Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lakers vs. Celtics, Lakers vs. Cavs, and Simmons on Kobe thoughts

This might be a long one, so bear with me.

Lakers vs. Celtics

First off, this was an absolutely phenomenal game. In terms of pure quality basketball, it wasn't as good as the most recent Lakers-Spurs game, but it had maximum intensity, and both teams giving it their absolute best. Going in, I thought the Lakers had absolutely no shot to win, given the circumstances. No Bynum, on the road, second night of a back-to-back, against the best and most physical team in the league.

Then you add up the factors that came into play during the game. Kobe forcing his shot throughout most of the game, and not hitting at all (save those extremely clutch 3-pointers in Pierce's face). The absolutely abominable free-throw shooting (58.6% from a team that shoots 77% for the rest of the season). The Lakers inexcusably forgetting about Eddie House, allowing him to somehow score 16 points when he has one discernible basketball skill. Players like that should never score. Ever.

But they did. It had a lot to do with Lamar Odom. I'm not sure if people remember this, in fact, I'm almost positive that nearly nobody does, but during Game 6 of the Finals last year, sometime in the 2nd half, when the Lakers trailed by nearly 30, Odom got pissed off. He missed a layup, went after the offensive rebound extremely aggressively, and got fouled on the putback. Afterwards, he got in KG's face. I remember it vividly, thinking "it's a little too late for that Lamar, should have brought it in Game 1." But I also remember hoping "maybe it's things like this that we'll remember next year."

Now, I'm not sure if he remembered it or not. But he absolutely, no question about it, woke up during the second half against Boston. After that little tiff with KG, where Odom didn't back down one inch, he started playing up to his potential. Looking back at the first game against Boston this year, Odom played well then too. 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, all in 24 minutes. Oh, and he had a +17. In 24 minutes.

After the most recent Boston game, a commenter on Forum Blue & Gold had this to say:

We might have witnessed the transformation of LO. For so
long he has tantalized us with a unique combination of size, speed, and skills.
Always disappointing instead with inconsistency and lack of focus and fortitude.
Can a moment be so cathartic for an individual? Can transformation happen in an

Stephen Jay Gould amended Darwin by showing that
evolution happens in an instant (geologically speaking). Punctuated Equilibrium
rather than a gradual crawl. Evolution is Revolution.

What are the traits keeping LO back from greatness.
Not skills. Not size. Not athleticism. But focus, determination, concentration,
will. Maybe he finally got it. Finally realized he has to let go to move
forward. Phil started the process by having LO come off the bench for the first
time in his life. Humility shatters the illusions of the ego that prevent
growth. By letting go, maybe LO now can play in the moment. Present, focused,

“Basketball is a humiliating sport, it can humble you
right in the middle of the game,” Odom said. “But tonight I just left all that

Character is shaped not by success but reaction to
failure. Evolution only occurs change in environmental stress favours a new
variant of the species. Without stress no growth. Andrew Bynum’s injury,
especially due to the deja vu nature, created cruel and violent stress. But also
an opportunity for growth and evolution. How this team, on this trip, reprising
the character of 1985 has responded to this stress been gratifying to us all.
How LO, in this game matched the passion of KG, looked the bullies in the eye
and, in the end, won the game, might be the true blessing arising from the
misfortune in Memphis.

We sensed the change even during the game. Any other game, you would despair at seeing LO at the line with one free throw to tie and two the win. But for the first time since he became a Laker, somehow I knew he would sink both. And he did.

At the time, I didn't really think much of it. After all, as much as the mainstream media loves to talk about cathartic moments, and pinpoint a "lightbulb going off," it usually doesn't happen like that. Increases in production are more likely to be the product of offseason work, or a different lineup, or an increased comfort level with a system or a player.

But it's possible that a combination of lightbulbs pushed LO to this new identity. Bynum going out, him being back with Gasol/Kobe, where he works better, and the rematch with KG and the Celtics. I'm not saying it will last the rest of the season, I don't expect it to. But if he can keep this chip for the big games, like he did against the Cavs, I would love it.

That's a lot about LO. Gasol probably deserves even more words, but he won't get as many. Fitting, for a guy who gets disparaged way way more than he should, and has his few flaws focused on to the detriment of his great many strengths. Gasol played possibly the two best games of his career against the Knicks and the Celtics. I read somewhere that he got in the weight room this past offseason for the first time in his career, at the request of Kobe, and you can tell. His upper body looks stronger. Gasol isn't meant to be a 5, he's a power forward. When he is allowed to play as such, he is phenomenal, and a perfect, perfect fit for the triangle. He's a great passer, and when he has the ball he almost demands off-the-ball movement, more so than anyone else on the team. Anyone saying he's not a deserving All-Star needs to have his head checked.

Some other quick bullets about the Celtics game:
  • It's even more surprising that the Lakers won when you consider just how much of a non-factor Ariza (1-5, 2 rebounds) and Vujacic (1-3, 2 turnovers) were, compared to House (16 points, 4-6 from 3-point range) and Powe (10 points and 8 boards in 16 minutes).

  • That being said, Farmar played great, really picked the team up in the 4th quarter with his aggressive drives and shooting.

  • Referring back to my first bullet, why was Big Baby playing at the end of the game rather than Powe? Is it because of the height advantage Pau had over Powe, which enabled him to score easily? Big Baby isn't tall, but his bulk could have bothered Pau I guess.

  • Luke Walton, for as much shit as I and the rest of the Lakers' fanbase give him, did a good job on Pierce at the end of the game. Of anyone on the floor, I wanted Big Baby taking those shots, and that's who took them.

  • That said, why wasn't Pierce more aggressive? Knee trouble?

  • I said this in the liveblog, but I think it's worth noting again. I love the switch that Phil pulled, having Odom guard Perkins and Pau guard Garnett. At this point in his career, Garnett is pretty much just a jump shooter, and I think he weighs less than Pau anyways. Pau is more likely to get discouraged and start whining when Perkins posts him up physically. LO is more likely to get woken up, and start being aggressive back. LOVE this move.

  • I appreciate the small celebration afterwards on the court, by Pau, Fisher, and Sasha. This was a big game for this team, to prove they could do it with an off-night from Kobe and without Bynum. All that said, try and act like you've been there before. You were in the NBA Finals last season, and this is a regular season game.

Lakers vs. Cavs

This was the Lamar game, and that's forever what it will be known as. I don't have much to add to everything that was said about him everywhere after the game, he played absolutely phenomenal. I loved everything about it.

The defense on Lebron was fantastic. The Lakers used a lot of their new scheme, where the perimeter player crowds the opponent, forcing him to drive into the middle, which you wouldn't think would work on someone like Lebron. But it did, mostly because Pau stood tall, and EVERYONE on the team collapsed into the pain when Lebron drove. In another game, will he make more of the short shots that he missed? Probably. But none of those shots were gimmies, so I wouldn't expect him to make them all. Additionally, his jumper is still lacking.

Kobe was VERY sick. I'm sure he would have absolutely loved to make it into a "Jordan flu game," but it just wasn't going to happen. I even questioned whether it was a good idea for Phil to put him back in late in the 4th quarter. But then he made that fadeaway, and all was well. It's great for him to know that his team can win a game on the road like this, basically playing without him. He did play well in the first and third quarters though, taking and making good, smart shots, and staying within himself. I appreciated his efforts this game, even though I'm sure he wanted to do more.

Phil was asked between the 1st and 2nd quarters how he was planning to stop Zydrunas Ilguaskus, who was 5-8 with 12 points in the quarter, almost entirely on jump shots. Phil's response surprised me. He basically said "We're not worried about that, those shots won't fall later in the game." Maybe it's a thing about big guys tiring, and not having their legs in the 4th quarter? Whatever the case, Z only took 8 shots the rest of the game, and was 1-5 on jump shots in the 2nd half. That's why he's Phil Jackson.

Before this game, the team I was most scared to meet in the Finals was the Cavs. That still might be the case, just because of Lebron. But I do think we match up with them a lot better than I originally thought we did, before this game. I didn't get to watch the second half of the teams' first meeting, but in this one, we absolutely dominated them inside. The points-in-the-paint stat was the story of the game, and you can see it looking at the shot chart from the game. The Lakers outscored the Cavs in the paint, without Bynum, 62-16 (I think, could be 2 points off on this one, might be 18.) Some of that is Lebron, but he only missed 6 shots in the paint. Even if you give him every single one of those (which would be a mistake, most of them were very, very tough finishes, even for the best finisher in basketball), thats still only 12 extra points. so 62-28/30, without Bynum in the lineup. That is just magnificent. Maybe the Cavs really can't hang with the Lakers down low. Especially not with Wally guarding Lamar Odom.

I've expressed before my intense dislike for Anderson Varejao and Wally Szcerbiak. Both opinions stand. On Wally, I really don't like players who do only one thing on a basketball court well. Also, I don't like his reactions when he makes shots.

The defense in this game, and in the Celtics' game, was borderline-fantastic. I would like to rebound a little better on the defensive end, but you can't have it all. Holding the Cavs to 30 points in the 2nd half was huge, and though Lebron missed some close shots, they were mostly tough. Great job by the Laker D, especially sans a healthy Kobe and Bynum.


Here's the article.

While I'm tempted to do a FireJoeMorgan-style takedown of this article, I'll spare you guys.

Let me state, for the record, that while Simmons had recently re-gained his writing ability, after an approximately 2-year-long cold streak, I was pretty sure that I had grown to dislike him personally (Keep in mind, I've certainly never met him). I was confident that we would get along very well when he first started writing for ESPN, but now I'm pretty sure we wouldn't.

My friend ran into him at a bar in New York for the Jets-Patriots game, and came back saying that Simmons wasn't even really watching the game, he was more interested in talking to his friends than actually paying any attention. And I don't really fault him too much for this -- if I was at a bar, I wouldn't be able to pay too close attention to the game either. But not only is he paid an exorbitant amount of money to watch and write about sports (tough task, I know), but he claims to care about the Patriots, about things like the Belichick-Mangini feud, and about football. I just think he's become kind of a fraud, and that he's gotten lazy. When he started, I have no doubt that he watched tons of games, took notes, and developed coherent, defensible positions based on evidence. But I think he's become too obsessed with his celebrity, too obsessed with "Jimmy and JackO and the guys," and I don't think he's a serious sports fan anymore. He has actually become what he accuses Charles Barkley of being -- a lazy analyst who was good 3 years ago but doesn't watch games seriously anymore, and relies on either outdated opinions from the last time he watched games, or misinformed impressions from the few nationally televised games he happens to catch.

While I used to put tons of stock in his opinions, especially on basketball, I now feel much more comfortable relying on KD from BDL, or Henry from TrueHoop, or Matt Moore from Hardwood Paroxysm. These guys certainly don't make as much as Simmons does, but they watch games every night, they pay attention, and they develop coherent arguments. Simmons...I mean, he didn't even watch the Super Bowl, for chrissakes.

Anyways, enough with my rant about Simmons generally. The article about Kobe is a little frustrating. Here's why.

His first paragraph is fine -- he says that he's not a Kobe hater, and goes on to name the things about Kobe that he appreciates (the argument that you can't be a hater because you named him your MVP in 2006 doesn't hold much water, though).

Graf 2 is fine, and Graf 3 is whatever.

4 and 5 are really where I have some problems. Let's start with 4. Simmons says (I'll bold the parts I have problems with):

4. I don't like him personally, which affects the way I think of him

(I will admit to being slightly guilty here. He hasn't been
the greatest teammate this decade, both on and off the court. It's been
documented ad nauseam, even in books by people paid to coach him. When he
accidentally injured Andrew Bynum's knee recently, I found it interesting that
Kobe's reaction was more "Crap, there goes my title!" than "Oh, no, my teammate
is hurt—I hate seeing him in pain!" I also thought he quit on the Lakers during
their deciding playoff games in 2006 [against Phoenix] and 2008 [against
Boston]. Those are my main issues. They have never stopped me from evaluating
him fairly.)

1) While I'll readily admit that Kobe was far less than a fantastic teammate in those years, just because Phil Jackson wrote it (and the media focused on it) doesn't make it gospel. Jackson also wrote, in the same book, about the problems with Shaq, and it's readily apparent how much more willing the media was to give Shaq a pass for the problems he caused, while focusing on Kobe's issues.

2)How do you know that was Kobe's reaction? He realized that Bynum was hurt, badly, and he seemed incredibly angry and disappointed (hitting the floor with his hand, the look on his face, etc.), then waited with him at that end of the court for the trainers to arrive. What would you rather he do? Bend over Bynum and start weeping with sympathy?

3) Even if his reaction was more disappointment than sympathy, is this really a problem? It wasn't a life-or-death situation, and while I'm sure the pain was extreme, it's nothing necessarily greater than Kobe or other players have experienced in the past. By the next day, I'm sure the main emotion that Bynum himself felt was anger and disappointment, rather than sadness and pain. In fact, I'm willing to bet that was a big part of it within 30 minutes of him being taken off the floor.

In terms of the quitting against Phoenix...that's a popular opinion, so I'll allow it. I think Kobe may have been trying to prove a point against Phoenix, but it was a point borne out of a correct feeling, that the talent around him was absurdly inadequate. He could make all the right plays, set them up for wide-open shot after wide-open shot, and they would consistently fail. I don't see any evidence that he quit against the Celtics last year, and I actually haven't heard that before, so I'll just ignore it.

Bill's 5th paragraph is a problem for me too. I'll reprint it, and do the bolding thing again:

Kobe's 61-point game represented the best and worst of basketball to me. His shotmaking was transcendent: a steady onslaught of
jumpers, spin moves and fallaways made in his typically icy style, as efficient
an outburst as you'll ever see. On the other hand, his teammates stood around
and watched him like movie extras.
In 37 minutes, Kobe took 31 shots and another 20 free throws. He finished with three assists and no boards. He may as well have been playing by himself on one of those Pop-A-Shot machines.

A friend of mine, a lifelong Knicks season ticket-holder since the Bradley era, e-mailed me afterward: "That was the worst night maybe of my life in the Garden. How horrible it must be to play with Kobe. He was signaling constantly to his teammates to get him the ball. THREE ASSISTS AND NO REBOUNDS. Talk about a team guy." Another New York buddy was so distraught that Bernard's 60-point Garden record fell so ignominiously—with Kobe's padding his stats against a reprehensibly bad defense as a shocking number of fans chanted "MVP!"—that he e-mailed me the next day: "I literally didn't sleep last night." A third friend was there and swore that Kobe eyeballed Trevor Ariza after Trev made the mistake of swishing a 24-footer in the fourth. And yet, the national reaction seemed to be, "Wow! Kobe scores 61! He's unbelievable!" Spike Lee even called it "genius." (Move over, Einstein and

Really, it was the defining Kobe game. He elicited
every reaction possible from lovers, haters and everyone in between. When LeBron
arrived in New York two days later and notched his amazing 52/9/11, he didn't
break Kobe's new record but definitely cheapened it. LeBron's 52 came in the
flow of the offense.
When the Knicks doubled him, he found the open man. When they singled him, he scored. He dominated every facet of the game. It was a
complete performance, basketball at its finest, everything we ever wanted from
King James. And it happened 48 hours after Kobe's big game … in the same
building. Crazy.

I've been comparing those two games ever since. Never has basketball seemed more simple to me: I would rather watch a 52/9/11than a 61/0/3. I would. It's really that simple. It's a matter of preference. So don't call me a Kobe hater, call me a basketball lover.

And if Kobe ever put up a 52/9/11, yes, I would love him,too.

Let's be clear -- I did not see this game. I was at a Wizards-Grizzlies game instead, and when I returned home in the middle of the 4th quarter of Knicks-Lakers, my cable was out. I have watched every point he scored that night, and read all the commentary. If you hold that not watching the game disqualifies me from discussing it, that's fine. But if not, let's start talking.

1) I appreciate that you say they stood around and watched, and I'm sure they did do a little of this, but this is not all on Kobe. It's at least half on his teammates. Regardless of whether you get the ball or not, you have to continue to cut. The fact was that the Knicks don't ever double, so Kobe attacked. As he should. When you are the best scorer in the league, and you are guarded one-on-one by various terrible defenders, you should attack them. Oh, and Pau had 31. I don't think he was doing too much standing around.

2) Three assists -- not all that bad, considering how efficiently he was scoring. 31 shots to get 61 points, do you think his teammates would have been as efficient? Remember, the point is to win the game.

3) 0 rebounds -- I understand that this is a popular thing to focus on if you want to denigrate the game Kobe had, but please understand that it is a complete statistical anomaly. He is a very, very good rebounding 2-guard, one of the best in the league by any measure. I imagine that some of it had to do with the fact that he spent a lot of his time making jump shots (no offensive rebounds) or guarding perimeter players (no defensive). And it just happened, strangely, that no rebounds came to him. Probably had a little to do with Gasol and Odom each grabbing 14 boards, and Ariza taking 8 off the bench. The Lakers out-rebounded the Knicks 52-41 that night, it's not like they needed Kobe's help in that area.

4) I really don't care what your friends have to say about the game. Did you think that Kobe wouldn't be signaling for the ball when he was single-covered, shooting 19-31 from the field and 20-20 from the line, in Madison Square Garden, where he has always said he loved to play? He wouldn't be the absolute killer we all know if he wasn't doing that. If you think MJ wouldn't have asked for the ball a little bit too, you're delusional. Oh, and 0 rebounds have nothing to do with being a "team guy."

5) "Padding his stats"? OK, maybe at the end, but this was a 5-point game when Kobe hit a jumper at the end of the third, and then found Jordan Farmar for a 3-pointer to stretch it to 10 just before the 4th quarter started.

6) I would be extremely shocked if this was actually the case. I'm confident in declaring that it's not.

7) So Lebron's pull-up threes were in the "flow of the offense"? His one-on-one playing with David Lee, dribbling the ball back-and-forth between his legs before exploding to the rim, that was in the "flow of the offense"? Please, let's be clear. I am NOT criticizing Lebron for this at all. It would be absurd to. But Lebron's shots didn't come any more or less in the "flow of the offense" than Kobe's did, it's ignorant to say so. Lebron's game is more conducive to assists -- he's a better driver than Kobe, and when the defense collapses, as all defenses do on drives, all his teammates are open. The triangle is less prone to seeing one player rack up assists, but Kobe has proven that if his teammates are open, and it is the right play to make, he will find them. Less than two weeks ago, he had four consecutive games with 10+ assists. Lebron did have 11 assists against the Knicks to Kobe's 3. But just because Lebron had more assists doesn't mean his points came any more "in the flow of the offense." Oh, and Pau had 31 points in New York. I don't think he had any trouble getting involved.

8) This is a silly argument that is incredibly conducive to supporting Lebron. When you set the numbers up like that, not knowing who the players are, of course anyone would pick the 52/9/11. But to be honest, if you separate them out, I couldn't care less whether I was watching a 0 or a 9. I'd rather watch an 11 than a 3 I suppose, but I'd actually rather watch each of these elite scorers score more points. It's certainly more exciting than Zydrunas Ilgauskus shooting jumpers off Lebron passes. Both these games were incredible to watch, it was two elite players winning a game for their teams. It's arguable which one you'd prefer. If you prefer footwork and dagger jumpshots, you're with Kobe. If you prefer raw power and athleticism, stick with Lebron. But

9) don't insult everyone with the "I'm a basketball lover" statement. That's just absurd. If you're truly a basketball lover, you immensely enjoy both of these games. They were both incredible, awe-inspiring performances. You just make yourself look like the hater you profess not to be with statements like this.

10) The point of playing basketball is to win a championship. At least that is the point for Kobe. And Phil said later in the road trip that the most important thing that happened on the trip was Kobe galvanizing the team with this game, after they found out that Bynum was lost for 8-12 weeks. He showed them that all was not lost, that he could still do this, and that everything would be fine. This is important.

Whew. If you made it to the end of this, I'm proud (and a little scared). Hope you enjoyed. See you soon.


Jonah said...

I really hope a lot of people read this article, as it's smart, restrained and to me seemingly flawless. I think the point about the offenses is particularly important when talking about the difference in assists. The way Lebron plays right now (partly due to the fact that he doesnt have an elite jumper yet) ensures his driving and kicking pretty consistently and thus he's almost guaranteed assists being as good a passer as he is. In the triangle when kobe starts the offense, there are usually at least two passes before a shot. Id be interested in seeing how many of pau's points that night were off passes from players who kobe had just passed to.

Lastly, I agree that the "basketball lover" phrase which Simmons couldnt help but to put in there negates the idea that he's not a hater and in a way suggests that there is a right answer for true fans, which totally takes away from his earlier argument using Donovan Mcnabb which suggests that part of the fun of sports is that there is no right answer. Apparently that's only true for those of us who arent basketball lovers.

bovbjerg said...

I liked your take on Simmons, although much of it is painful for me to read as a self-professed Kobe-hater. I would add that Simmons' article, without even looking at any of his "evidence" or general arguments, screams of self-involvement and a precoccupation with how he is perceived rather than a passion for basketball.
What's wrong with being a hater? I definitely hate Kobe. However, I have no problem acknowledging him as at least the second best player at present (not to mention the rest of his career). The two are certainly not mutually exclusive; although being a hater perhaps predisposes you toward underrating the object of your hate, I posit that this is little different from the (less extreme) biases of a normal sports fan. To fall back on Simmons, "That's why we like sports in the first place. We like arguing about this stuff." If you didn't have an opinion, what would be the point?
Granted, this was an article for the mag, so it may be that he just didn't have anything better to write about, but the motivation behind the article hurts his position just as much as his biased and poorly thought-out arguments.