The first two times the Lakers played the Nuggets this season, Denver wanted to make sure Kobe didnâ€™t beat them. Itâ€™s a strategy a lot of teams have used over the last few years â€” make those other guys around Kobe step up and win the game.
That strategy doesnâ€™t work anymore. Even without Bynum or Radmanovic last night, the Lakers had plenty of other guys who could score if you focus too much on #24 â€” he showed trust in his teammates and they responded. (In past years, when Kobe made those passes the shots were too often missed, so the next time down Kobe tried to make shot over three collapsing defenders.)
Maybe it was because Bynum was out, but for a third time the Nuggets went with the â€œstop Kobeâ€ option, doubling Kobe the second he touched the ball. Kobe took only seven shots (making five) but racked up 11 assists. And in the first three quarters he had seven â€œGretzky assistsâ€ where he made the first pass but a second pass got the player an open look (they give those second-pass assists in hockey).
Here is an anatomy of Kobeâ€™s assists (with mentions of the Gretzkys thrown in):
10:21 First Quarter, Denver 8-2. Gretzky Assist. (Fisher three from the corner after Kobe was doubled on the high pick and roll.)
9:09 First Quarter, Denver 12-4. Gretzky Assist. (Kwame dunk, Odom with the primary assist cutting to the basket after Kobe was doubled in the post.)
8:45 First Quarter, Denver 14-6. Gretzky Assist. (Kwame dunk, Odom with the primary assist cutting to the basket after Kobe was doubled in the post.)
7:01 First Quarter, Denver 16-12. Gretzky Assist. (Fisher three pointer, Odom with the primary on a very nice skip pass, open because of the double on Kobe.)
6:28 First Quarter, Denver 18-14. Gretzky Assist. (Fisher three pointer, Walton the primary after Kobe was instantly doubled in the post and dribbled back out of trouble.)
3:55 First Quarter, Denver 22-21. Gretzky Assist. (Fisher three from the corner, Turiaf the primary after Kobe passed out of the double in the post. Sensing a pattern here?)
3:26 First Quarter, Lakers 24-22. Odom takes the ball from Kwame under the Nuggets basket and brings the ball up, but no Nugget really comes out to greet him so he keeps going. Camby eventually tries to pick him up at the free throw line but Odom has a head of steam and blows by him â€” the only thing Camby does is force Odom to go to his weaker right side. Thatâ€™s enough, Odom misses the lay-up. But Turiaf doesnâ€™t give up on a rebound that is clearly Kenyon Martinâ€™s (does Ronny know the words â€œgive up?â€) and knocks the ball free. Kobe picks it up six feet from the basket and, since all the Nuggets sprinted down for the fast break, it is a three on one. Kobe drives into Camby then makes a sweet behind the back pass to Odom for the one-handed jam. With the left hand. Thatâ€™s one for Kobe.
2:00 First Quarter. Lakers 28-24. Kobe is back in the low post, something the Lakers used to great success all game, especially when Carter and other smaller players were on him. With Bynum out the Lakers used Kobe as the post anchor in the triangle (much like the Bulls often used Jordan in that role), and they should go back to that when the matchups favor them like they did in this game. On this trip down however it was Kenyon Martin on Kobe, and it is Farmar who makes the entry pass to Kobe from the corner â€” Martin tried to front the pass but Kobe sealed him off beautifully and Farmarâ€™s pass was perfect, leaving Martin on the wrong side and Kobe with a clear two steps to the basket. Camby came over to help, leaving Turiaf who went to the basket, Kobe wrapped a pass around Camby and Turiaf had a dunk and one. Thatâ€™s two.
:10 First Quarter, Lakers 37-29. Gretzky Assist. (Farmar three from the corner, Sasha with the primary assist after he got a pass from Kobe, who was doubled out by half court as the Nuggets wanted to make sure he didnâ€™t get the last shot of the quarter.)
11:00 Second Quarter, Lakers 41-29. The Lakers reset the offense halfway through the clock and again Kobe goes to the post against Carter, and again Farmar makes a great entry pass. Kleiza comes over to double, but does it in a stack fashion putting no pressure on the ball. So Kobe directs traffic, asking Farmar to move to the corner, then drives against the grain and trying to spin into the middle. As he rolls that way into the lane two other Nuggets collapse making it the rare quadruple team. Turiaf is alone and cuts baseline to the basket, and Kobe hits him with a pretty bounce pass. Turiaf dunks and Kobe has three.
10:10 Second Quarter, Lakers 43-31. Guess what? Kobe is trying to post up Carter. This time it is Odom with the entry pass but the Nuggets are slow to double. Doesnâ€™t matter. Farmar comes off a Turiaf back screen, but really both defenders are looking over at Kobe, waiting to collapse on his move they are sure is to come, so they pay no attention to Jordan as he cuts to the basket backdoor. Kobe makes a pretty pass right over his man to Farmar for a reverse lay-up. And we have four.
3:15 Second Quarter, Lakers 62-50. Fisher pushes the ball after a Nuggets make and the defense never gets set. Fisher stops 22 feet out and Kleiza leaves Kobe to get him, so Fisher makes the quick pass to an open Kobe on the low block. Camby rotates quickly, but he is the only Denver player to do so â€” which means his man Kwame is unattended. Kwame goes to the basket, Kobe hits him with the pass and Kwame remembers to dunk. Thatâ€™s five.
9:10 Third Quarter, Lakers 68-59. Now Martin is on Kobe and the bigger body is denying quality post position, Kobe is halfway out to the wing by the time he gets the ball. Kobe realizes this and faces up, then drives to his left into the center of the lane. Three Nuggets collapse and, stop me if youâ€™ve heard this before, Kobe kicks out to an open Fisher for a three. Kobe is up to six.
3:00 Third Quarter, Nuggets 79-77. This time it was Odom on the block getting the double, passing out of it and the Lakers quickly working the ball around the perimeter faster than the defense can rotate. Apparently Fisher is wearing an invisibility cloak because the Nuggets leave him open, Kobe throws him a quick pass and itâ€™s another three, And another Kobe assist to make seven.
2:23 Third Quarter, Lakers 80-79. This time Kobe gets to the high post and is relatively unguarded when he gets the pass from Odom. Seeing this Fisherâ€™s man (Yakhouba Diawara) comes to Kobe and leaves Fisher alone in the corner. By this point you think the Nuggets would rather have anybody but Fisher shooting, but apparently the lesson has not sunk in. Kobe makes the quick pass from the high post to Fisher, and itâ€™s another three. Eight for Kobe.
1:53 Third Quarter, Lakers 83-79. Kobe gets the ball on the right baseline early in the clock and then basically gets a clear out. The Nuggets have gone to a zone, sort of a 2-1-2 match-up, so with the clear out the Lakers overload the weak side but three Nuggets stay with the ball because Kobe has it. Kobe makes the quick skip-pass to Farmar on the opposite wing for the three, which falls. Thatâ€™s nine.
About 1 minute left in the third, when TNT decided that the score and time box they had up all game needed a breather or something, Lakers 86-79. Kobe gets the rebound and brings the ball up himself, then gets a drag screen (a high screen early in the clock) from Turiaf, and the Nuggets switch which leaves Camby on Kobe. Thatâ€™s a mismatch out high. So Kobe drives right and goes past Camby easily, Martin and Carter collapse. Unfortunately, Carter had to leave Fisher alone in the corner to collapse. Tell me if youâ€™ve heard this before â€” Fisher gets the kick-out pass and buries the three. Kobe reaches double digits.
:40 Third Quarter, Lakers 89-81. Kobe gets the ball out high and has Martin with him on out at the three-point line â€” Martin great in the post, not so much out on the perimeter. Kobe blows past him on the right side and here comes the collapsing Nuggets defenders â€” I think Dan Issel came out of retirement to collapse on Kobe in the paint. This time it is Turiaf following the play who benefits from the pretty Kobe behind the back pass for a lay-up. And you have Kobeâ€™s 11.
The pattern is pretty obvious â€“ and not just that you shouldnâ€™t leave Fisher alone for the corner three (although thatâ€™s a good one, too). The Nuggets were so preoccupied with Kobe that the other Lakers were getting good looks and knocking down the shots. This season Kobe really trusts his teammates (particularly Fisher and Bynum) and the result is a team that is much tougher to defend.