I’m one of the biggest Kobe fans there are (along with 25 million other people). I’ve taken Kobe in the Kobe vs. LeBron debate every single time and yet, when I was finishing off the last drops of my Busch 40 the other night at the Village Pourhouse, I somehow knew that Kobe was going to blow it.
The Lakers began the fourth quarter of Game 3 up 75-74, but it was all downhill from there. Kobe hit a 15-footer with 10:17 left in the game, followed by miss after miss, bad shot after bad shot, and the Kobe who got used to scoring 40 because throwing an entry pass to the post meant the ball slipping through the fingers of Kwame Brown, returned. A flashback that makes every Lakers fan cringe. But every now and then this is the Kobe we get. It’s the one we got in a couple of games against the 2008 Celtics, and it’s the one we got in Game 3 and with a 3-0 series lead nearly put away. In Game 4 we got the same Kobe that gave up on his teammates to prove a point in the 2006 first-round loss against the Suns. After Game 4 he called it “managing the game,” but for someone whose won four rings by being one of the best scorers on the planet, it’s hard to call taking no shots in the first 15 minutes of a crucial game “management.”
The problem is, no one knows when Kobe is going to make the extra pass to give his team a better shot, or, now, whether we’ll get an insecure Kobe who will pass too much to prove that he’s needed. What’s become so frustrating and evident after Game 3 is not that Kobe plays like this the entire game, but that he does so only when he believes the game to be in the Lakers’ grasp. And when it’s in their grasp, he’s the fist that tries to clench it.
With 8:30 left to play in the first quarter of Game 3, the Lakers had a commanding 15-3 lead and Kobe was playing in the flow of the game – a notion that Phil Jackson bases his entire basketball philosophy on. Artest was finally off to a good start, Bynum was doing work in the post, and Fisher hit his first shot of many. Only then did Kobe take his first shot, and he sunk it.
But now we return to the fourth quarter, and as the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke points out:
“On the first 13 possessions of the fourth quarter, Bryant was the last Laker to touch the ball nine times. Only one of those times was the outcome positive, a turnaround jumper early in the quarter. He missed seven jumpers, including two three-point attempts. He had one shot blocked by Kevin Durant. He lost another ball on a bad pass. It was Van Gogh creating with spray paint. It was Michelangelo building a mud fort. It was one on five. It was ridiculous.”
Ouch. But if you saw the game, then you’d know it’s true. If you didn’t, just don’t watch the NBA.com highlights. You might get the idea that the Thunder played particularly well instead of Kobe playing egregiously bad.
Prior to Game 2, Jackson didn’t shy away from commenting on Kobe’s recent poor shooting:
“If Kobe’s going to play this style of basketball, he has to adjust his game to match ours. He can still play exactly the way he’s playing right now, but he has to limit the amount of shots he takes. Obviously he can’t shoot 30-something percent. He can’t shoot that percentage and have us be successful. Either his proficiency has to increase or he has to become a playmaker out of those things. But he can still draw all the attention and still make the plays.”
In Game 4, Kobe responded to Phil by being a facilitator – and nothing more. He could have been replaced by Luke Walton or Shannon Brown in the first half and the Lakers would have had a better shot to win. It’s true. And instead of a confident Lakers team entering Game 4 with a 3-0 lead, they came in with a 2-1 lead and, worse, a resentful leader. Now, the Lakers head into tonight’s game tied 2-2 with a Thunder team poised to shock the world.
If Kobe’s 2007-2008 season showed us anything, it was that he was finally ready to trust his teammates. So when this confidence in his teammates disappears when he is arguably surrounded by the most talented team he’s ever played with, it makes you wonder.
“I think he searches for his teammates to show direction or initiative,” Coach Jackson said after Game 2, “and if they don’t, he’s going to step into the vacuum as quickly as a wink. Because if they’re not active and directive and attacking and doing things that he sees this offense has to do, then he’s going to step in and carry the torch.”
In Game 3, Fisher, Bynum, and Artest all showed direction, activity, initiative, and whatever else Jackson wants to call it, yet Kobe felt the need to step in and carry the torch regardless. In Game 4, though, when Kobe was working on his entry pass all game, Fisher, Odom, Bynum and Gasol, all played consistently but no one stepped up. Kobe didn’t step into the vacuum as quickly as a wink; he didn’t step into it at all.
So what’s the solution? Were these games just flukes, mistakes, or are they cause for deep concern? It led Frank Hughes to ask, “Was nearly $84 million and three more years worth it to keep Kobe?” And while my answer to this question is a resounding “of course it was, stop looking for any kind of angle you can Frank,” I can’t say that I’m not worried when Russell Westbrook’s Ferrari is leaving Derek Fisher’s ’94 Honda Civic in the dust.
When is Kobe going to realize that Gasol and Bynum are two of the most formidable big men in the league and can have their way with Krstic and Collison? When is Phil Jackson going to consider playing a zone? I don’t have the advanced sabermetrics for this, but as someone watching each (painful) game in its entirety, getting back on track starts with resting Kobe an extra few minutes, putting him on Westbrook more, playing Shannon Brown with the first unit at the end of quarters, using Luke Walton more effectively to keep the ball on his side of the triangle and putting it into the hands of whoever’s on his block, whether it be Bynum or Gasol, and injecting Jujubes and Sour Patch Kids directly into the vein that bulges from Lamar Odom’s right shoulder.
And Kobe, please just do what you do best.
What do the Lakers need to do to win the title? Who needs to step up most for the Lakers?
Follow Adam on Twitter at @FloBombin.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DIMEMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.