It wasn’t so long ago where Kobe Bryant was struggling to have consecutive nights of high, efficient scoring. There was a definite inconsistency in Kobe’s game that we were unfamiliar with, and it was something that was concerning going into the post season. He would score 28 in one night, then spend the next two nights trying score 28 more. Suffice to say, Kobe spent the majority of the second half of the season looking beat up, and it was painful to watch as he struggled (well, struggled by his terms) to score efficiently. However, we’ve seen a recent burst in Kobe’s scoring, a streak that we haven’t seen from him since the end of December going into early January. I’ve spent a lot of time these past couple of days watching a lot of film of the Lakers recent playoff games and I’ve noticed some things that have contributed to his increase in efficiency.
Contrary to popular belief, scoring explosions don’t materialize out of nothing, there were some other factors that led to Kobe dropping 30 in six straight games, and one of those factors was the two games before his first 30-point game. In Games 4 and 5, Kobe was in his “facilitator mode” making all of the right passes, getting his teammates involved, taking as little shots as possible. Both of those games were blowouts, the Lakers getting blown out in the first and them blowing out the Thunder in the second. The only difference in the games was the fact that other guys were making shots. Kobe finished with 12 and 13 points on 10 and nine shots with four and seven assists, respectively. The most important thing was, when Kobe was taking shots, they were going in about 50 percent of the time (nine for 19).
This opened things up for Game 6, his first 30-point game of his streak. Thanks to Synergy Sports, I was able to go back and watch all of his field goal attempts during the course of his six-game streak and noticed that early in the streak, he got A LOT of shots close to the basket. Phil Jackson put Kobe in positions where he would be most successful. There were a lot of high screen and rolls with Pau Gasol forcing defenders to pick their poison. With Gasol playing as well as he has (to be discussed later), the Thunder and the Jazz were forced to pick their poison. When they picked Kobe, he took advantage of it. The same kind of dynamic happened when Kobe was in post up situations. Kobe found himself isolated in the post a lot in those early games in the streak, which is going to be advantage Kobe 80 percent of the time. Take a look at Kobe’s shot locations in his first game of the streak (from hoopdata.com):
Kobe took 12 of his 25 shots within 10 feet of the basket. Again, he was getting those shots at the rim through the S&R, where he scores in 38% of all such situations and through post ups, where he scores 49.8% of the time in such situations (per Synergy Sports). To put it in perspective, Kobe averaged only 7.2 shots within 10 feet of the rim. Him getting five extra high percentage shots really helped him get going.
It’s not a secret, for a lot of guys in this league, it only takes a couple shots to drop and they can have things going for a whole game. Getting some easy looks early always helps. For a guy like Kobe, getting easy looks throughout a game can get him going for weeks, even for a whole month at a time. We’ve seen this kind of sudden outbreak from Kobe before. In the past, his physical abilities has a lot to do with it, but, much more of it has to do with him figuring certain teams and defenders out. I’ll let Darius take the stage explaining what I mean.
I think the mental part of Kobe’s game is as sharp as ever. I’ve said this before, but Kobe’s one of the most cerebral players in the game. He often outthinks opponents and when that mental sharpness is mixed with a physically healthy player, you see the type of results that he’s producing right now. I mean, Kobe is making the right reads on almost every play. He’s accepting double teams and making great passes, he’s reading the defense on when to drive and when to shoot his jumper, and he’s directing the offense both when he’s with or without the ball.
A side note to all this is that Kobe’s always been a player that understands not only defensive schemes but the individual defenders that he’s up against. I remember how players like Doug Christie, Bruce Bowen, and (more recently) Shane Battier were touted as defenders that gave Kobe problems. But over time he learned how those players wanted to defend him and ultimately found ways to literally destroy them. I think we saw some of the same things against Sefolosha at the end of the OKC series as Kobe found out where he could get his shots against him and the Thunder to the point that he could have that 30+ point game that really was the difference in that series. Then as he’s played against lesser defenders from the Jazz and Suns he’s found his groove and is able to dissect those guys with relative ease. I know in game 2 against Phoenix, Dudley gave Kobe some issues but I would not be surprised if by the end of the WCF, he’s scoring efficiently against him as well. Like I said earlier, I think his mental game is just too sharp right now and with another title as close as it is, he’s raising his intensity and focus and we’re seeing the results in a better more efficient player.
More than anything else, Kobe getting easy looks and his mental game is what really got him started. Not that he is the kind of guy to shy away from shots when they’re not falling, but he does have a different kind of swagger on the court when he’s scoring high numbers efficiently. He’s always been one of the most confident players in the league, but he does, as all humans do, have different levels of confidence. When Kobe’s confidence rises, it’s almost tangible. You can see it. You can feel it. And nothing rises his confidence more than those two things, however, when it has risen, his outside jump shot. Look at Kobe’s shot locations during the last game of the streak (from hoopdata.com):
Look at the percentage of his shots from 16 feet in beyond in comparison to what he did in Game 6 against the Thunder. 16 of his 23 shot were jumpers, and he hit better than 55 percent of them. While a lot of this can be attributed to everything that has been mentioned above, there are still a couple more things that can be taken into account, one of them being his health. Again, I’ll let Darius take the floor on this one.
[Kobe’s] finally looking healthy again. The issues with his knee (and maybe even his ankle) were really hampering his ability to elevate on his jumper and get by defenders off the dribble. That lack of lift and explosion was hurting his scoring much more than the injured finger, in my opinion. Folks forget that after he hurt the finger he was still able to shoot the ball well and even had some really big scoring nights where his jumper looked as pure as it ever has. But after his ankle injury got aggravated when Odom stepped on his foot, his effectiveness was diminished and by the time the reports of his knee bothering him came out he looked like a fraction of the efficient player that he was early in the year. So, now that he’s seemingly back to full health (or close to it) we’re seeing him play to the level that we’re accustomed to.
Darius saying that Kobe was “still able to shoot the ball well” is really an understatement. The game after he injured his finger, he had 16 points. In the 10 games after that, his lowest scoring output was 28 points, with three 40+ point performances during that time. It really was his ankle and knee injuries that hampered his scoring ability. Kobe taking those games off at the end of the season, and the old legs-sensitive playoff schedule has really been a huge help in terms of Kobe’s health. He’s had a bounce in his step these last few weeks that we really haven’t seen since the first half of the season.
That last factor that has really helped lead to Kobe’s scoring outburst is his teammates. Pau Gasol has been absolutely fantastic this postseason. During Kobe’s streak, Gasol averaged just over 20 points and just over 13 rebounds. Derek Fisher and Ron Artest have both stepped their games up too. Fisher is shooting over 38 percent from behind the arch while Artest is averaging 11.6 points per game during the streak, including two straight games where he scored 15+. However, what’s been the most impressive is the play of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown who have combined for 13 point and a 52 percent mark from three-point range during this streak. Gasol and Lamar Odom have found the chemistry that was featured during the few games that Kobe missed around the All-Star Break and Andrew Bynum has had his moments.
As great as Kobe has been, a lot of the credit has to go to his supporting cast – and this all comes full circle with what I opened up with. That second game of Kobe’s facilitator mode did more than put him in a position to succeed; it really got his teammates going, too. It’s much harder to double-team Kobe when there are two to four more scoring threats on the floor around him, and as we all know, it’s much harder to double team Kobe in one-on-one situations. This presents a Catch-22 for opposing teams, and this was in full display the night Kobe’s streak came to an end. Phoenix decided to send multiple defenders at him and the supporting cast responded. It’s safe to say, with everyone playing this way, defeating this Lakers team is near impossible.