The dirty secret of the NBA Finals: Kobe hasn’t mattered… at least not the way you think.
Wait, what?! Kobe effing Bryant?!
The Man who hit seven straight shots in the third quarter of Game Five?!
The Man who absolutely cannot be stopped?!
The Man who single-handedly eviscerated the Suns while being pestered by Jared Dudley and Grant Hill?!
No, I’m talking about the guy who hasn’t won a championship without playing alongside the best offensive centers in the league (Shaq and now Pau Gasol.)
I’m talking about the guy who didn’t make one lay-up or dunk in Game Five.
I’m talking about the guy who hasn’t shot over 50 percent ONCE in this series. (Check out Jordan’s Finals shooting percentages before anyone comments about how clutch Kobe is.)
It’s strange, Kobe Bryant is playing the exact same kind of basketball that he did when he was widely criticized for being selfish and nearly evil.
I was never amongst those who think he is some diabolical a-hole intent on ruining his teammates for his own benefit. However, I’ve long believed that Kobe lacks the instinct , but not the ability, to make his teammates all play better.
It’s just not as natural for him to be a passer/creator, he is built to put the ball in the bucket.
I understand he is personally inspiring: the man works on his game like no one else in the NBA and leads by example. He also understands basketball at a level that few players have ever approached (think Bill Russell and Magic Johnson).
Even Kobe’s defense, rebounding, and all around hustle has been strong this series. The play in the fourth quarter of Game Four in which he chased down a loose ball and, while flying out of bounds, snuck a pass past KG for a big layup was phenomenal.
But let’s face it, Kobe is a ball stopper.
He is a great passer, but he doesn’t make a lot of great passes.
He doesn’t (or can’t) use screens like Ray Allen or Rip Hamilton in such a way that the defense must react and leave a screener wide open. When looking to score Kobe uses screens almost exclusively to earn himself an isolation situation.
In isolation sets, Kobe can get to his shot effectively. But as tough as these shots are to defend, they are even more difficult to make. Bean makes them at a higher rate than perhaps any player in the history of the game, but don’t be fooled by his outbursts; contested fall-away two pointers are low percentage looks. (Again, check shooting percentages).
His lack of pure quickness and the Celtics outstanding team defense makes these shots the most available looks. By design, the Celtics are allowing Kobe to get shots, and perhaps points, in a way that preserves the defensive and rebounding positioning of the Big Green D.
When Kobe gets it going, it looks like no one can stop him, and honestly, they can’t. The rub is that the Celtics don’t have to stop him because those aren’t the kind of shots that, over the course of a series, will beat them.
So ultimately the Celtic’s are happy to have Bryant playing well if he plays well as an isolation jumpshot maker. His style of play allows the Celtics to maintain their defensive integrity and keeps the Lakers other players in a stagnant offensive funk.
In fact, the Lakers have won despite Kobe. Kobe was electric in Game One but jacked up a number of awful shots down the stretch, only to be bailed out by the Lakers offensive rebounds (and sloppy play by the C’s.) In game three, Kobe shot 10-29 but Derek Fisher made a number of absurd plays.
The Lakers reluctance to play through Pau Gasol down the stretch makes their offense predictable and ineffective. The energy that the triangle offense is designed to spread through a team dissipates. It’s hard to say that Pau has looked aggressive, but when everyone in the gym knows he won’t touch the ball in a scoring situation, can we expect Gasol to have that much more confidence in himself than his team does?
Kobe is certainly great, though I would take Dwayne Wade over him at the shooting guard position (faster, better driver, just as willing in clutch moments), but it will take more than individual desire and competitiveness to deliver a victory against Boston.
The Lakers whole team needs to step up, and Kobe needs to find a way, as the unquestioned leader of his team, to facilitate stronger play from his talented big men without becoming “Bizzarro-never-shoots” Kobe.
When he plays with balance between scoring and creating, he may be the best player on Earth.
But don’t let American fandom’s hero complex fool you, there’s no way he can win this series by going it alone… no matter how far his jaw juts out after a contested, spinning, beautiful jumpshot.
Pau Gasol needs 15 shots and Kobe doesn’t need 30.
The Lakers need ball movement and post play, not possession ending isolations.
If Kobe and Pau can put together their devastating two man game, Bynum, Odom and Artest will have better offensive rebounding opportunities. Everyone wins when everyone (except maybe Artest) shoots.
Now the Celtics will do everything they can to make Artest beat them, and if he shoots 1-15 on open looks there’s not much anyone else can do. But Kobe will show his true greatness if he leads his team to glory using the original sharing, team oriented principles of the triangle offense.
If it becomes the Kobe show, expect a quarter or two of the best shot-making you will ever see, and an early end to the NBA Finals.
Follow Beckley on @HoopSpeak!