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Kobe Bryant's Game 7 in Perspective

Ladies and gentlemen, your Lakers are world champions once again, and Kobe Bryant is your Finals MVP. He was magnificent in this series, resplendent in this win. He epitomized the Lakers team that he led to victory. But your fearless leaders here at SS&R are no fools, and they can read the signs. They know that before going into hiding, the "haters" will take one final, last-ditch shot at tearing Kobe down and devaluing his performance in this game and this series, and so I have been asked to end that discussion before it starts. I can't say that I mind the assignment.

So let's go ahead and get the "but" on the table. Kobe Bryant is the 2010 Finals MVP, but the haters will point to this: In perhaps the biggest game of his career, he shot only 6-24 from the field, needing 24 shots to score his 23 points. They'll argue that he was inefficient, that his play hurt the Lakers more than it helped them (or something absurd along those lines), that he failed to rise to the occasion the way other greats like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan did in the Finals, and perhaps even that Pau Gasol was better and more valuable to the Lakers.

Excuse me while I gargle. What complete and utter hogwash.

Poor Shooting vs. A Defensive Game for the Ages
Let's put that 6-24 into perspective, shall we?

In Game 7, Pau Gasol shot 6-16 (and was 3-12 at halftime). Ron Artest, the hero of the hour, was 7-18 from the field. Andrew Bynum played limited minutes, but at 1-5, he also struggled while he was on the court. Lamar Odom was 3-8. Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic combined to shoot 0-6. Only Derek Fisher, at 10 points on 4-6 from the field (and 2-2 from distance, including a huge three late in the game), had a good shooting night for the Lakers.

For the Celtics, Paul Pierce was 5-15 from the field. Rajon Rondo was 6-13, which was actually pretty decent in this game, but nothing amazing. Ray Allen was a dismal 3-14. Nate Robinson missed his only shot. Rasheed Wallace's percentage from the field isn't bad, especially considering he took four three-pointers, but the 11 shots he needed to score 11 points puts him about on par with Kobe with regards to offensive efficiency. Glen Davis was good, but his efficiency (4-6 from the field) didn't come in high enough volume (only six points in 21 minutes) to really have much impact for the Celtics. Only Kevin Garnett had "a good game" offensively for the Celtics, shooting well over fifty percent and scoring 18 points on only 13 shots.

The criticism of Kobe's offensive output in Game 7 is that he needed 24 shots to get his 23 points. However, the same is true of just about every player in this game. Virtually every player listed above took essentially as many shots as he had points. In fact, that is true of both teams overall: The Celtics took 71 shots to score 79 points (1.1 points per shot), while the Lakers took 83 shots to score their 83 points. At this point, here is the question that needs to be asked: Why are we holding Kobe Bryant to a different standard?

The point is that this game was characterized by truly incredible defense, from both teams. In fact, from a defensive standpoint, I don't believe I have ever seen anything that compares, or even comes close. Expecting a player to score every bit as efficiently against that Game 7 Celtics defense as he does against far inferior defenses is simply asinine. It's like expecting a cyclist to ride as quickly up the steep slopes of the Pyrenees mountains, and into the wind, as he does on flat land with the wind at his back. It's like expecting a swimmer to swim as quickly against the current of a raging Atlantic sea as he does in an indoor lap pool. It's like expecting a car to drive as quickly and handle as smoothly on sand as it does on asphalt. It's— well, you get the point. It's absurd.

Michael Jordan would have struggled to score against that Celtics defense. So would Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain. LeBron James did struggle against them. This was a Celtics team that played some of the best defense that anyone has ever seen, and in that Game 7, they took it to yet another level. Kobe wasn't the only player to struggle with his shot; in fact, if you remove his statistics from the Lakers' box score, the Lakers' shooting percentage is virtually unchanged. So let's not pretend that Kobe's shots were hurting the Lakers; the rest of the team was struggling just as much as he was.

Is 6-24 a pretty number? No. It certainly wasn't one of the greatest offensive performances of all time. But those interested in evaluating the game based on real insight, rather than nearly useless box score clichés, will recognize that 6-24 had fairly little to do with bad offense from Kobe, and a lot more to do with defense for the ages from the Celtics. And that defense affected everyone on the court for the Lakers (except, of course, for Derek Fisher), not just Kobe.

Boston's Defense in Perspective
To see the effects of Boston's defense, have a look at Pau Gasol, whom some advocated as the "real MVP" of this series. He shot .536 in the regular season and .565 in the playoffs before the Finals, but only .478 against Boston. That's a drop of .058 compared to the regular season, and .087 compared to the rest of the playoffs.

How about LeBron James? He shot .503 from the field in the regular season, and .567 in the playoffs prior to meeting Boston. Against the Celtics, however, he shot only .447. That's a .056 drop compared to the regular season, and a .120 drop compared to the rest of the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant shot .456 from the field in the regular season, and .483 in the playoffs prior to meeting Boston. Against the Celtics, he shot .405. Viewed alongside James and Gasol, Kobe's .051 drop in field goal percentage compared to the regular season, and .078 compared to the rest of the playoffs, actually seems quite normal. In fact, both Pau and LeBron suffered larger overall drops in shooting efficiency against the Celtics than did Kobe.

This is what the Celtics do. If you expect to score at an extremely efficient rate against them, you're going to be disappointed. Sometimes it seems like an accomplishment just to score against them at all. This is something we all immediately recognize... except when we're talking about Kobe Bryant. Perhaps it should be seen as a compliment to Bryant that he's expected to be immune to the defense that has had the same effect on everyone else. But isn't it interesting that so many of those who have for years proclaimed the box score to be inherently flawed can't seem to get past a single box score statistic in evaluating Kobe's Game 7 performance?

Putting History's Greatest Players in a Defensive Context
Let's try and place Boston's D within the larger context, shall we?

Michael Jordan appeared in six NBA Finals series. These are the defensive ratings (points allowed per 100 possessions) of those six teams: 105.0, 104.2, 106.7, 102.1, 104.0, and 105.4.

Magic Johnson appeared in nine NBA Finals series. These are the defensive ratings of those nine teams (Celtics teams in italics, teams that beat Magic's Lakers in bold):  101.0, 103.9, 100.9, 104.4, 106.3, 106.8, 105.3, 104.7, 105.2.

This year's Celtics team had a defensive rating of 103.8. That's better than five of the six defenses Jordan faced in the Finals; it's better than seven of the nine teams Magic faced in the Finals.

But even that is misleading, since even the dullest of NBA observers knows full well that the Celtics in 2009-10 regular season were nothing like the team that showed up for the playoffs — let alone the team that nearly won the NBA championship. During the regular season, this Celtics team employed a deliberate strategy of saving their best players for the post-season. As a result, over their final 54 games they were 27-27. Their defense in the regular season, after Christmas, was barely a shadow of the defense they played in the playoffs. In fact, it was actually quite bad.

Perhaps that is the most significant indicator in all of this. Their regular season defense, when compared to the way they played in the playoffs and especially the Finals, was really pretty terrible — and yet, it was better than that of 12 of the 15 teams Magic and Michael played in the Finals.

Meanwhile, the Celtics' defense in the 2010 Finals, particularly in that Game 7, was much more reminiscent of their team that won the 2008 NBA Championship. That team's defensive rating? 98.9.

Michael Jordan never played against that kind of defense in the Finals. And yet, in nine of the 35 games he played in the NBA Finals, he took more or less the same number of shots as he had points — including one in which he took 43 shots to score 44 points!

Very few NBA Finals game logs exist for Magic Johnson, but in the one season I could find, he had one game in which he took 13 shots to score 14 points against a Chicago defense that rated at 105.2 points allowed per possession. Despite never playing against a team with a defensive rating below 100 points per possession, we can safely assume that in eight other Finals appearances, Magic likely had a number of other games in which his offensive output resembled Kobe's in Game 7.

Neither Magic nor Michael ever faced a team in the Finals with a defensive rating below 100 points per possession. Kobe has done it twice. The first time was with a team of inexperienced players, most of whom had never been out of the first round; only Derek Fisher and Luke Walton had ever been to the Finals, and Luke Walton had been a rookie at the time, averaging only seven minutes per game. Pau Gasol had only been with the Lakers for three months.

The second time Kobe faced a defense of that caliber, he took those same players and beat it.

The Box Score and the Double Standard
Perhaps what irks me the most is the double standard critics continually employ to devalue Kobe Bryant's play. When he was younger, his critics devalued his play by claiming that he was "just a great scorer," and nothing more. This was, of course, not true; Kobe has virtually always led the Lakers in assists, has always rebounded well for a guard, and is one of the few players who is great on both ends of the floor. But his detractors recognized none of this; to them, he was "a great scorer," but nothing else. They painted him as one-dimensional and elevated over him other players whom they saw as doing more things than just scoring to help their team win.

In that context, perhaps you can understand how frustrating it is to hear people talking about Kobe Bryant having a bad, or even terrible game on the basis of one thing, and one thing only: his struggle to score. The reality is that Kobe did so much more than score in Game 7, and much of what he did contributed directly to the Lakers' victory.

Whatever It Takes
An MVP-caliber player is not necessarily the guy that scores a lot. An MVP is a player who does whatever is necessary for his team to win. Sometimes, as was the case in Game 6 of the WCF or in Game 5 of this series (even though it resulted in a loss), that means taking over and scoring lots of points. Sometimes, as was the case in most of the WCF, it means dishing out lots of assists.

Sometimes, it means grabbing rebounds and playing defense. That was the case in this series. In all seven games, the team that won the rebounding battle won the game. Every NBA observer in the world understood that the key to this game, not only for the Lakers but for both teams, was to rebound the ball. Pre-game articles and studio crews hammered that point into the ground. By the time the game started, it almost seemed as though nothing else even mattered.

In that context, Kobe Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds. That's more than Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum, combined. Or Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Or Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. It's more than Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, combined. It's more than Big Baby and Kevin Garnett, combined. In fact, it's five times as many rebounds as Garnett, and three times as many as Artest or Bynum, and twice as many as Odom or Wallace. I could go on, but you get the idea. The only player that out-rebounded Kobe Bryant was Pau Gasol — and despite playing under the rim and towering over Kobe, Gasol's 18 rebounds barely outpaced Bryant's 15.

Together, Kobe and Pau out-rebounded the Celtics' starting five, 33-31.

The Lakers won this game not because of Ron Artest's second quarter scoring or Pau Gasol's second half shooting. They won this game by out-rebounding the Celtics, and while Pau Gasol's 18 rebounds should absolutely not be undervalued, they were not necessarily uncharacteristic; after all, he averaged 14.5 rebounds in the conference semifinals. It was Kobe's truly remarkable rebounding that set the tone for the Lakers and led them to a 53-40 rebounding advantage that decided the game.

When they weren't dominating the Celtics on the boards, the Lakers were suffocating the Celtics on the defensive end. In the pivotal third quarter stretch, the Lakers held the Celtics to only 17 points, while cutting a 13-point lead to four. In the entire second half, Bryant held Rajon Rondo to eight points on 3-7 shooting, five assists, and three rebounds.

Finally, in the final period, Kobe Bryant took control of the game by being aggressive, getting the Celtics into foul trouble, and getting to the line. While he missed all but one of his shots, he got to the line nine times, hitting eight shots. Those who have emphasized the 24 shots Bryant needed to scored 23 points may want to pay attention to the work he did in the fourth quarter, where he scored 10 points on only four shots. Forget the final game — in the final quarter of this series, Kobe Bryant took control and dominated.

In a post-game interview, Kobe was asked what his mindset was in the game, in light of his poor shooting, and what he did to still put his imprint on the game. His response effectively sums up the effort to lead his team to a repeat championship:

"Two things. Get to the free throw line; I got to attack. My jumper's not falling, I got to figure out some gaps, which is tough to do against this team. They do a great job shrinking the floor. So I had to get to the free throw line, and I had to rebound the ball. You know, rebounding has won every single game in this series, and I had to make sure I got my little behind on there."

Commentators often speak of great players doing whatever they can to help their team, when their shot isn't falling. You know what I'm talking about — in your best Mark Jackson voice, say it along with me: "His shot isn't falling, but he's doing other things to impact them game!" Why is it, then, that no one seems willing to point out the many ways Kobe did just that in Game 7?

Do they think it's coincidence that in a series so clearly influenced by rebounding, in the final game for all the marbles, a 200-pound guard of average size, with old knees and waning athleticism, just happens to pull down 15 rebounds?

The Bottom Line
No one is saying Kobe didn't struggle to score in Game 7 — at least, through the first three quarters. What we're saying is that even the greatest of the greats would have struggled against Boston's defense, as have all who have faced it. They can say that Michael or Magic wouldn't have struggled so much in a Finals Game 7, but neither of them faced a defense like this one. Jordan, meanwhile, never played in a seventh game in the Finals, so we'll never know what he would have done in such a game. Knowing MJ, he likely would have tried to take over the game himself, much as Kobe did — and against this Boston defense, the result likely would have been pretty similar.

Some have said, at various points throughout the series, that Pau Gasol was the Lakers' MVP of the Finals. After the game, one of my friends said to me, "Kobe is the MVP of the entire series, but if it were based on a single game, Pau Gasol or Ron Artest would be the MVP of Game 7."

It is true that Ron Artest was huge for the Lakers, particularly in the second period, when the rest of the team struggled. Without his second quarter offense, or his defense throughout the game, the Lakers' comeback would have been impossible. For that, he would be deserving Game 7 MVP. At the same time, however, it was Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol who dominated the rebounding game, and it was Kobe and Pau who attacked the Celtics in the fourth quarter, putting the Celtics in the penalty early and getting to the line a combined 18 times in the period.

In fact, Gasol and Bryant had nearly mirror image games from start to finish. Both shot poorly in the game; at halftime, Gasol was 3-12 and Bryant was 3-14. Both players dominated the glass, pulling down 18 and 15 rebounds, respectively. Specifically, both players had eight rebounds in the second half. Finally, both players got to the line 11 times in the second half, including nine each in the fourth quarter. Gasol was better from the field in the second half, going 3-4 to Kobe's 3-10; Bryant was better from the line, going 10-11 to Gasol's 7-11.

But the offense doesn't run through Ron Artest or Pau Gasol; it runs through Kobe Bryant, and so the responsibility falls on him. As Doc Rivers said after Game 3, another game in which Kobe struggled with his shot:

"He struggled from the field, but he did make a lot of plays. I think people fail to realize the reason a lot of the other guys are open is because Kobe Bryant is on the floor."

It was Kobe who drew double and triple teams, leaving other players open two and three passes down the line. And in that critical final frame, he showed once again that the fourth quarter belongs to Kobe Bryant, as he scored 10 points on only four field goal attempts.

At the end of the day, it wasn't Kobe's best game. But he was better than Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, better than Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. He was as good as Ron Artest and Pau Gasol, and the three of them fought and struggled their way, in a manner both ugly and beautiful, to lead the Lakers to victory.

Rebounding won the series, and Kobe Bryant averaged 8.0 rebounds per game in the Finals — more than any Celtics, and second only to Pau Gasol. Game 7 wasn't the best game of his career, but he pulled down 15 rebounds and dominated the fourth quarter, leading the Lakers to victory. I'd say it was still pretty good.

If I had to pick an MVP for Game 7, I don't know what I'd do. The Lakers couldn't have won without Artest's defense, or his second quarter offense, but neither could they have survived the fourth quarter without either half of their one-two punch. Fittingly for this particular game, all three struggled, and yet all three led their team to victory despite their struggles.

Merely Mortal
I'll leave you with this thought (I know what you're thinking: "Finally!"):  Kobe's post-game press conference after Game 7 was the most honest, open, and transparent that we've ever seen him. As our own C.A. Clark already pointed out, he was more vulnerable than we've ever seen with this quote:

You know, I just wanted it so bad. I wanted it so, so bad. Plus, I was on [Empty]. Man, I was really, really tried. And the more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me.

As Ron Artest said in his post-game presser, Kobe was just trying to win. And you know what? At the end of the day, even Kobe Bryant is a human being. Even Kobe Bryant can become overwhelmed by the moment, and even Kobe can have a bad shooting night. Guess what? It's happened to all the great players who came before him, and it will happen to all those who come after him.

If you can't afford him his humanity, you don't deserve to watch this great sport.

But like C.A. said, though the moment overwhelmed him briefly, he responded with the heart of a champion, controlled the game by rebounding the ball, attacking the Celtics' defense, and getting to the free throw line in the fourth quarter, and led his team to victory. In a world that has yet to succumb to being overrun by machines and robots... what more can you ask for? After this game, Kobe's dad said it best: "When you don’t have your game and you find a way, that’s a champion."

Shouldn't we celebrating and marveling at what Kobe was able to do to overcome his his shooting woes, rather than picking holes in a game that was, ultimately, worthy of a champion?