LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 13: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers smiles as he protests a call to a referee during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center on January 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The lakers won 97-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Thank God the Los Angeles Lakers held on. Thank God this doesn't have to a be a different kind of story.
In a game that would have been shocking if it weren't so shockingly predictable based on previous history, the Los Angeles Lakers rode the wave of their best half of basketball in 2012 and survived a determined comeback effort by the young Cleveland Cavaliers to win 97-92 and grew their winning streak to five games. The starting five all played well, but after a 1st half that would be for the ages if not for the fact that we've seen it so many times, tonight's story was always going to be about Kobe Bryant. After 24 minutes of basketball, the only question that remained was whether it would be the good kind of Kobe story, or the bad kind.
It was the bad kind, though it could have been so much worse. Tonight, Kobe Bryant provided a little something for everybody. For the worshipers, a 1st half of sheer dominance, abusing his defenders with an array of pump fakes and pull up jumpers. For the fans, a three point shooting display as good as any you'll ever see, going 4-5 from downtown over a 4 minute span at the end of the 2nd quarter, with each three more ridiculous than the next. For the haters, an inefficient and far too Kobe-centric 2nd half offense. For the stats guys, a 2-8 4th quarter. For the apologists, a victory.
There's nothing left to say about Kobe that hasn't been said many times over. Watching him continue to play at the highest possible standard in the 1st half was pure basketball joy. Watching him stubbornly attempt to re-duplicate the feat in the 2nd half was pure torture. Watching his teammates feed off the energy of his shot-making in the 1st half was total awesomeness. Watching his teammates watch him in the 2nd was total drudgery. We were reminded that Kobe remains one of the most amazing players this league has to offer, and we were reminded of how that amazing spectacle can sometimes do just as much harm as good.
It must be said that Kobe did not actively seek to annihilate the Cleveland Cavaliers from the start of the game. The first three possessions of the game all went to Andrew Bynum, who easily abused Anderson Varejao for a quick six points as the rest of the Cavaliers team looked on. Drew ended up 5-5 from the field in the quarter, and it was shocking to me, considering how dominant Drew has proven in 1 v. 1 situations and how vulnerable he has been to the quick double team, that any team in the league would consider playing him straight up a good idea. Anyways, after Drew's first three looks, Pau Gasol hit one jump shot and missed another, all before Kobe even took his first shot attempt. Then Kobe took a shot, and made it. He turned the ball over a couple times, and missed a shot, then hit another. He hit some free throws, got a dunk in transition, hit another jumper. He finished the quarter with 11 points on 4-5 shooting and 2 assists. Aside from the three turnovers, it was the perfect balance of Kobe the distributor and Kobe the scorer.
There was no change for much of the 2nd half. Then, at the 5 minute mark he pulled up for three and drained it. The next time down, he drained another one, and the whole world knew it was on. Only an easy layup and a loose ball foul resulting in free throws prevented Kobe from launching more deep threes in the next couple of possessions, but sure enough, the next time he touched the ball, he launched another three .. and he drained it. The next one missed, but Kobe had one more in him before the half ended his three point contest.
It was amazing, thrilling, incredible. The starters rallied around his shooting, provided some strong 1st half defense, and played with tremendous energy in building a 16 point deficit. But the magic wasn't sustainable, and yet we all knew that wouldn't prevent Kobe from trying to sustain it. We all knew that Kobe's teammates would end up watching Kobe do what he does, because that's what happens when this happens. I can no longer keep track of whether it's Kobe's fault for ignoring his teammates, or his teammates' fault for counting on Kobe to continue being amazing, but we've seen this show too many times not to know what's coming.
Kobe slowed down, the offense never recovered, but the Lakers once again played strong D and were able to weather the storm as the Cavs clawed back into the game. The Cavs comeback was hardly on Kobe's shoulders alone. In fact, an impotent bench probably deserves the most "credit" for that piece. Outside of Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, and Matt Barnes, the entire rest of the team managed just six points. The bench was outscored by Cleveland 36-4. Mike Brown continues to search for any kind of workable bench rotation, and tonight's experiment failed like a bad science project. Josh McRoberts return from a toe injury was short-lived. I have no concrete information on the subject, but he looked to be moving pretty poorly and played just 4 minutes in the 1st half before sitting out the rest of the game. His absence meant additional minutes for Troy Murphy, and Murphy did, almost literally, nothing with those minutes. 0 points, 3 missed shots, and just 2 rebounds for a guy who has made his entire living on decent shooting and strong rebounding. That just won't get it done. Murphy has provided good value for the money the Lakers signed him with, but nights like tonight are the reason why Murphy's star has fallen so far so fast over the past couple seasons.
The most interesting development regarding the bench was also the most encouraging ... Metta World Peace was the recipient of a DNP-CD. For Mike Brown to have the confidence to not play MWP at all, and MWP's play over the past few games gives him plenty of justification to do so, he might just have the backbone required to run this team after all. I don't think World Peace has been forever consigned to the end of the bench, but as a move to stir the pot of a stagnant bench unit, I like that Mike Brown is willing to shake things up. That said, young Devin Ebanks failed in a major way to capitalize on his opportunity, scoring just 1 point in 17 minutes, so don't be surprised if World Peace gets back in the action next game.
But the story is Kobe, as it was always destined to be.Tonight, we saw the best and the worst of him. He won this game for the Lakers, despite the best efforts of his worst tendencies to attempt to spoil the performance, and he scored 40+ points for the third straight game. At the age of 33. In his 16th season as a pro. With one arm. It's remarkable and yet so stereotypical of a player that encapsulates the thin line between greatness and madness so completely.