NBA Playoffs 2012: Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the End of an Era?

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NBA Playoffs 2012: Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the End of an Era?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

After the epic Game 2 collapse against the Oklahoma City Thunder in which the Los Angeles Lakers blew a seven-point lead in the final two minutes, my mind was racing. The Lakers, complete with the best closer in basketball, had choked—and this time, it was all on him.

While people will most definitely remember Steve Blake’s missed three from the corner, the four possessions before that shot were equally as important, and it was those possessions that come back on Kobe Bryant.

First, it was a lazy pass to Pau Gasol that Kevin Durant jumped up and grabbed. Then it was a poor pass from Blake that Kobe let slip right through his hands. On possessions three and four, Kobe at least got the ball moving toward the basket. However, the outcomes were equally unsuccessful. First, it was a block by James Harden, and then a tough three-pointer just wouldn’t fall.

By the time those four possessions were finished, the Lakers had watched a seven-point lead turn into a one-point deficit. Sure, it was Blake that couldn’t hit the game-winning shot, but on this night, it was Kobe who helped their lead evaporate.

To say it was a stunning night is an understatement. I told myself it was a fluke, that everyone has bad games, and that night was Kobe’s. I thought, if anything, this game would fuel him—make him even more deadly and more focused throughout the playoffs.

Then came Game 3, a Lakers win, and yet, the Kobe I had hoped to see was nowhere to be found. Sure, he was flawless from the free throw line on 18 attempts, but a 9/25 shooting performance was far from what I expected. Fortunately, it didn’t matter, as the Lakers still won, and momentum seemed to be turning.

If Kobe Bryant can't keep Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum engaged, the Lakers will struggle to find postseason success.

As Game 4 began, my suspicions about who was in control of this series were slowly confirmed. After jumping out to a double-digit lead early, the Lakers maintained that lead all the way into the fourth quarter, leading by nine with about six minutes left.

“There’s no way Kobe lets this happen twice,” I thought.

Shame on me.

After the Lakers had built the lead pounding the ball inside to Andrew Bynum for most of the first half, their second-half offense left Bynum noticeably absent.

In looking at the numbers, Kobe attempted 11 shots in the first half, Bynum had 12 and Gasol had eight. In the second half, Kobe attempted 17 shots, Bynum attempted three and Gasol attempted two.

While Kobe’s 5/7 from the floor in the third quarter kept the lead intact, the absence of Gasol and Bynum in the Laker offense became painfully noticeable in the fourth, as Kobe’s shots stopped falling.

Kobe finished the fourth 2/10 from the field—and was just 1/9 until making a last-second jumper as time expired.

When asked about the game afterwards, it wasn’t his poor shooting performance he keyed in on, but an errant Gasol pass from late in the fourth. On the play, Kobe received a screen from Gasol and was then double-teamed a few feet behind the arc. Sensing the trap, he found Gasol wide open about 18 feet from the basket.

Instead of taking the open shot or going to the basket, Gasol immediately looked to pass—sending the ball towards Metta World Peace at the top of the key—a pass that went straight into the hands of Kevin Durant.

For Kobe and Lakers fans, it’s an easy play to point to, given how critical that moment was and how bad of a pass it was.

Having had some time to reflect on it all, however, I think that play does a good job of summing up the Lakers postseason.

For starters, this play harkens back to Steve Blake’s missed three at the end of Game 2. Remember the scowl Blake received from Kobe? The temper tantrum he threw when he didn’t get the ball?

You think Pau Gasol wanted any part of that treatment? I wouldn’t.

Secondly, and more importantly, that play also shows where the Lakers are as a team right now. We’ve always known this was Kobe’s team, but that has never been more true.

For two, maybe three quarters a game, Kobe plays team basketball—getting others involved and playing unselfishly. For the fourth, however, that couldn’t be less true.

When Kobe touches the ball in the fourth, everyone in the building knows there’s a 90 percent chance the shot is eventually going up. Teammates stand around, defenders key in on Kobe and then the shot either goes in or it doesn’t.

Game 4 was a great example of this. For almost 24 minutes, two of the best basketball players in the world (Gasol and Bynum) weren’t playing basketball; they were watching it.

When Bynum attempted a hook shot with 2:33 left in the game, it was just his second shot since the 4:15 mark in the third quarter. For 14 minutes, the guy who had helped the Lakers dominate OKC had taken just two shots.

In fact, it was that possession and the one that followed it that humored me. On neither possession did Kobe touch the ball. It was almost as if his teammates were saying, “Alright Kobe, tonight’s not your night. Let's give someone else a try.” It was like they knew that once he touched the ball, they weren’t seeing it again. (On 17 team shot attempts in the fourth with Kobe on the floor, Bryant shot 10 times.)

Now, when Kobe Bryant is in the zone and really zeroed in, I’m confident in saying there is no player in the world more fun to watch. The circus layups, the fade-away threes and the turning-the-wrong-way jumpers are better than any Blake Griffin or Lebron James dunk in my book.

When those shots aren’t falling, however, Kobe might be among the least-fun players to watch, and definitely one of the least-fun players to play with. Unfortunately, Saturday was one of those nights—a night in which everyone knew Kobe was shooting, and everyone found out he just didn’t have it.

So while every Lakers postseason exit seems to bring about wide scale changes, I think the biggest, and maybe the only, change needed is within Kobe. I’m definitely not saying they need to get rid of him. I’m saying he needs to re-evaluate his game of basketball.

There was a time in his career when no one could stop him. At times, he’s still that player. Other times, it’s clear that, defensively, the league’s youth and athleticism may have caught up.

The problem here is not Mike Brown—the problem is that Kobe has become his own coach. There’s no coach available that can tell Kobe to stop shooting, and yet, on some nights, that’s exactly what he needs to hear.

So while Kobe fooled me in Game 2 and then fooled me again in Game 4, I think I’ve finally figured him out. Unless he’s ready to involve his teammates and play team basketball, it’s shame on him.

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