Imagine comingface-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 assignedto guard Kobe Bryant don't have that option, even though, just as there is nostopping a twister, there's no "stopping" a player like Bryant,especially over the course of a seven-game playoff series. You don't know inwhich direction he might spin, when he's going to pick up speed or stopaltogether, or how much metaphoric destruction he will wreak. No matter howeffectively the defender does his job, he's going to get scored upon, and oftenin ways that are quite embarrassing: on slippery drives, crazy step-backjumpers, maybe a vicious dunk or two.
This is an article from the May 18, 2009 issue
Look at theimpressive effort being put forth by Shane Battier in the matchup at the heartof the contentious second-round series between the Houston Rockets and the LosAngeles Lakers. Over the first four games, Battier has been tasked withshadowing Bryant on nearly every dribble, twice forcing him into subpar games,including the Rockets' stunning Game 4 victory (accomplished without All-Starcenter Yao Ming, who is done for the year with a hairline fracture in his leftfoot) that tied the series at week's end.
For Battier, theRockets forward who has twice been named to the NBA All-Defensive team, thiswas not a fluke. Cerebral and obsessive in his approach to defense, he is amongthat rare breed of NBA player who makes his living trying to contain such elitescorers. These are the guys who play 40 minutes and finish with maybe fourpoints, three rebounds and two assists, yet they're invaluable, especially comethe postseason. To watch Battier in action against Kobe is to see defensetreated like a science, if not a religion.
In Game 1,Battier executed the Rockets' defensive plan to perfection: He pushed Bryantleft (where double-team help would be), kept him off the free throw line (sothere were no easy points), contested every shot (with "thathand-in-the-face activity" as Lakers coach Phil Jackson put it) and forcedhim to shoot deep, off-balance two-point jumpers. The result: Bryant shot 8 for22 from the field while being guarded by Battier, and finished the game with aninefficient 32 points that required 31 shots. Problem solved, right? Well, inGame 2, Battier made no adjustments—"my game plan was pretty much thesame," he said—and again, Bryant took deep, off-balance two-pointers, droveleft and took relatively few free throws. Only this time Bryant shot ascorching 16 for 27 from the field and scored 40 points. Outside the Houstonlocker room after the game, Rockets vice president of basketball operations SamHinkie stared at the box score like a man attempting to make sense of acomplicated calculus problem. "This is almost embarrassing to say sinceKobe scored 40," said Hinkie, a stat head with a Stanford M.B.A. who worksclosely with Battier in preparing for opponents, "but Shane played reallygood defense tonight."
And so it went,each game swinging unpredictably: 33 points for Bryant in Game 3, followed by aGame 4 in which Battier shockingly outscored him 23 to 15. Regardless, the tollfrom defending Kobe is steep and both mental and physical: In the first fourgames Battier ran face-first through more than 50 screens, was knocked over ahalf-dozen times, suffered a gash over his left eye that left a spiderweb ofblood on his face and absorbed a Bryant elbow to the back of the head thatwouldn't have looked out of place in a Muay Thai bout. Not to mention thetaunting—"You can't guard me!" Bryant roared at Battier more thanonce—made worse because Battier can't really respond. After all, as he pointsout, "What can I say that's going to erase the fact that he's scoring 40points on me?"
The answer, ofcourse, is nothing. No, the only reward for a specialist like Battier comes onthe scoreboard: Did his team win? Otherwise, it is a thankless, inglorioustask, one Michael Cooper, the former Lakers stopper, once compared to being a"garbage collector" because "you don't notice them unless theydon't do their job. [They] handle the messes and the stinky stuff."
Bryant poses aparticularly vexing—or would that be malodorous?—problem for such men. Whereassome players rely on favorite moves or possess obvious strengths and weaknesses(for example, LeBron James, despite his improved jumper, remains far moreeffective in the paint than on the perimeter), Bryant is remarkablywell-rounded. According to Synergy Sports Technology, which logs every play ofevery NBA game, Bryant drove right 49.01% of the time this season and left50.99% of the time. In Synergy's finely parsed statistical analysis, he rankedin the top 20% of the league in (deep breath): shots off cuts, shots offscreens, spot-up attempts, shots against single coverage in the post and offone-on-one isolation moves (and he's only slightly less effective in pick androlls and transition). Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw used to guard Bryantevery day in practice when the two were teammates and is all too familiar withthe challenge. "He really has no weaknesses," says Shaw. "And hehas the knowledge and the ability to say, I'm going to send you to this spot onthe floor where only I know I'm going to take you, and I'm going to raise upand take my shot before you can contest it."
What's more,because Bryant is so accurate with his jumper, very few shots that he takeswould qualify as bad ones. Just ask Chip Engelland, the respected shootingcoach and Spurs assistant who has worked with Grant Hill and Steve Kerr, amongothers (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, Engellandlaughs, then says, "I would rebound." No really, Chip, what would youdo? He thinks for a moment. "Maybe I'd work on shooting while fatigued, butthat's about it. His technical form is amazing. He's one of the great jumpshooters of our time."
Faced with suchan opponent, Battier tries to focus on tiny weaknesses. For example, Bryantshot a surprisingly low percentage (25.5%) on top-of-the-key three-pointersthis 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 sendBryant to his left, where he's less efficient. But even if this works,sometimes Bryant is merely baiting his defender, waiting for the moment toreverse 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 dowhat he wants to do," says Shaw. "He'll save things until he reallyneeds them."
Once this happensand Bryant creates space for a jumper, Battier's last resort is theaforementioned "hand-in-the-face activity." We've seen it time andagain 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 youwere 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 sothat it is inches from Bryant's face, the fingers spread to obscure hisvision.
With mostplayers, this is distraction enough—he's going to stick his finger in myeye!—but great shooters like Bryant are so locked in that it's often as if thedefender doesn't exist. So then Battier has to introduce an element ofuncertainty. Occasionally he might tap a hot shooter on the head, even if itleads to a whistle. "Every now and then I'll just take a foul," Battiersays. "I'll hit the guy on the wrist or the elbow or even the face just toput 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. Andanything I can do to keep a guy off guard and keep him guessing, I'm going todo."
Even if Battiercan succeed in getting Bryant out of sync, however, all it takes is onecareless moment to lose the edge. That's why for a defensive specialist likeBattier, the greatest fear is heading to the bench while Bryant remains in thegame and gets his mojo going. Spurs forward Bruce Bowen in particular is knownto fume about this. "I've never seen a guy get mad like that when he's onthe bench," says Malik Rose, the Oklahoma City forward who played withBowen for many years on the Spurs. "When we'd play Kobe, Bruce would do agreat job on him. Then when Bruce would get subbed out, he'd be yelling at hisbackup to 'Get up on him' and 'Do this' and 'Do that,' because he didn't wantKobe to get hot. Because nothing is worse than coming in against a hotplayer."
This can happeneven if you're not on the bench. In Game 1, for example, Battier was guardingBryant and sticking to his principles: no risks, only jump shots, nothing atthe rim. And through the first two quarters, Bryant had settled for toughjumpers and missed most of them, shooting 4 for 12. Then, with 9:40 left in thethird quarter, Rockets forward Ron Artest switched onto Bryant in transitionand picked him up at the top of the key. From across the court, Battier watchedin horror as Artest gambled for a steal, lunging for the ball as Bryantdribbled. With Artest off balance, Bryant finally had a lane to attack andheaded 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 canimagine, can be quite frustrating. As such, part of the challenge of guardingKobe over a series is staying positive. Take the case of Utah guard RonnieBrewer, who is a respectable defender, though not in Battier's league. Duringthe first round of the playoffs, Brewer had to stick Bryant. And for threegames he did a decent job. Then, in Game 4, Kobe went off, scoring 38 points on16-for-24 shooting as the Lakers went up 3--1 in that series. Afterward, Brewerwas disconsolate, sure he'd let down his team. "I got down on myselfbecause I felt like, Man, if I could have slowed him down a bit, the seriescould have turned around," says Brewer. "But when he got hot, it waslike there was nothing I could do." Engelland has seen this reactionbefore, having witnessed many a Bryant detonation as a Spurs coach. "Ithink the hardest thing when you're playing against Kobe is not gettingdeflated," he says. "You have to stay positive on him everyplay."
If anyone cancommiserate, it is Craig Ehlo, who was Shane Battier before there was ShaneBattier. A 6'7" forward, Ehlo played 14 NBA seasons, 10 with the Hawks andthe Cavs, and ended up as something of Michael Jordan's personal defender.Perhaps you remember Ehlo from the deciding game of the 1989 Eastern Conferencefirst-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 airas a guy flew by, then sank the series-winning jumper. As Jordan leaped in theair, pumping his fist, the guy who sank to the floor as if he'd been teargassedwas Ehlo.
It was not anisolated incident. Year after year, Ehlo tried to guard Jordan, and year afteryear 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 latein his career, Ehlo remembers Jordan coming off a down screen in the triangleoffense. Reading the play, Ehlo stepped out into the passing lane, only Jordaninstinctively countered him and stepped back, where he caught the ball, changeddirection and hit a jump shot.
"How did youdo that?" Ehlo asked as they ran back down the court. "I totally hadyou covered on that one."
Jordan shruggedhis shoulders. "I don't know, Craig, it just happened."
Of course, nobodyever figured out how to stop Michael Jordan when he was just happening. Manywere the nights when Ehlo would spend 40 minutes shadowing M.J. only tosurrender four dozen points and secure goat status in the eyes of the Cavs'fans. Still, Cavs trainer Gary Briggs knew better. Says Ehlo, "After thegame, he would look me dead square in the eye and say, 'He may have scored 45points, but you were dead in his s— all night.'" Ehlo pauses. "And thatwas all I needed to hear."
Similarly, Kobe'svictims take pains to keep perspective. Battier says he thinks of himself as afactory 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 friendstried to buck him up but that it can be especially tough because "sometimesyou're the villain either way": If Bryant scores a lot, you've failed, andif he doesn't score a lot, well, a lot of people come to the arena to seeBryant score, so now you've let them down.
But that's notBrewer's worry anymore, it's Battier's. If the Lakers prevail and advance, thejob of containing Bryant will probably fall to Dahntay Jones, whose DenverNuggets held a 3--0 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks through Sunday. Thenit will be Jones who will have to run face-first into screens and take elbowsto the head. And beyond that, in a month or so, perhaps it will be a certainMVP forward from Cleveland, one who also bears a striking resemblance to aforce of nature. In which case we'd get to see something rare and precious: twounstoppable players trying to stop each other.
Of course, justmaybe, if Battier does his dirty, stinky job well enough, he could saveeveryone else the trouble.
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