Is Kobe's Sun Setting in LA?

AndrewContributor IApril 23, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY - APRIL 22: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to pass the ball against James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs on April 22, 2010 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last night we watched a legend in decline, Kobe Bryant, fail to recognize the deterioration of his powers and cost his team the game. It made me wonder whether Kobe ever really understood that he can’t do it alone.

I know this seems like a reactionary statement, but Kobe has been playing losing basketball for the past two months. Manu Ginobili has been outplaying Bryant in April, and it’s not even close.

Right now Kobe just isn’t scoring efficiently. I’ve seen plenty of Lakers games in the last month or so in which Kobe has struggled to make shots against single coverage. Shots that are bad shots for every other player, but ones that Kobe regularly converts. Portland’s Batum did a great job on him, and even Arron Afflalo was able to force Bryant into an ugly shooting performance.

Last night, we saw an increasingly one-dimensional Kobe Bryant snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, one contested jump-shot at a time.

If you had to ask yourself what the main advantage LA has over OKC, you would immediately answer “height!” (or experience, if you are “Kinny” Smith). LA is enormous, but they lost game 3 because the one LA player without a significant size advantage decided to take all the shots.

And I don’t want to hear about how his Game 2 scoring outburst showed he’s “back.” He shot 43%, got a lot of freethrows at home, made them, and had 1 assist. You are bound to score some points if you try to shoot or go to the basket 35+ times in a game.

Let’s compare last night’s 4th Quarter Laker offense to the first quarter of game one, by far LA’s best 12 minutes.  In that opening quarter, the Lakers posted up three different players, Bryant, Bynum and Gasol, on their first eight possessions. The result: shots in close, free throws, no long misses that lead to Thunder run-outs, LA able to set up half court D and key in on Velvet Hoop, and a 27-13 LA advantage.

That’s the formula. Pao/Bynum can combine for 50 on this thin Thunder front line, nightly.

It’s not as simple as Atlanta just giving the ball to Josh Smith and watching him get about as much resistance from Carlos Delfino as Adrian Peterson got from William Gay , but it’s not rocket surgery.

And this is the recurrent flaw in what may become the tragic arc of Kobe’s career. After a dark period from which he emerged as the best player on the best team in the league, Kobe’s hubris, his blinding desire to be the person who determines the game’s outcome, may undo his star-studded squad.

In the fourth, it had to be Kobe time. Either he drove (never completely eluding his defender) and tried to kick out—yielded two long Artest makes and two turnovers—or forced a jump-shot. Durant was long and quick enough to single-handedly cover Bryant, handcuffing him into fall away 22 footers.

(By the way--did Durant just emerge as the NBA player with the right combination of length and quickness to guard LeBron 1 on 1? Will LeBron embrace the post game as a means of punishing the slighter Durant when they inevitably meet in future NBA Finals? Will anybody in OKC, where the Heisman ceremony drew 27x the average viewership of a Thunder game, watch on TV?)

These forced Kobe jumpers (1 for 9) were basically turnovers, because the ball didn’t move side to side early in the possession. Therefore Thunder defense never had to defend against cuts, screens or ball movement, and OKC’s bigs remained in perfect rebounding position.

For much of the fourth, Kobe either made the shot, which he did only once, or the shot essentially became a “safe” turnover. Counting his traditional turnovers, Kobe wasted ten Laker possessions in the final period.

That type of play is antithetical to the principals of the triangle offense, and kept the Lakers’ biggest advantage, post scoring, from being the deciding factor.

The Lakers should still dispatch the pesky Thunder, but performances like last night’s are why many think the Lakers can be had, maybe before the Finals. It's not that Kobe Bryant has become utterly guardable, it's that he seems to be the last one to know.

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