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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bryant Returns to Action, Rescues Lackluster Lakers

Kobe Bryant returned to action after a five game convalescence--six if you count the All-Star Game--and had the most bounce in his step and best accuracy in his shooting eye that he has displayed since a series of injuries began chipping away at his efficiency in early January. Bryant scored a game-high 32 points--including seven in the final 1:39, capped off by the game-winning three pointer with four seconds remaining--grabbed seven rebounds and led the L.A. Lakers with six assists, three steals and two blocked shots in a 99-98 road win versus the Memphis Grizzlies. Bryant shot 13-19 from the field, including 3-4 from three point range, and showed no ill effects from either the sprained left ankle that had finally ended his impressive consecutive games played streak or the assorted other ailments (broken right index finger, back spasms) that have hindered him for the past several weeks. Pau Gasol contributed 22 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots but Bryant did not receive much help from his other teammates: Andrew Bynum scored 15 points but had just four rebounds, while Ron Artest's "bump and run" defense versus Rudy Gay (who scored 17 points on 7-17 field goal shooting) hardly compensated for his dreadful 1-9 field goal shooting (Artest finished with three points). Derek Fisher played solidly (10 points, 3-5 field goal shooting in 31 minutes) but Lamar Odom once again delivered a triple single: five points on 2-6 field goal shooting, three rebounds and two assists in 30 minutes of basketball/sleepwalking. With all of the "advanced statistics" that now exist I wonder if anyone has tracked which player has accumulated the most coast to coast drives ending in an offensive foul and/or some other form of turnover; I suspect that Odom ranks among the league leaders in this category on a per minute basis over the past few years.

O.J. Mayo led the Grizzlies with 25 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, while Zach Randolph added another nice boxscore line to his season-long redemption story, producing 20 points on 8-12 field goal shooting, a game-high 14 rebounds, three assists, four steals and three blocked shots. Marc Gasol--Pau's younger brother--had eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. So many people made jokes about how the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol for nothing but the Lakers shipped Marc Gasol to Memphis as part of that deal and Marc Gasol is already an All-Star caliber player (14.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, .577 field goal shooting this season) at just 25 years of age; that transaction may end up looking a lot less lopsided than, say, the Cleveland Cavaliers getting Antawn Jamison for a late first round draft pick (assuming--and this is very important--that the Cavs are able to re-sign Zydrunas Ilgauskas). The Grizzlies shed Pau Gasol's salary and rebuilt their team around a nice corps of young players, a very sensible course of action once they concluded that they would never win a championship with Pau Gasol as their top player. In contrast, the Cavs obtained two-time All-Star Jamison (remember that Pau Gasol was a one-time All-Star when he came to the Lakers) while giving up a draft pick who may not even turn out to be a productive NBA player.

The Grizzlies had lost six of their previous eight games and trailed 27-16 at the end of the first quarter but the Lakers played dreadfully in the second and third quarters, throwing the ball away carelessly, missing defensive assignments and looking completely disinterested at times. The Lakers trailed 87-82 with 7:59 remaining in the fourth quarter when Bryant reentered the game after his customary brief rest. Bryant's turnaround jumper at the 5:22 mark trimmed Memphis' lead to 91-89 but then the Lakers inexplicably went three minutes without Bryant taking a shot: during that time, Pau Gasol shot 1-4 from the free throw line, Fisher whiffed on two free throw attempts and Ron Artest nearly shattered the backboard with a wide left brick of a three point attempt that looked like it had been fired by a malfunctioning RPG launcher. Then Bryant hit a jumper to make the score 95-92 Memphis with 2:22 remaining but after Rudy Gay split a pair of free throws Odom drove baseline and threw the ball away. Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins received a technical foul after an offensive foul call against Marc Gasol and Bryant drained the resulting free throw to make it a one possession game, 96-93 Memphis. The teams traded misses before Bryant's three pointer tied the score at 96. Gay's jumper put the Grizzlies back on top and after Pau Gasol missed a short jumper Mayo had an opportunity to ice the game at the free throw line but he missed both attempts. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson drew up a slick inbounds play that initially went away from Bryant to get the defense out of position before ultimately resulting in Bryant draining a wide open three pointer. That proved to be Bryant's sixth game-winning shot of the season after Mayo's last second jumper missed the mark.

Just prior to the Lakers going 4-1 sans Bryant, I wrote about some NBA Truths. The Lakers' record during Bryant's brief absence would seem to bolster the case for those who insist that the Lakers have the deepest team in the NBA but I remain skeptical: should we believe what we have seen over the course of a large number of games during the past two years or should we be swayed by what we saw in a five game sample? That is the question concerning Kobe Bryant's "supporting cast." The overall pattern that we have seen with the Lakers is pretty clear: in 2007-08 and the early part of 2008-09, the Lakers had solid depth but were not as talented as a team like the Boston Celtics that had three Hall of Famers (plus, it turns out, a future All-Star point guard) in their starting lineup. Since that time, the Lakers' depth has been depleted by the loss of Ronny Turiaf and Vladimir Radmanovic (productive role players whose roster spots are now filled by Josh Powell and Adam Morrison) plus the declining effectiveness of Luke Walton (who has been hampered by injuries), Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic. The Lakers are more talented now--their regular starting lineup of Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum (who has been healthy for the most part this season, in contrast to 2007-08 and 2008-09), Pau Gasol and Ron Artest has a nice mix of size, length, shooting skill, postup options and playmaking--but anyone who says that they are a deep team simply has not been paying attention.

So what should we make of the Lakers' 4-1 record during Bryant's absence? The first and most important point is that it cannot be emphasized enough that this was a small sample size of games; the dreadful New York Knicks had a five game stretch this season during which they went 4-1: does that prove anything other than in a long NBA season a lot of anomalous events can happen? The second point is that Gasol and Odom had monster rebounding efforts during Bryant's absence; there is no doubt that in certain matchup situations the Lakers enjoy advantages due to their frontcourt length but by the same token we have seen many instances of Odom inexplicably disappearing and/or Gasol reacting timidly when faced with big, strong, aggressive players like Shaquille O'Neal or Kendrick Perkins. The third point is somewhat speculative; normally I try to stick to the facts but in this case I am going to propose a theory: the Lakers' "supporting cast" felt inspired to prove a point when Bryant was out and thus played with more energy and aggression than they typically do but now that Bryant is back they will once again revert to being sporadically productive and to depending on Bryant to save the day for them. The "experimental test" for my theory will be to examine how well the other Lakers play during the rest of the season and the playoffs now that Bryant has returned; this has been a major issue for the Lakers this season: after the Lakers' second loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bryant lamented that his teammates did not play with the same hunger that the Cavaliers did.

There is nothing about the way that Bryant played on Tuesday night that justifies or explains the lack of support that he received from most of his teammates; Bryant did not hog the ball, he did not take bad shots and he did an excellent job of drawing double teams to create easy scoring opportunities for others, while on defense he played with great energy and tenacity. There is no reason for his teammates to look like they are sleepwalking--unless those teammates feel like they proved some kind of grand point when Bryant was out of action and they are now content to simply try to ride his coattails down the stretch.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 AM



At Thursday, February 25, 2010 7:44:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

If I were Phil Jackson, I would actually be quite concerned that I only have three reliable bench players right now: Farmar, Brown, Odom. All the other guys on the roster (Mbenga, Morrison, Powell, Vujacic) don't seem championship-caliber, and Luke Walton has a potentially season-ending back injury. One injury would put the Lakers in deep trouble. L.A. should hope that they can pick up another contributor from the waiver wire in the next couple weeks.

L.A. hasn't kept a first-round draft pick since Farmar in 2006, and now this is the situation they find themselves in. Sure, they're still a title favorite, but it seems precarious.


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