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.
Great write up. I can’t help but agree with Gentry when he said “Kobe doesn’t force things anymore.” And while that isn’t entirely true… Kobe has really mastered the mental side of his game. It would have been great to see what Kobe, with his current understanding of the game, could have done with the athleticism he had in his early to mid 20’s thrown in with the skill he developed in his mid to late 20’s along with this years supporting cast. But as they say… better late than never. And we should all be celebrating and even marveling as we watch one of the top five players to ever play this sport compete like no other player has competed before him. You know why I like this Lakers team better than the Shaq/Kobe Lakers? The leader of this team works his but off day in and day out. This team wouldn’t lose game 1 to the 76ers in the Finals.
“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. ”
Combine that with Gasol’s “basketball IQ”, and Jackson’s ability to make adjustments, and it’s hard to see them getting beat if everybody is reasonably healthy.
I’m right on board with the notion that Shaq didn’t work nearly hard enough, but I think it’s a little unfair to nitpick at one loss during an otherwise absolutely dominant and historic 15-1 playoff run. You could just as well say that the ’01 team would never have lost back to back games in OKC. And chances are that this current team will lose a game or two during the remainder of this playoff run.
It’s unbelievable that we as Lakers fans are able to watch one of the truly great talents of sports. I’m trying to savor as much of Kobe’s career as I can as it starts winding down. Posts like this one just help me understand Kobe’s game in a way that I usually never comprehend.
Synergy Sports is something that I need to take a look at it. I’m curious if it has older games such as Kobe’s 65 through 3 quarters against the Mavs etc. I would love to take a look at something like that.
As Darius mentions, Kobe’s mental game is pretty much in a class of its own. When I watch Kobe play, I feel like Kobe is Neo and he is just seeing the Matrix out there.
I would love to see a post similar to this one that focuses on the play of Pau. He plays a truly beautiful game, whether he has the ball or not.
Craig W. says
“…better late than never…”
Just how spoiled is it possible to be?
Only a few players ever reach the supremely cerebral level Kobe is at. None of them ever reached it early in their career, with the possible exception of Bill Russell.
Elite stars don’t appear on the scene surrounded by great teammates anymore because of the structure of the draft. Magic and Worthy came along only because there was no draft lottery.
The structure of the game has made it very difficult to come into the league as a developed star and be surrounded with championship level teammates.
Wow, I hadn’t realize this before, but when “happy”, JR can be very “dangerous”
I must thank you for posting the mysynergysports.com link… I’ve been trying to figure out how all the bloggers access it. It’s heaven for basketball geeks.
Great post Phillip. When Kobe can play efficiently, it changes the entire team’s dynamic. Just a rising tide lifts all boats, an efficient Kobe means a much more prolific Lakers offense. Not just because of his high level of play, but because of the offense that he creates for his teammates. Against Utah he averaged over 30 points but also got 6 assists a game (not to mention the hockey assists that he was racking up). When Kobe’s playing the way he has recently by accepting double teams and then making the correct play with the ball the Lakers’ offense is nearly impossible to stop.
MUCH AGREED about the hockey assists. Some people don’t understand that in the triangle, some of your stats will be sacrificed. For example, you may be the one making the pass that leads to the assists, something the coaches have been stressing to the players. Kobe is constantly making the right play, even if it doesn’t show up statistically. That’s why you need to watch the games. Also, Darius, you said that if running on all cylinders, the Lakers’ offense is nearly impossible to stop. I’m sorry to get ahead of ourselves here, but what about against the Celtics’ defense? Feel free to put my question aside until it is relevant… in a future post when we’re previewing the NBA Finals?
We’ll talk about future opponents in the future, for sure. But, I will say that a great defense can ensure that an offense doesn’t run on all cylinders. Then the game becomes a grind and the game will be decided on who can execute the best when things aren’t going smoothly. It’s the measure of a champion when in those tough moments and you need a bucket, you get it. The rest of the game may not be easy, but in the key spots you make the play. I think against an excellent defense, the game becomes more about controlling these moments than about anything else because of the inherent grinding nature of the games.
Andreas G. says
Really great stuff, and just to add to your last point about the play Kobe’s teammates in general, and Pau in particular, I feel a strong urge to share this link:
KD knows his stuff;)
#9/Weaksauce: against Boston, Perkins was able to push gasol out to the 15ft mark, which closes off driving lanes and hindered spacing. (that’s actually what’s happening more or less to orlando now).
i don’t see Perkins being able to do to do the same thing to bynum. yes, the celts have good defense, but with more room to operate, i think kobe and the team should be a bit more effective because floor spacing will be more balanced.
Craig W. says
Even KD falls back on statistics to differentiate between players. Most of the subtlety of the game is lost in the player comparisons. While they feed our need to see who is #1, they really don’t tell you the players true story and impact on the game.
“Contrary to popular belief, scoring explosions don’t materialize out of nothing”
I beg to differ. They most obviously come out of nothing, like presidential bids and tech start-ups.
Come on. Who believes that?
To Kelly Dwyer,
Pau could not be this monstrous without KB and triangle.
Craig W. says
Who has been the dominant player this post-season, Kobe or Gasol?
You have had to watch the games to answer that question. Even in the OKC series Kobe was setting up the other players, even when he was simply drawing the offense or defense into particular situations.
Kobe is that rare, once-in-a-generation player. Enjoy it. Savor it. There will never be another player like him, just as there will never be another MJ, Bird, or Magic.
What I love most about Kobe is that he has continued to elevate his craft. That shows the mental side of a very gifted physical player. He has adapted, like a dominant species, in an environment he long conquered, to the point where there are no weaknesses in his game.
When it’s all said and done — and who knows, he may have 6-8 rings by then — he is among the basketball immortals — the first name Gods who have graced the hardwood:
Russell, Oscar, Wilt, Logo, Bird, Michael, Magic…Kobe.
Notice to any LeBron lovers, the names above all have rings. Winning — winning championships — take the good to great!
Phillip, great job on this Post. Kobe seems to be able to adjust now days to anything. Whether it be the other teams defense or his own limitations, such as his broken index finger on his shooting hand. Fortunately he has a very good supporting cast currently with him.
In the days before players came right out of high school, it was always thought that a player’s peak would be between the ages of 28-32. They would hit their physical peak and have enough experience. Conventional wisdom was 9-10 years of experience taught you most everything.
The problem was by the time most guys had 10 years of experience, they were hitting the downslope of their physical abilities having entered their 30’s.
With high school prodigies like KG, Kobe and Bron, they had/will have their 10 years of experience while hitting their physical peak of late 20’s.
Looking back on Kobe and KG at age 28, I think you could see they had some absolutely amazing games and seasons. It would have been fantastic to have seen those two surrounded by a balanced talented team.
If you think about how well 08 Boston and 09 Lakers did with KG and Kobe leading their respective teams and putting up some great games, imagine them just 2-3 years younger when they were at their physical peak.
for anyone who still doesn’t get the clamor, here and everywhere else, for the Celtics and Lakers in the Finals, read this from the K brothers:
I felt that Kobe was playing the best basketball of his entire career in the early part of this regular season, before all of the injuries. He was posting up more, shooting 50% from the field, gambling less on defense and racking up the assists/Gretzky’s. That’s why the early claims of his demise were so far-fetched. The only thing that brings such a sudden interruption to a player’s production is injury. Great ones fade, they don’t plummet. Tim Duncan’s decline has been so incremental that most fans didn’t realize he can no longer carry his team until the second round of this year’s playoffs. Steve Nash’s decline is like an hourglass that passes one grain of sand every hour.
My feeling is that an entire summer off, combined with a necessary surgery, will put Kobe right back at the top of his game. He may even have another MVP in him. (It will help his cause that Lebron may be playing on an inferior team and will undoubtedly experience a backlash from this year’s playoffs). Right now Kobe is playing at about 85% of his ability, and is still the best player left in the playoffs. That says something. Don’t talk to me about his decline until he experiences a major injury he can’t play through or has a gradual statistical slide over 2-3 seasons.
DMo- right there with you. Kobe in the first part of this season was DESTROYING everyone in the post. It was a whole new facet of his game and he was shooting at the most efficient rate of his entire career. Barring the injury, I think he would probably have posted a lot closer to 50% shooting for the season and probably averaged more PPG. As is, the fact that the guy put up 27 ppg on a mangled shooting hand with a hurt knee and ankle is nothing short of ridiculous/legendary.
I think if he rests this offseason and gets the surgery, he will likely put up one of the best individual seasons of his career.