The Lakers ended their 2014 on a high note, beating the Nuggets, in Denver, on Tuesday after a triple-double by Kobe and some very hot shooting from the other perimeter guys not named Nick Young or Jeremy Lin. The game actually reminded a lot of the win over the Warriors a week earlier — the ball moved, shots fell, and the other team looked sloppy and out of sorts for most of the night. The only difference, of course, is that Kobe was there to be part of the action.
He did more than participate, however. He mostly navigated the flow of the Lakers’ attack whenever he was on the floor, taking over point guard duties for most of the possessions regardless of who his backcourt partner was. Initiating the offense via the high P&R or by simply making the first pass to the wing to initiate some of the team’s motion sets, Kobe dictated the flow and did his part to ensure that the ball kept moving. As noted, the result was a triple-double for Kobe and a nice, balanced attack for the team.
After the game Kobe commented about the shifting of his game since his return from various ailments that sidelined him for three contests. Via Baxter Holmes of ESPN Los Angeles:
Bryant did admit that, after some reflection, his game is “evolving,” to some degree, but don’t mistake that to mean that he’s shedding his identity.
“I’m a natural scorer, but it doesn’t mean I can’t evolve,” he said. “I’ve played more the point guard role in our first three championships, so I’ve been taught very well how to do that. It’s not something that’s unfamiliar to me.”
Kobe also noted that all he’s really been doing is taking what the defense gives him, which the tape backs up. Against the Suns and the Nuggets, defenses tried to trap Kobe at the point of attack and it made his reads out of 1-4 sets pretty easy to discern. He did a good job of accepting double teams and then hitting the right man who could either shoot an open shot or move the ball onto an open teammate against the rotating defense. When Kobe did work off the ball he would try to back his man down and force the defense to commit extra attention and then make similar reads from the wing rather than the top of the floor.
By mixing in some shot attempts to this approach, Kobe struck a nice balance and the results were good from his own efficiency standpoint while the team played well overall.
Tonight, then, I expect to see more of the same approach, though much of that will be dictated on how the Grizzlies try to defend Kobe. Memphis typically does not trap at the point of attack, instead playing below the P&R with their big men to help contain dribble penetration while the on ball defender fights through picks. Tony Allen is quite adept at locking on and getting through screens while Marc Gasol is one of the best angle takers in the league when sitting below the screen. With that, we’ll see how Kobe tries to navigate the Grizzlies’ P&R defense and whether he can find the same creases that allow him to move the ball on quickly to teammates who are in a position to hurt the defense.
If he’s not, the onus will shift off Kobe and onto his teammates to create some good looks for themselves and that is where things can get dicey. Outside of a post move or two from Jordan Hill when isolated at the shallow wing, no other Lakers’ starter can really create a shot for himself. The team, then, will need to work hard off the ball to create the needed separation to get open shots if Kobe cannot draw the extra attention that relieves that burden. This will require strong screens, timely cuts, and an overall awareness level from the other guys that hasn’t always been there this year. That said, as the team adjusts to working with Kobe operating in the manner he has been and with Ryan Kelly (a high IQ player who can also space the floor and open up driving and cutting lanes) set to make his return from his hamstring injury tonight, the hope is to see continued growth in this area.
Defensively, the Lakers will have their hands full dealing with a balanced Grizzlies’ attack that can go in a variety of directions to hurt you. Mike Conley’s ability to score off jumpers or by getting into the lane sets this all up, but Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph also provide inside-out skill sets that are foundational to their attack. With Courtney Lee, Vince Carter, Jon Leurer, and Quincy Pondexter doing strong work off the ball as spot up players and slashers the entire team must be disciplined defensively and not get caught ball watching nor paying too much attention to only their own assignment.
Overall, the Grizzlies are a much superior team to the Lakers and even with Zach Randolph questionable they will be a load. I do not expect the Lakers to be victorious at the end, but continued progress in the areas they have been improving recently would be nice.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.