For Lakers observers — both those that root for their success and don’t — there’s long been the phrase “you live by the Kobe, you die by the Kobe.” Last night, against the Bobcats, we definitely got a sequence of plays in which that phrase applied perfectly.
With a little over a minute and half left, the Lakers and the Bobcats were tied. Throughout his career, moments like this have been Kobe time. With the ball in his hands, Kobe got a much needed bucket by attacking the rim:
On the Lakers’ next possession, they still held the two point lead that Kobe’s lay-in had given them and with the ball in his hands again, Kobe went to work. After creating some separation with a hesitation dribble, Kobe used a great screen by Dwight Howard to set up a pull up jumper that he knocked down:
The next possession would be the last one for the Lakers’ offense. At this point, we’ve seen Kobe hit two big clutch shots to turn a tied game into a 4 point lead for his team. After getting the ball on the inbounds, Kobe again goes to the P&R but this time takes a more difficult jumper with the hedge man really on top of his shooting hand. The shot did not fall:
To me, the evolution of shots that Kobe took is pretty fascinating, but also encapsulate why fans can both love and loathe his approach in close, late game situations.
On the first possession, Kobe put his head down and got all the way to the bucket. The shot he hit was not easy and on certain nights he may have even earned a foul call. If a player is going to an isolation play down the stretch, this is the type of play you want them making. Even if Kobe had missed, he drew multiple defenders to him which opened up offensive rebounding chances. When talking about a strong, aggressive move, that is the perfect example.
The second possession represents an example of what will likely go down as a quintessential Kobe late game bucket. With the defense keyed in on him, Kobe still found a way to get to one of his preferred spots on the floor (right above the elbow) and get off a jumper. The shot was semi-contested, but was clear enough that he could easily get it off in rhythm. He’s hit countless shots just like that one. And while a long two point shot isn’t the most efficient look, I think most fans are okay with it simply because it was in rhythm from a spot he’s typically good from. If the shot would have missed there may have been some hand-wringing but nothing too over the top.
On the last play, however, we got the type of shot that people cringe at and point to whenever they want to focus in on Kobe’s “hero ball” approach to late game situations. Kobe came off the pick and rather than look to see what else was available, he simply drifted to the wing and took a heavily contested jumper against a defender who was, essentially, the double team man. The odds a shot like that fall are pretty slim (much lower than the jumper in the previous clip) and with an open Dwight Howard rolling to the hoop unimpeded, the the shot looks even worse on replay. When Kobe elevated for the shot, I thought to myself “that’s a forced jumper” and upon further review, my mind has not changed on that.
On all three shots, circumstance played a role. With the game tied, Kobe attacked to get to the rim. In that situation, FT’s are as good as anything else and he played for a shot as close to the hoop as possible. On the next play, his team was up by two and that margin lends itself to a different approach. The fact that he’d just driven to the hole likely gave him that extra half a foot of space to hit his jumper.
With the Lakers up by four, his last shot was one that almost seemed like a throwaway. Charlotte needed two scores to tie (or win) and while any basket buries them at that point, they still needed a lot of work to get a win. It almost happened, but you know what they say about almost. (As was pointed out to me, the Lakers were only up by 1 at the time of Kobe’s final jumper. That makes my previous analysis moot. With the score being so close, Kobe’s final shot is exactly the type of shot fans kill him over and for good reason. Getting points of any kind is pretty important there just to create a cushion for their last defensive possession. The fact that Kobe settled for a long, highly contested jumper is a difficult decision to defend.)
In the end, it’s difficult to really sum up Kobe simply. Even those three shots don’t come close to doing it. But, those shots do, I think, offer a good representation of what fans both love and loathe about Kobe’s approach. In the span of three plays his choices seemed to go from perfect to “really?!” just like that. Maybe that’s why he’s the most polarizing player of his generation. Maybe it’s what makes him great too. What I know for sure, it’s likely never going to change. And that, for better or for worse, is what makes him Kobe.