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Kelly Dwyer

Behind the Box Score, where Kobe is the man

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Los Angeles Lakers 99, Memphis 98

For the last half-decade or so, entering this season, Kobe Bryant(notes) had performed significantly worse than most of his high-end counterparts down the stretch of close games. He got his points, sure, but he didn't contribute as well as his contemporaries, and his points came with an amount of shots that — were you to extrapolate it over an entire contest — you couldn't help but walk away thinking that, overall, he'd hurt his team.

It didn't mean he was bad, it just meant (in comparison to other players that scored nearly or just as much, shot a better percentage, got to the line more, and found their teammates for assists more often) that Kobe wasn't as good as you thought he was. Tough noogies. Deal, children.

This year? The man's been incredible. This is the best I've seen anyone perform, consistently in the waning moments of games (with the possible exception of Carmelo Anthony's(notes) second and third seasons) since Michael Jordan. It's not even close.

The game-winners don't matter to me. It's what Bryant does to put his team in a position to hit those game winners that count. You see, teams are gunning for the champs. The stadium in Memphis was full on Tuesday of punters who had bought their ticket, their one ticket, last summer. For this team. For this player, probably.

And he keeps this team — this formidable team, I submit — afloat. And if it's close, he takes over. He's way down the list of overall fourth quarter points this year because, as I mentioned, he has a formidable team and often isn't needed (sitting out of a blowout, letting his formidable team do the work). But when Kobe's needed to be on, this year, he's been brilliant.

Over the final two and a half minutes of the game, after sitting out the fourth quarter's first eight minutes, he scored nine points. His team's final nine points. He missed two shots, but was fouled on one, and possibly fouled (after stumbling) on the other. Not to make excuses, just to tell you how clearly brilliant and focused this man was down the stretch.

Of course, it's easy to maintain focus when O.J. Mayo(notes) decides to go under screens, allowing you a clear look at the rim. Seriously, O.J.? Kobe Bryant?

It was a competitive second half after a pretty sloppy initial 24 minutes, both teams ended up turning the ball over on 17.5 percent of their possessions, and players on both sides could have played better. Andrew Bynum(notes) had 15 points in half a game but fouled out. Zach Randolph(notes) made 8 of 12 shots, but I counted four long, terrible jumpers that weren't close, and he turned the ball over six times.

A spirited bout. Memphis wanted this. Memphis worked at it, but they're just not there yet.

It's the Lakers. Who is, but them?

***

Cleveland 105, New Orleans 95

I don't know what Marcus Thornton(notes) and Darren Collison(notes) did to Byron Scott's car. Or the rec room he put together in his basement (Scott calls it "The Place To Be"). Or both. Why else wouldn't Scott have played these two last fall?

Thornton had 37 in this game. 37! Brandon Jennings(notes) had 55 a few months ago, but it was in a faster game, against the Warriors, and in nine more minutes. This was something else.

Collison managed 22 and 10 assists, with his usual six turnovers, but despite the miscues, they completely outplayed Mo Williams(notes) and Delonte West(notes) on both ends, and the game essentially came down to an inability to keep Shaquille O'Neal(notes) from establishing good position, and an inability to stop LeBron James'(notes) Peyton Manning impersonation. James just picks people off so well, so damn well. Didn't shoot well, missed nine of 16 shots, but fired 13 assists without a turnover.

Antawn Jamison(notes) had 18 points on 14 shots, with zero turnovers, a line you can just about pen in for the rest of the season. We hope.

***

Phoenix 104, Oklahoma City 102

Kevin Durant's(notes) in the midst of hitting these incredibly shots, he's a good make or two past 30 points, and I'm fawning. We should be fawning. The Thunder are so far ahead of schedule, it's ridiculous. But they also couldn't hit a shot down the stretch. Lesser lights would call it a choke. Those who weren't tuned to ABC when it all went down would point to the way Phoenix worked through screens, contested shots, and secured the defensive rebound. Perhaps I should start comparing these things to movies featuring Michael J. Fox. Then you'll believe me.

30 points on 20 shots for Amar'e Stoudemire(notes), who seemed taller than most, and goodness is Goran Dragic(notes) fast with the ball. Six turnovers, replacing a gimpy Steve Nash(notes), but 10 assists and 16 points as well.

The Thunder defended well, but the team's offense just couldn't put Phoenix away. Mainly because they don't have that fit of an offense. This is on the Suns.

***

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Portland 102, New Jersey 93

Somehow, inexplicably, the Nets came back. But they should come back. With that roster, with these players, the New Jersey Nets should be in a somewhat-competitive home contest against a Blazers team playing without Greg Oden(notes), Joel Przybilla(notes), and playing without Marcus Camby(notes) for all but five minutes.

But dig this: Portland turned the ball over just three times. Good rate. Two from Juwan Howard(notes), once from Martell Webster(notes) (who more than made up for it for a nice lob sent LaMarcus Aldridge's(notes) way, after an even nicer feed from Andre Miller(notes), in the second quarter). Three turnovers in an NBA game. Kudos to Portland, shame on the Nets.

54 percent shooting, over 127 points per 100 possessions for Portland. They had their way with whatever part of the court New Jersey wanted to give up. The Nets got theirs, Devin Harris(notes) overcame foul trouble to put up 19 shots and score 28 points, and Courtney Lee(notes) continues his solid February with 28 points in defeat.

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Minnesota 91, Miami 88

Miami came back toward the end, made a game of things (with plenty of help from the Timberwolves, of course), but even without Dwyane Wade(notes) ... the Timberwolves? At home?

I've been telling you that the Wolves have underachieved all year, and I still believe that, but Jermaine O'Neal(notes) has somewhat stemmed the tide this year. Michael Beasley(notes) keeps taking offense to silly things and improving. And the Heat should have won this one. Or, at least, kept it close throughout.

Minnesota was terrible, too. Jonny Flynn(notes) had five turnovers to one assist, kept getting lost defensively, and twice fouled jump shooters in the act. It was amateurish, for both teams, from beginning to end.

Save for Kevin Love's(notes) 80-foot two-hand pass from underneath his own hoop, off of a made free throw, to a streaking (legally required to call him that) Corey Brewer(notes) for the lay-up. That was worth every penny.

***

Philadelphia 110, Golden State 102

A very fast game, Philadelphia could not miss in the first half, and though Golden State made a game of it in the final quarter, it hardly mattered.

The 76ers are streaky. They've been that way for a few years, it's nothing you can count on (fly the Nets or Timberwolves in tomorrow, a neutral site, I wouldn't bet on Philly), and the Warriors just had to deal with it.

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Boston 110, New York 106

Early in the game, I was more than a little annoyed at Knicks play-by-play man Mike Breen for pointing out that "the Celtics have yet to get back to playing championship defense," which is one of those things that lazier NBA scribes and television guys like to throw out because it sounds about right, and because so few of their viewership actually have more than a passing clue about the vagaries of the opponents in question.

I don't totally blame Breen for pointing this out. This is the sort of thing that a scout will pass along while scarfing down Key Lime in the press room before the game, or that a head coach will say as an aside (because coaches, since the dawn of time, have always hated their teams), and sportswriters/TV guys have been trumping this forever (go back and read some of those "Scout's Takes" from Sports Illustrated from the last decade or so; you wouldn't trust these guys to pick a rotation on the 1968 Philadelphia 76ers, much less give you an accurate account of the league they're charged to cover). It's where he comes from, though you wish that the guy in charge of the lead broadcasts on the NBA's lead network would at least pop open a laptop once in a while.

Because the Celtics are tops in the NBA in defense, and they've been amongst the top two or three for the entire season. This team is playing knockout defense, nearly on par with what they came through in 2007-08 (this league's offense has improved by a sound jump since then); and if we're talking "championship defense," well, what does that mean? The Lakers won last year, and they finished sixth in defense.

It's 2010, old guard. You have to cross check this [stuff]. You have the time to.

Of course, the Celtics gave up a pathetic 114 points per 100 possessions to a terrible Knicks team soon after Breen's utterance, so I'm giving my two weeks later this afternoon.

New York was quick in getting into its sets, the ball was moving, and shots were falling. They worked toward this, and while Boston took some shortcuts, I give more credit to New York in this one than I'll discredit the C's.

Is this an example of Boston not playing "championship defense," well, how does that work? If the average, at the end of the day, leads the NBA by a sound enough margin? You get the feeling Breen will take Boston's defensive play on Tuesday into his next Celtics game on ABC, and likely into the playoffs. After all, it's a nice tagger as the C's struggle to pull ahead of Cleveland or Orlando in any meaningful way.

Nate Robinson(notes) missed five of seven shots, and it's going to take him a while to find his place in Boston's offense, while getting over the "no, you first, sir" nerves of joining a proper basketball team.

***

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Detroit 101, Sacramento 89

The Kings would not defend, and the Pistons hit some un-Piston'y shots. Tyreke Evans(notes) led a late charge, but it hardly mattered. Paul Westphal has a good set of players who clearly care, but they're getting away from him.

The Pistons are a waste, no point in reading anything into this, lest you think that Tayshaun Prince(notes) hitting pull-up 18-footers is the future.

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