The 76ers had nobody to guard Andrew Bynum, but he had a hard time getting the ball at the end.
When the Sixers and Lakers took the floor on Monday night, it looked like a mismatch. Not on paper, but on the eyes.
With the exception of Derek Fisher, the Lakers looked enormous compared to their Sixer counterparts. 6-9 Lavoy Allen would look enormous in your living room, but he's a shrimp next to man he was checking: Andrew Bynum. Spencer Hawes is listed as an inch taller than Pau Gasol; I'm here to tell you that is somewhere between a misprint and a lie.
For much of the first half Kobe Bryant was covered by point guard Jrue Holiday, who is feisty but at least two inches shorter. The Sixers' have players as big and strong as Metta World Peace, but not that they can spare guarding him.
You could size this one up like a grade-school game: No, the sixth graders can't beat the eighth graders.
And for much of the night, that's how the game played out. The Lakers absolutely decimated the 76ers on the boards, finishing with a greedy 55 of the game's 85 rebounds.
When the Lakers looked to score around the hoop, it was a cinch. For a time it seemed merely lobbing the ball into the air above the hoop was enough to secure a dunk for Bynum. Every time that happened, 76ers fans had to squirm a little; There is no player on the Philadelphia roster who can challenge the tallest man in the building up there.
Now and again Gasol would get feisty and determined to score over Hawes, or whoever was standing near, which worked nicely, too.
By crunch time Sixers coach Doug Collins had settled on the "big man" combination of Nikola Vucevic and Spencer Hawes, neither of whom could be accused of owning the ground under their feet in this game, let alone the paint.
And so when Sixer fans looked up at the scoreboard with three minutes' left and saw their team trailing by two, it was a tough piece of news to digest. The Lakers' size advantage wasn't going away, and they had a bucket in their back pocket.
Predictably, though, the Lakers never got the ball to a big in the paint again (other than Gasol getting an offensive rebound, then missing the putback). Regular readers of TrueHoop already know why: Because Kobe Bryant is on that team. I started taking notes with three minutes left and the Lakers up two. You'll read a lot about what mattered in this game. But to my eyes, nothing mattered as much as this:
2:50 Kobe miss.
2:44 Kobe offensive foul.
2:15 Kobe miss.
1:38 Kobe miss.
1:27 Kobe miss.
1:06 Kobe make.
0:31 Kobe miss.
0:05 Kobe miss.
The Sixers won. How could they not? One Laker missed more shots over that stretch than the Sixers even attempted. The Sixers outscored the Lakers so severely to close the game that by most definitions it wasn't even crunch time anymore at the end. (Silly but illustrative point: If the whole game had gone like the last three minutes, the Sixers would have won 144-32.)
Bryant's shots were tough, because in crunch time they almost always are, because:
While Coach Collins had been rotating defenders onto Bryant all night, down the stretch there would be no Holiday for Bryant. It was all Andre Iguodala, a candidate for "best wing defender in the world." (Take it away, John Hollinger: "Opposing small forwards have a PER of 8.2 against Iguodala, according to 82games.com. He turns the average opponent into Terrence Williams or Quincy Pondexter.") As Iguodala, listed as the same height and two pounds heavier, is at least as big as Bryant, the Lakers' size advantage was long gone. Iguodala, in fact, is longer, stronger, five years younger, more athletic, and quicker. The Lakers had a huge size advantage in general, but the Lakers focused their offense in the one place they were at a physical disadvantage.
Bryant predictably dominates the ball. This isn't an assessment of his character or anything else. It's a simple look at history. He shoots more than anyone in the history of crunch time. Sometimes they go in, usually they don't. But what you won't find are many examples of his passing. That's not to say he has never passed in crunch time. But we can count that stuff up, and when we do we find everybody else passes more and shoots less. That gives Coach Collins the confidence to send a second defender at Bryant, without fear of the open Laker making the Sixers pay. So not only was Bryant facing one of the best wing defenders in the world. Much of the time, he was facing another defender, too. He's good, but nobody's that good.
The Lakers' offense fell off a cliff at that point, which has happened throughout Bryant's career.
The whole point of which is not to conclude that Bryant is bad. Or that the Lakers are bad. Or anything else. The whole point of this is realize that Bryant is a other-worldly player who has issues trusting the ball to this teammates with the game on the line. The story has been that he is at his best with the game on the line, and once in a while it looks that way.
But the norm is that when the game is close at the end, that's when Bryant's flaw of self-reliance is at its worst. That's when the Lakers ignore all the weak points the defense presents, and instead attacking at the strongest point, in the name of feeding the most voracious shooter in crunch time history.
Flying solo, launching long 3s or tough 2-pointers with defenders draped all over you, ignoring open teammates ... it seldom works.
(And what about the fact that Louis Williams won the game for the Sixers by scoring nine straight to end the game, mostly on the same tough shots? Once in a while it does work.)
TrueHoop reader Joseph, a longtime Laker and Bryant fan e-mails:
Imagine you’re an older guy like me, who grew up watching Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, then Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, and so on -- some of the most beautiful basketball ever played. (And, for college, we had UCLA under John Wooden -- man, am I spoiled.)
Then you see Kobe, just an incredible ballplayer, who will blow your mind several times a game with his exquisite footwork and beautiful moves -- and yet, has this fatal flaw, this damning weakness.
When the Lakers are beautiful, they are the most beautiful team in the league. But they so rarely are -- and it seems to fall on the shoulders of Kobe, who is the decision maker making the poor decisions.
The story really isn't about Bryant at all. It's about decision-making, which can lead to hero ball. Once in a while you get lucky with it, which makes it a gamble, not a strategy.