If there's such a thing as a dissatisfying 43-point performance, Kobe Bryant delivered it Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors.
Only 43 points for Bryant
Yeah, he still hit an array of momentum-swinging shots, and yeah, the Los Angles Lakers still won, 115-113, and, yeah, it was a performance that by almost any other player would be considered pretty damn good.
But let's be honest. Bryant isn't judged the same as other players. If personality didn't color judgment, if effort and understanding of the game could be quantified in a boxscore, there would not be any confusion over who the game's best player is.
That wasn't his fault until he proved over the past 10 days that he could overcome all that, could force the most anti-Kobe soul to concede that there's no one who can do what he can. So I went into watching the game Sunday night thinking, "OK, Mr. Supernova, bring it home." Thrust yourself into MVP discussion that appears to be strictly a two-man race between The German and The Canadian.
Sure, I noticed the weird listlessness of Lamar Odom on D and the careless ballhandling of Smush Parker and the general ambivalence of Kwame Brown that makes it astounding that the Lakers are six games over .500. I also, by my count, had Kobe scoring only twice on layups, both in the first quarter. Why that's practically (pre-All-Star-break) LeBron-like. I expected so much more. I had seen, in recent days, so much more. That's why, when it appeared there might be a chance for overtime against Golden State, thereby opening the door for Bryant to extend his streak of 50-point scoring games to five, I hoped not. The streak ended, deservedly, well short of Wilt Chamberlain's record of seven straight.
Granted, I saw him get the 50 vs. the Timberwolves live and marveled at how naturally the points seemed to come. There were times he took contested long-range jumpers that Sunday afternoon against Minnesota that would have been considered questionable except they were falling and drawing only head-shaking admiration from his teammates. He also attacked the rim at every opportunity, producing 14 free throws and what seemed like a dozen fouls.
This Sunday, though, the long-range shots were not falling. He started off in rarified air, making his first four shots for nine points in barely more than two minutes. He had 17 in the first quarter. Yet it was clear by halftime that he was not dialed in the way he had been.
Credit the Warriors for some of that. They seemed particularly determined to make sure Bryant's run of 65-, 50-, 60- and 50-point games ended with them, and an argument could be made that Bryant merely took what they gave him, an array of long-range shots he had been making with remarkable efficiency. Forget arguments. I wanted the Bryant who took what he wanted, the opposition be damned. I don't care that through much of the third quarter the Warriors doubled him without the ball or hedged to prevent him from even getting the ball at the pinch-post with his back to the basket. Or that the attention he drew played a big part in the Warriors being completely out of position to attack the boards, leading to a 63-33 advantage for the Lakers.
Or that he accepted the double teams and found open teammates, that he made two key defensive plays on Al Harrington and Baron Davis in the fourth quarter, that he dove to the floor to tie up a loose ball and had nine rebounds.
He also, in very un-supernova-like fashion, missed two free throws in the final 30 seconds and had seven turnovers. He went 4-of-11 from 3-point range.
All in all, not bad. But by the new Kobe measuring stick, a bit on the short side.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant is cheered as he runs up court after scoring in a win over the Warriors. The Lakers have won five straight.
Utah forward Carlos Boozer provided 28 points and 15 rebounds, shooting 13-of-17 from the floor, as the Jazz defeated the Grizzlies 118-108. That lifted Boozer's season statistics to 20.9 points and 11.7 rebounds per game while making 56.3 percent of his field goal attempts.
How many players in NBA history have ever finished a season with across-the-board numbers at the Boozer level in each of those three categories? Only six! Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reached those levels in four seasons; Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal each did it three times; and Artis Gilmore and, ahem, Jeff Ruland each did it once.
For the second straight game, Greg Oden and the Ohio State Buckeyes looked like toast. Oden was having his worst game in the tournament, plagued by foul trouble. Going into the final second of the game Thursday against Tennessee, he had nine points and three rebounds. Then came the block.
As the last second ticked off the clock, Oden rose and rose and rose, blocking Ramar Smith's last-second layup with the tips of his fingers. Ohio State had survived for another day, and Oden had saved the season.
It may be remembered as the critical event in Oden's draft candidacy this year. Whether Smith's shot was going in is irrelevant. What amazed scouts was how someone so big could make a block like that.
For the first time all season, Oden played with a little reckless abandon. Maybe he was holding back all season, protecting his right wrist from further injury. Maybe we haven't even glimpsed what Oden is capable of doing. And maybe offensive prowess isn't everything. Maybe dominant defenders also can change the game.
On Saturday, against Memphis, Oden looked like a different player. He was aggressive, even emotional at times, and ended the game with 17 points and nine rebounds in 24 foul-plagued minutes. Just as important, he completely shut down Memphis bruiser Joey Dorsey.
If Oden's confidence is rising and Ohio State can take home a championship, then maybe there's hope for Jerry West (Memphis), Danny Ainge (Boston) or Michael Jordan (Charlotte) that Oden will be the team's savior next season.
Nuggets get the best of Cavaliers
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, shooting around Warriors center Andris Biedrins, finished 15-of-33 from the floor and 9-of-11 from the foul line. He also had nine rebounds and no assists. He had seven of the Lakers' season-high 25 turnovers in the 115-113 win over Golden State.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Need to address something from Thursday night's Kobe-as-McEnroe column. I received a lot of e-mail response protesting this passage: "I likewise feel safe saying that not even two or three more 60-pointers from Bryant in L.A.'s final 14 games can turn the two-man MVP derby between Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash into a three-sided argument. The MVP trophy, remember, is meant to celebrate the best individual season. Bryant's isn't up there if the Lakers are just four games over .500."
I feel like I'm being asked to make the same point over and over, but I repeat: The record books tell us -- like it or not -- that team success is a major factor in how an individual's season is judged. We haven't seen an NBA MVP from a team with fewer than 50 victories in 25 years, since Houston's Moses Malone did it with the 46-36 Rockets in 1982. It's a voting standard I believe in, but obviously not something I invented.
There is, indeed, no consensus among voters on what a regular-season MVP is supposed to be, and no official guidelines to voters are supplied by the league office. But I think we can all agree that the most valuable thing in team sports is winning, which should explain why the NBA's MVP always comes from an elite team.
I wouldn't dare downgrade what Kobe is doing, because I'm loving it. Who cares if all four teams he has riddled are under .500? Any NBA genius who encroaches upon the collegians' spotlight in March is good by me. But I struggle to see why rational readers want me to suddenly consider Bryant ahead of Nowitzki or Nash with my MVP vote after four magical nights, as if L.A.'s seven consecutive losses before this amazing flurry never happened.
Jeff Weltman of Scouts Inc. and Chad Ford break down NBA prospects. They consider the decision of Duke's Josh McRoberts, who is coming out despite his team's early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Weltman said there's no doubt McRoberts will be in the draft, but he might end up at No. 20 overall instead of No. 10. "Not all players who are good NBA players carry teams in college," Weltman said. "He'll be a very good NBA player, eventually."
Mavericks G Devean George, who missed the past six games with a sore right knee, finished with one rebound and three fouls in eight minutes in the win over Atlanta.
The Mavericks are 46-0 when having a better field goal percentage than the opponent and 37-3 when having 20 or more assists.
-- The Associated Press