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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Kobe and Bynum, 1-2 Punch (5.1.12)

Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum carried the Lakers to victory Tuesday night against the Denver Nuggets. The present and future cornerstones of the franchise combined for 65 points on an efficient 27-49 shooting. The one-two punch was too much for the Nuggets to handle and the Lakers won 104-100.

However, the Nuggets were able to chip away at a 13 point deficit with just under seven minutes remaining in the game. They made the game closer than it needed to be and if not for some timely plays by Kobe, the Nuggets may have stolen game two. The Nuggets continually exposed the Lakers lack of proper shot selection and spacing by leaking out after contesting jumpers and getting easy transition buckets.

The Lakers opened the game strong and won the first quarter 32-25. This quarter would prove instrumental in the victory, as the Nuggets would play the Lakers even in the second and third. The Lakers established the inside out combination right off the bat, and Bynum and Kobe started off hot. On the first possession of the game, Bynum took advantage of an isolation play on the near block. Bynum took two dribbles and turned middle for the right hook. The very next play, the Nuggets decided to double Bynum as soon as he caught it at the near mid block. Bynum immediately kicked out to Pau at the far top of the key, and Pau swished the open jumper. Two minutes later, Bynum caught the ball at the near mid block. He was immediately doubled, so he kicked it out to Barnes at the near corner. Barnes quickly swung the ball to an open Kobe at the far side 3. Kobe then blew by the closeout and attacked baseline to finish with a two handed dunk. The execution of the ball movement from strong side to weak side was excellent, causing Steve Kerr to proclaim, "Great execution from the Lakers. Barnes making himself available on that double team, and Bynum doing the right thing, just pass to the first open guy, let him make the next pass." Often times Bynum has struggled to kick out from the double teams, but on this occasion he was perfect.

Following some Gallinari free throws, George Karl decided to have his team full court press. Teams will usually only use a press following a free throw. The Lakers were prepared and they burned the press. The Nuggets imprudently brought up four guys to only cover three players. Faried and Lawson doubled Sessions at the far elbow, Afflalo covered Kobe at the near elbow, and Gallinari covered the inbounder, Matt Barnes. Barnes wisely noticed the mistake, and he slung a pass to Pau Gasol at the far side half court. Pau instinctively pushed the ball up the court, like a point guard, and he attacked into the paint. As soon as Koufos moved up to stop the ball, Pau threw the lob to Bynum for the easy two on one alley oop dunk. Bynum followed this possession by switching onto Lawson at the free throw line following a pick and roll. Bynum contested Lawson's step back jumper and he leaked out. Barnes took the rebound and sent the outlet to Bynum for an easy two handed dunk. This put the Lakers up 12-3 within the first three minutes of the game.

After Bynum's nice opening, Kobe decided to kick it into high gear. Kobe held the ball at the top 3, took a dribble inside the line, crossed over from right to left, leaving Gallinari shook, and swished the pull up 20ft jumper from the near top of the key. He followed this with a curl to the free throw line. Kobe caught the pass, faced up, took one dribble to his left, pumped to get Afflalo in the air, and hit the 14ft jumper from the near elbow. Bynum then made another great pass out of a double team to feed Matt Barnes an easy layup on the near block. Kobe followed with a beautiful and one. Kobe used a Bynum down screen to pop up to the far top key. Kobe caught the pass and swung through to his right to use another pick from Bynum. Bynum rolled as Kobe went right, Kobe took three probing dribbles and pulled up for the 14ft jumper with Afflalo on his back. Kobe swished the jumper and knocked down the free throw. Kobe then caught the ball at the far mid wing for an isolation set. Kobe faced up, jabbed right twice, swung through from left to right, took one dribble for the pull up fading jumper in the far mid corner, and swished it. Kobe finished the quarter with a nice 3. He caught the ball at the far wing, faced up, jabbed right to rock Brewer baseline, and shot the 3 for a swish. Kobe finished the opening quarter with 14 points on 6-8 shooting. Bynum finished 4-6 for 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block.

In the second quarter, the Nuggets kicked it into overdrive and capitalized on easy transition buckets. Ramon Sessions got a little caught up in the run and gun tempo and allowed the Nuggets to pick up the tempo. Sessions went from the near top and used a pick from Hill to probe the lane. He missed the floater, Hill missed the putback, and Barnes was swatted on the putback dunk. Gallinari leaked out after Sessions missed the floater and he took the outlet for an easy dunk in transition. A couple possessions later, Sessions used a pick from Pau at the top to attack right. Sessions went all the way to the rim, missed the tough layup and fell to the ground. Andre Miller gobbled up the rebound and immediately sent the outlet to the streaking Corey Brewer for a dunk in transition.

With Metta suspended, I wondered if the wings of the Nuggets would expose the Lakers. To my surprise, Matt Barnes has played these past two games despite a pretty sore ankle. I thought Gallinari, Harrington, and Wilson Chandler would really expose Devin Ebanks, however, Matt's presence, along with Ebanks' excellent play, has made the depth of the Nuggets less of a problem. Also, Wilson Chandler has decided to have season ending surgery on his hip, opening the door for Corey Brewer. Brewer had an excellent game, shooting 5-7 for 14 points, along with 2 assists, 1 rebound, and 3 steals. Brewer's activity was excellent and he may pose a serious problem off the bench on Denver's home floor.

However, Brewer should never match up with Kobe Bryant. Kobe used some serious veteran experience to school the kid on three straight possessions. Kobe caught the ball at the far mid wing. While jabbing right, Kobe closed the gap between him and Brewer and used his shoulder to bump Brewer back. Kobe promptly hit the 20ft jumper. Kobe followed this by taking an isolation set at the top of the 3. He faced up, jabbed right, swung the ball through from left to right and attacked to the far top of the key. While taking his two dribbles to the far top, Kobe, once again, created space using his left shoulder to bump the slender Brewer off balance. Kobe gathered enough space and promptly squared up to hit the 21ft pull up jumper. Kobe then used a down screen to catch the ball at the top of the 3. He surveyed the floor with the ball over his head before he decided to attack. He took one dribble to his left, dribbled between his legs at an angle, sending the ball in a backwards crossover to his right hand, and then he quickly sent the ball back through his legs for a reverse crossover from his right to his left. He used a little shuffle rock move and pulled up for the 23ft jumper, swish.

Despite a strong second quarter from Kobe and Drew, the Nuggets played the Lakers even, as both teams scored 23 points in the quarter. The third leak out layup of the quarter came with just over two minutes left in the half. Blake missed a contested 3 from the near top and Ty Lawson leaked out. Andre Miller took the rebound and hit Lawson with an outlet pass for an easy layup. These leak outs would continue to be a problem. Kobe went 3-4 for 7 points, and Drew went 3-3 for 6 points and 1 rebound, yet the Lakers could not expand upon the lead.

As the second half started, the TNT broadcast showed a clip of both coaches speaking to their team in the huddle. George Karl stated, "Why is this so hard? We can't let them score at the basket. We gotta make them make jump shots." Karl was obviously frustrated with Bynum's strong performance. His plea to make the Lakers take jumpers actually happened, but Kobe went 3-4 in the second, and 9-12 in the first half. Kobe made the Nuggets pay for leaving him single covered. Mike Brown stated, "You gotta do one of two things. You gotta rebound, or you gotta get back. Because that's the one way they can hurt us, in transition. And if we relax, that's what they want to do, and that's what they're gonna do the whole game." Brown was obviously tired of seeing the Nuggets leak out and get easy buckets in transition. Both coaches were dead on with their points.

In the third quarter, the Lakers stretched the lead to as many as 19 points, but the Nuggets would not go away. To start the quarter, Kobe pulled out the amazing "Dirk shot." After getting blocked from behind on a reverse layup, Kobe recovered the ball and dribbled out to the near mid corner. He kicked the ball out to Ebanks at the near top key, and Ebanks sent it right back to him at the near mid wing. With just seconds left on the shot clock, Kobe caught the ball and immediately went into the "Dirk shot," swishing the one foot step back jumper without even taking a dribble. Kobe then pulled off a fundamental move to seal his man. With Pau surveying the floor from the near wing, Kobe curled from the far corner right into the lane. Kobe sealed Afflalo on his back and Pau sent the entry right at the rim. Kobe caught the pass just in front of the rim and went up with two hands to easily dunk the ball. Following this, Bynum had his one mistake of the night. With 8 seconds on the shot clock, Bynum caught the ball at the far mid block. Bynum was immediately doubled by Gallinari. Bynum pivoted to the baseline and ended up dribbling out to the far corner. With Faried and Gallinari hounding him, Bynum got stuck in the corner and couldn't get up a shot or get rid of the ball, yielding a shot clock violation. Bynum tends to struggle when the double man is a bigger guy. The aggressiveness and length involved in that double team may become a blueprint for the Nuggets later on in the series.

Following the violation, both Kobe and Bynum made great plays. Kobe gathered and offensive rebound at the far mid corner. He faced up and took one dribble to the middle. He then spun back to the baseline and pumped, waited for the contact from Afflalo, and hit the fading jumper as the ball bounced off the front of the rim and softly off the backboard to fall through the net. Kobe missed the free throw, but Pau was able to tap the ball out to Sessions at the top. Sessions used a Pau pick to attack to the near elbow. Sessions hit Pau in the lane and Pau immediately sent a lob to Bynum at the near block. Bynum went up and missed the lob layup. He then worked to get his offensive rebound, but he missed the putback. He then corralled his miss with another offensive rebound and was able to finish with a two handed putback at the rim. Bynum smiled and laughed on his way back down the court. Once again, his size was just tremendous. His laughter showed a glimpse of his inner playfulness and served as a reminder as to how much Bynum expects to reign over Denver's frontline. In this series, Bynum is like the biggest kid on the court in middle school, the one who knows he can tower over everyone and get his shot off at any time. Watch the tallest kid on any court, you can usually tell that it is amusing to him when he can just hold the ball over his head and finish whenever he wants. Bynum's bucket was followed by an open Ebanks jumper that put the Lakers up by 19, the biggest margin of the game. After the Nuggets ran off a little run, the Lakers went back to Pau at the near elbow. Pau surveyed the floor, and hit a flashing Kobe in the lane. Kobe flashed from the far corner and sealed Brewer on his back, again. Kobe went up right at the rim and laid the ball in to put the Lakers back up by 13.

Kobe then decided to heed the advice of Mike Brown regarding getting back on defense. Kobe stood at the far wing and sent the entry to Bynum at the far mid block. Bynum was quickly doubled and he kicked it back out to Kobe. Kobe swung the ball to the open man, Blake, at the near side 3. Harrington contested Blake's 3 and leaked out. Andre Miller gathered the ball at the far block and sent the full court outlet to Harrington. This time, Kobe sprinted from the far wing and was able to chase down Harrington and block his dunk attempt from behind. However, just after this, the Lakers snoozed again. Kobe missed a turnaround jumper in the lane, and Corey Brewer immediately leaked out after contesting the jumper. Miller once again sent the outlet ahead. Brewer caught the outlet on the nearside and capitalized on the two on one situation by hitting Lawson for an easy layup. Miller followed this with a steal and outlet that led to another Brewer dunk to put the score at 75-70.

The Lakers wisely went into Bynum on the next play. Drew caught it at the far mid block, took two dribbles to back down, and spun baseline for the lefty bank shot. Kobe followed with his own flashy spin. Kobe caught it at the far wing, attacked middle and then spun back to his left. His beautiful footwork gave him enough room to step through the bigs in the lane and finish with a righty layup on the near side. The Lakers entered the fourth ahead 81-74. Kobe went 5-10 for 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block. Bynum went 4-8 for 8 points, with 3 rebounds and 1 block. Pau had a nice quarter too, shooting 2-3 for 4 points, along with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal.

The fourth quarter was not the Lakers strongest. George Karl got his wish, as his Nuggets were able to force the Lakers into numerous jumpers. The Lakers shot 7-19 in the quarter, with Kobe going 1-7, Bynum 1-3, and Pau 0-2. Fortunately, Ramon Sessions had his strongest quarter of the series. Sessions had two layups blocked by JaVale McGee early in the quarter, but he didn't let McGee deter his aggressiveness. After Jordan Hill swatted Andre Miller in the lane, Sessions corralled the ball and sped ahead of everyone to dunk the ball. Sessions then dribbled up the near side and decided to probe the lane. Sessions pulled up for a 7ft floater. Following this, Sessions dribbled up the far side and hit Kobe at the far wing. Sessions exploded to the wing and took the handoff full speed as he attacked the baseline and finished with a layup at the rim. Afflalo never hedged on the handoff because he was too worried about leaving Kobe. This bolstered the lead to 91-77 with 7:47 remaining.

Then Pau provided the comic highpoint of the game as he was robbed of two straight assists by Bynum. Pau was in an iso at the far mid block. He turned baseline, dribbled under the rim, and sent a slick ball fake, spin back, no look bounce pass to Bynum at the near block. Bynum wasn't really ready for the pass and he ended up attacking middle, turning baseline, and having his hook shot blocked by McGee out of bounds. Then, Kobe caught the inbounds at the near wing. Pau came up to set the pick, but his man doubled early on Kobe, so Pau slipped the pick. Kobe hit Pau in the lane, and Pau sent a beautiful no look pass to Bynum at the far block. The ball was tipped in the lane and bounced off of Bynum's hands, but Sessions recovered it at the far mid corner. Sessions shot a floater and missed, but Pau established good position and gathered the offensive rebound. Pau went up and got fouled. If you've ever played basketball, you know how disappointing it is to have a great pass spoiled by someone who can't finish the play. Fortunately, Pau was able to take care of business on the possession.

Pau made one out of two and the Nuggets rattled off another mini spurt, cutting the deficit to just 5 points. Following a Kobe miss that allowed Lawson to pull up and hit a shot in transition, Steve Kerr wisely stated, "This is where the Lakers have to go inside, and I know Kobe has been hot, but that's a tough shot, and a bad shot leads to a fast break for Denver. Pound it inside to your big fella." So what happened? Kobe curled up to the far mid wing. He used a pick from Pau to attack to the middle. He then sent a bounce pass to Pau on the roll at the far elbow. Pau was quickly doubled by Kobe's man, Afflalo. Pau kicked it back out to Kobe at the far top 3 with 6 on the shot clock. Kobe caught the pass, jabbed right twice and shot the 3. Kobe swished the shot in Afflalo's face for his 36th point of the game, to which Kerr humorously replied, "Like I said, you gotta go to Kobe in this situation Marv, hahaha, 36, unbelievable." This shot put the Lakers up by 8 with 4:05 remaining. Faried followed with an attack to the rim that yielded free throws. Following another shot clock beating jumper, Kobe missed, and Faried once again got to the line to cut the score to 95-91 with 3:00 left.

Then Kobe provided the play of the game and most likely saved the Lakers from defeat. Kobe was at the near wing and he was doubled, so he hit Sessions at the top 3. Sessions drove to the rim and kicked out to Blake at the far wing. Blake missed the wide open 3. With Sessions in the lane, and Blake's man, Faried, leaking out, Lawson grabbed the ball and sent the outlet to Faried at the near block just under the rim. Kobe and Blake were able to track down Faried as he bobbled the pass. They trapped Faried, Blake tapped the ball, and Kobe ended up stealing the ball and pushing up the court. Old man Kobe looked like a young buck again as he pushed up the court full speed for the three on two advantage. Kobe made contact with the diminutive Lawson in the lane, creating some space and forcing the big man to rotate. Kobe then sent an awesome wrap around pass to Bynum at the far block. Bynum went up and dunked the ball as he was fouled, and one. Bynum sank the free throw and put the lead back to 7 with 2:15 to go. This five point swing was the biggest moment of the game. Instead of cutting the lead to two and putting immense pressure on the Lakers, the Nuggets came up short on a definite momentum swinger.

Gallinari followed with a huge 3. Then Sessions closed the game. After Kobe missed another late shot clock jumper, Pau was able to tip the ball out. Blake recovered at the near wing and sent the ball to Sessions at the top. Kobe came over to set the pick, but Sessions avoided the pick and attacked to his left. Once he got to the far mid block, Sessions executed a perfect jump stop and hit the 9ft floater for a 100-94 lead with 1:14 remaining. Following some free throws from Sessions and Kobe, the Lakers won 104-100.

After game one, I wondered what adjustments George Karl would make and how Mike Brown would counteract those adjustments. Well, Karl obviously instructed his team to leak out after closing out on jumpers. The Nuggets effectively leaked out in order to get easy transition points. By doing this, they were able to combat the Lakers' size with their own speed. After Bynum got 10 blocks in game one, all in half court sets, Karl made sure Bynum wouldn't be able to be in the lane to swat anymore shots by having the Nuggets race ahead of the Lakers and get easy buckets. Mike Brown attempted to counteract this with continual reminders of correct floor spacing and getting back on defense. Proper tempo will surely thwart the transition game of the Nuggets. Kobe listened to his coach on two such occasions, once for the swat from behind, and the other coming as the play of the game.

Kobe finished the game 15-29, 2-6 from deep, for 38 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, and 1 turnover. Although Kobe shot the ball very well, the floor spacing on some of his attempts led to easy buckets for the Nuggets. His dry fourth quarter also allowed the Nuggets to make the game closer than it needed to be, but he did come through with that steal and assist. However, most of his fourth quarter attempts were forced on him with a shot clock disadvantage. Mike Brown needs to urge his guys to keep running the offense and not always look for Kobe to bail them out, even on a night when Kobe is hot. Bynum and Pau also disappeared in the fourth. Fortunately, Ramon had a big fourth quarter. However, Ramon was not innocent in this game either. Ramon shot 6-16, 0-3 from deep, for 14 points, along with 1 rebound, 4 assists, and 2 steals. It seemed like every time Ramon drove to the rim, he ended up on the floor and the Nuggets ended up having a numbers advantage in transition. Mike Brown needs to address proper floor spacing. If Ramon drives, both wings need to get back.

With game three coming in Denver, I expect Gallinari, Afflalo, and Harrington to get their jumpers back on track. They shot a combined 13-43 in game two. If the Nuggets get as many easy buckets and dunks in transition in Denver, the crowd will go nuts and the Nuggets may ride that momentum to a win. The Lakers really need to make sure to slow them down and not let Denver control the tempo.

The Nuggets can't stop Andrew Bynum and they know it. Bynum finished 12-20 for 27 points, along with 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks. When they double Bynum, Kobe should be able to capitalize with good looks on the weak side. Pau also turned in another stat-stuffing performance, shooting 5-10 for 13 points, along with 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals, and an uncharacteristic 2 turnovers. Overall, if the big three keep playing well, and Sessions controls the tempo, the Lakers should be fine. 

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