To explain his passive approach in Sunday's Game 1 loss to the Suns, Lakers star Kobe Bryant said that it was all part of coach Phil Jackson's plan: "I listen to the big guy, that's all. That's who I play for. If he says go out there and shoot 60 times, that's what I'm going to do. I just follow his orders, follow his lead and try to play the way that he wants me to play to the best of my abilities and we just go from there."
No matter the reason, Kobe's unusual maneuver surprised Phoenix, which was accustomed to seeing Kobe go off.
During the regular season, Kobe shot 27 times per game and 30 times per game vs. the Suns. He scored 35.4 ppg overall and 42.5 vs. the Suns.
On Sunday, he shot 21 times (that's fewer than Luke Walton and Brian Cook combined) -- and four of those shots were in the last 25 seconds.
At one point in the third quarter, he had been outscored by two Lakers and was tied with two others.
More evidence of Kobe's lack of attack: His FTAs were down from 14 per game vs. the Suns during the regular season to eight on Sunday.
We asked our hoops analysts to weigh in on eight questions on No. 8, the Lakers and the Suns:
1. Do you believe Kobe was trying to prove a point (proving he could stick to the "game plan") or trying to win the game?
Chris Broussard: I believe Kobe was trying to win the game. I believe Phil Jackson has been preaching the necessity of getting everyone involved to Kobe, just like he did to Mike, and Kobe did that and did not force anything when it wasn't there. Jackson no doubt pointed out to Kobe that he had scorched the Suns individually all season and it got them nothing but three losses (in games when Nash played).
John Hollinger: He was trying to win the game, as clearly shown by his willingness to shoot it in the final two minutes. He just got a little too passive in trying to run the game plan.
Will Perdue: Both, but what I don't like is how he answered the question about the game plan. It sounds like he disagrees with Phil's plan.
Ric Bucher: Both. The game plan was sound, and they had their best chance to beat the Suns all season. Kobe didn't get the job done at the end, but it wasn't because the game plan didn't work or he didn't try. He simply didn't make shots he normally makes.
Tim Legler: Kobe Bryant was trying to win the game by incorporating his teammates into the offense more than he had during the regular season against the Phoenix Suns, when the Lakers had little success. At this stage of his career, Kobe is beyond trying to "prove a point" and is more concerned with advancing the Lakers deeper into the playoffs.
B.J. Armstrong: He was following the game plan absolutely. If they are able to win the series, it's going to take a contribution from the entire team. There's no other way to accomplish this.
Marc Stein: I believe Kobe bought into the idea that involving folks like Kwame Brown and Luke Walton in Game 1 would help give his untested teammates confidence to play aggressively throughout the series. He's been going 1-on-5 against Phoenix all season and knows as well as anyone that it hasn't worked.
Jim O'Brien: He was trying to do both. Sticking to a game plan is the way you generally win games.
Chris Sheridan: He was trying to follow the game plan, but maybe he was adhering to the plan a little too strictly. With so much emphasis on getting the ball inside, he was not his usual creative self with the ball. A little more freedom would be a good thing in Game 2.
2. Do you agree with the Lakers' game plan to get everyone else involved and reduce Kobe's scoring role?
Broussard: I believe that ultimately the "get everyone involved" philosophy will make the Lakers and anyone else a better team, but this was too much balance. Also, it's an odd time to switch styles. You've been riding Kobe all year, it's hard to change up on the fly. Do that next season in training camp.
Hollinger: No. They didn't play this way all season -- now one game is going to change the team overnight? Fat chance.
Legler: The Lakers will not beat the Phoenix Suns unless they get more balanced scoring than they did in the regular season against the Suns. Lamar Odom and Smush Parker have to be in the midteens or low 20s in scoring to complement what they get from Kobe in terms of scoring.
Perdue: Yes, the team needs to keep it close and then Kobe can win it for you in the latter part of the fourth quarter.
Bucher: The game plan is not to get everyone else involved, it's to get the ball to Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom as close to the rim as possible. The Suns don't have overwhelming size. Forcing them to defend big bodies on the block makes them expend energy. Forcing them to defend bodies underneath the defensive rim also means very short caroms and seven or eight feet more for Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw to run to get on the break. That means fewer transition opportunities, which is the Suns' forte. The Lakers are essentially building their defense from their offense. The strategy is to keep the game close by not letting the Suns run and then having Kobe close them out. The keys: Kwame and Lamar must score in the post against one-on-one coverage, and Kobe must come through at the end.
Armstrong: I agree. In a playoff series, role players have to play their role, and great players have to be great. Kobe's job in a series is to finish the game. Without this understanding, a team would be forced to rely very heavily on blame, excuses and other self-weakening ego mechanisms.
O'Brien: If that was the game plan, Phil Jackson probably realized that in the long run it will pay dividends. The long run being not only this series and only this year but into the future. One player does not win a series. Playoff basketball is about adjusting and tweaking things from game to game. Miami is looking more and more impressive because their role players are stepping up and getting it done with Shaq and Wade. LeBron James seems to understand this fact already. Sacramento almost won last night because they realized their team is not the Ron Artest Show.
Sheridan: Disagree. I like what Kwame Brown did over the final six weeks of the season, but I don't believe he's a confident enough player to have such a major role given to him in his first full playoff series (remember, last year he bailed on the Wiz).
Stein: For one game, yes. The sense I got is that Phil Jackson made a one-game commitment to get everyone else involved, win or lose, in hopes of increasing L.A.'s chances of extending the series and getting Kobe more consistent help than he's been getting against the Suns. But I think it would be a big mistake if, in Game 2, Kobe has another 16-possession stretch without taking a shot, as we saw once in Game 1. The Lakers have no chance to win that way, either.
3. Should a team (a) sometimes change its approach and philosophy during the playoffs or (b) stick with its regular-season approach and philosophy?
O'Brien: They should stick with their regular-season plan. There really is no other choice. I do not see what happened in Game 1 as a change in their approach. Give Jackson the benefit of the doubt.
Bucher: It all depends on what gives you an advantage. Almost every team changes its approach to Phoenix in the postseason because it doesn't have time to prepare an exclusive game plan for the Suns during the regular season. Quick example: Standard transition D is to get back to your paint and then step out to defend the perimeter. Against Phoenix, you have to run to the 3-point arc and find a man right away or it's bombs away. Offensively, being Kobe-centric during the regular season gave the Lakers the best chance to win against the most opponents, but not against the Suns. My guess is Phil Jackson knew this post-up style could work against Phoenix in the regular season, but why give them a sneak peek of what you plan to do when it really matters?
Broussard: You must stick with your approach. Games are too important and the margin for error too slim to go to a different style of play. The uncertainty and hesitation that comes with playing a completely different way can cause enough of a drop-off to cost you the game and series.
Legler: A team has to play the style of basketball that allowed them the greatest success in the regular season. They have to be concerned with doing the things that they do well and trying to take away some aspect of what their opponent wants to do offensively. Too many adjustments can be counterproductive.
Hollinger: They definitely should change the approach based on matchups because it's the same opponent for seven straight games. But it's more about subtle shifts than drastic alterations.
Perdue: You try not to make too many changes in the playoffs. Players can get out of their comfort zone. Most changes are made on defense.
Armstrong: There's only one philosophy: success. If you have to change this approach from regular season to postseason, let that be your cue that what you're doing is not successful in the first place. Change is not an option if you do it right the very first time. Continuous change leads ultimately to disintegration of your most valuable assets: The People.
Sheridan: Depends on the playoff opponent, and in this case I believe Phil Jackson feels the Lakers' best chance to win the series is to use their size advantage. He never did that in Chicago, but then again, he never went up against a team playing a 6-7 center.
Stein: I won't consider this a philosophy change unless Kobe plays the same way again. The Lakers were a 45-win team largely because of Kobe's offensive brilliance.
4. Do you believe that Kobe will break out for a 50-point game at some point in the series?
Broussard: I expect the Lakers to go back to their typical style pronto. Kobe will go for at least 40 in Game 2. If he doesn't get 50 in a game this series, it won't be because he didn't put up enough shots like in Game 1.
Hollinger: I still think it will happen, just because he averaged nearly a point a minute during the season and he's likely to play 47 or 48 minutes a night against Phoenix.
Legler: I think Kobe will have at least one 50-point game in the series because the Lakers are an inferior team and Kobe will get increasingly frustrated and desperate as the series progresses. As that happens, he will continue to force the issue and take matters into his own hands. Combined with the fact that he is the best offensive player in the NBA and the Suns are a poor defensive team, it all adds up to Bryant putting up huge numbers at some point.
Perdue: Yes, he will have to for the Lakers to win.
Bucher: Yes. Because either Kwame and Lamar are going to punish the Suns enough that they'll have to pay more attention to them (and thereby less to Kobe) or going to Kwame and Lamar will not produce wins and they'll simply see if Kobe can go crazy and get one.
O'Brien: No, because it's playoff basketball and opponents are not going to let that happen easily. He will score in the mid-30s a couple times, however.
Armstrong: Absolutely. If success is the goal, then Kobe has to do what is necessary to accomplish that.
Stein: Yes. Kobe is more capable than anyone in this league when it comes to quickly finding another gear or three, and there's a good chance that the struggles of his limited supporting cast will force him to fire away.
Sheridan: What, just one 50-point game? I'll say he's got two of 'em in him, and tonight's the first.
5. Do you agree with Phil Jackson that Kwame Brown should be "the featured guy" and the key to the series?
Legler: I completely disagree with Phil Jackson regarding the importance of Kwame Brown in this series. In fact, if the Lakers are counting on Brown to be the difference maker, they will be sorely disappointed. He has been one of the most inconsistent players on the Lakers roster. The difference maker actually is Lamar Odom, a player capable of being dominant in several areas and providing the type of support Kobe Bryant needs.
Hollinger: No, the play of Kobe Bryant is the key because all the Lakers' plays run through him. What happens with Kwame is secondary at best.
Broussard: Kwame Brown is a key because teams that have success against Phoenix are teams that exploit the Suns' lack of size inside and crash the offensive boards. If Brown can do those two things, the Lakers have a much better chance.
Perdue: Not just Kwame, but also Odom down on the block. Lakers need to take advantage of their height.
Bucher: It's OK to start there, but when you're the seventh seed trying to knock off the second seed, everything and everybody is key. Kwame has to be a beast in the paint; Odom has to finish, not turn the ball over and rebound; Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic and Smush Parker have to knock down open 3s; and Kobe has to be clutch in the final minutes.
Armstrong: Yes. For the first time in Kwame's NBA career, he's being held responsible and accountable for his performance. And Phil Jackson from experience knows a thing or two about performance under pressure.
Stein: No. If it's all riding on Kwame that's as big an "if" as you'll ever see. I'd say L.A.'s only chance to really make this a series is finding a consistent mix of inside success again the Suns' small and thin front line inside and Kobe doing regular damage when he freelances.
O'Brien: Balance is a very big key. See answer 2 above.
Sheridan: I know the Lakers are trying to break Brown out of the season-long shell he's slowly been coming out of, and I think some of Phil's talk regarding Brown is ego-boosting material. He needs Kwame to play with some confidence.
6. How would you explain the Suns' offensive problems in the second and third quarters (36 points, no 3-pointers) -- those things happen, or great D by L.A.?
Broussard: Those things happen. The Suns have had droughts like that throughout the season. If it was something the Lakers were doing, Phoenix would not have been able to put 32 on them in the fourth. The Lakers did not suddenly morph into the Spurs. Believe that.
Hollinger: These things happen -- Suns had 71 in first and last quarters.
Legler: The Suns' troubles offensively in the second and third quarters of Game 1 were a result of a dedicated commitment on the part of the Lakers to match up in transition to the Suns' 3-point shooters and a disciplined offensive approach that was geared to dictating tempo.
Perdue: Playoff games consist of runs, but give the Lakers credit for their defense. It also looked like the Suns missed open shots.
Bucher: The Lakers imposed their tempo by being patient on offense and working the ball inside and defensively getting back and stopping the break. They also sent Phoenix to the line rather than allow easy baskets, which also slows the game and deadens the crowd. Consider: In those two quarters, the Lakers had more layups than the Suns did. The Suns are eminently beatable in a strict half-court game.
Armstrong: How do you play great defense versus an offensive team? You play great offense yourself. The Lakers executed brilliantly on the offensive end throughout the entire game. The best defense is a great offense.
Stein: Bad spacing, a lack of playoff experience on the floor and nerves. Some of the younger Suns looked increasingly tight when they couldn't shake the Lakers.
Sheridan: After such a strong first quarter, I think the natural urge to relax a bit took hold of them. I'd expect Mike D'Antoni to address it tonight so we don't see a repeat.
7. Besides Steve Nash, who is the key player for Phoenix in this series?
O'Brien: Shawn Marion is an enormous key. He is a defensive game changer as well as being a superb offensive player. He might play Bryant all the time, but when it's crunch time and they need a stop, he will be the guy to call on.
Hollinger: Raja Bell, because he has to guard Kobe.
Broussard: Shawn Marion. I don't expect Tim Thomas to get close to 15 rebounds in the rest of the games, so Marion will have to be the Suns' board snatcher. Without him grabbing rebounds to at least keep the Suns respectable in that department, Phoenix is in trouble. The only reason they overcame his subpar seven boards in Game 1 is because Thomas had the game of his life on the backboards.
Legler: Shawn Marion is the most important player besides Steve Nash in this series because his defensive rebounding for the worst rebounding team in the NBA allows the Suns to initiate their transition game. The Lakers are determined to hurt the Suns inside and on the offensive boards. Marion offsets that.
Perdue: Raja Bell. Because he usually is the one who plays D in the post against taller players.
Bucher: Boris Diaw. He has to stop either Kwame or Lamar in the post, and he has to light Kwame up from the perimeter whenever he gets the chance. Kwame, like most bigs, isn't comfortable defending on the perimeter, and Diaw operated well from there during the regular season.
Armstrong: Raja Bell. He's the first line of defense trying to contain the greatness of Kobe Bryant.
Stein: Shawn Marion. The Matrix has a tough matchup, offensively and defensively, against the long limbs of Lamar Odom, but Marion is the only other Sun with significant playoff experience. Besides Nash, no one is more capable than Marion of taking pressure off the other Suns.
Sheridan: Shawn Marion, because he's the guy keeping Lamar Odom from being the focal point of the low-post offense and he also might get called upon to slow down Kobe whenever (if?) Mr. Bryant starts to get things going.
8. What is your current forecast for the series?
Legler: I predicted the Suns would win the series in six games, and I'm sticking with it. It takes a special defensive team to beat a team as explosive as the Suns. The Lakers are an average defensive team. That will not get it done. Anyone doubting the outcome of this series does not give the Suns enough credit for being the most difficult team to prepare for in the NBA.
Broussard: Phoenix in six, maybe five. Suns with Nash are now 8-0 against L.A. (not counting the game he sat out).
Bucher: I'm going to say the Suns in seven. At the end of the day, they have too much firepower and I'm not convinced Kwame and Smush can deliver the kind of consistent performances necessary to get the Lakers over the hump. But I say that with great trepidation because Kobe has proved all year long that he, by himself, can defy logic when it comes to what the Lakers have and are.
Armstrong: Lakers in six. Because in the end, courage and the heart shall prevail over reason and logic.
Hollinger: I said Suns in seven, and that's what I'm sticking with. Kobe will make it interesting, but Phoenix has too much firepower.
Stein: I picked the Suns in five before the playoffs began, and I don't change picks after I make them.
O'Brien: Phoenix will win the series. The Lakers do not have enough weapons to win four games, and if Brown is the key, he has not shown the ability to help carry a team in the playoffs.
Perdue: Suns in six. Lakers just don't have enough firepower to beat the Suns.
Sheridan: Sticking with Suns in six, because Kobe still has two 50-point games in him before he stops wearing No. 8 (he's switching to No. 24 next season).