NEW YORK -- If there's one thing Iman Shumpert's been consistently good at all season, even through his transition from the second unit to the starting five to back to the bench, it's been his defense.
After Friday's play, the rookie backup shooting guard is fifth in the league in steals per game (2.04), and tonight he brought that to the Lakers game. He had to because Kobe Bryant was in town, and Shumpert did not disappoint as the Knicks' lead defensive player on the perimeter in their 92-85 win over the Lakers.
Bryant scored 34 points, but was just 11-for-29 (37.9 percent) from the field. It was the eighth time this season that Bryant has shot under 40 percent in a game. Landry Fields drew the assignment of guarding Bryant for the majority of plays on Friday, but it was Shumpert that had the most success against him. Bryant shot 7-for-16 (18 points) against Fields, but was 3-for-11 (11 points) against Shumpert.
Shumpert was at his best defensively in the fourth quarter, getting right up in Bryant's grill and not letting him taking advantage with his patented shot faking and quick release. Shumpert's size (6-5, 220) really played a factor in bodying up Bryant as he made his dribble moves to the basket. Bryant almost had to dribble on a 75-degree angle to get his shot up.
Shumpert stayed right with him and prevented him from going 45 degrees to the basket. Only one time Bryant got a real clean look at the basket in the fourth quarter, when he spun between Shumpert and another Knicks' defender in traffic. It was a very difficult move to pull off, and one that routinely establishes Bryant as arguably the best player in the game. Bryant didn't finish the move at the rim, but in the entire final period, he made only one layup.
After the game, Shumpert spoke highly of Bryant and discussed what he keyed in on going head-to-head with the Lakers superstar.
"It's just tough because you know he's going to get those veteran calls on me," Shumpert said. "It's hard to guard him. He's got so many moves you have to worry about. You've got to worry about him shot faking and getting that foul on you. He's not one of those guys that just gets the foul. He gets the foul and one, and still makes the shot. It's a tough cover, but you've got to do it. I like the challenge."
Shumpert wasn't only good for defense in the fourth quarter. He scored 12 points in the game, but nine of them came in the final period, helping keep the Knicks ahead of the Lakers by about 10 for most of the time. He scored on a couple of isolation opportunities, but mostly fastbreak layups, thanks to Jeremy Lin's ability to push the ball after a rebound and make smart plays. Shumpert has enjoyed his transition to off guard because he feels more comfortable as a score nd filling in the wing spot during a fastbreak.
"Usually when we get a rebound, I've got to usually come back and get the ball and bring it up," Shumpert said. "Now, if I get it or he gets it, it's just foot on the gas, and that's the way I like to play. Today, he got his hands on a steal and my eyes lit up. We took off and got a quick two points on the other end. That's what we bring when we're on the floor together. We're just going to be able to attack and get into that paint. He likes to use the ball screen; I'm a little more just off the dribble. I like playing with him."
That goes for all of the Knicks. Lin is making everyone look good and adjust to their natural position. For Shumpert, he's rediscovering that scoring mentality he had in the early part of the season. Combining that with his already proven defense, the rookie is finally starting to come into his own as a complete player at his level of experience.
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