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
Look at the impressive effort being put forth by
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
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
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,
What's more, because Bryant is so accurate with his jumper, very few shots that he takes would qualify as bad ones. Just ask
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Of course, just maybe, if Battier does his dirty, stinky job well enough, he could save everyone else the trouble.