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At its essence, basketball is a game of leverage and angles. The best players exploit physical and mental advantages to get to specific spots on the floor where the odds of success greatly outweigh the alternative. The amount of hours put in to achieve this mastery of body and mind to outplay an opponent is often what separates those who are considered very good in their era versus being considered very good for any era.

Kobe Bryant, whatever you think of him, has built his career on the idea that hard work and learning from his defeats and failures will get him where he wants to be. This idea is detailed wonderfully in this excellent longform piece by Chris Ballard that ran in this week’s Sports Illustrated. It is hard to argue with the results.

The piece linked above is well worth your time for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is a snapshot in time at where Kobe is now, staring at his mortality as his career winds down. There are no more magic fixes from diet adjustments or extra workouts to put in that can reverse the impact of father time. And while the work will be done as diligently and with as much focus as it always has been, the fact remains that there is only so much work that can be done when you have already done as much as this man has.

I am thinking about this more today than others because, as the title of this post states, today is Kobe’s birthday. He is now 36 years old, entering into his 19th NBA season after being drafted as a 17 year old. You can do the math and see that Kobe has been an NBA’er more than half his life now, all those years soldiering for the team I root for.

Today, then, is as much a celebration for Kobe as it is for fans. He has given so much to the game he loves and, in turn, to us, the fans. Even if you hate him as a player, you will miss him when he’s gone. That, really, may be the quintessential statement about Kobe. He didn’t always do it the way you wanted him to, but by doing it his way he always gave us something worth discussing; worth marveling over. He may not have earned your cheers, but he certainly earned your respect.

With that, I’ll close with one of my favorite highlight clips of Kobe. It is titled “The Clinic” and has over 5 million views on youtube and targets plays from the 2007-2009 seasons. I love this video for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it captures the many aspects of Kobe’s game that reflect the work he’s put in. Sure, you see the athleticism, but you also see the footwork, the smarts, and the unrelenting attack style that his career has been built on. The video shows his genius as an all court player. Mostly, it shows the Kobe that I’ll mostly remember — devastating, driven, and the guy I loved to watch every night. Happy Birthday, Kobe.

Back in the summer 2002, Kobe wasn’t necessarily at the peak of his powers, but he was definitely at the top of the NBA world. The Lakers had just won their 3rd consecutive title and Kobe had cemented himself as one of the best players in the league. Kobe was also one of the league’s darling players — this was before the major public feuding with Shaq, before his legal issues, before trade demands. Every player has their detractors, but for the most part, Kobe was teflon.

So, you can only imagine the reaction when Kobe showed up at the famed Rucker Park in New York to play some pick up ball. You can also imagine the show he put on. Only, you know, you don’t have to imagine. You can actually watch it:

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The Lakers are back in action tonight in summer league, facing off against the 76ers in the first round of the “tournament” that has become the second half of the LVSL.

And while the results of this game matter — if the Lakers win they advance, if they lose their summer league is over — I’m not really going to get worked up over what the final score is. If anything, I want them to win only so I get to see more of Julius Randle (and to a slightly lesser extent Jordan Clarkson).

Randle’s performance¬†is, ultimately, the major takeaway from this team. While there are other players who have shown promise, it is the player who the Lakers selected 7th overall whose performance matters most.

In Randle’s first game he did not perform very well and looked like a player who had only signed his contract 20 minutes before tip-off while also doubling as someone who had not played much basketball in recent months. His timing was off, he looked a bit sluggish at times, and wasn’t able to find a rhythm.

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I cannot get enough of these videos.

Now that the season is over it is a bit easier to reflect on the games, the individual performances, and the storylines that go with them. Nash’s attempts to play, experiencing some successes and some failures, at least for me, resonate even more now. Seeing those clips of him against the Wizards and the Blazers brought a sincere smile to my face. Seeing the fans respond to him so positively did as well. I do not know what next year holds for Nash, but watching him put on those point guard clinics, even if they were only in short spurts, never gets old.

The meat of the video, however, is the dinner with Dirk (and a mutual long time friend). Their friendship, and the genuine nature of it, shines through and you can tell that they serious contemplate what could have been had they stayed together. Remember, when the Mavs let Nash go to Phoenix they used the money they could have spent on him to sign Erik Dampier. Of course, Dampier would later be used as the bait that nabbed them Tyson Chandler and the point guard slot vacated by Nash was eventually filled by Jason Kidd. Those two players were, along with Dirk and Shaun Marion, the backbone of that 2011 Mavs title team and it’s difficult to imagine what that team becomes if Nash stays on and his development continues on its upward trajectory.

Sadly, we will never know. Though, as Dirk says, it’s not like their careers ended up too shabby. Dirk has a league MVP, a Finals’ MVP, and a championship to his name. He will go down as one of the best (if not the best) European player ever whenever he hangs up his sneakers. Nash, meanwhile, has not won a championship but won two league MVP awards and is a top 5 assist man all-time. No slouches, these two.

On Tuesday night the Lakers roasted the Knicks, putting on a scoring display that was pretty incredible to watch. After only scoring 14 points in the 1st quarter, the Lakers proceeded to hang 44 on the Knicks in the 2nd quarter to pull ahead at the half.

The real fireworks occurred in the 3rd period, however, when the Lakers scored 51 points to set a franchise record for points scored in a quarter (which was also a record for the Knicks for most points allowed). By my count the Lakers boasted an offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 204.0 for the period, though other calculations had it at 197 192 and some change. Either way, the Lakers essentially scored 2 points per every possession that quarter, running the Knicks out of the building in the process.

As I said on twitter at the time, the game got embarrassing and this time the Lakers weren’t the victims. No, this time it was the other team who couldn’t bother to make rotations on time, lost their man off the ball, and looked generally hapless defensively. The funny thing about the that fateful 3rd period is that the Knicks were actually quite good themselves offensively. They managed to shoot over 50% from the floor and put up 31 points of their own. If only they didn’t allow the Lakers to score 20 more points than them in that 12 minutes.

Anyways, enjoy the video above. In a season that has offered way too many lows, the Lakers bombing away on the Knicks was certainly one of the high points all season and is worth celebrating for at least another day.

Maybe I should give the Lakers zero chance to win more often.

The Lakers came out and stunned, well, just about everyone with an upset win over the Thunder. And while a lot of players deserve credit for the win (not to mention the coach), no one deserves more than Jodie Meeks. Meeks poured in a career high 42 points on only 18 FGA’s, showing off an all-court game that has truly grown from last season. Meeks was great from the outside (6-11 from three), but also got to the rim in the open and half court while also showing off an in-between game that really was non-existent before this season.

As Mike D’Antoni said after the game, Meeks has been the Lakers’ most consistent performer this season. And while today’s effort was well above what his normal performance would be this year, it is also a by-product of the hard work that he’s put in – the same hard work that has led to that consistency.

In any event, enjoy watching Jodie Meeks go off. As you can see from the video below, his teammates certainly did.

This has, undoubtedly, been the most difficult season of Steve Nash’s hall of fame career. The nerve root irritation stemming from the broken leg he suffered last season has dragged into this season, making him unavailable for all but 10 games this season. He’s tried multiple treatments, taken leave from the team to train with his personal trainer in his native Vancouver, and has worked as hard as he ever has to try and return this year and be a part of this team.

Grantland gives us an inside, behind the scenes look at what very well could be Nash’s last season with their documentary series “The Finish Line”. The first episode premiered two weeks ago while episode two just came out yesterday. Both videos are below.

One thing that instantly stands out to me is Nash’s love for the game, his dedication to try and return, and his frustration at what his body is allowing him to do as he tries to work through his physical limitations. He is constantly battling the reality of what he wants to be able to do and what he can actually do. The love is there, the drive is there, and the work ethic — legendary in a way that is similar to what we’ve seen from Kobe — is certainly there too. What’s also there is the genuine good feelings between him and his teammates and the general feeling that everyone simply wants Nash to be able to do finish up his career on his own terms.

For me, these clips simply reinforce that Nash truly is one of the good guys and a guy that you want to root for. Fandom can often be complicated. It can be hard to balance personal rooting interests for individual players you want to see do well against what is best for the team and do it all against the backdrop of what is, in essence, grown men being paid a lot of money to play a child’s game. We see this in these videos about Nash and it makes for great theatre.

Enjoy episodes one and two of Grantland’s The Finish Line. They’re well worth your time.

Lakers’ fans, maybe more than any other fan-base, love to have their whipping boys. Typically, these are guys who don’t consistently play well, but also fit snugly into two different categories: 1). Guys who fans think should play a certain way, but don’t (Pau needs to be tougher!) or 2), Guys who aren’t seen as earning their paycheck.¬†Players who have fallen into the latter category in recent seasons range from Lamar Odom (when he was making near max money before the Lakers went to the Finals in 2008), Luke Walton (whose six year contract at the full mid-level was instantly criticized by a certain sect of fans), and, most recently Steve Blake (who, in his first few years of his contract, didn’t live up to what fans expected from a guy making $4 million a year).

It’s Blake’s inclusion on this list that’s always been somewhat puzzling to me. Not because Blake was playing well and didn’t deserve some criticism for his on-court production, but rather because as a back up point guard making less than the mid-level, I never really viewed Blake as either A). overpaid or B). not playing hard or giving it his all on the court. Sure, Blake could have played better and there were times I wanted more from him considering his skill set. That said, when a player competes hard and is put in a position to be a role player who mostly plays off the ball and is only given limited opportunities, I don’t necessarily think it is fair to jump on him when his production isn’t what you’d want. Critique is one thing, but some of the blowback Blake has received in his time as a Laker has gone way beyond fair criticism.

This season, though, the much maligned Blake has turned those criticisms upside down by playing some of the best basketball of his career and certainly his best as a Laker. Consider the following:

*Since becoming the starting point guard 3 games ago, Blake has dished out 37 assists while committing only 8 turnovers.

*In those same three games, Blake has assisted on 47.4% of the Lakers’ baskets when he’s on the floor. In the past 40 years, with a minimum of 40 games played, only 12 players have put up an assist percentage over 47 over the course of a season. The guys on that list include names like Magic, Stockton, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas, and Deron Williams.

*Scoring wise, Blake hasn’t been amazing, but he has been scoring 11 points a night while shooting 44% from the field (including 50% of his two point shots — a pretty big feat for a guy whose two point percentage is normally in the low 40’s).

In essence, what we are seeing, is a player who is both comfortable in the offense he’s being asked to run and operating in an offense that finally allows him to show off more of the skills that made him a priority signing 4 years ago. As Mike D’Antoni said at halftime of the Pistons’ game, Blake is getting comfortable with the reads within this system and that comfort is showing on a nightly basis.

On this set, the Lakers start out running an half-hearted pin down action on the back side to free Jordan Hill up at the top of the floor to receive a pass. This flows seamlessly into a swing pass to Blake that sets up a pick and roll between Blake and Hill. Blake, reading that the D is a bit lax, goes away from the pick towards the baseline and draws a double team. After pivoting and finding Hill as a release valve, Blake instantly runs another P&R with Hill and drops him a nice pocket bounce pass along the baseline that Hill gathers and then rises up to sink a jumper.

On this next set, Blake again runs a P&R with Hill. This time, however, Blake accepts the pick right away and darts down the lane line to threaten the D. When Blake draws a second defender, he patiently strings out his dribble and waits for Hill to create an angle to receive a pass. Once Hill is open, Blake bounces a picture perfect pass to his big man that Hill is able to scoop up and turn into an easy basket.

On this last play, Blake has the ball high with Pau inching up to set a pick. Blake reads the D and decides again to go away from the screen and pressure the D by pushing the ball at Tony Allen who is covering Jodie Meeks in the corner. As Blake continues his dribble, you can see the Grizzlies defense respond to his hard dribble combined with Pau’s sliding towards the paint. Blake has successfully occupied his own man, taken Marc Gasol with him towards the hoop, and turned Tony Allen completely towards him in a help position. With Allen’s head turned, Meeks cuts right behind him and Blake hits him with a bounce pass that Meeks turns into an uncontested lay up.

None of these assists are spectacular passes where Blake is making the highlight play. But just because these are simple actions doesn’t mean Blake doesn’t deserve credit. In every one of these plays, Blake is manipulating the defense by keeping his dribble alive and attacking specific spots on the floor. By threatening the defense, Blake is successfully occupying multiple defenders and then picking out the open man with textbook passes that set them up for uncontested shots. What he’s doing epitomizes floor generaliship and is a key reason that, at least right now, this team doesn’t miss Steve Nash much at all.

No, Blake isn’t the scoring threat that Nash has been in his career and, despite good numbers from behind the arc for the season, Blake won’t garner the same attention off the ball that Nash has (and still does). That said, what Blake is doing with the ball in his hands is just as much (if not more) than Nash could be expected to do at this stage of his career and goes to show how much Blake really can offer this team offensively. Again, he may not be doing anything that gives you visions of Magic Johnson, but his technical precision and ability to make the play in front of him certainly reminds of a late career Stockton or, maybe more apt, what Mark Price used to do for those old Cavs teams.

Not bad for a guy who used to be every Lakers’ fan’s whipping boy.