Imagine coming face-to-face with a tornado -- and we're talking a fast-moving, maximum intensity, mean-ass twister that's sucking up livestock -- and then being asked to "stop" it. You'd run for cover, right? Well, the brave souls assigned to guard Kobe Bryant don't have that option, even though, just as there is no stopping a twister, there's no "stopping" a player like Bryant, especially over the course of a seven-game playoff series. You don't know in which direction he might spin, when he's going to pick up speed or stop altogether, or how much metaphoric destruction he will wreak. No matter how effectively the defender does his job, he's going to get scored upon, and often in ways that are quite embarrassing: on slippery drives, crazy step-back jumpers, maybe a vicious dunk or two.
Look at the impressive effort being put forth by Shane Battier in the matchup at the heart of the contentious second-round series between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. Over the first four games, Battier has been tasked with shadowing Bryant on nearly every dribble, twice forcing him into subpar games, including the Rockets' stunning Game 4 victory (accomplished without All-Star center Yao Ming, who is done for the year with a hairline fracture in his left foot) that tied the series at week's end.
For Battier, the Rockets forward who has twice been named to the NBA All-Defensive team, this was not a fluke. Cerebral and obsessive in his approach to defense, he is among that rare breed of NBA player who makes his living trying to contain such elite scorers. These are the guys who play 40 minutes and finish with maybe four points, three rebounds and two assists, yet they're invaluable, especially come the postseason. To watch Battier in action against Kobe is to see defense treated like a science, if not a religion.
In Game 1, Battier executed the Rockets' defensive plan to perfection: He pushed Bryant left (where double-team help would be), kept him off the free throw line (so there were no easy points), contested every shot (with "that hand-in-the-face activity" as Lakers coach Phil Jackson put it) and forced him to shoot deep, off-balance two-point jumpers. The result: Bryant shot 8 for 22 from the field while being guarded by Battier, and finished the game with an inefficient 32 points that required 31 shots. Problem solved, right? Well, in Game 2, Battier made no adjustments -- "my game plan was pretty much the same," he said -- and again, Bryant took deep, off-balance two-pointers, drove left and took relatively few free throws. Only this time Bryant shot a scorching 16 for 27 from the field and scored 40 points. Outside the Houston locker room after the game, Rockets vice president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie stared at the box score like a man attempting to make sense of a complicated calculus problem. "This is almost embarrassing to say since Kobe scored 40," said Hinkie, a stat head with a Stanford M.B.A. who works closely with Battier in preparing for opponents, "but Shane played really good defense tonight."
And so it went, each game swinging unpredictably: 33 points for Bryant in Game 3, followed by a Game 4 in which Battier shockingly outscored him 23 to 15. Regardless, the toll from defending Kobe is steep and both mental and physical: In the first four games Battier ran face-first through more than 50 screens, was knocked over a half-dozen times, suffered a gash over his left eye that left a spiderweb of blood on his face and absorbed a Bryant elbow to the back of the head that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Muay Thai bout. Not to mention the taunting --"You can't guard me!" Bryant roared at Battier more than once -- made worse because Battier can't really respond. After all, as he points out, "What can I say that's going to erase the fact that he's scoring 40 points on me?"
The answer, of course, is nothing. No, the only reward for a specialist like Battier comes on the scoreboard: Did his team win? Otherwise, it is a thankless, inglorious task, one Michael Cooper, the former Lakers stopper, once compared to being a "garbage collector" because "you don't notice them unless they don't do their job. [They] handle the messes and the stinky stuff."
Bryant poses a particularly vexing -- or would that be malodorous? -- problem for such men. Whereas some players rely on favorite moves or possess obvious strengths and weaknesses (for example, LeBron James, despite his improved jumper, remains far more effective in the paint than on the perimeter), Bryant is remarkably well-rounded. According to Synergy Sports Technology, which logs every play of every NBA game, Bryant drove right 49.01% of the time this season and left 50.99% of the time. In Synergy's finely parsed statistical analysis, he ranked in the top 20% of the league in (deep breath): shots off cuts, shots off screens, spot-up attempts, shots against single coverage in the post and off one-on-one isolation moves (and he's only slightly less effective in pick and rolls and transition). Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw used to guard Bryant every day in practice when the two were teammates and is all too familiar with the challenge. "He really has no weaknesses," says Shaw. "And he has the knowledge and the ability to say, I'm going to send you to this spot on the floor where only I know I'm going to take you, and I'm going to raise up and take my shot before you can contest it."
What's more, because Bryant is so accurate with his jumper, very few shots that he takes would qualify as bad ones. Just ask Chip Engelland, the respected shooting coach and Spurs assistant who has worked with Grant Hill and Steve Kerr, among others (and whom Battier called for defensive advice on the day of Game 1). Asked what he would do if Kobe came to him for help on his jumper, Engelland laughs, then says, "I would rebound." No really, Chip, what would you do? He thinks for a moment. "Maybe I'd work on shooting while fatigued, but that's about it. His technical form is amazing. He's one of the great jump shooters of our time."
Faced with such an opponent, Battier tries to focus on tiny weaknesses. For example, Bryant shot a surprisingly low percentage (25.5%) on top-of-the-key three-pointers this year, often because he had to hoist them off the dribble. The Rockets' data -- which is plentiful, thanks to the number-crunching emphasis that G.M. Daryl Morey has brought to the Houston front office -- also tells Battier to send Bryant to his left, where he's less efficient. But even if this works, sometimes Bryant is merely baiting his defender, waiting for the moment to reverse field. "Sometimes Kobe will let a guy think that he's making [Kobe] do what he wants, and then, at the critical point in the game, Kobe will do what he wants to do," says Shaw. "He'll save things until he really needs them."
Once this happens and Bryant creates space for a jumper, Battier's last resort is the aforementioned "hand-in-the-face activity." We've seen it time and again in the series. Bryant rises up, and as he does, Battier launches at him. For an instant, it appears inevitable that the two men will collide, and if you were watching Battier for the first time, you might think that he was reckless. But Battier invariably turns sideways in midair, his right leg leading the way, and he skims just past Bryant, while simultaneously extending his right hand so that it is inches from Bryant's face, the fingers spread to obscure his vision.
With most players, this is distraction enough -- he's going to stick his finger in my eye! --but great shooters like Bryant are so locked in that it's often as if the defender doesn't exist. So then Battier has to introduce an element of uncertainty. Occasionally he might tap a hot shooter on the head, even if it leads to a whistle. "Every now and then I'll just take a foul," Battier says. "I'll hit the guy on the wrist or the elbow or even the face just to put that thought in the offensive player's mind. Because offensive players, they don't like contact. They're shooters. They do not like to be touched. And anything I can do to keep a guy off guard and keep him guessing, I'm going to do."
Even if Battier can succeed in getting Bryant out of sync, however, all it takes is one careless moment to lose the edge. That's why for a defensive specialist like Battier, the greatest fear is heading to the bench while Bryant remains in the game and gets his mojo going. Spurs forward Bruce Bowen in particular is known to fume about this. "I've never seen a guy get mad like that when he's on the bench," says Malik Rose, the Oklahoma City forward who played with Bowen for many years on the Spurs. "When we'd play Kobe, Bruce would do a great job on him. Then when Bruce would get subbed out, he'd be yelling at his backup to 'Get up on him' and 'Do this' and 'Do that,' because he didn't want Kobe to get hot. Because nothing is worse than coming in against a hot player."
This can happen even if you're not on the bench. In Game 1, for example, Battier was guarding Bryant and sticking to his principles: no risks, only jump shots, nothing at the rim. And through the first two quarters, Bryant had settled for tough jumpers and missed most of them, shooting 4 for 12. Then, with 9:40 left in the third quarter, Rockets forward Ron Artest switched onto Bryant in transition and picked him up at the top of the key. From across the court, Battier watched in horror as Artest gambled for a steal, lunging for the ball as Bryant dribbled. With Artest off balance, Bryant finally had a lane to attack and headed straight to the rim, where he finished and drew the foul on Luis Scola. That's all it took; as Battier says, "Kobe had his bounce after that." He went on to hit 6 of 9 shots in the quarter.
This, as you can imagine, can be quite frustrating. As such, part of the challenge of guarding Kobe over a series is staying positive. Take the case of Utah guard Ronnie Brewer, who is a respectable defender, though not in Battier's league. During the first round of the playoffs, Brewer had to stick Bryant. And for three games he did a decent job. Then, in Game 4, Kobe went off, scoring 38 points on 16-for-24 shooting as the Lakers went up 3--1 in that series. Afterward, Brewer was disconsolate, sure he'd let down his team. "I got down on myself because I felt like, Man, if I could have slowed him down a bit, the series could have turned around," says Brewer. "But when he got hot, it was like there was nothing I could do." Engelland has seen this reaction before, having witnessed many a Bryant detonation as a Spurs coach. "I think the hardest thing when you're playing against Kobe is not getting deflated," he says. "You have to stay positive on him every play."
If anyone can commiserate, it is Craig Ehlo, who was Shane Battier before there was Shane Battier. A 6'7" forward, Ehlo played 14 NBA seasons, 10 with the Hawks and the Cavs, and ended up as something of Michael Jordan's personal defender. Perhaps you remember Ehlo from the deciding game of the 1989 Eastern Conference first-round playoffs between the Bulls and the Cavs. With three seconds left, Jordan took an inbounds pass, dribbled to the free throw line, hung in the air as a guy flew by, then sank the series-winning jumper. As Jordan leaped in the air, pumping his fist, the guy who sank to the floor as if he'd been teargassed was Ehlo.
It was not an isolated incident. Year after year, Ehlo tried to guard Jordan, and year after year he came away flummoxed (though not for lack of talent; Ehlo was athletic, long and persistent, one of the better cover guys in the league). One time late in his career, Ehlo remembers Jordan coming off a down screen in the triangle offense. Reading the play, Ehlo stepped out into the passing lane, only Jordan instinctively countered him and stepped back, where he caught the ball, changed direction and hit a jump shot.
"How did you do that?" Ehlo asked as they ran back down the court. "I totally had you covered on that one."
Jordan shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, Craig, it just happened."
Of course, nobody ever figured out how to stop Michael Jordan when he was just happening. Many were the nights when Ehlo would spend 40 minutes shadowing M.J. only to surrender four dozen points and secure goat status in the eyes of the Cavs' fans. Still, Cavs trainer Gary Briggs knew better. Says Ehlo, "After the game, he would look me dead square in the eye and say, 'He may have scored 45 points, but you were dead in his s -- all night.'" Ehlo pauses. "And that was all I needed to hear."
Similarly, Kobe's victims take pains to keep perspective. Battier says he thinks of himself as a factory worker approaching his task -- he punches the clock and puts in the time, and "that way I don't get too high or too low." Brewer says his friends tried to buck him up but that it can be especially tough because "sometimes you're the villain either way": If Bryant scores a lot, you've failed, and if he doesn't score a lot, well, a lot of people come to the arena to see Bryant score, so now you've let them down.
But that's not Brewer's worry anymore, it's Battier's. If the Lakers prevail and advance, the job of containing Bryant will probably fall to Dahntay Jones, whose Denver Nuggets held a 3-0 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks through Sunday. Then it will be Jones who will have to run face-first into screens and take elbows to the head. And beyond that, in a month or so, perhaps it will be a certain MVP forward from Cleveland, one who also bears a striking resemblance to a force of nature. In which case we'd get to see something rare and precious: two unstoppable players trying to stop each other.
Of course, just maybe, if Battier does his dirty, stinky job well enough, he could save everyone else the trouble.