The NBA Finally Has an MVP Whose Game Does Not Shrink in the PlayoffsI make outs
I make other rappers have doubts
You're (messing) with the wrong man and the wrong clan--"Flava in ya ear," Craig Mack (and other artists), 1994
Dirk Nowitzki seemingly received the 2007 MVP in a broom closet at an undisclosed location after his Dallas Mavericks were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs. We just saw the 2005 and 2006 MVP, Steve Nash, make Tony Parker look like the greatest point guard in the history of the NBA (funny, Parker does not look nearly that good versus Chris Paul). Kobe Bryant received the 2008 MVP trophy prior to game two of the Los Angeles-Utah series and then he spent the rest of the night clubbing the Jazz over their heads with it, to the point that Charles Barkley, Doug Collins and Utah assistant coach Phil Johnson all commented about how the Jazz could not match the Lakers' energy. Barkley flat out said, "They don't think they can beat the Lakers...They're not playing like a Jerry Sloan team. It's like they're there but they're not there." The Lakers certainly have a nice, well balanced team but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were leading the charge sans Bryant I don't think that a team that made it to last year's Western Conference Finals would be doubting its ability to win.
To paraphrase from the "Flava in ya' ear" lyric, Bryant is taking teams out and making the Jazz have doubts. Bryant is imposing his will on this series and he is seemingly in the process of imposing his will on this entire season: his much criticized public remarks before the season resulted in some much needed internal player development within the team as well as some great moves by the front office; his play during the season was so fantastic that he convinced a press corps that has disrespected him for years in the MVP balloting to finally grant him the award. Don't forget that Bryant is playing with a finger injury that will eventually require surgery; when the best player in the league puts off surgery because he believes that his team can win a championship you better believe that sends a message throughout the organization and makes sure that everyone--from the coaching staff to the 15th man--is working hard and staying focused.
Bryant had 34 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the Lakers beat the Jazz 120-101. He shot 11-18 from the field and 11-12 from the free throw line while leading both teams in scoring and leading the Lakers in assists. As Collins said near the end of the game, "His efficiency is off the charts." This is the most points an MVP has scored in a game right after receiving the award since Allen Iverson dropped 52 on Toronto in 2001. Bryant set the tone from the start of the game in word and in deed. After Commissioner David Stern handed Bryant the MVP trophy shortly before tipoff, Bryant told the Staples Center fans, "We're going to play until June. I love you, now let's get this party started." Bryant had the Bernard King game face going--he looked like he was about ready to kill somebody. He scored 10 points in the first 8:22 of the game as the Lakers took a 25-13 lead. The last three of those points came after Bryant got switched on to Utah center Mehmet Okur, flicked the ball away from him and Okur fouled Bryant to stop the fast break. Bryant made two free throws and tacked on a third one after an exasperated Utah Coach Jerry Sloan received a technical foul. The Lakers pushed their lead to 33-18 by the end of the quarter and the Jazz had to battle uphill the rest of the game.
Bryant picked up his second foul with :29 remaining in the first quarter, so he sat out until the 6:37 mark in the second quarter. Utah trimmed the Lakers' advantage to 43-32 during that time. He played more of a facilitator role in the second quarter, shooting 1-2 from the field but drawing enough defensive attention that three other Lakers--Gasol (15 points on 5-7 field goal shooting), Odom (13 points) and Derek Fisher (12 points)--scored in double figures in the first half. Gasol has always been a good shooter but since he started playing alongside Bryant he is shooting better than .580 from the field, well above his career norm. We hear a lot about various players who make their teammates better--do you suppose that Gasol's vastly improved field goal percentage is totally unrelated to the defensive attention that Bryant draws and Bryant's ability to feed the post? Apparently, the "experts" at most of the mainstream media outlets have missed this connection because I have yet to see or hear anyone mention it. On one second quarter play, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew four defenders and slipped the ball to Gasol for a dunk, a sequence that has become a common sight in Lakers games.
Gasol finished with 20 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Odom had 19 points on 7-10 shooting and he snared a game-high 16 rebounds. Fisher scored 22 points on 7-10 shooting. Are we supposed to believe that Steve Nash made Amare Stoudemire into who he is, that Chris Paul created David West from scratch but that Bryant's teammates just happen to be playing the best ball of their lives in the second round of the playoffs purely by coincidence? It gets back to what I always say: "making teammates better" is a misnomer because what great players do is put other players in a position to do the things that they do well; great players need to have talented players around them in order for their teams to win and when they have such players around them they draw so much defensive attention that their teammates are able to slash to the hoop, make open jumpers or do whatever it is that they are good at doing.
Although Bryant's offensive impact is obvious and significant, it would be wrong to ignore his work at the other end of the court. Bryant is a perennial member of the All-Defensive Team and, while that squad has not yet been announced this season, Bryant finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting so one would assume that he will again make the All-Defensive Team. On most NBA teams, the defensive calls during the game are made by a big man, because he is stationed on the baseline and can see all of the action but earlier this season Lakers Coach Phil Jackson mentioned that Bryant fills that role for his team. Defense is a high priority for Bryant--earlier in this season I discussed how Bryant helped Andrew Bynum's development as a defensive player--and that mindset is contagious: the Lakers held Utah stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams to 0 points and three points respectively in the first half.
Naturally, Boozer and Williams tried very hard to bounce back in the second half, scoring 10 and 22 points respectively, but the Jazz had no answer for Bryant, who scored 15 points in the third quarter on 6-7 shooting from the field. Collins, a former number one overall draft pick (1973) who made the All-Star team four times and who coached Michael Jordan as a Bull and as a Wizard, marveled at Bryant's play: "Kobe Bryant is the most complete offensive player in the game. He can beat you off of the dribble, he can shoot the three, he can post you, he can get to the foul line and score--you cannot defend him with one player. That is why the Utah Jazz are in trouble in this series." After a play when Bryant slashed to the hoop and drew a foul, Collins said, "Kobe will put pressure on the defense at all times" and he contrasted this approach with how Houston's Tracy McGrady played in the previous round versus Utah, noting that McGrady is more apt to settle for the jumper (in McGrady's defense, he put up 40 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in game six and then ended up having knee and shoulder surgeries that will sideline him for up to three months).
On several occasions, Bryant posted up and made a quick move that led to either a score or a foul. Collins commented, "Complete offensive player: now he's in the post. We've seen him out on the floor driving, we've seen him pull up and shoot threes--there is no weakness in his offensive game." Contrast this performance with what we saw out of LeBron James in game one versus Boston: James is normally a relentless driver to the hoop and that works against most teams but it is possible to build a wall around the paint, concede the outside shot and make things difficult for him. James does not have Bryant's footwork in the post, nor does he have Bryant's shooting range, so he cannot attack defenses in as many different ways as Bryant can. After yet another Bryant basket, Collins said, "His footwork is impeccable. This doesn't happen by accident. He probably pays more attention to detail when he works than any player in the NBA. It is no accident that he is the most fundamentally sound player in the game right now. Michael Jordan was the most fundamentally sound player when he played." Astute readers will note that the specific traits that Collins singled out during this game--impeccable footwork, complete offensive game, unequaled work ethic--are the exact reasons that I have used for the past three years to justify saying that Bryant is the best player in the NBA. Fans are of course entitled to root for whomever they like and to think whatever they want but people who actually analyze basketball and understand the game appreciate that Bryant--from a technical standpoint--is a very special player who has honed his natural talent with a tremendous amount of hard work. Collins talked about how his son saw this firsthand last summer when he worked with the Team USA coaching staff. I know that this does not fit into the storyline that the mainstream media prefers to use regarding Bryant but do you suppose that this kind of work ethic and attention to detail just might possibly rub off on the rest of the team in some way? Is it remotely possible that the example Bryant sets might have something to do with the fact that so many players on the team have improved since last year? I know that must seem like a radical idea after years of being bombarded with the storyline that Bryant is a bad teammate but maybe it is worth at least considering a different perspective.
Bryant sat out the first 4:10 of the fourth quarter, as he usually does, but the Jazz were only able to cut one point off of the Lakers' lead, making the score 98-89. The Jazz pulled to within 99-94 before Bryant drove to the hoop, drew several defenders and passed to Sasha Vujacic for an open jumper. A lot has been made of the idea that Bryant has become more unselfish this season and that he trusts his teammates more. Kenny Smith made an important point a couple nights ago when he said that those teammates have earned that trust this season in ways that they did not in years past; Smith said that he remembers Bryant making those same passes but not getting assists because the recipients did not complete the plays. Smith is of course correct about this and it really surprises me that no one else seems to remember this. Each of the past two seasons we heard the same stories about how Bryant was supposedly becoming more unselfish but then certain players got hurt, others did not maintain their productivity and Jackson told Bryant that the team needed him to score 35-40 points just to be competitive. Do people really have such short attention spans that they forget these details? Also, Bryant now has Gasol at center and Fisher at point guard and trusting those players makes a lot more sense than trusting Kwame Brown and Smush Parker; case in point, Bryant drove to the hoop at the 2:40 mark, drew the defense and made a gorgeous pass around Mehmet Okur to a wide open Gasol, who dunked the ball to put the Lakers up 109-99. Collins said, "That was brilliant. That was a brilliant, briliant play. He does everything but dunk it for him." Anyone who doubts that Bryant is capable of averaging 10 apg should look at some of the passes he made in this game; he is a very gifted passer who happens to be an even more gifted scorer. By the way, how likely is it that in a similar situation Brown would (a) cut to the open area, (b) catch the pass and (c) make the dunk? Bryant is making the same moves that he always has but the difference is that he has teammates who, in his words, have a "high basketball IQ" and thus know how to work in concert with him.
Earlier in the game, Collins made an important point that I have been stressing here for months: Gasol has now capably filled the role of second option, which slides Odom down to the third option where he is much more comfortable. I got so sick of hearing in previous years that Odom was going to be Bryant's Scottie Pippen, because it should be apparent that Odom is not that kind of player; if anything, he is Horace Grant with better handles, a player who rebounds, defends and can score in double figures. That is not an insult by any means; Grant was a fine player and so is Odom--but there is a huge difference between being one of the 50 Greatest Players of all-time and being a good third option on an excellent team.
Right before the end of the game, Collins noted that in 1992 Jordan won the MVP, led the Bulls to the championship, won the Finals MVP and won an Olympic gold medal, four things that Bryant has an opportunity to do in 2008. The first leg of that journey (winning the MVP) is already complete and the latter three will be difficult but certainly look to be attainable. During the postgame show, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley mentioned something that must send chills down the spines of coaches and players around the league: the Lakers look like the best team in the NBA right now and they could be even better next season if Andrew Bynum returns to health.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:47 AM