This one is on Kobe.
It's hard to blame him too much when he was the primary reason the Lakers were in the game at halftime. The Magic shot 75% from the field in the first half, including 44% from three-point range, and yet took only a five-point lead into the half, and Kobe was a large part of that. He was 7-10 in the first quarter for 17 points, along with three rebounds. He scored 21 points on his first 11 shots – efficiency that would have Doug Collions raving, a rate of 1.9 points per shot. At the same time, he also dished out eight assists for the game – half of the entire team's 16 total – in a formidable effort to create good shots for his teammates.
Unfortunately, this was a four-point loss, and in such a close game, one or two mistakes can make the difference. Kobe came up short in several key ways that caused this loss.
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As brilliant as Kobe Bryant was in the first half, he struggled in the second. Had he played at even a decent level, by his own standards, the Lakers likely would have won this game. Instead, he failed in several crucial ways that resulted in the loss:
- After hitting eight of his first 11 shots, he hit only two of his next 13. (He did make his final shot attempt, but by that time it was too late to matter.)
- He missed five of his 10 free throws. Had he made them at his usual rate, the game likely would have been tied. Had he made all of them, the way he usually does in games like these, the Lakers would likely have won. I've held LeBron James accountable for his missed free throws in the Eastern Conference Finals; while Kobe's five missed free throws didn't all come in the fourth quarter, those five points were nonetheless critical in such a close game. They were misses the Lakers couldn't afford.
- With 2:02 remaining, he forced up a contested three-pointer from the left wing that was simply a bad shot. It was a rushed possession, and there was time left in the shot clock to find a better shot. Had he done that, the Lakers might have been able to tie the game with less than two minutes remaining. Instead, Kobe took and missed that ill-advised three-pointer, and the Lakers trailed the rest of the game.
- With under 30 seconds remaining, Bryant attempted to split a double team on the perimeter and had the ball swatted away. Gasol dove for it, retrieved it, and then passed it to Kobe, who again couldn't control it. While it is correct to point out that Gasol should have called time out instead of trying to get the ball to Kobe with two defenders hovering above, it was Kobe's initial mistake that caused the turnover. Additionally, when Gasol attempted the pass, Kobe had a great chance to grab the ball, and he bobbled it, leading to a turnover and free throws for Mickael Pietrus.
- The final possession of the game was a three-pointer for Kobe with 24 seconds left. Had he made it, it would have been a one possession game and given the Lakers a chance to tie it. But he missed, and a series of offensive rebounds and additional misses ensued.
So Game 3 is on Kobe – and honestly, he's okay with that. That is how he wants it. All he has asked for is the opportunity to be in this position, with a chance to lead his team to a championship as The Man. He fervently longs for the glory of success, but don't think for a minute that he's unaware of, or unwilling to accept, the responsibility. He wants that responsibility. On most nights, he is Reason Number One for a Lakers victory; tonight, his late failures outweighed his early success and resulted in a loss. That is a responsibility that he is okay with. It is also not something I expect to continue.
Aside from Kobe Bryant's second half and, of course, the end result, this was a fantastic game. For most of it, the Lakers played well. In the final minutes of a very close game, as they methodically cut into Orlando's lead, it appeared that they would be able to coolly make all of the right plays and decisions and pull out a tough win that would likely have broken Orlando's spirits. In the end, however, all it took was a couple of mistakes, while the Magic made all the right plays – and most of their free throws, down the stretch.
Give credit to the Magic; they deserve it. They shot the lights out, setting an NBA Finals record for shooting percentage in a game at 62.5% from the field. Quite frankly, they won the game because they simply couldn't miss. The Lakers played subpar defense at times, excellent defense at others, and in the end it simply didn't seem to matter. The Magic just hit their shots, either way. Many of them were quite difficult shots – quite a few of them were shots that, if missed, could get a player benched. But the Magic were on fire – not just from distance (in fact, they only shot 35.7% from three-pointe range), but from everywhere.
On the other hand, it's not as though the Lakers played poorly. They shot 51.3% from the field, while taking 14 more shots than the Magic (usually, those two numbers by themselves are enough to almost guarantee a win). The rebounding game was essentially even, and they collected 11 offensive rebounds to the Magic's 5. They scored 40 points in the paint to Orlando's 36. Both teams had 10 fast break points and 13 turnovers. Both teams attempted essentially equal amounts of free throws – with the single most glaring failure by the Lakers being that they made only 16 of their 26 attempts from the line.
In all, it's hard to be disappointed with the game the Lakers played, aside from the final few minutes, which fall mainly on Kobe's shoulders. They shot very well, rebounded well, outscored their opponents in the paint, got more shots, and played even with the Magic in both turnovers and fast break points. All of this, they did on the road against a very inspired, very tough opponent that was playing for its life. Meanwhile, the Magic's offensive success was as much because they were simply playing out of their minds as it was the result of any Lakers breakdowns.
The story of the game, aside from the late failures, was simply the Magic's inability to hit shots. Time and time again, I turned to those I was watching the game with and said, "They just can't miss!" Try as the Lakers may, they weren't going to get back in the game if the Magic didn't miss a shot or two, from time to time.
Often times, a loss feels almost like a waste of my time. That sounds bad, I'm sure, but think of it this way: If you knew before the game that they Lakers would lose, would you watch it? I might if I had a specific reason to – for example, if there was something specific I wanted to see or learn from the game. But in general, I'd just as soon forego the disappointment and letdown of three hours of high hopes that coming crashing down in a loss. Last night, however, did not feel that way. Despite the end result, the game didn't feel like a waste, and I wasn't overly disappointed.
The Magic simply refused to lose this game; they wouldn't be denied. They deserve a lot of respect for how they played, for the heart they displayed and the discipline and composure they showed down the stretch. The Lakers made mistakes, but the fact of the matter is that mistakes do happen; perfect games don't exist. All things considered, I think the Lakers' did a fairly good job of minimizing those mistakes. They did not give this game away; the Magic took it. The Lakers did not lose it; the Magic won it.
Congratulations to the Magic for a fantastic game and a historic shooting night. However, given what it took for the Magic to win, and the likelihood of them shooting that well again (not that they won't shot well, just not that well), I think the Lakers have plenty to feel good about.