his pass to Vujacic leads to a foul and three made free throws.

3:12: Bryant gets a defensive rebound, passes ahead to Derek Fisher and receives a return pass that he finishes with a fast break dunk.

2:28: After Fisher aimlessly dribbles around for 18 seconds, Bryant receives the ball with six seconds left on the shot clock, fakes the Kobe-stopper out of his shorts and drills a turnaround baseline jumper over Allen and Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett just before the shot clock expires. That shot puts the Lakers up 71-69, even though they had been outrebounded by double digits up to that point.

Pay attention to the next two entries, because they were the turning point in the game:

1:33: Odom receives the ball on the right wing, drives into traffic, does not see that the much smaller Rondo is checking Bryant due to a rotation and Odom attempts a weak reverse layup that is blocked by P.J. Brown. Hubie Brown often says that in the NBA if you miss a layup the other team will score within a few seconds. Sure enough, the Celtics get the rebound, push the ball up the court and find Pierce in transition for an open three pointer. The Celtics never trail again.

1:10: Gasol sets a screen for Bryant, rolls to the hoop and Bryant hits him in stride with a pass. Garnett meets Gasol at the rim and Gasol throws up a soft, underhand shot that he starts at his waist and that has no chance of going in or drawing a foul. The Celtics again rebound the miss, push the ball up the court and find Pierce in transition for an open three pointer.

Yet some idiot asserts that Bryant forced shots in response to Pierce's return and gullible fools accept this as gospel.

Side note: I definitely don't think that Pierce was faking or even milking his injury. The wheelchair seems a bit over the top in light of how quickly he returned to action but it was not as over the top as when Dwyane Wade was wheeled off for a shoulder injury. NFL linebacker Chris Spielman once vowed that if he ever had to be helped off of the field he would retire--and when that happened he was true to his word--but most athletes don't think that way any more. Also, teams tend to be more cautious, so with Pierce in so much pain right after the initial blow it is understandable that the medical staff did not want him to put weight on that leg. That said, I think that Pierce's return was fueled by adrenaline and that the rest of the series will be a much tougher go for him. A 68 win Celtics team in 1973 saw their championship dreams come up short when John Havlicek injured his shoulder and the 2004 Lakers fell to the Pistons after Karl Malone suffered a knee injury not unlike Pierce's, so there is certainly precedent for an injury playing a role in deciding which team wins the title.

It should be readily apparent from the plays that I have already described that Bryant hardly stopped trusting his teammates in game one. In fact, he created numerous scoring opportunities for them throughout the contest. The Lakers don't have to make radical changes to win game two; they simply have to convert a higher percentage of open shots. Also, Gasol and Odom need to be more active on the boards, and Fisher, Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic must play better perimeter defense against Pierce, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell.

OK, enough about Bryant's missed shots and all the nonsense that has been said about his performance. The highlight of game one happened about an hour before tipoff when Ahmad Rashad talked with Julius Erving and Bill Russell. The always eloquent Erving spoke about how winning a championship would mean so much for Garnett, Pierce and Allen because it would prevent them from being included in the answer to the trivia question about great players who never won a title. Erving could certainly relate to their desire to avoid that fate; although he won two ABA championships, Erving's 76ers lost in their first three Finals appearances before adding Moses Malone and rolling to the 1983 title when Erving was 33. Rashad compared Boston's acquisition of Garnett to the Sixers' signing of Malone but Erving astutely pointed out some key differences: Garnett came to a Boston team that had been lousy in 2007, while Malone was the final piece for a Sixers team that had won two Eastern Conference championships in the previous three seasons and had lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the other year. As for the Lakers, Erving praised Bryant for embracing the idea that less can be more, involving his teammates in the action early while conserving his energy to be a closer late in the game.

In the early 1980s, Russell was a color commentator during CBS' NBA broadcasts and he had a unique gift for saying a lot in very few words. Here are some of Russell's thoughts about Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett:

Russell on Kobe Bryant: "I'm a big fan of Kobe and I have been for a long, long time. What he's doing is he's asking his team to help him. We all talk about him helping (his teammates). He's asking his team to help him because I think he will describe his career as a winner--that will be his definition, not how many points he got but was he able to help his team play in a way to help him achieve his goals."

This is so true and it was the source of Bryant's much publicized frustration last summer: he knew that he did not have the right teammates around him to help him return the Lakers to the championship level. What has happened since then is an infusion of talent (Gasol, Fisher) plus a heightened sense of dedication by the younger players to match Bryant's work ethic and intensity. As Odom said recently of Bryant, "You try to compete against him, and there's no competing against him. If we have a 10 a.m. practice, Kobe is there at 8:45 preparing to be the best. And some of that has rubbed off on me and my teammates, and that's why I'm sitting here (at the NBA Finals) talking to you today."

Russell on Kevin Garnett: "He has always played with enthusiasm, intelligence and dedication." Russell also said that he used to call Garnett "the loneliest man in the NBA. He's putting everything on the line every night with no results."

Russell's prediction about this series: "Nobody can actually predict what is going to happen. One thing great players bring is presence. Some of these players are great and some of them aren't authentically great. The authentic players will perform at a high degree of efficiency. Who will that be?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:34 AM



At Saturday, June 07, 2008 9:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the criticisms stem from the fact that Kobe ended up with what the Celtics were hoping for, taking tough fadeaway shots. These kinds of shots take Bryant away from offensive rebounding opportunities and is not a good shot for getting shooting fouls.

The Celtics defended Kobe the same way that the Spurs did, keeping him off the freethrow line, and staying home on the shooters. The big difference, is that the Spurs rebounding was pathetic. Allen did exactly what he was supposed to do, try to contest shots, avoid fouling. One could even argue that he didn't buy Kobe's fakes because he couldn't move or react that fast anyway :))

The Celtics do expect Kobe to make a decent amount of those. As long as Kobe doesn't get a lot of extra points, the Celtics think they can take it because of their rebounding.

I don't think there's any psychological analysis to be made here, Kobe took what the defense gave him. He took the same shots he did during the Spurs series.

You can say that Kobe could have made a few more of them, the same could be said about Garnett. He was posting up in the second half, at least more than he usually does, but he just missed some. (was it 8 straight?)

Off topic but: I have noticed a trend recently on how teams are guarding against superstars. They basically let him get his points since double teaming doesn't hurt the superstar as much as tight single coverage hurts the role players. They used to do this against bigmen but recently guards are getting the same treatment. I hope we can discuss this sometime.

Keep up the good work!


At Saturday, June 07, 2008 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Apryl DeLancey said...

I'm hoping that Kobe was just having an off day and will be ready to handle business for game 2. He seemed to "get angry" at a few points and get it done but holding back or in slow motion otherwise.

At Saturday, June 07, 2008 2:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good read David.

At Saturday, June 07, 2008 7:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i think kobe has played great in playoffs i dont know where you get people is killing at nobody has critcized kobe for game 1 really he didnt play great he needs to give celts they due for that he mid 30's shooting 3 games it's the clinton defense all great players have deny at all cost. nobody in boston should be cocky he is still kobe he will play better without question. i just dont understand youre defense of his every shot david you claim youre not a fan but when other superstars have got critcized you dont defend them this vigourously. i think kobe cool and all and so is lebron but if they get killed and critcized it's part of the game.

At Saturday, June 07, 2008 8:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Boston wants Kobe to take jumpers only because the alternative--having him get to the hoop for layups/free throws--is worse. However, Kobe is an excellent midrange shooter, so he is more than capable of making those shots.

I agree that no psychological analysis is necessary; perhaps you have been fortunate enough to avoid reading/hearing all of the psychoanalytical garbage that is being said about Kobe in the wake of game one. To paraphrase an old line, the people who are saying these things are so wack I won't even call out their names, but I wrote this post to refute such nonsense. The Celtics may very well win the series and Kobe may not end up shooting a great percentage but if those things happen it won't be for the idiotic reasons that have been suggested by some fools.

KG has a history of disappearing in the clutch and not being a go-to scorer, so his fourth quarter fade is less surprising than Kobe missing midrange shots.

The classic dilemma with a great player--big or small--is whether to try to shut him down and live with what his teammates do or whether to try to shut everyone else down and live with him getting 40 or 50 points. The correct approach to take depends on a lot of variables, including how good a passer the superstar is, how good his teammates are, what kind of defensive team you have (whether or not you have good one on one defenders, good help defenders, good shot blockers, etc.) and also how good a team you are offensively; if you can score a lot of points then you may take the approach of shutting everyone else down because even if the star gets 50 his teammates will not be able to get 50 also. If the Celtics want to win games in the 85-90 point range it is risky to have Kobe get 45 or 50 because Gasol, Odom and the others could easily still get 35 or 40 in that scenario.

At Sunday, June 08, 2008 1:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Kobe shot poorly in game one but his defense and decision making were good. Of course, he needs to shoot better for the Lakers to win the series.

The regular season games have nothing to do with game one. Kobe shot 9-21 in one game and 6-25 in the other. The 9-21 is only a little worse than his normal percentage, while the 6-25 was his worst shooting game of the year--an aberration. In game one Kobe missed shots that he normally makes. If Kobe shoots that way for the entire series, that is something different but I don't expect that to happen, particularly if he gets the same looks he got in game one.

I wrote this post in response to some specific, idiotic things that some people said about Kobe's performance and his alleged motivations.

In previous posts, I have "defended" LeBron, Nowitzki and T-Mac--among others--when I thought that they received unwarranted criticism.

At Sunday, June 08, 2008 11:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellant analysis!!...i thought that i was the only one who was puzzled by the so-called "experts" who harped on kobewankinobi"s "bad" game.....i felt his "game" was good overall--he just missed shots he normally makes...the real culprit was below-average rebounding--which gave lakers few 2nd chance oppt's and allowed c's to have 2,3,4 chances to score..polo>

At Sunday, June 08, 2008 7:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

reality is kobe will play better aginst boston tonight the mainstream media isnt really killing kobe anymore because he has shot 50 percent in playoffs or was at least he still should be around 50 percent.

boston plays good d on kobe ive seen but the 9-21 tells me kobe should play better and shoot better and is capable of doing it. but they played him well in game 1 pau gasol is classic european soft player he is very skilled but soft lamar hs too show up as well.

At Sunday, June 08, 2008 10:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

all he had to do was make a few more...

ok so what if he had missed a few more... 6 for 26 or 5 for 26?

as chuck daly said youre no better or no worse than your reeord ....same with shooting %

At Monday, June 09, 2008 4:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree--and Kobe's shooting percentage in the playoffs is around .500, which is why game one of the Finals can rightly be considered an aberration. In game two he shot 11-23, a .478 percentage against the league's best defense. The two regular season games versus Boston have no bearing on this series. Kobe made good decisions in game one but shot poorly; he made good decisions in game two and shot a percentage more in line with his overall playoff performance this season.

When I said that all Kobe had to do is make a few more my point was that those are shots that Kobe normally makes and several of them went halfway down and came out. He was not taking crazy shots that he has no chance of making. I'm not disputing his percentage in game one or saying that he did not shoot poorly; all I said is that there is no logical reason to expect him to continue to miss those shots.

At Monday, June 09, 2008 3:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article is a good example of the truly idiotic "analysis" that David was rightly mocking:


Maybe a separate post to ridicule that column? The sheer amount of idiocy & wrong statements in it is impressive -- at one point he says Pierce has "done a fabulous job defending Bryant."

That's news to Ray Allen, I'm sure.

At Monday, June 09, 2008 6:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There is so much nonsense being written and said that I can't even attempt to answer each and every item. What I do in posts like this one is list several stupid/incorrect ideas that seem to be gaining a lot of traction and then I debunk them.

What I see regularly is that national media outlets (print and broadcast) as well as many beat writers and national columnists get fixated on a certain idea or theme and then they slant everything that they say to support that theme, even if most of the evidence contradicts them. You can see this in the way that highlight packages are put together and in the way that many articles are put together. When I go to cover games, I will hear writers ask a certain stupid question before the game, the coach or player will refute the writer's idea, nothing that happens in the game supports the writer's theory, he will ask a similar question after the game to get a quote and then he will frame his story as if his "theme" actually was the dominant concept during the game.

One example of this is Henry Abbott's assertion about Ray Allen somehow controlling Bryant one on one defensively. The Celtics are a great strong side defensive team that is strongly tilting toward Bryant, as I have detailed consistently. It is simply and obviously incorrect to assert that Allen is guarding Bryant one on one. Allen's job is to try to deny Bryant driving lanes and to contest his shots without fouling but Allen knows that he can shade Bryant certain ways because he has help. You could see than on the very first possession of game two when Perkins abandoned Odom to double Kobe in the post.

Yet Abbott brought up the theme of Allen's supposedly great one on one defense in his recent "recaps" of the two regular season games, he asked a question about it after game one and he asked Tex Winter about it between games one and two. Allen declined taking credit for stopping Bryant one on one, Winter said that Allen plays good defense but that the Celtics have a team concept and that Bryant missed shots in game one that he can make but yet Abbott keeps mentioning Bryant's shooting percentage in the two regular season games plus game one. Talk about a selective sample! The two regular season games were more than six months ago, they took place several weeks apart, Bynum had just become a starter and Gasol was not a Laker. Do you think the Celtics might have been able to focus in a little more intently on Kobe in those situations? Kobe had his worst shooting game of the year in one of those contests, which of course greatly skews the numbers if you lump that game in with the other game and with game one of the playoffs. Maybe that 6-25 game is significant but looking at Kobe's performance throughout the season and in the first three rounds of the playoffs it sure looks like an aberration. Kobe's 9-21 in the other regular season game was only marginally below his regular season shooting percentage. Kobe's 30 points on 11-23 shooting in game two should put to rest the idea that the Celtics--let alone Ray Allen by himself--can stop him but that does not fit the "theory" so some other explanation will be offered.

A much more interesting and accurate theme is one that I have explored in several posts during the playoffs: the Celtics and Spurs guarded LeBron James much differently than they guarded Kobe. Against LeBron they both played soft, giving him open jumpers and clogging the passing lanes. Against Kobe they trap hard on the pick and rolls because they know that they cannot give him open jumpers. Kobe picked the Spurs apart with his midrange jumper and his passing and I expected him to do the same against Boston. However, in game one Kobe missed open shots and in game two the Lakers' bench played horribly. If the Lakers consistently run Bryant-Gasol screen/roll plays they will get a ton of easy baskets and if they combine that with some better defense and bench play then they have a chance to turn the series around, even though the historical and statistical odds are against them.


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