I can watch videos like this all day. The super slo-mo allows you to see the all the little things that you never get during a live broadcast. The anguish on a player’s face when he’s rushing to close out. The big man thinking he has a play bottled up only to realize his defense was futile. The crowd reactions to seeing one of the all time greats ply his craft.
Before the 76er game, Kobe spoke about how he may not have many trips to his hometown left as his career is much closer to the end than we may all realize. Lucky for us, he keeps giving us clips like the one above to satiate our thirst for seeing him do what he does best. The man was born to play this game, I’m glad I’ve been able to watch him do it.
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.
One of the enduring critiques of Mike D’Antoni’s coaching career is that he’s not very adaptive to his personnel. He’s seen as a spread pick and roll devotee, and those players who don’t fit into that model aren’t very useful. While I don’t fully accept the premise of this critique, it’s also not completely off base.
Early in his tenure with the Lakers, you can already start to see why this perception exists. Pau Gasol has struggled to find his stride as a mostly stretch-y power forward while Kobe has mostly been asked to play the role of a pick and roll practitioner on the majority of the Lakers offensive sets. These aren’t necessarily the round peg, square hole fits that would lead to outright questioning of how to deploy these players. But they are sort of round peg, oval hole fits where you’d hope more diversity could be employed in order to better maximize the roles of the players he has at his disposal.
In recent games, we’ve started to see some of that diversity. Rather than only employing the spread P&R to initiate their sets, the Lakers have started to run more direct post ups for Dwight Howard and more pin down and off ball screen actions to free Kobe for open jumpers. And, interestingly enough, they’ve also started to run an action that looks very much like it was lifted from the Mike Brown sets the Lakers ran from the past two seasons, but with a little D’Antoni twist to still incorporate the P&R.
Below is a set from the Lakers’ win over the Nuggets. The alignment should look familiar as it’s essentially a Princeton looking set with the point guard high on the floor, Dwight Howard at the elbow, and Kobe on the left wing:
The set begins with Chris Duhon entering the ball into Dwight at the elbow and then moving to the left wing to set a pick for Kobe. However, rather than using the screen, Kobe cuts back door in a manner consistent with the Princeton (or Rick Adelman’s Corner offense). When Kobe cuts to the baseline side, he circle cuts up the right lane line and comes off Dwight’s shoulder to receive a hand-off. After getting the ball, the defense is concerned about protecting the paint and yields an 8 foot floater to Kobe. The shot doesn’t fall, but the execution is there. Kobe has essentially got one of the more efficient shots he can take in an offense.
Against the Hornets, the Lakers ran this same exact set but with entirely different personnel. Here you see the bench unit execute the play again:
This play starts with Darius Morris as the PG, Jodie Meeks on the left wing, and Jordan Hill at the left elbow. The same action proceeds as in the first clip. Morris enters to Hill at the elbow, goes to set a screen for Meeks, and then Meeks moves away from the screen to cut back door. Meeks then circles to the top, takes a hand off from Hill, and comes off his shoulder to attack the paint. However, instead of pulling up, Meeks drops off a pass to Hill who gathers the pass but misses the shot at the rim. Again, this play wasn’t successful but the team got as good a look as they could expect out of this action.
The mix of Princeton principles with D’Antoni’s emphasis on creating P&R actions is a nice wrinkle for this group of players. This type of action puts players in positions to run more traditional actions that threaten the defense. It allows a player like Kobe (or Meeks) to work off the ball initially while working back into the fray to set up a good shot. This action could be run with Gasol in place of Howard and presents a variety of options that can be spun into other good looks (after the SG cuts back door, there’s a sideline P&R just waiting to develop between the PG and the C while the SG circles back to the top of the key as an outlet).
When the Lakers have their full roster available to them I can only imagine we’ll see even more variety in their offense. Steve Nash will be integral to the D’Antoni’s standard spread P&R attack and that set alone should allow the Lakers to feast on defenses multiple times a game. But it’s these types of alternative sets that feature Kobe, Howard, and, when he returns, Gasol that will sustain their offense should teams overload on the standard P&R. The fact that D’Antoni is already implementing these actions is good to see.
The Lakers got their 9th win of the season against the Hornets by the count 103-87, showing both the Jekyll and Hyde nature of their play so far this season.
In the first half they had trouble defending the Hornets’ pick and roll attack, surrendering open shots at the rim by not helping the helper and ceding open jumpers on the wing on late rotations. On offense they ran a clunky, isolation heavy attack that left them seeking out good shots that came few and far between. The result was a 2 point deficit after 24 minutes born of lackluster play that looked all too familiar.
In the 2nd half, that all changed. On defense, the rotations were more crisp. Back side wings dug down on the roll man and disrupted passes into the paint. The open jumpers that were so prevalent in the first half mostly dried up as well. Defenders were much more engaged all over the floor, talking and active. Dwight Howard took command in the third quarter, controlling the paint on both sides of the floor. The ball moved on offense, shots started to fall, and what was a deficit quickly became a lead that would not be relinquished (in fact, it was barely threatened).
And so, the Lakers won a game they sorely needed. It was a game they should have won, but in a season where nothing has been certain (save for uncertainty), every win is a good one.
But, in a departure from looking at all that went right and wrong in this game, I turn my focus to Kobe Bryant. So excuse me for the fawning that will proceed…
Tonight Kobe Bryant joined an elite club. The number of people who have scored 30,000 points in their NBA career(s), before tonight, totaled four. They are the names of players who only need be identified by a single moniker. Kareem, Jordan, Wilt, The Mailman. These are the faces that have sat on the Mt. Rushmore of scorers in league history. Against the Hornets — the team that drafted him — Kobe joined these men on that mountain.
The points came on a play we’ve seen Kobe make hundreds of times before. After catching the ball on the right wing, he drove past a closing out defender, slithered into the lane, elevated over the help defender, and flicked in a one handed runner while fading to his left. It showed off his body control, his touch around the rim, and the scoring instinct that got him to this point. It was, in many ways, the quintessential Kobe bucket. Not too flashy, but enough of a wow play that makes you want to watch it again.
In between that shot and the the first one he made so many years ago, we’ve seen countless others. So many, in fact, they blur together. The baseline fade away. The pull up at the elbow. The heat check three pointer. The reverse lay in. The thunderous dunk. Through all the makes we’ve marveled at the focus, the footwork, the innovation, the creativity, and the desire. Especially the desire.
Seventeen years ago the Lakers acquired Kobe, a high school guard who had as much talent as moxie. He talked of “taking his talents” to the NBA and the challenge of playing the game at the highest level. In the years since, he’s been humbled plenty and reached the mountain top as an individual and as part of a team. The MVP’s (league and Finals), the championships, the all-star games, the franchise records, and all-NBA nods speak to his greatness.
And, through it all, he’s done it his way. For better and, at times, for worse. Playing his game has left him with as many detractors as he has staunch supporters. It’s also left him with almost universal respect. He’s as hardworking as he is relentless. As unforgiving a competitor as he is driven to improve. For all intents and purposes, he’s a player that’s made himself great as much as he’s had greatness bestowed upon him through his 6 foot, 6 inch frame and the NBA pedigree.
He has been, and continues to be, one of a kind. And he’s still going. Congratulations, Kobe Bean. If they’d told me 17 years ago he’d be this great, I wouldn’t have believed them. Which is probably one of the reasons he’s this great to begin with.
On Friday night, before the Lakers beat the Suns, Kareem finally got his statue. And while the past couple of years produced many jokes and more than a few hard feelings in the lead up to this honor being bestowed, by the time the ceremony took place everything was put in its proper perspective. Kareem spoke about what an honor it was while former teammates talked about how great a player Kareem was and how deserving he was of being immortalized in this way.
Of course, the statue is of Kareem shooting his famed sky hook. The most devastating weapon the game has ever seen, Kareem demolished opponents night after night by swinging left and shooting right over the top of his man. For years this single shot anchored the Lakers’ half court offense and whenever they needed a bucket Magic could hold up the number 5 and signal The Captain to get into the post. And more times than not, he’d deliver.
So, while we honor the man that did so much for the Lakers we should also sit back and enjoy watching him doing what he did best. Here is Kareem, destroying his man with the move he mastered. Congratulations again Captain, you certainly earned it.