He wasn't jumping as well as he usually does, getting that lift, likely a result of the after-effects of a painful knee procedure that can be played on, but often takes a little while to see the knee return to full strength. What he had in its place was balance. And patience. And so, so much game. So much to give us, like giving the Suns 40.
Kobe went off, to start the Western Conference finals, dominating the contest and finishing with 40 points on 13-23 shooting, in a game that was over midway through the third quarter. Not only did important Suns look nervous and out of sorts, but the team's hope for coming through with close-to average defense against a Laker team that had its struggles on the offensive end at times this season fell pathetically short.
As a result, Los Angeles had one of its finest offensive games of the season, certainly the team's best considering the circumstances.
All helped, all attacked, all got with the program, but this was Kobe's show. And this tail-whupping is the perfect example of the sort of game I've been begging Kobe to come through with, all season. I've never had a problem with Bryant shooting too much, but I have had problems (this year, more than most) with him going at getting those shots the wrong way.
Monday was the right way. He made quick decisions with the ball, lost himself within the offense, and then popped out long enough to rip the hearts out of the Suns defenders. He wasn't exactly playing Steve Kerr within the Laker offense, though five of his makes were assisted-on, it was just that Bryant was essentially going one-on-one against the Suns in a way that favored the Lakers. A way that stayed within the confines of the offense, something that (as we saw in Game 1) makes him more dangerous.
Like improvising in transition. Finding a quick elbow post-up in delayed transition, while using triangle spacing and watching as the potential help defenders have to slunk away while they follow your teammates because of triangle cuts off the ball. This leaves space to work, a nervous defender, and distraction enough to pull up for that fadeaway.
Quick, smart, potent. He didn't need to drive endlessly, flatten out the offense with 1-4 sets, or call for screen after screen. Any pick and roll run with Pau Gasol(notes) ended with a pull-up 15-footer, not a tough 19-footer with a hand in his face. Were there any potential for that 19-footer, Kobe would decline to force it. He was absolutely brilliant.
As were his teammates, but I think the Suns had a lot more to do with their sorts of swoops and finishes than with Kobe's. The Phoenix defense was atrocious, as Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) turned back the clock for one of his worst performances.
He wasn't alone, Robin Lopez(notes) was out of position despite good effort and Channing Frye(notes) really wanted to be back in his hotel room hiding under the blankets with the lights out, but Stoudemire was a mess defensively. Refused to cut off angles, got lost in penetration, would not help, and turned this from a tough one to a blowout. Lamar Odom(notes) and Pau Gasol, as a result, finished with 15 field goal makes at the rim and within 10 feet of the hoop.
Lamar Odom clearly picked this as one of his games to get, and he finished with 19 points and 19 rebounds. Pau Gasol did something effective just about every time he touched the ball, missing only three times in 13 attempts and dishing five assists to just one turnover in 37 minutes. Two blocks, too. Ron Artest(notes) scored 14 points on 14 mostly ridiculous shots, Jordan Farmar(notes) took part in one possession in the second quarter that had me wondering if he were a Suns fan, and Derek Fisher(notes) only took three shots in 29 minutes. There we are.
There's little in the Phoenix offense to complain about, save for Frye, who shriveled beyond recognition. And that's relative to what we're used to from Channing Frye, mind you. The length bothered Phoenix at times, but they also got to the line and nailed tough shots.
It was the defense. Kobe Bryant nailed some tough shots on his way toward 40, I'm not going to tell you that he had expert separation on all of his makes, as Grant Hill(notes) and Jared Dudley(notes) can feel good about at least a few possessions that ended in Laker scores. But beyond that, Phoenix allowed for this romp. The defense was horrible, and the Laker offense gets better by the day. The warmer it gets, and all that.
Whatever rolls from here on out, remember this. Because Kobe can do this, all the time.
If he doesn't force things, and understands that he has 48 minutes to work through, hell, he could be sitting by the 38 minute mark of the contest. A drained knee means a sore knee, no matter how much rest, but it was a penny-foolish and pound-wise move that he had to make. And the scary bit is, he's probably not going to feel the payoff from this painful procedure for a few more days. The hops will return. Penny-foolish meant 40 points.
And unless the Phoenix big men return to the paint, arms raised, on the strong side? This thing is over.
- Kobe Bryant