In the midst of our Battle for Los Angeles with the hoards of loyal Clippers fans now roaming the city, tonight we're forced to divert our efforts back to the greatest of wars we've had to fight in the past few years. Before there was Lakers vs. Clippers, or Jimmy vs. Jeanie, or Dwight vs. Andrew, there was Kobe vs. LeBron.
That this debates still feels unresolved, or that Kobe's refusal to grow old has "re-opened" the debate says a lot about these two stars. LeBron has yet to put his definitive stamp on the NBA as hands down best; meanwhile, Kobe still finds himself in a conversation that no player should be a part of after 16 seasons. As we continue to look for a definitive answer, Kobe's motivation and LeBron's fall from grace have set the perfect backdrop for a match-up we hope finally lives up to expectations. As Lakers fans, we know Kobe salivates over situations like this. As NBA fans, we hope that LeBron does too. As basketball fans, we hope this rivalry is only part of the game.
It's only a regular season game, and if the Lakers lose, I'm sure I'll be in the the chorus claiming it's only one game, early in a season that makes no sense, and we should move on. The game should be viewed that way, but it won't be. It won't because it's the Heat and we know what it means to Kobe anytime he's matched-up against LeBron.
Of course, both players are going to be huge factors in how this game plays out. At least from our perspective, how this game is won most likely gets decided on the whims of Kobe. One thing we've seen Kobe do is look to obliterate everything in his path to showing everyone that he's still the same guy. When it comes to LeBron, there is no bigger fish to fry for Kobe in his quest to shut "motherfuckers up." LeBron is THE match-up everyone will look at to determine if Kobe is in fact "back" for real. No doubt Kobe is gearing up for tonight, looking to send yet another message. It's statement time for Kobe and it always boils down to these debates for him.
But how will he go about his business against the Heat? I never doubt Kobe's basketball skill, and I won't start now. If there are any one-sided arguments in the Kobe vs. LBJ debate, it's that Kobe's skill-set is greater than LeBron's, and that LeBron's athleticism is now far superior to Kobe's. Because of that, I'd like to see Kobe play the role of opportunist tonight. Currently, the Heat are ranked 7th in defensive efficiency, while they hold opponents to 43.0% FG (ranked 9th). They play a very active defense that closes gaps fast then takes away passing angles with swift rotations and quick feet. One wrong miss and LeBron and crew are off to the races, creating lay-up and dunk opportunities that have helped them along the way to one of best offenses in basketball. They rank 4th in efficiency and 2nd in pace. Their youth and athleticism is something the Lakers sorely lack, so the Purple and Gold will need to slow the game down and create efficient scoring opportunities, if only to limit Miami's transition. This is why the
Lakers Kobe cannot afford to let Kobe do it all.
The Lakers will have an advantage in the post (as they do most nights), and feeding off Andrew Bynum's and Pau Gasol's advantages against Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh could benefit Kobe much more than them feeding off of himself. LeBron is far too athletic and far too good as a man defender for Kobe to look for his offense in iso situations 18-25 feet away from the basket. Instead, Kobe should look to create offense closer to the basket, via post-ups, cuts, and screens. By forcing action close, Kobe can force Heat defenders to help, possibly freeing up Bynum or Gasol down low (or mid-range for Pau). Plus there's the added benefit of slowing down the game by forcing fouls by the Heat. The Lakers can't shoot from deep. They currently rank dead last in the League with a paltry 25.0% clip from three-point range. Because teams don't have to respect the Lakers from outside, windows of good looks without a double team should close fast. If Kobe is going to continue to be the Lakers primary scorer and play maker, he must be swift, decisive and accurate in finding open teammates. As the Lakers are still learning whatever Mike Brown's system is, they still rely heavy on a superstar brand of basketball (oh, wait...that is Mike Brown's system). How Kobe balances his aggression against a potent fast break will be vital.
The Lakers, under Mike Brown, are currently ranked 5th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The fact that they've managed to be so consistent on defense through the line-up changes and injuries to players like Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy, along with Bynum's 4-game suspension, proves that Mike Brown has been as good as advertised as a defensive whiz. His Lakers have active and purposeful rotations that have led to opposing teams having all sorts of problems getting consistently good looks. Teams are shooting a woeful 40.9% from the field against the Lakers. Bynum cleans up everything on the boards, and when he doesn't, Pau does, creating fewer opportunities for teams to improve on the terrible shots the Lakers force them into. If you thought Monday's channel changing worthy offensive ugliness was bad, this game has every bit the potential to bore us as much if the superstar battle doesn't live up to the hype.
The set-up to this game has been perfect. The Lakers have been surprising, Kobe's put everyone back on his bandwagon, and LeBron has been struggling in the clutch. If Kobe knows his own ESPN #NBA Rank, surely he knows the man who sits on top of the very ranking he referenced after his 48-point outburst against Phoenix, and has put a huge target on this game. It's shaping up to be a game played out as Kobe sees fit, and I'm fine with that. No matter how dumb we think the debate is, we Lakers fans live for it. We've enjoyed Kobe's "F-You" tour because it validates our faith in him, and he's repaid that faith by simply willing himself to play better. Tonight the spotlight burns brighter, and there's no Dwyane Wade. It's all about Kobe vs. LeBron, so long as Kobe realizes his strengths and weaknesses.