North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘Kobe Bryant

A Jazz fusion guide to the NBA finals

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One of my favorite basketball clichés is that ‘basketball is jazz’. It’s an especially apt one for middle-aged sportswriters to make since both seem to involve improvisation on top of a structured bottom; what good would Kind of Blue been if Miles Davis hadn’t just come off the more structured Porgy and Bess?

Like all clichés, there is a kernel of truth. So let’s take that cliché and bust it out to the breaking point – what albums correspond to the major players in this NBA Finals?

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Written by M.

June 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Sunset in LA – notes on the NBA’s western finals

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Suns forward Grant Hill really, really didn’t want to lose on Wednesday night. As trite as that sounds – what athlete wants to lose – it was true. Hill was automatic, especially from midrange.

Take the pass, take a quick shot, watch it rattle around and fall down. He had a real stroke going , finishing 10 of 17 for 23 points; in the second half, he only missed three shots.

He was a big part of the Suns second-half comeback, when they rallied and tied game two of these Western Finals near the end of the third quarter.

Then, as good teams are wont to do, the Lakers jerked back, pulling away en route to a 124-114 win.

Wednesday night was a dominant showing for the Lakers, who now lead the series two games to none. They seemed to toy with the Suns, let them back in the game on Hill’s hot shooting. And when they had to, they changed gears, leaving the Suns in their wake.

Don’t let the hype fool you. These Lakers are good, as good as any team they’ve had in the past few seasons. Both of the games against the Suns have looked close on paper, but they’ve been disguised blowouts. Even a nine point lead feels sucure when it’s for the Lakers.

This postseason, the Suns have gotten two boosts from the media, two reasons why they may finally make the NBA Finals. One is their depth, that the Suns are no longer five or six players deep. The second is their defence, that they can keep other teams at bay.

The first is true to an extent. This season’s team is deeper then any I can remember from the Seven-Seconds-Or-Less era, although they’ve been lucky not to have any major injuries. Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic have both been great for the Suns off the bench.

In the first two games, the Lakers have taken the second reason and pummeled it. Thus far in these Western Finals, the Suns gave up 128 and 124 points. That’s 20 more points then they had given up in any game from the first or second rounds. They hadn’t allowed that many points in a game since Janurary.

Why? The Suns are being pummeled, destroyed on the inside. The tandem of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom seems to be too much for them to handle – in each game, Gasol has had a rich man’s double double (at least 10 shots made and at least 10 rebounds). At the same time, Odom’s had his two best games of the playoffs: 19 points and 19 boards in game one, 17 and 11 in game two.

And that’s all on top of Kobe Bryant‘s two good nights: 40 points in game one, 21 points and 13 assists in game two.

Try as they might, the Suns have no answer for what happening to them, not on the court, not on paper. What are they supposed to do? Amare is having a hell of a time guarding Gasol and Robin Lopez still seems sluggish and maybe out of form; he was gone for over a month, so his troubles shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

For all their depth, I’m not sure how – or if – they can match up against LA, especially down low. In both games, the Lakers have shot above .500 (they’ve come close to shooting .580).  As damaging as that is, what’s worse is how much of it has come from inside; in both games, the Lakers have scored more then 50 points in the paint.

In this way, the Lakers are able to pummel the Suns and exploit the “new & improved” defence; they have at least one strong inside presence on the court at all times in Odom and Gasol (and more often then not, they have both on the court). They’ve able exploit this and attack in close; if they get into trouble, they can kick it out to Kobe – going by ESPN’s shot charts for each game, most of his buckets are from at least 7 or so feet out.

The Suns, for all their accomplishments thus far, haven’t run into this kind of a wall – neither Portland nor San Antonio had this kind of size. The Suns defence that looked so goof against them doesn’t seem to be built against this kind of team.

This is to say nothing about LA’s defence. In the first and second rounds, Phoenix won every game where they scored 100 points or more. This round, they’ve put up over 100 in both of their losses.

To me, that speaks volumes about this season. It’s not being won by the Suns offense (or the Lakers defence), it’s being lost on the other side, by an offence that just keeps beating Phoenix senseless.

This is what depth looks like. This is what the difference between a contender and a champion looks like.

This is why the Lakers are winning this series a lot quicker then I imagined they would.

Written by M.

May 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Handicapping the NBA’s MVP at Midseason

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With a little less then half of the NBA season left, it’s about time for lazy NBA writers – such as myself – bang out a column predicting awards.  Because after half a season, we all know who is likely win awards.

That’s the key word here: likely. It’s far too early to say for sure who is going to be the most valuable player in the league at the end of the season, but it’s not too early to make some educated guesses and handicap which player would be likely to win. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

January 27, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Lakers share the wealth in game five win over Nuggets

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When Nene fouled out late in the fourth quarter of game five of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday night, he lay on the court, shaking his head as if in disbelief.

He wasn’t alone, as the Nuggets let another one slip away, losing 103-94 to the Lakers, ceding them a 3-2 series lead.

The Nuggets had every reason to be confident they could steal a win in LA. They had survived a close call in game four, when the team nearly self-destructed in a succession of fouls, yet hung on to win. Carmelo Anthony looked good and shot good early on, while their bench had been outplaying the Lakers throughout the series.

Besides, they had won game two and nearly won game one, both played at the Staples Center.

But the Lakers were just as determined and met them head on; this game was a lot closer then it’s score shows.

It was a defencive kind of game, but not in the recent Knicks/Heat or Pistons/Spurs styles. Both sides were throwing themselves to the floor – Odon made a wild lunge at a loose ball in the fourth that’s completely illustrative of this. Both sides were making the other take it strong to the hoop – witness Chris Anderson, the Birdman, stuffing Odon early in the game, deadening his attempted dunk. Both sides were playing pressure-packed D – Carmelo wasn’t just double teamed, but had three defenders on him late in the fourth.

Bouncing back from a lackluster game four, Anthony had a good night – he shot 9-23 for 31 points and grabbed four boards in the process. From the charity stripe, he was nearly perfect, hitting 12 of 13.

He was alone in his play tonight.

Most of the Nuggets finished the game in the negative, with only Nene and Dahntay Jones having a +/- in the positive. JR Smith cooled off considerably from his game four hot streak, hitting only 3 of 13 shots (including 9 missed threes). Chauncy Billups took only seven shots, six of them threes, and hit four for 12 points – tying him with Kenyon Martin for second highest scorer on the Nuggets.

It was indicative of Denver’s shot selection, which faltered and withered late in the game. Too many quick, ill-advised long shots, plays that either took too long to develop or didn’t at all… it felt at times like if they were going to pull off the win, it was in spite of how their shots weren’t dropping.

A neat stat from the fourth: at one point, the Nuggets had a streak where they hit only three of 21 shots.

The Lakers, on the other hand, played like Denver had on Monday night. They spread the ball around, with five players scoring 12 or more points. Odom played his best game of the series and probably the playoffs, scoring 19 and grabbing 18 rebounds – and had four blocks, too.

Kobe Bryant had a similarly good game, scoring 22 on 6-of-13 shooting. He was a big reason why the Lakers were able to win: because he wasn’t forcing his shots and because he shared the load, getting eight assists. For the best example, look to one of them, from late in the fourth:

Kobe’s on the perimeter, looking for a long shot. He goes up, the Nuggets defence turns and pulls towards him… but it’s not a shot, it’s a quick pass to Odon, camped in the low post, who grabs the pass and stuffs it home. It’s either an expertly designed play, one the Nuggets completely fell for.

Or maybe it was a shot, or at least it was going to be until Kobe saw how the defence shifted, saw where Odon was and made a quick decision to go for the easy two rather then risk an iffy three.

Was it a one-off play? Or was that the turning point of this series, where Kobe realizes that no, he doesn’t have to do this alone.

One more fact: Carmelo outscored Kobe tonight, but for the first time it resulted in a loss.

Maybe this is less of a duel then a chess match after all.

Written by M.

May 28, 2009 at 4:53 am

Nuggets bend but don’t break in game four win

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If they say there are no easy baskets in the conference finals, they’re wrong.

Game four of the Western Finals seemed to be an exercise of foul shooting at times, in a game that was constantly stopped by the officals.

In the fourth quarter, the game got a little chippy and the refs started to crack down, calling fouls all over the place: to Denver and to LA… plus four technicals, with two called to the Nuggets without a second of gameplay in between.

Hence, LA got a few uncontested shots from the line.

Mind you, Denver got more then a handful too. Combined, both sides had 84 chances from the line… and with all those stoppages, it wasn’t just a blowout, it was kind of a stinker.

It wasn’t as bad as some games have been in these playoffs – game seven between the Celtics and Bulls, I’m looking at you – but it was hard to keep a flow going with this many trips to the line. Yes, play was choppy, but this is the playoffs. Things are supposed to be tough here, aren’t they?

It’s a shame that’s the lasting impression from game four, too, because it was an important win for a few reasons:
– An injured Carmelo scored 15 points, even though he was hobbling around on the floor early on.
– The Nuggets bench contributed 42 points, led by JR Smith who had a great shooting night and hit some late three’s that broke the Lakers’ back.
– Chris Anderson gave a great Dennis Rodman impression, grabbing boards like a vacuum and even shot a wildly amusing – and off mark – three. In all, he had 14 in just 24 minutes.

But there was one more thing that’s extremely telling about this win: the Nuggets composure.

When the refs cracked down late, the Nuggets started to break. They were fouling and looking lost. Carmelo picked up a technical for a stupid shove, and while Kobe shot the corresponding free throw, Kenyon Martin picked up another technical foul for the Nuggets. As a team, they were close to complete self-destruction, the kind where they lose their composure, miss shots and blow a big lead.

You know, the kind of self-destruction that the Kings and Blazers have had against the Lakers in conference finals of years past.

After the refs got everything sorted out, Bryant hit his foul shots and cut the lead to 10.

That was as close as he’d get. The Nuggets didn’t fall apart, but rallied and had a strong finish to the game. Martin hit the bench and the team settled down. When JR Smith hit two consecutive threes and made the score 113-96, the Lakers were finally out of contention.

So, it’s an important win for the Nuggets. They showed that while they have the self-destruction potential, they also can keep their head (and their lead) when it matters.

Besides that, it means the Lakers don’t have a stranglehold 3-1 lead on the series and the Nuggets gave themselves a little bit of breathing room. They showed that even without Carmelo at his best, they can still win: Billips and JR Smith both had great scoring nights (24 each), while Martin, Nene and Anderson each grabbed double-digit rebounds. They showed how deep they are, especially compared to the Lakers: 42 bench points to LA’s 24. That’s important – in a long series, that depth can pay some serious dividends.

But as the series moves to game five, the Nuggets have to be at least a little worried: if this could happen in game four, what’s to say it can’t happen again? And what happens with a hostile crowd? What if Smith misses those shots? Do they still hang on?

Still, it was a good win for the Nuggets. One that raises some questions, yes, but compared to the ones that a loss would have raised, I’m sure they’ll take them.

Written by M.

May 26, 2009 at 5:03 am

As Melo goes, so go the Nuggets

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Funny how things seem to repeat themselves isn’t it?

Another boneheaded inbounds pass; another quick move by Trevor Ariza… another win for the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

It was a fitting end to another late game collapse by the Nuggets and another late game vanishing act by Carmelo Anthony.

As this series shifted back to Denver for game three, things felt odd; there was a weird vibe to the match: Three’s launched all over the over the place, bodies being pushed around, crazy shots that had no business hitting – Smith’s long-bomb three at the end of the third quarter or Billups’ four-point play – were dropping.

Though the Lakers leads were far and few between – they didn’t lead in the second or third quarters – the fourth was again, again a roller coaster – not a steel one with loops and drops and sharp twists, but more like a wooden one where the cart whistles around the track, almost seeming at the edge of oblivion.

The Nuggets held a sizeable lead for most of the game and kept the Lakers at bay. But they also picked up fouls, kept running into walls and had possessions that never seemed to go anywhere.

It’s why the Lakers never went away. About midway through the fourth, the Lakers roared back and took an 81-80 lead on a long three by Ariza. They kept the pressure on the Nuggets, who couldn’t pull away, but stalled offensively; they had four turnovers at one point, capped when Nene (saddled with five fouls) stepped in front of Vujacic.

So, fairly predictably, it was Kobe who carried the Lakers offence. He hit some nice jumpers, including a three to give them a one-point lead with just over a minute left, and made clutch free throws.

On the other side of the ball, Carmelo Anthony was quiet and in foul trouble, leaving the game with just 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting. As the game drew to a close, it meant JR Smith or Billups had taken most of the big shots for Denver, not him. After the game, ABC’s cameras caught him walking to the locker room with a frustrated air about him.

As Carmelo goes, so go the Nuggets.

He’s the catalyst to their success. In game one he vanished down the stretch. In game two, he outscored Kobe with 34 points. On Saturday, he disappeared again, scoring only three points in the second half.

His play has been a big part of why this series has been so uneven, with neither team really establishing anything. The Lakers lead 2-1, yes, but this was the only game where they outplayed the Nuggets. And even here, they had some breaks – Kobe was ice cold down the stretch from the charity stripe. Had he been anything less, this could have gone either way – it was that kind of night.

With game four coming up on Monday, nothing really seems certain. It’s been a flip-flop kind of series. Will we see the tight, tempered Nuggets of game two, led by a confident Melo? Or will we see Kobe driving the Lakers to a stranglehold 3-1 series lead? Who can tell?

Written by M.

May 24, 2009 at 4:47 am

It’s a Wild West Kind Of Duel Between Kobe and Carmelo

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Now this is playoff basketball.

The Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers are tangled up in a tightly-matched Western Conference finals, tied with one win apiece.

Game one, a 103-105 win for the Lakers, was a skirmish. Game two, a 106-103 win for the Nuggets, was a duel. Just two games in, this series feels like a battle.

I know sportswriters – especially lazy or untalented ones – always like to fall back on war metaphors, but that’s how I honestly viewed game one and two of this series.

It’s been back and fourth, back and fourth. Los Angeles, basically the twin peaks of Kobe and Gasol, has run head-on into Denver, a hard-nosed, scrappy team that contests every shot and has no problem, none whatsoever, about getting their clothes dirty.

Look at how they handled Trevor Arerza. He drives to the basket, he’s knocked on his ass by Kenyon Martin. They put the pressure on him and he cracked, turning the ball over late and took the air out of the Lakers sails.

Look at Carmelo Anthony. He’s burst out his shell – I already look at him differently. He’s not the guy who won a NCAA title and underperformed; he’s the first player to really take Kobe to task in a while. He had 39 in game one, 34 in game two.

Look at Derek Fisher. Game one, he hits some huge shots. Game two, his game-tying shot sails wide. No way we’ve heard the last of him yet.

Look at a graph of the score. Neither side has managed to take much of a lead. Both games have been close for basically 48 minutes. This is no cakewalk for the Lakers. They haven’t been tested like this, not by Houston and not by Utah.

I think both games have been great and maybe the best games in these 2009 playoffs. Not finishes, whole games. These are ones that’ll air on ESPN Classic or Hardcourt Classics. They were hard fought, close and really could have gone either way. It’s like an old Celtics/Pistons game.

Those games were classic too, but not for their beauty. Those were tough, closely fought matches. Quite like what’s happened at the Staples Centre.

Granted, it’s been trainwreck ugly at times. Bad possessions and missed calls have showed up in both games. Both games kind of came down to missed chances at the foul line. The Nuggets could have, should have won game one. They hit a few more from the charity strips, they successfully run that inbounds pass at the end… well, maybe they’re up in this series two-nothing heading back to Denver. It’s been that close.

But it’s been great at times too. Kobe and Carmelo are dueling each other on the court. Both are lighting it up, pushing each other to new heights. It almost feels like a wild-west showdown between two gunslingers.

I don’t know if I’ve seen Carmelo play this possessed. His play – both times nearly matching Kobe’s stat line – has been nothing short of stellar.

On the other side of the ball, I’ve seen Kobe play this possessed, but only rarely. He is not doin’ work, he is worked up. When ESPN’s cameras caught him grimacing late in game two, you could almost feel his frustration as the game slipped beyond his grasp.

He is doing all he can – see his late game heroics in this series – but one man cannot carry a team, despite his best efforts. He’s hitting late shots, he’s having great nights… but that’s not enough. He needs the rest of the Lakers – Gasol, Fisher, Odom, et al – to get over this hump.

But one player can lift his team and make them play better then they ever have before. Before these playoffs began, I was firmly convinced in two things. One, the Nuggets series against the Hornets would be great (it wasn’t) and that the Nuggets were going to explode and fall apart.

They haven’t, even with these two pressure-cooker games in Los Angeles. Billups has been great at the point, Nene’s defence has been top-notch and Kenyon Martin has been good on both sides of the court; in game two he both set a tone on defence and hit a clutch shot to put the Nuggets in front. Is Carmelo the catalyst of this change? Is it Billups? I can’t say I know.

But the seeds of their destruction are already sown. They’re shooting horribly from the foul line and they’re picking up ugly fouls. You can only bang around bodies for so long in this stage of the NBA before the refs put a stop to it. Before one of your players gets hurt. Before they start treating you in kind.

Still, playing on a foreign court, they’ve kept the Lakers in check two times. Like I said, this series could very easily have been two-love for the Nuggets as they moved to Denver.

You know what? If they keep this level of play up, it could very easily be a 3-1 lead by Tuesday morning.

Written by M.

May 22, 2009 at 5:08 am