What to make of Miami’s XMas win

 

LeBron James may have stood tall over Kobe and the Lakers on Christmas Day, but their is no hiding his team's flaws.

 

 

Watching Miami’s blowout 96-80 win over the Lakers on Christmas Day, only one thing in particular struck me about the much-hyped, sensationalized game between one NBA heavyweight and another supposed contender.

That thing was this: How blatantly obvious it was that the Lakers did not care.

This was supposed to be a game that declared the Lakers’ supremacy as the league’s best. It was supposed to be another opponent that the Heat fell to; one that showed that Miami still has quite a way to go, no matter how sexy its winning streaks.

Instead, this was a Los Angeles team that showed little effort or heart, aside from the first play of the game on a beautifully designed alley-oop set from Kobe to Lamar Odom.

Instead, it was all Miami, all the time. The Heat held the Lakers 25 points below their season average. LeBron James earned his third triple-double of the season. Chris Bosh destroyed Pau Gasol in the paint, opening a lot of eyes for those who suggested the Lakers’ frontcourt would deem Miami’s laughable.

The bottom line came to this: Miami, simply, cared. Los Angeles did not. This was a game that was so much more important to the Heat that I’m not exactly sure what to take away from it. Yes, I was impressed by Miami’s relentless defense and a much improved passing game thanks to an offense that is moving freer and more often.

But this was a game the Heat needed to win if it wanted to be amongst the true legit title contenders. The problem was, the Lakers so willingly let them have it. Phil Jackson might as well have been absent, refusing to pound the Heat inside or go zone to negate the driving and passing lanes and force jumpers. Kobe forced some things, showed some anger but otherwise seemed disinterested. And when Kobe and Phil are disinterested, it’s very easy for the rest of the Lakers to follow suit.

As two-time defending champs, the Lakers – rightfully so – don’t have anything to prove until the playoffs. These games mean little to them, no matter how much ESPN and the media wish to hype them up. Kobe and Co. are clearly saving their energy for the more important games in late April, May and June. After all, a third consecutive title won’t be won in December, no matter how titanic the matchup.

“These games mean more to our opponents than they do us,” Kobe acknowledged following the game, stressing a need to fix that.  “We always suck on Christmas … they should just take us off this day.”

As far as Miami, it was a solid road victory. Impressive? At the very least. Their defense was excellent. We knew that. The offense looks a whole lot healthier. That’s a positive sign.

But no matter how many wins they compile in the regular season, their true essence lies in this: They are weakest at the league’s two most vital positions, center and point guard. And until that is resolved, this is a team bound for the Eastern Conference semifinals, maybe the East finals if the cards fall right. Individual games can be easily won courtesy of individual greatness. But in a seven game series against the likes of a Chicago, Boston or Orlando, that lack of size and a true playmaker – not to mention substantial depth – will become their downfall unless it is addressed before March.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are not a cast of emotionally empty talents, which is why it’s simple to cast Saturday’s episode as an aberration. They will be heard from when it counts, and it’s because of what they DO have – superior size, depth and playmaking – that I’m not sure their ugly holiday loss should mean much in the big picture.

 

A welcome sight

For one game, atleast, Kobe was back.

It was a much welcomed sight on Sunday, in Game 1 of Lakers-Jazz Western Conference semifinals. It was when we saw the greatest closer in the game return to form.

Kobe scored 11 of his 31 points in the final four minutes of the game, leading the Lakers to victory the way Kobe knows how – by hitting difficult, twisting shots and completely breaking the will of another professional basketball team.

While his shooting continues to be erratic, it was moments like these which we had been missing; moments when he completely made a game his.

Is it coincidental that it came on the same day LeBron James accepted his second consecutive MVP award? Probably not. Kobe’s always longed for the spotlight, even if there was little way he could overtake LeBron on this particular day.

As NBA fans, it was great to see. We had been looking for this all playoffs. We wanted to see Kobe take over, take charge, especially when we learned he was a very distant third to LeBron in MVP voting (though that was accurate, it was still startling to see other basketball people feel the same).

After all, less than a year ago, he was on top of the world, on top of his game, leading the Lakers to another world championship – this one worth the world to him, since it came with Shaq watching, not playing.

This year has been a strange one, where we saw Kobe struggle and, for the first time seemingly ever, appear human. Sure he hit six amazing game-winners. But those six shots did not mask a season of restraint, when it appeared that Kobe had lost his legs and missing far too many jumpers and attempting far too few free throws.

We saw him then go through a tough, exasperating first round series against Oklahoma City, when he put up shooting numbers like 6-for-19 and 12-for-28, attempt 0 free throws in Game 3 (in 41 minutes), and attempt just nine and 10 shots, respectively, in two separate games.

He left us wondering. He left us concerned and had us paying a bit more attention to the likes of James, Durant, Derrick Rose and others, just in case we were watching the passing of the torch right before our very own eyes.

He left us questioning the Lakers’ extending him for another three years. Think about that. The best perimeter basketball player of the last decade, and we were wondering if the Lakers were making a mistake by keeping him around a bit longer.

That’s what it had come to. Until Game 1.

Thanks to a Jazz defense that offered little to no resistance, Kobe became Kobe again. He hit 12 of 19 shots. He made all seven of his free throws. He only settled for two 3-point attempts.

Man, was it great to see. I’m not even a Kobe fan, and nowhere near a Laker fan, but for the game of NBA basketball, this was awesome. It’s like we could breathe again.

All was right with the world.

Hopefully, Game 1 was a sign of things to come and not a reflection back of how things used to be. I refuse to believe Kobe Bryant is on the downhill. I still expect more 60 point games and moments when he makes me regret not taping a game.

The NBA needs Kobe. We, as fans, need Kobe. He’s our Michael Jordan. LeBron James can wait. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and there’s no doubting that he will have a career, too, that rivals that of Michael and Kobe.

But Kobe made one thing clear on Sunday. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon either.

Um … que?

Worst. Idea. Ever.

David Stern told SI’s Ian Thomsen that the NBA could see a woman playing for it within the next decade.

“I think we might,” said Stern. “I don’t want to get into all kinds of arguments with players and coaches about the likelihood. But I really think it’s a good possibility.”

Apparently Dirk Nowtizki, whose lack of aggression and physical toughness does resemble that of a female’s, agrees somewhat.

“Skills-wise, yeah,” he said, meaning they could shoot and handle the ball at an NBA level. “But physical-wise, it’s tough. Even all the little guys are pretty strong in this league and pretty athletic.”

Said Mavs assistant coach Dwayne Casey: “That’s right, the guys trying to guard her won’t want to get beat.  I see the women’s game coming closer and closer to the men’s game. You see NBA coaches who are now coaching in the WNBA and you see them using a lot of the same principles — offensive schemes, pick and roll, defensive sets. The physical part will be the worst for a woman, and it will be on defense more than anything else.”

Um, no. A million times no.

As I’ve stated before, I DO have respect for women’s basketball. But let’s be serious.

The women’s game is grounded. The women can pass and shoot, yes. But defensively, they’d be superbly overmatched. They just do not have the quickness, agility or leap that men do. That’s a fact.

Take a NBA “scrub” like Brian Scalabrine. He would completely overwhelm the likes of a Diana Taurasi, or Sue Bird or Candace Parker.

He’s a benchwarmer by NBA STANDARDS. This is a man who thrived at USC, averaging 15 points, six rebounds and almost three assists per game.

And now he can barely get off the bench for the Celtics, albeit a top-three team. You’re telling me Parker or Taurasi can take his minutes?

EVERYBODY in the NBA can pass, defend and shoot to where they can make themselves a threat offensively. Parker might be able to get out in transition in the NBA, maybe pick up a stray rebound and get a couple of steals because she has nice length and she’s athletic. But she wouldn’t score. No way she’s getting inside the paint, and her shot isn’t good enough to where she can make people pay.

Taurasi is interesting. She can shoot, handle, defend, and she definitely plays intensely. But she’s not quick enough, and she would get BURNED on defense. I MIGHT be able to see her as a spot shooter, nothing more.

It’s two vastly, completely, entirely different games. You can’t compare, and it boggles the mind to even know that Stern is entertaining the idea. I suppose “all it takes is one fool”, and I could completely see the Grizzlies or Clippers signing a woman as a gimmick and a way to get attention.

But let’s be realistic. The NBA game is too fast, too physical and too coordinated for the women. I love the WNBA, and Taurasi and Parker are otherworldly talents, but they would not make it.

It’s an insult to the NBA game. I’m sorry, ladies, but it is. Obviously, in this day and age, people don’t understand how hard it is to play the game of NBA basketball.

I thought the freakin’ Commish knew. Apparently not.

You can read Thomsen’s article here: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/ian_thomsen/12/04/countdown/index.html

I recommend that you not drink anything while doing so.

40 … but more than worthy.

AP Photo

I apologize for this coming so late. But work beckoned for my services, and there was no way I could go forward without a tribute.

In Tuesday’s 106-93 win over the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant scored 40 points or more for the 100th time in his illustrious NBA career.

In that category, he trails Wilt Chamberlain (271) and Michael Jordan (173).

“True honor,” said Bryant. “It’s just a good feeling.”

Over the years, I’ve been wishy-washy upon Bryant. I once saw him as nothing more than a scoring-obsessed ballhog who didn’t trust his teammates and who was a complete disgust to be around.

I couldn’t stand the sight of him. I saw someone who wanted to shoot, score and showboat. Nothing more, nothing less.

I saw someone whose game was everything wrong about basketball.

And then, something happened … he started becoming more conscientious of his image and started opening up more, even if it was slightly.

We learned of his crazy work ethic. We were told of his intense desire to win, at everything and anything.

We learned that, yes, he did care about winning a title without Shaq, and, also, that he wasn’t all responsible for the Big Diesel’s trade from LA to Miami.

We started seeing a more human side to Kobe. And it helped. Now everybody doesn’t look to pray for his downfall. Only some people do.

But I did not fully get Kobe Bryant until coming across the first chapter in SI writer Chris Ballard’s book, “The Art of a Beautiful Game”, in which he goes inside the head of Kobe to try and let readers into the man’s passion for basketball and his love for wanting to be nothing less than the best.

Kobe Bryant was put on this earth to play the game of basketball. So, why should we scoff upon someone whose fulfilling that purpose to the best of his ability?

To understand Kobe Bryant, you have to understand art. You have to understand drive. You have to understand passion, and you definitely have to understand what happens when something such as a game makes up the essence of an entire human being.

It’s hard to describe. But I believe Ballard explains it beautifully.

Check out this excerpt from the book. It’s quite lengthy, so I shall end this blog with it.

But it encompasses Kobe to the nth degree, and if one can’t appreciate Kobe after reading it, well, then, one can’t appreciate Kobe at all.

Via Mr. Ballard:

Consider the following hypothetical situation. Let’s say you are playing for your high school basketball team and have persuaded one of the team’s benchwarmers to stay afterward to play one-on-one. Let’s also stipulate that you are much, much better than this benchwarmer, who, for our purposes, we shall call Rob.

Now let’s say the two of you are playing a game to 100 points, with each basket worth one point, winner’s outs after a made shot, and you are having your way with poor Rob, backing him down and driving by him and pulling up for jumpers. Pretty soon you’ve built an almost embarrassing lead — say, 40 baskets to none. Now, in this situation, do you:

a) begin to feel bad for Rob, who is, after all, doing you a favor by staying late, and perhaps ease up a bit so he can at least score a few baskets?

b) continue playing hard but maybe start taking only outside jumpers, so that Rob might have a fighting chance, thus making it more competitive?

c) never let up for a second, hounding Rob on defense and punishing him on offense, because the only way to win is to do so absolutely and completely, and only the weak relent, even for a moment?

If you answered “c,” congratulations. You share a mind-set with Kobe Bryant, the most competitive life-form on the planet.

Bryant, in fact, lived the above scenario while at Lower Merion High in Pennsylvania — and did so more than once. Only Bryant didn’t just get up 40–0. Sometimes he would take an 80–0 lead on Rob Schwartz, a good-natured, if undersized, junior guard. Think about that: 80 baskets to none. Can you imagine the focus, the ruthlessness, required to score 80 times on someone before they score once? Kobe can. To Kobe, this is just what you do. It is how you play.

“You’d think he’d have a tendency to ease back, but he doesn’t have that in him,” remembers Schwartz, who now works as a strength-and-conditioning coach near Philadelphia. “I think the best I ever did was to lose 100–12.” Naturally, Bryant doesn’t want to concede that Schwartz had even that much success. “I think he’s lying about that,” Bryant says when I tell him of Schwartz’s recollection. “I told Rob that too. We were talking about it, and I said, ‘You never got 12. I never let you get double digits. Most you got was five.'” Bryant is smiling when he says this, but it’s a forced grin. He really does want to set the record straight. Because God forbid any of us think for a moment that this Schwartz kid got double digits on Kobe Bryant.

There is much, much more here: http://deadspin.com/5402465/book-excerpts-that-dont-suck-the-art-of-a-beautiful-game