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Still On Top

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The Clippers nearly did the impossible. They nearly became the first team in what seems like forever to spot Golden State a 17-point, come back and live to talk about it. Nearly.

Instead, despite getting a 10-point lead of its own with five minutes to play, the Clippers fell short of the Warriors once again. It was the same old story for Golden State: Remove all of the constraints of traditional basketball – ie. a big man – and play free flowing basketball with offensive threats all over the flow. The Clippers are supposed to have one of the most capable frontlines in the league when it comes to countering Golden State’s futuristic lineup, but they were shut down on Wednesday night.

Draymond Green flew around the floor and made plays, and his teammates followed suit. Even when Andre Iguodala wound up switched on Blake Griffin, who is on a tear to start the season, Griffin couldn’t muster much when trying to back him down. As we saw when the chips were down last postseason, Golden State’s trump card changed the game, with its stops fueling its offense, and particularly Curry, who fired in threes from across the bay like it was nothing.

This game had a weird flow to it. Curry was taken out of the game after just three minutes due to foul trouble and didn’t return until the start of the second quarter. In the second half, the same thing happened to Paul, who picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes left in the third and sat almost an entire quarter until he returned. Even still, both teams managed to play tremendous offensive games, especially given the defensive prowess of its opposition.

Griffin was spectacular for most of the game, but his inability to muster a good look when the Warriors had smaller defenders on him down the stretch was worrisome. In a postseason matchup between these two teams, that would be a frequent occurrence, and if Green is going to switch onto Paul, then Griffin has to make Golden State pay. Curry (31 points, 5 boards, 7 threes) and Paul (24 points, 9 assists, 3 steals) were both fantastic, as always seems to be the case in one of the league’s most exhilarating point guard matchups. The same cannot be said for whatever Jamal Crawford was doing last night.

Despite the loss, I think this might be an early-season confidence boost for the Clippers. They got down big in the league’s toughest road environment, fought back with their reserves and got themselves in a position to win. Execute better, and smarter, when the Warriors hand you a size advantage and get out to Curry quicker on his pull-ups and perhaps this result is different. No other team has challenged the Warriors to this point and despite the somewhat deflating loss, I thought this was a good showing for Los Angeles overall.

SASWAS

In the blink of an eye, the Spurs were down 19-2. Then they went on a 21-3 run and took a 23-22 lead at the end of the first quarter. While it was a particularly impressive comeback in the moment, in hindsight it was illustrative of a larger issue that has troubled the Spurs through five games: The starting unit is far from a finished product.

The Spurs starting lineup, while elite defensively (96.1 defensive rating), is only scoring 91.2 points per 100 possessions in their 78 minutes together this season. But once Pop makes his first waves of substitutions – usually Manu Ginobili for Danny Green, Patty Mills for Tony Parker and Boris Diaw for Tim Duncan – the Spurs look like one of the best teams in basketball. The group of Mills, Manu, Kawhi, Diaw and Aldridge is scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 88 points per 100 possessions on the other end.

Aldridge and Diaw have been the Spurs’ best big man pairing both statistically and aesthetically. Aldridge has shown better prowess as a rim protector than I thought he would, so when Diaw checks in for Duncan and provides his unique blend of passing, cutting and spacing, the Spurs get back to the beautiful game that they showcased in the 2014 Finals. With Duncan and Aldridge, things are more cramped, possessions develop slower and Aldridge really isn’t getting that many touches, which is surprising only because the slower pace seems to be a way to introduce Aldridge’s post-game into the Spurs’ vernacular.

San Antonio looked good for most of this game after the first quarter, but once the starters returned in the final five minutes, the offense went in the tank and its turnovers fueled the Wizards’ transition attack. The Wizards, who were playing small with Jared Dudley at the four, were always going to trouble San Antonio’s twin towers lineup in transition, and the Spurs’ turnovers only made matters worse. Tony Parker nearly saved San Antonio with his game-tying three in the final seconds, but Bradley Beal returned the favor after the Spurs messed up a switch on a high screen designed to free Beal. Beal shook a hurried Aldridge, who was rushing to cover for Leonard, and buried the winner.

In May, I wrote about John Wall’s path to stardom, and he was unbelievable in this game. Shooting 6-of-16 isn’t great, but he orchestrated everything for Washington in this game, dishing out 13 assists with only one turnover while gobbling up four steal that got the Wizards on the break. His ability to read a defense continues to impress, and he caused several breakdowns by the Spurs in this game.

Meanwhile, I may end up writing a similar piece about the growth of Bradley Beal. Beal looks like a legitimate offensive superstar right now, and he’s a good defender as well. Beal scored 25 points on 50% shooting, grabbed give boards, dished out four assists and collected three steals against the Spurs, and he’s averaging 25 points with 48/46/75 shooting splits to start the season. It looks like Washington’s two budding stars are finally coming into their own. And if this team lands a certain local kid in the summer, the East might have a new king.

HOUORL

The Magic are the most entertaining, if not best, 1-4 team I can remember seeing in recent years. Their four losses have been by a combined 14 points (or six points less than the standard Rockets loss this season), two of which came in over time, and they’ve played the Wizards, Thunder, Bulls, Pelicans and Rockets. 1-4 against five playoff teams may be a solid indication that the Magic still have a ways to go before they are legitimate playoff team, but they’ve been right there in every game and Scott Skiles has done a nice job revamping this team on the fly.

Perhaps the Magic would have prevailed in this one had Nikola Vucevic not gone out with an injury in the second quarter. But Aaron Gordon came off the bench and gave the Magic 32 really good minutes. He scored 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds and playing really good one-on-one defense when matched up with James Harden on a couple of occasions. Evan Fournier was also quite good for the Magic, posting a 29-6-4 line while spending most of the game attacking Harden on the offensive end.

Harden had another awful shooting game – you know you’re shooting poorly when a 2-of-11 performance from three actually improves your 3-point percentage for the season – but in typical Harden fashion, he got to the line 17 times and helped seal the victory in the closing moments. Interestingly, Gordon’s emergence led to just 21 minutes for Tobias Harris, who played well for the most part. He had 16 points and five boards but didn’t see any time in the crucial moments of the game, save for the final possession. Harris seems like the kind of guy who you want to play as much as possible against the smallball Rockets, but I guess it will take some time for Harris to earn Skiles’ trust after their falling out in Milwaukee when they were both Bucks.

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The Thunder had this game in the bag. They lead by six with two minutes to go, but the Raptors were the most aggressive team down the stretch. They scored eight points from the free throw line and their two crunchtime field goal came inside the paint while Westbrook and Durant couldn’t manage to put home any of their close-range attempts.

This game must have taken place in a parallel universe, because the Thunder, who own time shares at the free throw line, had only 14 free throw attempts while DeMar DeRozan had 15 by himself. As a team, the Raptors had 39 free throw attempts, which helped make up for the fact that Oklahoma city shot 48% from the field in this game. DeRozan put his head down and went at Andre Roberson and Serge Ibaka all game long, and I thought Jonas Valanciunas, off to a fine start this season, got the better of Steven Adams and Ibaka as well.

Russell Westbrook came out of the gates on fire – as a passer. He dished out 16 assists on the night, but he was off from the field, and Kevin Durant’s 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting wasn’t enough for the Thunder to overcome their excessive fouling and 19 turnovers. Oklahoma City is last in the league in turnovers per game at 20.2, more than two more than Philadelphia, who take as good of care of the ball as I do of my pencils. It’s early, but Billy Donovan still has some work to do with his team’s discipline on both ends.

It’s Going Down!

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

Vino

in NBA by
vino

One Michael Jordan-esque thing that Kobe Bryant has perfected that doesn’t get talked about a lot is how well Kobe’s career fits into nicely parsed segments – as if we needed anymore reasons to crave a tell-all Kobe book once he’s retired.

For Jordan, there was the Jordan Rules era when his Bulls lost to the Pistons for three straight years, the first three-peat, his first retirement/baseball career, his second three-peat and, if you want technical, his time with the Wizards (but let’s all agree to forget that, OK?).

Kobe’s career can be sorted many different ways: by number (8 & 24), by teammates (Shaq, Smush, Pau, Nash/Dwight), by hairstyle (the fro and the “can’t grow a fro no mo”), by coaches (Del Harris, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni) and, now, by nickname.

Bryant was born into a solid nickname, with “Jellybean” and “Bean” coming from his father, but his first official nicknames weren’t so hot. He began his career as Adidas client and was branded as “Ocho” and “KB8” in many of his first commercials, but it got better quickly in the form of a shared nickname when Shaqobe took over the NBA. And then a couple years into his 24 era, Bryant decided to give himself a new nickname, and he chose “the Black Mamba.”

Folks weren’t so hot about Kobe giving himself a nickname, but it has since grown to the point where it is now the primary focus of Nike’s marketing campaigns, with snakeskin designs being the signature of Kobe’s shoeline. Oh, and Kobe takes it pretty seriously, as he allegedly hisses on the court when he wants the ball in an attempt to mimic the attack signal of the world’s second most deadly snake.

And now Kobe is in love with a new nickname: Vino. According to Kobe, his copywriter friend gave him this nickname last Friday, and it couldn’t be more apropos.

In case you don’t know, vino is the Italian and Spanish word for wine, which fits for Bryant because he grew up and Italy and loves berating Pau under his breath in Spanish, and the translation here is that Kobe continues to get better with age. And if you’ve been watching the Lakers lately, it is easy  to understand why this nickname sticks, and I’m sure that Nike’s creative team is whipping up a way to ethically market wine to kids.

What Bryant has been doing since the all-star break has been absolutely unreal, with his latest string of games perhaps trumping any of his previous career streaks, which says a lot. Bryant, who is now 34 years old and in his 17th year in the league, has risen his game to a never before seen from someone with this many minutes under his belt, and he is close to single handedly rising his team back into the playoff picture after spending months with a sub-.500 record (though I must mention Utah is doing a pretty good job of helping the Lakers out).

At the end of February, Bryant put together a four game stretch scoring at least 29 points per game while shooting at least 51% from the field against the Blazers, Mavericks, Nuggets and Timberwolves. Kobe has only had one such four game streak before in his career, and it came all the way back in December of 2000. That is a 13 year difference between incredibly efficient streaks. The fact that he’s had these runs once as a 22-year old and once as 34-year old is amazing within itself, much less watching these games and watching the kind of effort he’s putting out on a nightly basis.

Over his past eight games, Kobe is averaging 35.9 points per game on a 67% true shooting percentage, and the Lakers have gone 6-2 during that stretch, with their only two losses coming on the road against the Nuggets and Thunder. Even better, the games against the Mavericks, Hawks, Hornets and Raptors all featured some classic Black Mamba moments in which Bryant took over the game in the fourth quarter. There has even been a bit of #8/Frobe mixed in here in there as Kobe has inexplicably found a new tank of helium to power his legs, with his crunch time dunk over Josh Smith ranking amongst his all-time best throwdowns.

Kobe’s best show of the season came last night. The Lakers spent the majority of the game against the Raptors laughably digging themselves into double digit holes by missing rotations, getting blown by and generally not giving a crap on defense, which has been a major theme of the season. At least recently Dwight Howard has made it a theme to start playing engaged defense in the fourth quarter, which is a start, I guess. The Lakers started the quarter down 10 and worked it down to five with two minutes remaining.

That’s when the vino was uncorked and Kobe’s three-point barrage began.

Bryant made three straight impossible shots to revive the Lakers and maybe even the Lakers’ season if you wanted to get dramatic (and why wouldn’t we?). After his trifecta of triples forced overtime, Bryant went and added the game-winning shot to his highlight reel. The Raptors, so scared of Bryant’s scoring ability in the closing seconds of the game, sent a double team at him as he dribbled near half-court, ironically sealing their fate for that possession. As Aaron Gray approached Brynat up top, Kobe dribbled around the double team and galloped right down the lane, elevating for the slam as the younger, more athletic, more spry Rudy Gay watched in amazement as Bryant showed him a little something about coming up big.

Last night, Bryant elicited gasps, roars, screams and even tears of joy out of this observer. It’s one thing to play along with a nickname and believe the premise of its existence, but it’s much different to see a player become the personification of his pseudonym.

Kobe has truly gotten better with age; the arsenal hasn’t grown, it’s just gotten more potent and explosive, just like that bottle of Château in your cellar.

And now the Lakers have risen out of the cellar of the Western Conference, with just a half game separating them from taking the eighth seed away from the Utah Jazz. With the run that Kobe is on right now, it is hard to imagine the Lakers not getting into the playoffs somehow.

And once he’s there, it may be tough to stop Vino and a rejuvenated Lakers squad from popping bottles in June.

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