Subjective: Kobe is not clutch

Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes/edits for HoopSpeak.com, Warriorsworld.net, and Salon.com. He lives in Oakland and wallows @SherwoodStrauss on Twitter. He once touched Ricky Rubio's hand.

In last night’s Spurs-Lakers game, Kobe Bryant got the better of Kobe Bryant again. When his team desperately needed him, he gave them a bit too much of him. It happens.

Credit to the San Antonio defense, offense, credit to DeJuan Blair’s ebullient flair. But, it’s impossible to watch a live game and absorb all the complexities of ten jerseys, tugging TV pixels in different directions. Frankly, I just funneled an attention span to the Kobe show.

Bryant started off shaky, out of rhythm. All seemed lost when he sauntered in with nine minutes left, Lakers down by double digits. In a rebuke to offensive sets, Kobe flooded the hoop. A deep contested two, a contested three, another three. Suddenly, the Lakers were tilting the see-saw. Suddenly, frightened announcers were sputtering: “He will score every time he gets the ball! Every time!”

(Uh-oh! Here it comes! Lava’s about to shoot out of his eyes and decapitate Gary Neal!)

Bryant’s next four shots were heavily-guarded misses. Gary Neal’s face still exists. Lakers to the exits, hence this missive.

The fourth quarter was illustrative of Kobe’s occasional crunch time lapses. When Bryant fails, it’s not because he shrinks from the moment--it’s because he tries to own it. That’s not to say that Kobe blunders often, it’s just to explain how it happens when he does. Our cultural assumption is that crunch time failing is “choking,” wilting under pressure, succumbing to the situation. But, when Bryant "chokes," he bites off more than he can chew--like a mamba chomping a hippo.

So here is my subjective, Playoffs-based needling of Kobe’s assassin credentials--the permit given to men whom you want shooting “with the game on the line.” I do it because so many Bryant debates pit stat lovers against conventional wisdom, and so many conventional wisdom clingers prey on emotional memory.

This dust-draped Youtube clip is the Game 6, 2006, series-losing airball that History forgot. It's a way-off airball, and a terrible miss amid a 50 point performance. Instead, we harp on his infamous following game, where KB “quit” in the second half. Strange that fans are willing to dismiss the botched heave, in favor of a bizarre moralistic narrative where Bryant failed out of spite. The unreasonable Puritanical screeching about Kobe’s Game 7 reminds me of the unhinged tumult that followed LeBron’s Game 5.

Below are two recent examples of fortuitous Kobe misses. I’m leaving out the most famous fortunate Bryant shank because Kings fans have it hard enough (Think: Horry, Robert). Notice the difficulty level of the Artest and Gasol shots.

His 1997 airballs versus the Jazz are barely worth mentioning. Kid Kobe was too young for the situation. Kudos to him for growing towards greatness, despite this early searing experience.

Did I remember his game-tying three against the Pistons in 2004? What about those heroics in Game 4 of that same Suns series, referenced earlier? Sure I remember all that, but so do you. The task is to highlight what isn’t sepia-toned. The goal isn’t to declare Kobe incapable in these moments, but instead to deny his mastery of them.

To quote Tom Haberstroh’s brilliant piece on Kobe vs. LeBron in crunch time--an article that gives Bryant considerable credit:

“We watch in anticipation as the ball leaves Bryant's fingertips on a contested perimeter jumper, which is the toughest shot in the game. But the degree of difficulty of the shot works both ways. When he hits the back-breaking shot, it is heroic. But when he misses, it is understandable.”

What’s understandable is that he misses a tough shot. But it's hard for many to grasp the flaw in Kobe's courage of conviction. And my subjective Bryant belief is, “The bigger the moment, the tougher the shot.” Fan wisdom says: Bravery is virtue. To claim that Kobe’s late-game confidence leads him to Icarus misses is subversive to that notion. I'd like to rebound that airball.