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Game Four Previewage, Featuring Still More Words About Kobe Bryant

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Dilip Vishwanat

You know what? It's time for Kobe Bryant to assume a reduced role in the Laker offense. I've been thinking on this since the end of the Lakers' Game Three loss on Thursday night, and I'm finally convinced. I realize this isn't a revolutionary thesis. Lots of people, including many of you Silver Screen and Rollers (the sexiest readers on the Inter-Net!), have been arguing for the same thing the last 36 hours. At long last, I'm definitively on board.

Data is piling up to the effect that what Kobe is going through isn't just a slump that he can shoot his way out of. His body is letting him down. His game isn't working. Whether it's the fractured finger or exhausted legs, he's burning too many possessions to generate too few points, and it's dragging down the Laker attack. It's dragging the attack down far enough as to make a title defense impossible unless changes are made.

I'm not saying Kobe's not still awesome. I'm not making a moral argument about the right and wrong way to play basketball. Kobe, I've no doubt in my mind, is doing what he thinks is necessary to win. It's the same attacking instinct that's fueled his all-time great career. I'm just saying: right now it's not helping. His domination of the ball was a big reason the Lakers won Game Two and a big reason they lost game Three. One-for-two isn't bad, but in later rounds (and yes, I still deem the Lakers to be heavy favorites against the Oklahoma City Thunder), as the opponents get more formidable, that split is going to be harder to achieve. The competition is going to get tougher, and the Lakers' wheezing offense, which right now is just good enough to get by, soon won't be.

Let's take a look at what Kobe has done in the month of April. The Lakers as a team have played 10 games, and of those Kobe has participated in six. In those half-dozen, stretching over the past three weeks, Kobe has chewed through an even bigger portion of the Lakers' offensive possessions than he normally does. Here, for this stretch, are his usage rates (in other words, the portion of the Lakers' possessions he has personally used during his time on the floor), True Shooting Percentages and the Lakers' team offensive efficiency (as measured by points per possession). For comparison I've also included the regular-season averages for those same metrics.

Game

Usage

True Shooting %

Laker PPP

Utah - 4/2

43.9%

40.3

1.13

San Antonio - 4/4

39.3%

42.3

0.94

Portland - 4/11

34.8%

41.7

1.05

OKC - 4/18

34.5%

42.0

1.04

OKC - 4/20

46.0%

57.4

1.00

@OKC - 4/22

41.4%

41.4

1.05

Six-Game Weighted Averages

40.2%

44.7

1.04

Season Averages

32.3%

54.5

1.09

We should expect the six-game averages to be worse than the season marks, given that these are all playoff-caliber opponents, but they shouldn't be this much worse. Right now Kobe is taking the very heavy offensive burden that he typically bears, then increasing it by about 25% while producing much less on a per-possession basis. You can see the effect that it's had on the Laker offense as a whole. Last year's Lakers never averaged less than 1.08 PPP in a playoff series. They need to get back up close to that mark to have a legit shot at repeating.

Which isn't to say they need to do so to get past the Thunder. The Lakers could lose tonight's Game Four, and they'd still have home-court advantage and be considered favorites to advance. It's the timeworn adage: a playoff series doesn't start until someone loses at home. Don't ask me what happens if the home team wins every game. The adage kind of breaks down at that point. What I'm getting at is, until the series is tied and the Lakers are trailing in the second half of Game Five, there won't be any genuine panic in Lakerdom.

The immediate question is whether we'll start to see improvements tonight in Laker X's and O's and/or in the wanky individual play of certain team members. On offense, there's the Kobe-should-shoot-less thing, discussed in excruciating detail above and elsewhere. We also could use a solution for the fronting the Thunder are doing to the Laker big men, which is one of the reasons the Laker gameplan so far has been stuck on the perimeter. The over-the-top lob has been available, and I'd love to see the guards and wings look for it more. Quicker ball movement to the weak side, forcing the OKC defense to shift and switch, would help unclog everything. And either Ron Artest or Lamar Odom needs to start producing more on offense. You know Derek Fisher ain't hitting 4-out-of-5 threes again anytime soon.

On defense I feel like the Lakers still basically have their act together. The Thunder's Game Three outburst resulted in large part from low turnovers and a shocking advantage in free throws attempted, neither of which is likely to repeat itself. OKC is a turnover-prone team; Friday night was the first time all year they managed to run a clean offense against the Lakers. As for the free throws, I'd be very surprised if the whistles didn't even out tonight. Phil Jackson's public outrage about the officiating might have an effect. The refs might not be so easily awed by the OKC crowd. One way or another, you rarely see such huge free-throw disparities two games in a row.

Below, for those interested, are the cumulative team stats for the series so far. Be sure to vote in our nifty poll to let us know how you think Game Four's going to play out. Voting is fun! Normal text messaging rates apply, or something.

Poss./48

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

OReb Rate

DReb Rate

PPP

OKC

90

15

0.40

82

0.24

44

28

44

51

24

71

1.01

LA

90

14

0.26

73

0.30

45

32

46

50

29

76

1.03

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