Three and a half minutes remained in the opening half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and
Once Bryant scored -- and of course he did, on a pull-up that was part of a 30-point eruption over 16 minutes -- most of the fans exhaled, knowing they could look away for a moment, or at least until Los Angeles regained possession. But those who did risked missing an even more important spectacle, for it was on the other end of the court, down near the basket, where this series was being won and lost. That's where a gangly man with a tangle of brown hair and a patchwork beard (that would be Lakers forward
As much as the first two games in these Finals could be viewed as the Kobe Bryant Show -- and rightfully so, considering his exquisite Game 1 performance and the team-leading 29 points he scored in Game 2, both Lakers victories -- his contributions were to be expected. This is, after all, a man who at age 30 has already scored more postseason points than all but five players in history and who remains the most gifted offensive player alive. (And, amusingly, is again being deemed the league's best overall player, only weeks after the title was officially, nonrefundably bestowed upon
This may well be true, which brings us back to what both teams desperately need to control: the paint. The 23-year-old Howard prefers to muscle his way into post position before, in the words of L.A. assistant
Howard is so central to the Magic offense that the Lakers geared their entire defensive scheme toward neutralizing him. From the start of Game 1, whenever Howard caught the ball and turned, he found a yellow jersey either hurtling toward him or already stationed in his path. Howard finished with one field goal on six shots -- can you imagine Bryant finishing a Finals game with one field goal? -- and only 12 points. In Game 2, a 101-96 loss in overtime, he did better, racking up 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting, but he was harassed into seven turnovers. What's more, his first dunk of the series didn't come until midway through the third quarter of Game 2, which probably missed the over-under by about, oh, six quarters. Afterward Howard admitted that he was frustrated, crediting Los Angeles for doing "some crazy things" on defense.
Of course, one man's crazy is another's measured strategy, and the Lakers deserve credit for devising a multifaceted approach. First, they understood that with Howard the work starts early. Because of his speed -- he finished third in a three-quarter-court sprint when strength coach
Thus every time Orlando gains possession, Gasol and L.A. center
Once Howard gets the ball, usually on the left block, Los Angeles mixes up where the double teams come from and when. Sometimes it's on the catch, with a guard darting down from the top of the key; sometimes it's on the dribble, using a defender lurking along the baseline; and sometimes, as in the second quarter of Game 2 when power forward
Once a shot goes up, the next challenge is keeping Howard off the boards; he's averaging 4.5 offensive rebounds during the postseason and, as Gasol says drily, "I don't think I'm going to be outjumping him." The Lakers' solution is not to grab the board as much as redirect it from Howard's sizable mitts, with their perimeter players flying in and swatting at the ball. "Against a team that plays four-out, one-in like Orlando," explains Shaw, "instead of having [our perimeter] guys stay [outside], we have them run in and at least try to tip the ball."
Finally for the Lakers: If all else fails, fall. This was Gasol's strategy in Game 1 -- and yes, it could also be the title of a
Credit Howard for trying to mix it up in Game 2. He turned and fired a face-up jumper. (Bad idea; it clanked off the back of the rim.) He passed out and reposted. (Better idea, but he still missed a contested jump hook.) And he held the ball, seeking open shooters to feed. (Great idea; he had four assists and helped free up forward
As Howard deals with a defense geared to stop him, Gasol has the luxury of exploiting the cracks in a defense geared to stop his teammate. (And no, we speak not of
If Gasol appears to at times play like an oversized point guard, it's because he was one until he was 13. Upon arriving in the NBA from his native Spain eight years ago, however, Gasol was promptly shuttled into the post, where American coaches believe 7-footers belong. Still, he has retained his playmaking touch. This provides a dilemma for Orlando; if it double-teams Bryant and he gets the ball to Gasol, he can essentially direct a four-on-three. "And nine times out of 10 he's going to make the right play in that situation," says Malone.
The accepted best strategy against Gasol, then, is to play off him on the perimeter and concede the jump shot, as the Rockets did in the Western Conference semifinals. (Houston's stats gurus determined that the most inefficient aspect of the Lakers' offense was a Gasol jumper, and indeed for the season he shot 40.6% from 17 feet out to the three-point line, according to Synergy Sports Technology.) The Magic followed suit, and so, time and again in Games 1 and 2, Gasol had open 17-footers. And time and again he knocked them down, an improvement he credits to his exaggerated follow-through, in which his right arm resembles a swan's neck after each release. "I'm anticipating that I'm going to have five looks to make that shot every game, and it's in my hands to do it," he says. "When I fall back instead of following through, that's when I tend to miss."
Along with upgrading his jump shot, Gasol is also slowly shedding a reputation for being soft. (Although it would be a stretch to call him
In the event that Gasol doesn't hold position, no doubt Bryant will be sure to let him know -- in Spanish, if he prefers, as Bryant often switches to Gasol's native tongue -- for the star guard has been as vocal as ever in these Finals, whether it is encouraging, leading or berating. Much has been made of Bryant's seriousness of purpose this postseason, of how he has "the smell," as coach
So watch Kobe at all times if you must, and granted it's hard not to, but also keep an eye out for the big lugs in the middle. After all, they'll only decide the NBA championship.