Watching Kobe Bryant plunge another spear into the heart of another seemingly helpless opponent the other night, what struck me most wasn’t the degree of difficulty on Kobe’s Jordan-esque corner fadeaway, nor the sunken shoulders of the Toronto Raptors the moment the ball touched the net — even though they technically still had a shot to win the game.
What struck me most was Kobe’s reaction. Or better yet, his non-reaction. While even the coolest young guns like Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy still punctuate their game-winners with Scarface sneers and enthusiastic jersey-popping, 31-year-old Kobe treats his game-winners like he just finished a round of pinochle. And more and more, it seems opposing coaches and defenders have resigned themselves to the idea that Kobe is going to get where he wants for the shot he wants; they can only pray he misses.
You’ve heard it from enough TV analysts and writers: “There’s nothing you can do” against Kobe and the NBA’s other elite clutch scorers when it comes to a last-shot situation. Too bad it isn’t true.
At this point, knowing the Lakers’ personnel and the mindset of their superstar, I don’t understand why every team facing a possible Kobe dagger doesn’t double-team #24 from the moment he walks out of the huddle. I don’t understand why they keep putting the token athletic 6-5 or 6-6 “stopper” on Kobe in single coverage, knowing he wants to and can get off his patented fadeaway over them. What sounds easy isn’t as hard as you’d think: Make Kobe pass the ball.
One time last month the Grizzlies mixed it up, and it worked. Seven-foot Marc Gasol stepped out on Kobe, kept his hands in the air like the cops were on him and moved his feet, and he forced Kobe to pass to Ron Artest so he could miss the big shot. And no disrespect to Ron-Ron, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol or anyone else in purple and gold, but 10 times out of 10 with the game on the line, I want them shooting wide-open rather than Kobe taking it with a hand in his face.
The same night Kobe was downing the Raptors, the Bobcats faced a similar dilemma with Dwyane Wade. Up three with seven seconds left, Miami ball, you could see the Charlotte coaches screaming “THREE!” at every player on the court. I can only assume the message was either, “Don’t let No. 3 get the ball,” or “Don’t let No. 3 take a three.” Although Wade did get the ball and he did get off a three-pointer, Charlotte’s D was more effective than Toronto’s. After forcing Wade into a corner before the inbound pass — using the sideline and baseline as extra defenders to limit his operating space — the taller Gerald Wallace contested the shot and Wade missed.
“They were all over our initial set,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the Miami Herald. “It’s tough when you’re down three to get a clean, clean look. Dwyane got about as good a look as you can get when everybody knows it’s got to be a three.”
But beyond the fact that Wade missed and Kobe didn’t, there was another big difference in the two plays: Wade faced a defense designed to make him miss, while Kobe faced a defense that was only designed to hope he missed.
Like Kobe, Wade was single-covered. But knowing he is more of a natural playmaker (a.k.a. willing passer) than Kobe who tends to keep his teammates more involved throughout the fourth quarter even in tight games, and knowing his jumper isn’t as reliable as Kobe’s, doubling Wade at the end of a game is more dangerous.
“When we play as a team, playing defense by talking a lot, I don’t care who it is — Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant — it’s tough to score on us,” Wallace told the Charlotte Observer.
Crash is right: Talking and communicating is crucial over the course of a game. But on a last-second play, the most important words should be spoken in the huddle. Everyone should know their job, everyone should know the tendencies of the guys on the other side, and everyone should especially know the habits of the superstar who is most likely to have the ball in his hands in crunch time. Don’t take any chances that a defender has to guess.
Or maybe it’s more simple than that. Maybe it’s simply that Larry Brown is a better coach than Jay Triano, or that Gerald Wallace is simply a better defender than Antoine Wright. Either way, through preparation and knowing your opponent, there’s no reason for any defense to feel helpless.
How would you defend the League’s go-to players — Kobe, D-Wade, LeBron, Carmelo, Durant, Dirk, Pierce, etc. — with the game on the line?