Kobe Bryant is so ridiculous. I admit that I am one of his biggest fans and there aren’t many things that I enjoy doing more than watching him play basketball. But at this point, even people that hate him, whether they dislike him for legitimate reasons (having their team fall victim to the Mamba) or illegitimate reasons (jealousy, envy), have to start giving this guy credit for being one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA.
I mean, this was probably his worst shooting game of the series and he had 37 points on 12-of-25 shooting. Just a tad under 50% and that was his worst outing of the series. He’s been that good. As promised, I will have more on Kobe’s play this post-season as the Finals near, so lets focus on the those two shots he hit with two minutes left in the game.
The Lakers entered into the fourth quarter with a 17 point lead thanks to some huge plays all-around from Ron Artest and a late barrage of long two point jumpers from Kobe to close out the quarter. But the momentum of the game shifted in mere seconds. The Phoenix crowd was dead to start the fourth. The Lakers had just established a humongous lead and Kobe wasn’t on the floor, which signified some kind of confidence in the Lakers that was demoralizing for the Suns. Normally, when you see Kobe on the bench, your mind automatically assumes its your time to strike, but the Suns and their fans seemed lifeless.
That is, until Goran Dragic hit a stepback two over fellow Slovenian Sasha Vujacic. It was the first bucket of the quarter and it really was nothing. But the reaction was something. After the shot, Dragic approached Sasha and said something. Whatever it was, Vujacic didn’t like it. After saying whatever he said, he slowly approached Sasha to play unnecessary 85 foot defense. As he touched Sasha with his chest, Vujacic raised his arms and popped Dragic in the jaw. He immediately fell to the floor and acted like he was hurt. After deliberation, the refs gave Vujacic a Flagrant One foul, meaning Phoenix got two free throws and the ball.
Dragic hit both free throws and then blew by Vujacic on the next play to score again. 6-0 run in one minute and the lead was down to 11. After a turnover and a miss from Lamar Odom, Dragic attacked Pau Gasol and once again got to the rim. 8-0 run and now it was a single digit lead. With Amare Stoudemire coming alive as the fourth quarter winded down, the Suns found themselves doing exactly what they did in Game 5. Fighting back from a 17 point deficit with a good chance at coming back.
The Lakers sustained the run to an extent. Derek Fisher hit some huge shots and Kobe had a 21-foot runner from the free throw line to make sure the Suns didn’t close within five. But with three minutes left, Amare attacked the basket and got himself free throws (he had 15 free throws in this game). He hit both and cut the lead to five. One minute later, Nash blew right by Fisher and got to the rim easily, where there was no help defense. This lay-up cut it to three. And suddenly, the Lakers were lost. After spending 36 minutes playing awesome offensive basketball, attacking the gaps, penetrating and kicking, and making three’s that were given to them, the Suns were about to complete another amazing comeback.
But then, with two minutes left in a closeout game on the road, you know who stepped it up. Kobe Bryant got himself open for a second to receive the pass. As soon as Kobe got the ball, Channing Frye came over to double him with Grant Hill. With two hands in his face, Bryant simply turned and faded away to nail the 21-foot jumper. Two hands in the face, doesn’t make a difference to the best player on the planet. After Kobe and Amare traded two free throw makes and Amare and Pau traded lay-ups, with 40 seconds left, the Lakers were up five with the ball.
This time, Kobe was one the left wing, behind the three-point line, single covered with Grant Hill on him. Bryant dribbled his way to the three-point line and rose up with a foot on the line. Again, Hill’s arm was right in the face of Bryant. Didn’t matter. He sunk it. After the shot dropped, he turned and tapped Alvin Gentry on the backside. Gentry couldn’t help but laugh. In one of the most disappointing situations any coach can face, Gentry was smiling because there is simply nothing you can do to stop Kobe. Its comical at this point.
“Great defense,” Gentry told Hill after Bryant hit the dagger.
“Not good enough,” Bryant responded, bringing that smile to his face.
Bryant glided has way down the court as soon as the Suns called a timeout knowing he had yet again broken the hearts of an opposing fanbase. On their homecourt no less.
“He’s one of the very few guys that I have seen play that literally can will the ball in the basket,” said Fisher, who’s won four titles with Kobe. “He has the ability to lock in on the rim.”
That makes five straight series where Kobe and company got it done on the road in a closeout game. Denver in the Western Conference Finals last season in Game 6, the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals in Game 5, the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round this year in Game 6, the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semi-Finals in Game 4, and now Phoenix.
Kobe seems to elevate the play of himself and his teammates every time they have a chance to put a team away in their building. Bryant had 37 points tonight on 12-of-25 shooting with six rebounds, two assists and two steals. After flirting with a triple-double for three straight games, Kobe didn’t have the greatest all-around performance, but the shots he hit, all of which were impossible for anybody but him, made up for it. Bryant also shot 11 free throws, just the second time he got into double digits this series.
Ron Artest played just how I thought he would. After that buzzer beater, I hoped/predicted that that shot would propel his game, give him confidence and turn his luck around. That showed tonight. Ron had 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting with four three’s, four rebounds, three steals and two assists. The Suns again elected to lay off of Artest just like the Thunder and Jazz did and it payed off for the Lakers for the first time in this series. Ron was not just on his game from the outside, he had a number of drives to the basket and offensive rebounds/put backs that got the Lakers going. On a Kobe missed three in the second quarter, Ron got the rebound and tried to lay it back up and in. He missed and Channing Frye got the rebound. But Ron stayed with the play. He poked away and stole the ball right under his own hoop and finished a lay-up all in the same motion. It was the Lakers version of that Rondo steal on Jason Williams.
And lets not forget Derek Fisher. This guy might be more amazing than Kobe in a sense because of, with all due respect, his lack of talent compared to Kobe. He didn’t score as much as he did in Game 5, but he hit that big shot that changed momentum whenever Phoenix threatened. Also, Fisher did an excellent job of driving and kicking when Ron was being laid off of in the corner. His passes were a big factor in getting Ron going.
The bench wasn’t great. Lamar Odom was a monster on the boards, grabbing 12 rebounds (five offensive), a lot of them coming down the stretch, giving the Lakers more opportunities to burn clock. But he was also three-of-12 from the field with four fouls. Shannon Brown got had just four minutes of playing time because the Suns attacked him on the defensive end and Sasha, other than hitting a three, was a detriment to the team because of his late game antics with Dragic.
But Jordan Farmar was great. Farmar looked under control, actually calming down the team at one point when the Suns made a run, something exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from Jordan based on his past play. But he controlled the game, felt things changing and adjusted. He got the ball moving and, when he wasn’t running the offense, he found himself at home in the cozy confines of the corner three-point line, where he nailed two three’s. Eight points, five assists and two rebounds for Farmar, who finally brought it for a full game.
Pau Gasol wasn’t good. He missed easy looks, he missed open jumpers, he took bad shots, he made poor passes out of the double team, and he wasn’t efficient, which has been his biggest advantage over any other post player in the NBA. If it weren’t for Amare Stoudemire’s awful evening (7-for-20 with just four rebounds), Gasol would again be in the spotlight for his poor play. But he was there on defense and he cut of Amare on his drives a few times. He got whistled for five fouls but he stopped Amare from getting anything at the basket in the first three quarters, which slowed him down.
I’ll have a post on Nash tomorrow.
For the third straight season, the Lakers are headed to the NBA Finals and they are headed into a rematch with a team they collectively hate. They are locked in, focused and playing some of the best ball we’ve ever seen. And with Kobe Bryant leading them, back-t0-back-to-back Finals appearances isn’t the only thing this group will have accomplished, they’ll also be back-to-back champions.
Previews/analysis/etc on the Finals will start Monday. For now, enjoy the amazing stud that is Kobe Bryant.