10-for-29. Those are not exactly Hall of Fame shooting numbers right there. In Game 3, Kobe Bryant was aggressive … aggressively almost shooting the Lakers right out of the lead. With perhaps the series hanging in the balance, Bryant was attacking and putting the Boston defense on its heels for much of the first half in L.A.’s 91-84 win. Yet at times, his poor shot selection and his teammate’s over-reliance on his theatrics threatened to be the Celtics’ best defense.
Bryant knows what he has on the line individually in this series. This is the ultimate test for his talent, dedication, will and leadership. Boston is treating it the same way and is refusing to let him single-handedly beat them. So far, Bryant was great (Game 1), off and on with foul trouble (Game 2) and inefficient (Game 3). Where does he go from here? Let’s break it down.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Boston’s defense since acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007 has been their ability to single out their opponent’s strength and completely take it away. Courtesy of future Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics’ defense often overplays the strong side and aggressively pressures the ball handler. The majority of basketball players, even experienced ones in the NBA, fight pressure with pressure and drive right into the walls that the Celtics put up.
Against Bryant, they’ve done an incredible job of this during the past three seasons. He is one of the smartest players in the league, so normally Bryant doesn’t fall for the trap. Instead, he elects for other means of attacking: deep jump shots. In 14 games against the Celtics since their present “Big Three” was constructed, Kobe has averaged over five three-point attempts per game.
Boston’s defenders fight for every position and consistently push Kobe farther off the post than he prefers. Instead of catching it 16 feet from the hoop — just one dribble away from his sweet spots around the arc of the foul line — Bryant normally gets it a step or so inside the three-point line. And in no coincidence, his numbers against Boston (25.4 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting) look more pedestrian than the spectacular ones we’re used to seeing from Bryant.
In Game 2 Kobe came out passing the ball, racking up four assists before he scored a bucket, but thanks in part to being in foul trouble, he couldn’t get in rhythm late in the game and the Lakers lost. In Game 3, Bryant came out firing. All four of his shot attempts during the first quarter were deep, contested jump shots. He made one. However, he was able to get inside to draw a couple of fouls and converted at the free-throw line. If Boston is late on their help, Bryant can get to the line pretty easily.
After a productive first half of 16 points, 6 rebounds and some solid defensive work, Bryant’s offensive game was bottled up in the second half through a combination of things. First, Boston’s defense was fantastic and held him without a layup or open shot for the entire half. Ray Allen and Tony Allen battled him for every catch, and the Boston big men forced him a step or two back by hedging on every pick-n-roll. Alas, the best closer in basketball was just 1-for-6 from the field in the fourth quarter. Everything was on the perimeter.
Another key was the Celtics’ intensity causing the rest of the Lakers, save for Derek Fisher, to shrink in the moment. In what was a reoccurring theme throughout the 2008 Finals, Boston’s passion and defensive schemes combined to contain Bryant while intimidating his teammates at the same time.
In the third quarter of last night’s Game 3, Pau Gasol was a complete non-factor and generally shied away from battling a rejuvenated KG on the block. This was the same Gasol who destroyed the Boston frontline in L.A. Boston’s aggressiveness completely ruined the Lakers’ offensive pace. They were out of position, over-dribbling and confused. Multiple times, Bryant was asked to bail them out, ending up with the ball is his hands 20 feet from the hoop and the shot clock winding down. When the miraculous attempts didn’t go down — such as two bombs off the dribble from Bryant and another moon shot from Fisher — ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy pointed out, “The Lakers are getting horrible shots right now.”
Despite all of that, Fisher drove L.A. to the ugly win in the fourth quarter. His clutch field goals were magnified because his backcourt partner had lost all of the rhythm he developed in the first half.
While Bryant will always be known for his complete offensive repertoire, his early-season games were marked by the dominance of his post play.
By the start of January, Bryant was averaging 30.4 points a game on 49% from the field. Injuries derailed a lot of that momentum. However, in the Western Conference Playoffs, Bryant was very effective in the pinch post. Against the Celtics, that doesn’t always work with the way they crowd the paint.
During his brilliant Game 1 performance, Bryant scored in a variety of ways: from the foul line, on the fast break, with floaters and off-the-ball movement. But as the series is progressing, the Celtics are again starting to dictate where he goes. In the first 24 minutes last night, he mixed up his game. But many of his shots in the second half were two-dribble pull-ups going to his left. The Allens are sitting on that move and have crowded his space.
With the Lakers up 2-1, they might be one huge Bryant night away from really putting pressure on the Celtics. Could it happen? Anything is possible with the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer. But the numbers say otherwise. He has scored 30 or more just three times in his last 14 games against Boston.
Yet, if Bryant can continue to contribute 25 points a night, albeit more efficiently, while also getting his bigs involved, that will put the pressure on Boston to score a lot.
This series is showing the Lakers can dominate the paint if they involve Gasol and Andrew Bynum more often. Their best looks come from feeding it into their big men. As Laker fans know, this team is known for forgetting about their two skilled and agile seven-footers. When Bryant makes them the focus, everything else opens up. If he does that, it will ease the burden on himself to make difficult shots.