No NBA player has a more vehemently protected clutch reputation than Kobe Bryant; every late-game make is trumpeted as self-evident, and Bryant’s most committed supporters cast empirics aside in the name of affirming what is generally believed—but rarely proven—to be true.
Yet the most conclusive statistical reviews of Bryant’s crunch-time performances all point toward a very different conclusion from what the common knowledge insists: That while Kobe’s skill set may make him an ideal theoretical late-game performer, his decision-making in end-of-game situations often causes Bryant and the Lakers to be oddly inefficient at a time when they are supposedly mighty.
Yet the Lakers’ 99-96 Game 3 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder reverted reality to that same propped-up narrative, and we should give credit where credit is due.
Bryant forced his fair share of shots over the course of Game 3, and his steps and decisions in crunch time weren’t completely perfect. But the result and the process were largely sound due to Bryant’s manner of exploiting advantage, the Thunder’s curious decision to leave him in single coverage, and the referees’ rather charitable calls in Los Angeles’ favor.
One perspective, from the peanut gallery:
were Joey Crawford and Mark Davis at the podium for the Lakers post game? #podiumgame— VIP (@VIP_BlazeItUp) May 19, 2012
I have a hard time buying into the ever-popular conspiracy theories on the subject of officiating, but the discrepancy that gave the Lakers a chance to decide this game seems worthy of note, if nothing else.
The officiating crew in this game made calls, and their calls were not perfect. Some of those calls happened to come at particularly inopportune times, and empowered one particular team that happened to be playing at home.
No need for mountains when we can let molehills lie, but let the record show that this particular game wasn’t totally spotless, even if the same could be said for so many others.
Officials are human, and though they sometimes seem to favor this team or that, they only truly favor the error that’s inextricable from their judgment and nature. It's all in the game, and unfortunately, it helped to decide this one.
Considering that the work of the referees will undoubtedly be drawn to the narrative forefront on its own, the discussion seems better served by focusing on Kobe being what Kobe is supposed to be.
For a night, we can discard the rule, avoid classifying this as an exception, and view an impressive display in a vacuum. Bryant worked to create mismatches and didn’t hesitate to exploit them upon identification.
That’s just good basketball, and though Bryant—even in his splendor—likely wouldn’t have operated any differently had the Thunder defense swarmed him with additional defenders, we only have the pleasure of looking at this specific context and appreciating Bryant for what was done in the face of the defense put before him.
Kobe isn’t perfect, and he certainly isn’t a perfect “closer,” (mostly because such a thing doesn’t rightly exist, and even if it did, it would probably pass out of double-teams).
But in a game that the Lakers couldn’t afford to lose, Bryant gave his team a final push.
He got to the line. He converted broken possessions. And though his crunch-time performance didn’t boast the drama of a climactic game-winner, Bryant functionally lived up to his own self-perpetuated hype and capped off a fantastic overall performance with the kind of late-game glory that has come to define him.