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Kobe Exorcises His Phoenix-Born Demons — Speaking of Which...

Note: Unless this is the first time you've ever seen my name, you know I'm not good at 'short.' So if the extra 3 minutes really will kill you, click the jump and scroll straight to my thoughts on that controversial Game 7 in 2006 where Kobe was accused (wrongly) of pouting, quitting, tanking, etc. But if you feel like pausing a moment to bask in the greatness of Kobe Bryant before we get down to business — well, read on.

Just like that, with a six-game display of sheer dominance, Kobe Bryant gains some satisfaction. Now, when people mention Kobe and the Phoenix Suns in the same sentence, they'll be referring to this, not... that.

I began writing this piece a few days ago. It's not about this series, or about this game. It's about that series, and especially that game. You know the one I'm talking about. The only true professional blemish on Kobe's career. We'll get to that. (For that, click through, after the jump — I promise it will be worth it.) But first, I can't help a quick(ish) rabbit trail — a moment to let this soak in.

Over six games, Kobe averaged 33.7 points on only 23.3 shots per game, scoring at an absurd rate of 1.44 points per shot. At the same time, he also dished out 8.3 assists per game — all while playing within the triangle offense (as opposed to the traditional point-guard role played by Steve Nash, or an equivalent such as the point-forward role played by LeBron James, though not in this round). As if that weren't enough, he pulled down an average of 7.2 rebounds per game — despite the fact that he is a guard, not a forward, and weighs in at 6'6" and 205 lbs., not 6'8" and 270 lbs. In three straight games, he came within a breath of a triple-double. He also averaged 1.2 blocks (a solid number for a perimeter player with a recently drained knee) and a very low 2.5 turnovers per game.

Along the way, he managed to set a whole series of career marks. His Game 1 scoring line is surely one of the most efficient playoff games of his career (1.74 points per shot!). His 13 assists in Game 2 were a playoff career high, as were his 6 made three-pointers in Game 4. He also passed a couple all-time greats on the Most 30-Point Playoff Games list, and now sits tied for second with 75 (MJ's 109 will likely take 3-4 more years to surpass).

In comparison to Kobe's 33.7 points, 8.3 assists, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks, LeBron James' conference finals per-game averages of 6.2 Hot Pockets, 2.1 bags of potato chips, 0.7 bowls of dip, and 7.4 shots of Johnny Walker Blue (to make the pain go away) — versus 19 total broken remotes and 4 (k)nicks in his hi-def TV screen — just don't quite measure up.

More important than all the numbers, of course, is the fact that in every game, Kobe did whatever was needed for his team to win, right down to the final minutes of the series-clinching Game 6, in which he scored nine points and single-handedly stopped short a looming Phoenix comeback attempt.

Victory, of course, is the most important thing. And with this victory, arguably the most dominant individual series of Bryant's career, those bad memories that used to be associated with Phoenix can be washed away, as easily as a bad taste in his mouth, and just as quickly forgotten. Kobe Bryant's story has never been about perfection; it has always been a story redemption, the hero made all the more real by his palpable humanity.

That's the problem, though, isn't it? When it comes to superstars, veritable sports gods, they don't come more human than Kobe Bryant — but this time, the humanity was ours, not his. By "this time," of course, I'm referring to that Game 7 in Phoenix in 2006; and by "ours," of course, I mean "theirs." It's the game for which Kobe was widely accused of everything from selfishly pouting to deliberately tanking, all to make a point about how indispensable his scoring is to the Lakers, and how lost they are without him. And this time, it's just not fair — because it has been Kobe's fault many times, but this time was not one of them.

Some have changed their minds about that game, and after last night, many of those who hadn't simply won't remember it anymore; but as always, some people will never see the light. That's why, as Kobe achieves redemption for a sin he never committed, I want to take one final look back at where this all started — the game which placed the order for this cold-served dish. Here's where we get back to the original intent of this piece.


2006 First Round, Lakers at Suns: Game 7

It's worth pointing out that only Kobe Bryant actually knows what happened that night, let alone what was going through his head. Though he is not in Kobe's head, I imagine Phil Jackson has a pretty good idea; but only Kobe knows. This exercise, therefore, is pure speculation — on both sides.

That said, there are a number of points we can make to help us draw an informed and reasonable conclusion. Dave McMenamin's recent ESPN article is probably the most complete look at that game yet, but even that piece is missing several key points which help us get a clearer picture of what probably happened that night. My goal here will be to build on his work, in hopes of completing the picture to give those of us who were neither in the huddle nor in Kobe's head the best possible guess at what happened that night, and why.

It is important to reiterate the point that none of us knows what was going through Kobe Bryant's head and what his motivation was for doing what he did. That is true of myself and everyone who advocates my interpretation of that game. However, it is also true of all those make the opposite claim. It is therefore the responsibility of both sides to provide reasoned support for their positions.

It is not acceptable, then, to simply state your position as though it were fact. It is foolish and irresponsible to claim that we "know" what happened that night, and even more so when that impossible claim is the beginning and end of your position. "We know because we know," is not a valid argument.

That is the problem with Andrew Sharp's ridiculous blog post on SB Nation's editorial page. Here is his entire argument:

With all due respect to the reporters involved, what's next? As Slam's Ryan Jones joked, while we're at it, are we also going to pretend Kobe never went to Colorado that summer? These are the facts: Kobe scored 23 points in the first half of that Game 7, and in the second half, as his team's season was going up in flames, he wound up taking 3 shots.

It was a telling performance as to Kobe's character. After Phil Jackson stressed ball movement at halftime, with the Lakers losing, there was Kobe throwing up his hands, saying with his play, "Here! I'll try it your way!" Whether you think he's grown since then or he'll always be that same, petulant superstar, it did happen. You can't just erase history. Right?

The problem is that Andrew doesn't bother to give us even one reason to accept his interpretation of the events. He treats his assertion that Kobe petulantly pouted and/or tanked the game as "fact" and "history," when in fact is is neither. It is entirely subjective interpretation, and he provides no reasoned support for his interpretation.

In essence, he has claimed that we know, without doubt, what Kobe did and why. When asked how we know, his response is, "Because we know!" Really, we do?

A reasonable, rational, and responsible interpretation of that games events must provide support for its interpretation. And that brings us back to Dave McMenamin, for he did just that, providing very extensive support for his position.

First, however, I encourage you to read Bill Plaschke's original article in the L.A. Times, primarily because it quotes Kobe Bryant's recent statements on that game fairly extensively. Andrew Sharp criticizes him severely for "stroking Kobe's ego," but in fact, Plaschke provides virtually no opinion on the matter. Instead, he mainly recounts Kobe's recent statements.

Then read Dave McMenamin's piece, in which he takes the position that Kobe was simply following the game plan and doing the thing most likely to result in a win — and supports his position extensively. It's an excellent piece, and a fine example of how anyone should go about addressing an issue of which they have no definitive first-hand knowledge. While not exhaustive, his article is the most comprehensive treatment of the topic that I have read to date.

Dave hits on several issues that are key to understanding Kobe's second half "disappearing act," as it has often been called. To summarize, McMenamin makes the following points:

  • He watched the game and provided analysis of Kobe's involvement in the game based on what he saw from Kobe, not based on abstract extrapolation from box score stats (which is how most of those who criticize Kobe for this game approach it — they see three shots in the second half, infer from that that Kobe "refused" to shoot, and then ask why, which then leads to them forming theories of quitting or tanking). He found no basis for the idea that Kobe either quit or tanked.
  • He detailed a number of plays which explain why Kobe didn't shoot (and why it was the right decision), and several other plays and key observations which show Kobe to be energized, involved, and determined, even after the game was already decided.
  • He pointed out that the Lakers consistently lost to the Suns, and usually pretty thoroughly, whenever Kobe had a big scoring night; and that in their wins he had always played the facilitator — something Kobe would clearly have been aware of at this point. The only reasonable decision, then, for someone as obsessed with winning as Kobe is known to be, is to do what worked, rather than stubbornly sticking to what didn't. It may have been a long shot, but at least it was a shot.
  • He pointed out that Kobe started this game the same way, playing facilitator, in which context it seems perfectly natural that he might go back to that strategy again coming out of halftime. This fact also paints the picture that it was Kobe's scoring outburst, not his "reluctance" to shoot in the second half, which was the aberration, and that in fact, the overall game plan was for Kobe to facilitate and get his teammates going.
  • He pointed out that Kobe's lack of scoring had nothing to do with the Lakers losing the game, and conversely, that a huge scoring night would not have resulted in a win. In such a context, why should Kobe continue to do something that almost guaranteed failure?
  • He quoted Alvin Gentry, a Phoenix assistant coach at the time, as a perspective from the other side which absolutely denied that Kobe quit or tanked. Who do you believe more — people who were there and actually involved in the game, or reporters who read box scores and asked questions after the fact?

McMenamin concludes with a very different interpretation than the popular conception that Kobe quit or tanked the game.

Based on what he saw when he re-watched the game, as well as what he knew of the history of the series as it related to Bryant's scoring, he saw that the Lakers started the game with the same game plan that had initially enabled them to take a 3-1 series lead. He then notes that in this game, Kobe's teammates couldn't seem to handle the pressure, and despite his best efforts as a distributor, they fell behind badly in the first quarter.

Kobe then took over with a burst of scoring, but his intent was probably never to completely take over the game from there on out. Rather, he recognized that his teammates needed a shot in the arm, something to energize them, and he did what he could to provide that. His and Phil Jackson's hope, no doubt, was that the team would get a boost from this, at which point they could go back to the team approach and try to get back in the game.

Coming out of the half, they did just that. Kobe returned to distributor mode, and contrary to popular opinion, there was nothing bizarre about this. He had done just that in all of the Lakers' wins, and he had done the same thing to start out this game. Unfortunately, it just didn't work. Kobe's teammates wilted under the pressure, and the team game they had used to beat Phoenix three times in the series never materialized. Meanwhile, this Lakers' team was a sub-par defensive team, and when they had defended Phoenix well, it had been the result of Kobe's teammates being energized by success on the offensive end. As that never materialized, neither did their defense, and that sealed the game. By the time it became clear that the strategy hadn't worked, it was pointless for Kobe to start gunning — the game was already long over.

This interpretation of the events of the second half of that game is much, much more reasonable than the idea that Kobe was deliberately quitting or taking the game. This interpretation aligns well with the specific observations made by McMenamin (which you and I can re-watch and see for ourselves), in which Kobe appears very involved, engaged, energized, and unwilling to give up. It is much more consistent with his well-known obsession with winning. It is consistent with what any reasonable person would do when faced with the fact that an individual scoring outburst had never been successful, while the facilitator approach had worked quite well. Simply put, it fits the facts much better.

Dave McMenamin's position is well-articulated, well-reasoned, and extensively supported. As such, it is the best attempt to understand Kobe's role in this game that I have read to date. Nonetheless, there are further points that we can make which add to this discussion.

Consider the following:

  • The premise that Kobe deliberately quit playing is based on the idea that he was trying to prove a point. Specifically, those who take this interpretation claim he was sending the Lakers a message, making the point that when the Lakers win, it's because of him, and that his supporting cast is incapable of doing anything on their own and needs to be replaced. The problem with that scenario is that it doesn't actually work. In order for Kobe to make that point, he would need to show that the Lakers won when he scored, and they lost badly when he didn't. However, in this game they were beaten just as badly in the first half as they were in the second, even though he was on pace for 45 to 50 points at halftime. Furthermore, whenever he had put up a lot of points against the Suns, including the last couple of games, the Lakers had lost. Had Kobe even been inclined to try and make that point at this time, he would have realized at halftime that the fact that the Lakers were losing even when he was scoring like crazy would have undermined his point. Only an idiot would try to make a point with a game that didn't actually support his point.
  • Every single source with first hand knowledge of the situation — that is, everyone who was actuallyinvolved in the game — has agreed with Kobe's explanation of the game. This isn't revisionist history; Kobe's recent statements regarding this game are the exact same statements he made immediately following the game. McMenamin quoted Alvin Gentry, who also rejected the idea outright. The AP recap quotes Phil Jackson as saying, "We wanted to get back in the game so we were running things through other guys. Nash was a little bit banged up and we were trying to use [our] inside out game." Meanwhile, according to ESPN's Marc Stein in his Daily Dime recap, "Jackson and Bryant both insisted afterward that they were in accord with the second-half approach -- that another 50-point game, as Kobe submitted in Game 6, was not going to save them here." So far, I have yet to see a single NBA source — let alone any player, coach, or team staff member — even hint at validating the idea that Kobe quit or tanked that game. They all reject it outright.
  • Let's assume, for a moment, that you're Kobe Bryant, and maybe you do want to boycott a game, or part of a game, to make a point. When would you do it? I guarantee you that not a one of you out there would choose to do it in a Game 7 — that is, a game that is winnable, and one that, if he wins it, enables him to keep playing into the second round. If you really want to make that kind of statement, you do it in one of three contexts: (1) in the regular season; (2) early on in a playoff series, so that once your point is made, you still have time to come back and try to win; or (3) in a playoff series that is clearly not winnable, or even close. To think that he would choose to make his point at that moment is the one of the most illogical, irrational, and completely laughable ideas I've heard.
  • A related point: What does Kobe have to gain from doing something like that, at that precise moment, to make such a point? Not nearly as much as he has to gain by winning the series. Had the Lakers pulled it off, it would have been one of the greatest playoff upsets ever — and Kobe's playoff reputation would have gotten a huge boost, as would his image and his legacy. The lore of Kobe would have grown dramatically, and his efforts to rehab his image would have been helped immensely. Kobe knew this well — nobody understood what winning can do for a player's legend, legacy, and reputation better than Kobe. Simply put, he had exponentially more to gain from winning than he did from losing. He was so close to winning that series, he could taste it, and he knew good and well how much he would benefit from it. Why, on the verge of gaining so much, would he trade it in for a cheap trick that wouldn't even successfully make his supposed point?
  • It is completely inconsistent with everything we know about Kobe. Let's be clear about this: Kobe Bryant is far from a perfect person. He has flaws, and when he was younger, they were major flaws. But there are at least a few things we know for certain about him. One of them is that he absolutely hates to lose, and he is positively addicted to winning. He is the most competitive person we have seen since Michael Jordan. Taken alone, that's not enough to say that ulterior motives didn't overpower his competitive drive — or that his desire to be competitive in future years didn't take precedence over his desire to compete in one particular game. But when viewed alongside all the other things mentioned above, and considered in the context of being on the verge of a win that would have been monumental for him, his obsession with winning must be seen as another in a list of reasons for which this hypothesis simply makes no sense.
  • This is far from the only time that Kobe has gone a significant stretch without scoring. Even in these playoffs, he has deferred to his teammates while refraining from shooting for very long stretches (particularly at the beginnings of games) on at least a couple different occasions. For that matter, he did so several times in the same series against Phoenix. He did it again to start the 2007-08 season, before being asked to take over in January, and again to start the 2008-09 season. In none of these instances has there ever been the slightest suggestion that Kobe is quitting, pouting, or tanking — instead, everyone recognizes easily enough that it is a deliberate strategy to get his teammates going, and one that he employs with the intent to win games. Why was this game different? Probably because it didn't result in a win; probably because it was one of the few times that it simply hasn't worked, at all. Probably because the Lakers lost the series in that game. But the reality is that the fact of Kobe taking very few shots on certain occasions does not in any way suggest that he is not trying to win the game.

Only Kobe Bryant himself knows with certainty what was going on in his head, and what his motivation was for playing in the manner that he did in that 2006 Game 7. Phil Jackson probably has a pretty good idea, because he  knows what his game plan was, so he would know if what Kobe did was in line with that game plan or not. Fortunately, it helps that he has told us specifically that — that Kobe's play throughout the game, including in the second half, was exactly in line with his game plan.

Beyond that, the best we can do is to use all the information at our disposal to make a well-reasoned and sensible, but ultimately subjective and speculative, evaluation. To that end, however, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why Kobe's play in the second half of Game 7 back in 2006 amounted to quitting, pouting, or tanking. In fact, every argument upholding that position base their positions solely upon the number of shots Kobe took in the second half, and a vague and untenable position that we "just know" (we do, really?) and that it was obvious and undeniable (based on what?). Meanwhile, they ignore a vast array of context, evidence, testimony, and indicators that support the exact opposite conclusion.

In essence, people like Dave McMenamin make a well-reasoned and thoroughly supported case for their position, and guys like Andrew Sharp respond with, "Nuh-uh!"

The premise that Kobe was sticking to a game plan that involved getting his teammates going from the start; that he and Phil Jackson went away from that temporarily in the second quarter to try and energize the team; and that they returned to it to start the second half, is more consistent with Kobe's character, with the strategy displayed in previous games of the same series, with the history of the matchup throughout the year, and with Kobe's body language during the game and his aggressiveness even after it was already decided. It is supported by Kobe's own statements, which have been consistent from his post-game presser to his most recent comments. It is supported by Phil Jackson's statements regarding both Kobe's play and Phil's game plan. It is supported by every other player or coach who was involved in that game that has commented on it.

The premise that Kobe was quitting, pouting, or tanking the game, on the other hand, is supported only by the fact that he took only three shots in the second half — yet even that has been more than adequately explained, and the explanation is one that Kobe's coach insistently confirmed. Meanwhile, such a premise makes absolutely zero sense from just about every angle. It would not have been even remotely beneficial to Kobe, as even the most stubborn and narcissistic of people would have recognized. Meanwhile, winning would have been immensely beneficial to Kobe. Further, it makes absolutely zero sense that, if Kobe were inclined to protest in this way, he would do it at that moment, of all possible moments.

The reality is that there is really nothing that supports the idea that Kobe quit, pouted, or tanked that game. Nonetheless, it is likely that his critics will refuse to recognize all the indicators that confirm Bryant's explanation, continuing to insist that we know without a doubt that he intentionally took himself out of the game in the second half to make a point, as though it is indisputable fact, a matter of objective history.

I would not be surprised if these are the same people who insist that Kobe Bryant was a selfish basketball player throughout the 2005-06 season, even though Kobe explained that Phil Jackson and the coaching staff had come to him and asked him to shoulder the scoring load while his young teammates learned the triangle offense. Phil Jackson and triangle architect Tex Winter both confirmed that, indeed, Bryant was dominating the offense at their specific request that year — and neither Jackson nor Winter has ever been remotely hesitant to criticize Kobe.

The fact is that throughout the 2005-06 season, and at every moment in that 7-game first round series against the Suns, Kobe did nothing more or less than to stick to his coach's game plan. That was true when he was "hogging the ball" and dominating the offense throughout the year. That was true when the Lakers surprisingly broke out the team approach to go up 3-1 in the series. The next year, it was true when the Lakers went on a huge losing streak, and yet Kobe stuck to the team-centric game plan until Jackson and Winter again came and asked him to shoulder the offensive load, resulting in his streak of four 50-point games. And it was true in the second half of Game 7, even if it didn't work.

A final concluding thought: As Plaschke mentioned, this whole issue is news again because the Lakers are once again playing the Suns in the playoffs; it is topical again because of LeBron James' recent "issues" in Games 5 and 6 of the Cavs-Celtics series, which ended with LeBron and the Cavs going fishing.

I will say only this: Whether or not you believe that LeBron tanked, or didn't try, or didn't care, or didn't lead, or whatever — and I will not say either way, because this post is not the place for that — comparing it to Kobe's Game 7 in Phoenix, in 2006, does not work. Kobe has failed in the playoffs (as I contend every player has at some point), and he has been beaten (ditto); but he has never tanked a game in the playoffs, never deliberately taken himself out, never not cared, and never not showed up. Especially not such a critically important playoff game. Whether you think LeBron has or not is for you to decide.

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