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Unshooting stars

Kobe Bryant vs. the BullsAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Attacking the defense where it is strongest is tough-to-impossible, no matter who's shooting.

I spent a fair portion of Tuesday on the phone with a front office executive who was explaining to me why he doesn't care what the statistics say: There is tremendous value in Kobe Bryant in crunch time. His ability to make tough shots inspires all kinds of double-teams and defensive oddities, which create a buffet of opportunities for the Lakers, from counter-attacks to offensive rebounds.

Of course that's true in theory. But in reality, it simply doesn't happen much. If Bryant is going to help, he's going to help largely by making shots.

Look how much Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace don't have the ball in that photo above from Christmas Day. There are players cut from middle school teams who'd be deadly left open from that range. When the photo was snapped, the clock read fivetenths of a second, probably too late to pass. But check the video, Bryant had four guys on him and a passing lane to an abandoned Gasol more than a second earlier.

In other words, the phenomenal threat of Bryant's scoring ability is best combined with the threat of making the best basketball play.

Remember, the Lakers' entire team offense is the best in the NBA over Bryant's career, but in the closing minutes of close games, when Bryant dominates the ball, the Laker offense is not even in the top 10. All kinds of teams without Kobe Bryants are doing better in crunch time, and when you watch the Lakers you know why, and you can see why in the photo above and many others like it: The defense knows what's coming. Lakers get incredibly open, yet the team seldom finds the easiest available shot -- mostly because Bryant takes the shot instead. The one clutch statistic where Bryant is clearly the all-time leader is shots attempted. As he reminded everyone the other day, he's shooting it and that's as it ever has been. His various crunch-time records are counting records -- most game-winners, etc. Those gaudy numbers are usually presented as evidence of his efficacy, but they are just as easy to see as trophies to his hoarding of opportunities. Both he and his team are back in the pack when it comes to actually making the shot.

It's a lost opportunity.

In contrast, Matt McHale of Bulls by the Horns found Tuesday evening a fun time to be a Bulls fan, after the Bulls beat the Hawks on a play where the MVP, Derrick Rose, didn't even touch the ball. The Hawks were all geared up for Rose to close, which worked to the Bulls' advantage, as Luol Deng hit the kind of game-winning layup Gasol might have made on Christmas:

My hand is still hurting from handing out high fives.

Said Deng: “At the end of practice, we always run (the play). (Joakim) made a great pass. We had a feeling both of (the defenders) would go with Derrick.”

It was a good feeling all the way around.

Added Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “Obviously, we’re trying to get it to Derrick. They did a good job taking the first and second option away. Derrick set a great screen, (Noah) made a great pass and Luol made a great cut.”

The play caught the Hawks with their short pants down.

Said Horford: “We all assumed that the ball was coming back to Rose. We were going to come and trap. That was a great play by their coach designed to take the pressure from Rose and hit Deng on the back. We didn’t expect that at all.”

You can see it in the video. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are basically snuggling with Rose as Deng inbounds and slips away. Rose explodes away from the very same hoop Deng is approaching, taking all of Smith and most of Johnson's mind with him. Johnson waves at the ball as it sails over his head to the forgotten, open, game-winning Deng.

Rose had scored on the previous play by attacking off the dribble. You'd be crazy to think he wasn't ready to do the same again. But on this day, because he was doubled, the Bulls made the right basketball play. The double he commanded made it all possible, even if the glory went elsewhere.

As much as we like to make a fuss about the value of superstars, sometimes they are best used in confusing the defense. That's something Bryant -- who handles the ball on nearly every key Laker possession, and looks bereft on the rare occasions he does not -- has not demonstrated a willingness to do. In a book about the Lakers, Phil Jackson wrote crunch time of a playoff game in Houston, where he instructed Bryant to act as a decoy, setting a screen for Shaquille O'Neal on the baseline. When the play began, though, Bryant simply abandoned his job and ran to catch the inbound pass. He ended up shooting a long airball and the Lakers lost.

Confusing the defense, meanwhile, has lovely long-term effects. The next time the Bulls see crunch time, the opposing coach has to think long and hard about sending two defenders at Rose. That helps the Bulls, too -- he kills people in single coverage. By being a team willing to move the ball with the game on the line, by making the right basketball play, they get to attack the defense wherever it's weakest. That doesn't mean Rose is a better crunch time scorer than Bryant, whatever that means, but it does mean his team has a powerful option the Lakers do not.