Game 7 Thoughts: Kobe Bryant vs. the...

Some folks have given me a hard time for my oft-lengthy intros, so we're going to give something a go here. We're going to jump right in. (Apologies if much of this has been said already in these parts; I'm visiting family and friends in Oregon and have been too busy to find any computer time, so I'm not up on the talk around here.)

The talking heads will tell you that one of the keys to this, the deciding game of this series, is the shot distribution amongst Lakers players, and specifically the number of shots Kobe Bryant takes. They are wrong. The key to this game is the Lakers' defense. Rebounding helps, too.

For a window into what really matters, have a look at Games 5 and 6. The sports media will tell you the biggest problem with Game 5 is that Kobe shot too much; or, alternatively, that Kobe's teammates forced him to take over, but with the same conclusion that "that's not going to beat the Celtics." However, if we can bring ourselves to get past tired, brainless clichés based on what seems obvious, rather than what is insightful, we might actually realize that the problem in Game 5 had nothing to do with offense— not Kobe's, and not anyone else's. Instead, the problem of Game 5 was defense: namely, that the Lakers didn't play any.

The Celtics got anything they wanted in Game 5. The talking heads (minus Jeff Van Gundy, who actually seems to know what's going on) managed to notice Boston's 56.3% success rate from the field in Game 5, but apparently were incapable of making the connection between that figure and the Lakers' loss. They all spout that "defense wins championships," and "no rebounds, no rings," and the fact that the team that has won the rebounding battle has won every game... but then, in the same breath, they point to Kobe's 27 shots as the reason the Lakers lost Game 5! Hellooooooo! Anybody in there?

They say that Kobe taking over the offense, taking a lot of shots, and scoring a lot of points is "not how you beat Boston." And yet, the Lakers lost the game by a mere six points, and it was a two-possession game for all of the final 90 seconds. Meanwhile, any intelligent observer of this game would have recognized that without Kobe's scoring outburst in the third quarter, it wouldn't even have been a game in the fourth. Not even close. He was the only Laker that showed up, and yet that alone was enough to keep the game close until the end. So, why is it that Kobe scoring a lot is good enough to keep us in the game, but somehow not good enough to win it?

At the same time, we didn't play a lick of defense in Game 5. Not an ounce. Not even for a moment. Is the connection really that difficult to see?

To spell it out: If the Lakers had played even half the defense they played in Game 6 — hell, even a quarter of it — Kobe's scoring would have been enough to beat Boston in Game 5. So I don't want to hear that the Lakers can't beat Boston with Kobe taking over offensively. If they play defense like they're capable of doing, they absolutely can.

That was the key to Game 6. Did Kobe take fewer shots? Yes, his shot total dropped to 19 (while also playing fewer minutes). But anyone who watched understood that the key to the Lakers' victory was their defense. It was incredible. The Celtics got nothing they wanted. The Lakers held them to 0.78 points per possession— both the best mark for L.A. and the worst for Boston in both the playoffs and the regular season. Yes, the Lakers' offense featured a beautiful balance of contributions from a number of role players, but every bit of that started on the defensive end of the court. Defense was the key to Game 6, and it was the reason we lost Game 5.

The point here isn't that KOBE IS AWESOME AND CAN BEAT BOSTON ALL BY HIMSELF!!1! It's that whether Kobe is the guy that put up 81 points in a game, the distributor known as "Kobe-Nash," or the guy that went 10-29 in Game 3 is simply not the issue here, and it is not a key to the game. Kobe will do whatever he feels is needed from him on the offensive end, and it will be good and right. What will decide this game is defense.

Yes, the result of great Laker defense will probably be a balanced offense, because it leads to easy opportunities, keeps the Celtics' defense from getting set, and gives role players a chance to get going. But this is about defense, and if we play Game 6 defense, Kobe can take 35 shots and we will still win.

This isn't "Kobe vs. the Celtics." It's not "Kobe vs. His Teammates," "Kobe vs. Trusting Others" or "Kobe vs. the Shot Count." This is "Kobe vs. the Lakers' Defense," and the verdict is that the defense, not Kobe's shot count, will determine the outcome of this game, series, and season. While none of the talking heads seem to grasp this, we can only hope that the point has finally been driven home to the Lakers themselves. This is do or die; everything is on the line. If they play defense and rebound like they did in Game 6, they will win. Period. If they don't, they're in trouble.

Unfortunately, I can't say with confidence that their focus will be on defense, as it should be. This is, indeed, a nerve-wracking moment for me. Please, please, Lakers— just forget about the offense. Don't even think about it. Defend like you never have before, and send Paul Pierce and all his crybaby cohorts home in tears.

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