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Friday, March 11, 2011
Kobe, shot selection, and L.A.'s late game O vs. Miami

By Brian Kamenetzky

It's hard to call Thursday's loss a catastrophe, given that it ended an eight-game winning streak and came on the road to a high-level opponent. There were defensive failings down the stretch, illustrated in great detail by Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook, but once again the Lakers struggled to score, emphasizing the continuing problems the Lakers have had with their late game offense. Without rehashing the "Is he or isn't he?" argument regarding Kobe Bryant's clutchness flaring up a few weeks back, on a night where the Lakers failed to score in the final 2:30, it's worth looking back at what they did. Or, more precisely, what they didn't do.

Especially since it's not the first time they've struggled to score down the stretch. Here's how it played out...

Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire
Offensively, L.A.'s braintrust has struggled producing good results late in games this season.



2:45- Down three, Kobe brings the ball up the floor, going left over a high screen from Andrew Bynum. He feeds Pau Gasol flashing to the left elbow, guarded by Chris Bosh. As Miami collapses, Gasol throws quickly to Ron Artest in the right corner. LeBron James closes well, forcing Artest back high on the wing where he gives off to Kobe. With five seconds left on the clock, Bryant rises and hits a three from just outside downtown Tallahassee.

It was the Lakers final bucket of the game, tying the score at 88. Bryant bailed them out with the long J on a slow developing possession in which the Lakers used a lot of clock just initiating the offense. That they scored was more about good fortune than execution.

2:00- Kobe brings the ball up the right wing. With 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Gasol sets a screen at the top of the arc. Miami leaves Pau, doubling Kobe. He splits the defenders, and throws to Artest in the left corner. Ron penetrates, feeding Gasol cutting through the lane. Pau rises for the close-range lefty hook, absorbing contact from Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the process. Miss.

Artest grabs the rebound, flipping back to Bryant above the arc. Kobe isolates against Wade. James (marking Artest in the right corner) rises to the right elbow, almost guaranteeing Bryant will have to go left on the drive, which he does, with about 14 seconds remaining on the clock. Wade tips the ball away, forcing a turnover and turning into a dunk for James the other way. Was it a foul? Hard to say. Either way, it's smart defense from Miami, not only leaving Bryant in isolation, but also leaving him with only one direction to go.

A missed opportunity for the Lakers to move the ball and try to generate some second chance offense on a night where Kobe struggled mightily generating points on iso plays. (Via ESPN Stats and Info, Bryant is 1-of-11 in isolation vs. the Heat this year.)

1:27- Out of the timeout, once again Kobe brings the ball up the floor. With about 17 seconds left on the clock, he uses a Bynum screen to dribble right, drawing both Wade and Ilgauskas, who force him to pick up his dribble with a nice sideline trap. Kobe goes over the top to Gasol, flashing to above the right elbow, but the pass leads Pau above the arc on the right wing. Gasol goes to Artest on the left win. Artest puts the ball on the floor against James, and is forced into a long, tough jumper over LeBron. Miss, but on the rebound, the ball goes out of bounds, last touched by the Heat.

On the restart, with a fresh 24 second clock and about a minute remaining in the game, the Lakers run a play to spring Kobe for a corner three. Wade, though, sticks with him well, coming over a screen from Odom. Still, Kobe rises and shoots anyway. I have no idea if he realized how tight Wade was or not -- Bryant complained after that he was hacked -- but either way it's a terrible shot on critical possession with so much time remaining available. It seemed pretty clear Kobe was planning on shooting as soon as the ball was inbounded.

Artest corralled the rebound, and in what would become another controversial play, missed the layup.  It was, at best, very close to a goaltend on Miami, but typically that's not a call you'll see at this point in a game, unless a guy basically reaches through the rim and punches the ball out. To his credit, while he certainly referenced contact on the play, Artest said he should have made the initial shot, despite any foul.

:46- Down 92-88, Kobe inbounds to Gasol above the arc, who swings to Lamar Odom on the left wing. Kobe tries to cut back door against Wade, who again sticks with him nicely. Odom threads the needle, and Kobe is able to bring the ball in. Eventually, Kobe loses the ball out of bounds. He glares at the official, wondering why he didn't get a call, which is fair given how Wade literally ripped his arm from the ball, causing him to lose the handle. As he gathers and tries to go back up, Bryant lost the ball and it goes to Miami.

Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire
Kobe drew a ton of attention for his performance at the end of Thursday's game, as well as the long shooting session after.



No question, it was a bad non-call hurting the Lakers in a big moment.

:25- Still down four, the Lakers regain possession. Kobe brings the ball up the floor, and, deciding the last three he made wasn't far enough from the bucket, launches from the north side of the Florida/Georgia border. Short. Artest gets the long rebound along the left baseline, but the Lakers are called for a foul on the floor. Possession goes to Miami. They eventually push the lead to six, and that- as they say- is that.

Kobe's shot selection down the stretch was a major source of conversation this morning (as was his hour-long postgame shooting session... more on that in a sec). How much criticism does he deserve?

In my look at the tape, there were only two shots from Bryant that fans have every right to question: The triple in the corner off the inbound (fouled or not, it was a terrible shot) and the ludicrously three deep with 25 seconds to play. Those were flat-out bad choices. The isolation play against Wade isn't exactly my favorite play, either, but at the same time the idea Kobe Bryant might go one-on-one in a critical situation, likely drawing the defense and kicking to an open teammate as he's done many times before, isn't exactly going off the grid.

Instead, they had two bigger problems. First, L.A. was too slow initiating any offense, leaving them with little time to maneuver once the initial pass/screen came. More significantly, they lacked variety in approach. Save one play -- the inbound from the sideline resulting in the Bryant backdoor cut -- Kobe brought the ball up the floor, allowing all five sets of Miami Heat eyeballs to focus directly on him.  Against top level defensive teams, of which Miami is one, it's just not a good way to go. Particularly if the goal is to get Kobe shots. The Lakers have enough talent to work Bryant away from the ball, forcing opponents to account for his whereabouts while trying to contain the other guys on the floor, all of whom are pretty talented themselves.

The Heat managed to make it work at the other end, using the Wade pick and roll effectively, but the Lakers couldn't. The Lakers didn't score in the last 150 seconds not because Kobe wouldn't give up the ball- he did- but because they couldn't generate good shots. The refs may not have helped, but they didn't help themselves, either.

Finally, a word on the postgame shootfest: Kobe is receiving both praise and a fair amount of derision around the web Friday, and I see both sides. Without question, Bryant has a work ethic unsurpassed in the NBA. Maybe some guys are on his level (don't know who, but maybe), but none work harder. He is absurdly competitive, explaining in large part why he has five rings and just became the sixth leading scorer in NBA history. It's impossible not to respect the skill and effort it's taken to be who he is.

The way his team lost along with the way he played clearly bugged him. Bryant says otherwise. I don't believe him.

That said, there was something very self-aware in what he was doing, in the context, that it was in front of assembled media, and so on. (American Airlines Arena does have a practice court he, in theory at least, could have used.) Some of it is likely aimed at his teammates. "We were bad, and I'm here getting better. This is what it takes." (At this point, the need for such messages is debatable.)  Beyond that, though, hard working as he is, Kobe has for a long time made sure we all know how hard he works. At times, it's compelling, in others, more self-serving. Thursday seemed a combination of both. The desire to get out on the court was genuine (he's often the first guy on the floor when cameras aren't there, too), and came from his competitiveness, but he also understood the other half of it, and how it changed the narrative after he played poorly down the stretch. It's a little like the guy who genuinely wants to visit sick kids in the hospital, but brings cameras with him. The kid doesn't care -- he's just happy to meet his hero -- but others might focus on whether the publicity needs to be there, too.

As long as the desire to see the kid -- or in this case, the desire to get out on the floor and do his work -- is real (and it was), does the other stuff really matter? This is who he is, and for Lakers fans the results are overwhelmingly positive, even if sometimes the moments come off as less-than-authentic.