The Celtics shut down Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals by going right at him. They crowded him, put length on him, got up into him early and made him start his offense at half court. What Kobe ended up doing was going one-on-one, mainly because a lot of his teammates disappeared. The Celtics forced him into a lot of bad shots. But I don't see that as a blueprint because most teams don't have the talent or focus to pull off that kind of defense.
I still see Kobe as the best player in the game. By all accounts, his status was proved in the Olympics last summer by how his teammates showed their respect for him. In earlier years, I used to wonder if Kobe would be defined by the [sexual assault] charge and the divorce from Shaq, but I think this past season -- both in our league and in China -- has shown who he is today. Other guys on the Olympic team wanted his approval. When he was serious, they tried to be serious. He set the tone, and I think he has found himself as a leader now. He's made that transition from being Shaq's sidekick to being the experienced star. I don't think he is a natural leader, maybe because he'd never had to be one, but I see him embracing that aspect of the game now.
That being said, I still question whether he has enough support to win the championship this year. I think the Lakers were really surprised that they reached the Finals, but that success isn't going to mask the issues they have in terms of trying to win the whole thing. They're still a young team, and their style is more finesse than physical, with Kobe's top teammates being finesse players in Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. I don't see that other talented guy on this team who has the tough buck-stops-with-me demeanor that Kobe has. Kobe needs a secondary star and leader, and he still doesn't have it.
The guy who fills that role will probably need to be somebody who has the ball in his hands a lot, who can create off the dribble or the catch. Odom should be that guy because he can handle -- he can bust out on the dribble from coast to coast, he can create off the dribble and he can catch-and-shoot. But he totally melted in the Finals. Absolutely disappeared. He looks like he's one of those guys who is extremely good in games that don't matter too much. When nothing's on the line, that's when he plays big. But when it's getting to crunch time, he doesn't raise his game. He wants to for sure, but he doesn't know how to make it happen.
The short-term goal for the Lakers will be to convince Odom to accept the role of sixth man. I don't understand why these guys get so caught up in who starts the game. Look at what Manu Ginobili does as a sixth man for the Spurs. Odom could still be there in crunch time and play the most important minutes. At other times, he'd come in and get to play against less talented defenders off the bench. But if Odom isn't willing to accept that role, there may come a time when the team may have to adapt to his wants because the most harmful thing can be to have a key player who is sulking. Sometimes the coach doesn't get to make the best decisions because the players refuse to participate.
In this case, the Lakers will be best served by starting Trevor Ariza at small forward because there aren't enough shots and touches for Kobe, Gasol, Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum as well as Odom. Ariza doesn't need the ball and he's a very good cutter. When defenses sag to Bynum or Gasol in the post, the best response for the Lakers will be to have a weakside cutter like Ariza going in for backdoor layups. Ariza is also a defender who can make athletic plays, but the main reason for starting him would be to balance the offense.
Some people view Gasol as the Lakers' No. 2 star to Kobe, but Gasol isn't going to move a lot to get open, and he isn't going to do a lot with the dribble. He can, however, be their No. 2 scorer.
I don't see Gasol and Bynum as a perfect fit up front, but it should work well enough. Bynum still needs to develop his game away from the basket, and until that happens, Gasol will have to play out on the floor -- which is OK because he's a pretty good perimeter shooter. Neither one has had to play alongside another big man before, but there will be stretches of time when one is resting and the other is out there alone, and that's when Gasol will be able to go into the post.
For the Lakers to get Bynum, it's almost like he's a new free-agent signing because they made it to the Finals without him. While Gasol is generally considered to be a soft player, Bynum is too raw to have earned a reputation one way or the other yet. I don't see him as a tough guy, though it's still too early to tell -- there are times when you see he's almost surprising himself by how well he is playing. But there's no doubt that having two 7-footers on the floor will help protect the paint, which was a big weakness against the Celtics.
They're two-deep strong at point even though both Fisher and Jordan Farmar are scoring points. Instead of having one of them facilitate offense, the Lakers create plays via the triangle. At 34, Fisher is approaching the day when he'll begin to decline, but he may be able to put that off for another year because he's a proud guy, a pro who always seems to be in good condition.
Last year's sixth man was Sasha Vujacic, who convinced the league he was a shooter who has to be guarded. This year they'll honor him with defensive attention at all times, which means he has to continue improving his shooting off the dribble. Last year he was a deadeye catch-and-shoot guy, but when they rush out at him now he'll need to prove he can put it on the floor for one or two dribbles and knock down the shot. Defensively, he's a scrappy guy, but I get tired of the flopping and he's not especially strong or tough at that end of the floor.
On the whole, their second unit is versatile and deep. I'll make a longshot prediction that Chris Mihm could turn out to help them if he regains his health because he has the potential to be a skilled and mobile scorer off the bench. They also have a bunch of sure things: Luke Walton is a great passer, Vladimir Radmanovic is a one-dimensional shooter and Farmar is a cocky kid with three-point range who can attack the rim and put defenses on their heels faster than you'd think.
I give them credit for building out their team through the draft, but I wonder if they'll regret not adding a tough old guy or two to their bench in the roles that James Posey and P.J. Brown played for Boston. It's a little surprising that the Lakers haven't done that.
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