Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Beautiful Game

I don't know if he was trying to end the game early since it was the first of a back-to-back, or if he's getting himself into playoff mode, or if he was just in a mood, but Kobe Bryant was in complete, maniacal, murder mode for tonight's game against the Pistons. He played under the sort of tensed and flexed control -- with a dash of rage -- reminiscent of mugshots that you see on the evening news with voice-over neighbors saying "he always kept to himself, but he seemed nice enough." It was as though he had an aneurysm, like he was trying to conceal some intense pain but you could just see his head ready to explode all over The Palace at any moment. 

Bryant always plays with intensity -- he's the surest ticket in the NBA, but this was the playoff version, there was a different mask, a different persona. This guy, who played this game, had focus to spare. No complaining to refs, no shortcuts, no settling for low-percentage shot attempts, no taking plays off on defense. 

Bryant's controlled fury is apparent, though not fully captured, in his boxscore: 30 points (on 10-18 shooting from the field), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and just 1 turnover. The efficient 30 points were the result of the whole bag of tricks -- the pull-up, the crossover, the drop-step, the fadeaway, the three-pointer, the baseline reverse, the irresistible shot fake, you name it. That doesn't do full justice to the work he did, though. You can study the boxscore for more hints: his lockdown, ball-denial defense reflected in Rodney Stuckey's line for the night: 5 points, 3 assists, 4 turnovers (this is a guy who was averaging 16 and 6 in the 10 games leading up to this one, and is the heir apparent to Chauncey Billups). Or you can see the way he single-handedly zoned off the weakside when he wasn't denying the guard to guard entry pass, the effort reflected in his two steals on the night. You can see how, as a team, the Lakers held the Pistons to 39.5% shooting, including just 2-13 from 3, resulting in just 87.5 points per 100 posessions (currently Boston has the best D in the league, and they allow 101.5). 

If you don't trust all of that, then you should look at the game flow. With Kobe in the first quarter, the Lakers went on an 18-6 run en route to a 13 point lead. As he sat for the first three and a half minutes of the second, the Lakers gave up a 12-0 run. Then, with Kobe again in for the third, the Lakers went on a 20-0 run to effectively put the game away.

But there was more to it than all of that. Bryant was all over the floor, making deflections, tipping out rebounds, moving the ball, making the plays that MVP voters will never see, since they may read the boxscore and the game recap but probably won't watch the game broadcast. Through it all, Bryant's expression didn't change a single time. Not when he was working feverishly off the ball to establish post position against a smaller defender, not when he was limping after a hard hit that appeared to injure his knee, not when he was sitting on the bench watching the game.

There is a four second indication of how badly Kobe wants to win this game at the end of the third quarter. Kobe goes to the bench with 1:14 left in the third for his usual rest, expected to come back with around 8 minutes left in the fourth if needed. But when the Lakers get the ball with 4 seconds left, Kobe throws off his warmups and returns to the court, just to run the last play. It results in a missed three pointer, but his being on the floor at all spoke volumes.

This wasn't a game where Kobe took over offensively and took a lot of shots, or dominated the ball and racked up assists, or yelled and screamed and beat his chest. Still, the leadership element was apparent. If I was able to sense the tension and focus watching on television, surely his teammates picked up on the energy. Lamar Odom played his usual active defense and ended up with 3 steals and 12 rebounds, to go with 7 assists and a block. Luke Walton's statline doesn't show it, but he took a couple of pretty serious spills that might normally have seen him at least take a few moments to gather himself, if not be taken out of the game entirely. But tonight, he just bounced back up as though nothing had happened (who knows how he'll be walking tomorrow?). Even Sasha Vujacic, who had an otherwise forgettable game, abstained from pleading with the refs when his flops drew no attention. He just redoubled his efforts on defense and worked to pester the Piston backcourt. 

So nevermind that the Pistons were playing without Allen Iverson, Rip Hamilton, or Rasheed Wallace, and that the Lakers were expected to win this game easily. Nevermind that Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher were completely incapable of staying in front of 6 foot D-League alum Will Bynum (9-14 shooting, 25 points, 11 assists). And nevermind that the rest of the Lakers had a pretty subpar offensive game. Because if Kobe Bryant is playing the way he played tonight, they won't be beat.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't read this post, but I wanted to say that I own a copy of that poster of Minard's.