May 27, 2009: The Day Kobe Bryant Gambled and the Lakers Became Champions
By May 25, the Nuggets had fought the Lakers to a standstill, a 2-to-2 tie after four games, and had actually outscored the Lakers overall by 14 points.
That's incredible. A seven game series can be viewed as a single 336-minute affair, and the Lakers were losing after four games. Yet as we all know, they won 4-to-2 and finished +22 for the series.
The Lakers were struggling, looked disjointed, and nothing like the juggernaut that accumulated 65 wins in the regular season.
What happened was the playoffs raised the stakes and the intensity. And "Dominant Kobe" emerged again. He was dominating the ball, taking an average of 24.5 shots a game. He wasn't passing. He was self-destructing.
To better understand Kobe's decisions one must think of the game from Kobe's perspective.
Basketball is a game of skill, physical ability, and desire and the player who lacks any of those three will never make it to the top of the NBA. Yet rarely does a player have all three.
Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson? Possessed all three.
Right now Kobe is and has been the most skilled player in the game. He has the highest combination of defensive skills, dribbling, driving, passing, and shooting. His desire is through the roof.
Unfortunately, he is only 6'6", and is now 30-years old. He is simply no longer the best player in the league.
To truly understand Kobe is impossible:he is too complex, intense, and intelligent. But his actions says what he never has and never will. He views himself as the best. The best that he can be. Better than anyone else on the court.
And basketball has only one ball and five people per team on the court. Anyone who has played basketball knows that a single good player can win a game.
Kobe knows this, and every loss simply kills him.
"Dominant Kobe" wants to beat opponents into submission, to wear them down through ceaseless drive, unrelenting defense, and unguarded fade-aways.
"Dominant Kobe" was at the peak of his powers during the 2006 season. He scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan 22, 2006. He took 46 shots that game and I still remember where I was when I learned about his incredible performance. Dominant Kobe averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005/2006 season.
This is the extra dimension to Kobe's personality. One that he can not hide from a sharp observer. He has the strength and desire to dominate his opponents.
Like Sauron from Lord of the Rings, he is not content to just be the best. He must chase his opponents off the court, and show them he will never back down.
And Kobe has never backed down. Ever.
A coach always wants his best players taking the bulk of the shots. Dominant Kobe was the best player on his team. He took the most shots (2,173 shots to be exact).
He dominated the ball, his teammates, his coach, and the city of LA.
This is the last year that he will even be mentioned as a possible "best player" in the league. He might still win another MVP Award, but he won't be seriously discussed as the best player in the league.
And on May 26, Dominant Kobe may have lost the war to Winning Kobe. He read the writing on the wall. Specifically, on May 26, there were four teams left in the playoffs. All four contained key members from the Olympic Gold Medal Team.
Dwight Howard is 23, LeBron James is 24, and Carmelo Anthony is 25. Kobe Bryant is 30.
During the Gold Medal match against Spain, the other players deferred to Kobe. He had impressed them with his work ethic, his intensity, and his "hardware".
The reigning MVP Award and his three championship rings gave him the credibility and status over the younger players. The younger players learned what it takes to be a champion from Kobe. But Kobe also learned things about his team-mates and future opponents.
He learned how strong, good, and young they are. "It was a lot of fun, he's a bull down there," Bryant said after Game One. "I am a little out of my weight class, but I'll give it my best shot."
Yet Carmelo was the smallest and oldest of the remaining stars. He was a "bull" compared to Kobe and it could only get worse against LeBron James or Dwight Howard in the finals.
And after four games of the Conference Finals, on May 26, the battle inside him reached a climax. He knows he can no longer physically defeat the new generation of stars. But he can still win the basketball game.
"It was a big gamble for me coming in, but I wanted to change my approach this game and be more of a decoy."
This is the most significant quote Kobe has given in a long time and speaks volumes about what happened between Game Four and Game Five.
Kobe was gambling. When the stakes were highest! When the most was on the line! Game Five at home. A loss would be devastating. And Kobe gambled? He gambled? Really?
What do we know about Kobe Bryant? His reaction to force? More force. His reaction to adversity? Fight through it. Critics? Embrace the hate. Love the hate. And now with the season on the line, he gambles?
He consciously and knowingly declined to muscle and fight his way through the younger and stronger Denver Nuggets. Instead, he played decoy, and prayed his team-mates could carry the load.
And they did. Kobe's life story has been unrelenting will and drive. His parents disapproved of his marriage to his wife Vanessa, so he shut them out of his life for two years.
This man calls no truces. He doesn't surrender, and if you do he will pound you until his coach takes him out of the game. He scored 62 points in three quarters against the Mavericks, and was held out the entire fourth quarter because the game was a blow-out.
Lakers fans and Kobe fans take notice: Kobe Bryant has switched gears for the first time in his life.
We always knew he had all-out-attack mode. We didn't know if he had another one. But at age 30, after playing an MVP level season, 21 playoff games last season, defeat in the NBA Finals, then Olympic basketball, then another full season, and then 16 playoff games, all with a torn ligament in his shooting hand, Kobe switched gears.
He has been worn down and exhausted enough that he forced himself to switch gears.
He must have felt unimaginable pressure and fatigue to switch up his life plan in the most meaningful playoff run of his life. He wants to win, to become a legend, not just a great but a legend in the game.
Winning Kobe's version of being a decoy is still taking 13 shots and 10 free-throws. But it also includes eight assists. And that's the difference.
Game One against Houston (a loss):31 shots snd four assists.
Game Six against Houston (a loss):27 shots and three assists.
Game One against Denver (a close win):28 shots and four assists.
Game Two against Denver (a close loss):20 shots and three assists.
Game Three against Denver (a close win):24 shots and five assists.
Game Four against Denver (a blowout loss):26 shots and five assists.
Game Five against Denver (a win):13 shots and eight assists.
Game Six against Denver (a blowout win):20 shots and 10 assists.
The more assists, the bigger the margin of victory. For someone as smart as Kobe, it will be an easy lesson. And Kobe understood it on May 26.
For a player who handles the ball as much as Kobe, three assists a game can happen just by accident. Scorekeepers award assists liberally enough that a bailout pass can be scored an assist.
But 10 assists in a game is on purpose. It represents Kobe driving with the intent to pass and playing the game with the intent to win and not dominate. Its the difference between "Winning Kobe" and "Dominant Kobe".
In the first four games of the series, I heard the announcers discuss how winded Kobe looked. How they had never seen him trot back on defense before.
I read on ESPN that one sports writer thought he was injured and not telling anyone about it. And I saw the results: two wins and two losses.
In Game Five, on May 27, the game was tied after the first, second, and third quarters. And still Kobe only took 13 shots for the entire game. He never tried to dominate, to drive, to take 25 shots or more.
He stuck to the plan and passed out of double teams and hoped his team would come through. Can anyone recall a major game involving Kobe that was close and competitive where he didn't try to take over? I certainly can't.
I honestly don't know if the Lakers wins the championship. In the Orlando Magic they face another tall, skilled team that mirrors their own strengths.
But on May 26, Kobe Bryant switched gears. The Nuggets put enough pressure on him that his dominant aspect cracked, and gave way to the desire to simply win at all costs.
When it is all said and done his Game Five performance will be forgotten. His performance was unremarkable but should always be known as the game where Kobe switched gears, and tried to be a play-maker for team-mates, who were good enough to win a championship.
On May 26, the Los Angeles, including Kobe, started playing like Champions.
The NBA Finals this year will be a pleasure to watch.
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