41 points, 29 shots, 0 assists. What a telling box score for Kobe Bryant. This is the kind of stat line that feeds Bryant's reputation outside Lakers nation. The reputation that calls him selfish. The one that calls him a ball hog. The one that sees him get called out for breaking the Triangle offense.
I'm tired of defending Kobe Bryant. I'm tired of fighting against a reputation that Bryant has deservedly cultivated over the years. I'm tired of being lumped in with the Kobe sycophants who believe he does no wrong. But I'm also tired of people seeing that box score, and knowing Bryant's reputation, and believing that 1 and 1 make 2. To those people, I can say only this: Kobe Bryant is sometimes selfish, but mostly isn't. He can still be a ball hog, but mostly isn't. And there are times he breaks the Triangle, but you also can't break something that doesn't exist.
As so often seems to be the case against the Boston Celtics, the Triangle was broken yesterday. As the C's put on a clinic in offensive execution, the Lakers were only able to throw together a commendable offensive performance on the individual brilliance of two players, Kobe and Lamar Odom. The overall team numbers show exactly how putrid the Lakers performed as a team. They compiled 10 assists, compared to the Celtics' 34. I don't give a crap that Kobe had 0 assists, because the Triangle sometimes causes that to happen, even when run to perfection. However, where individual assists are not a good indication of this particular offense's overall performance, team assists very much are. 10 assists as a team, even as the Lakers were putting together a solid 1.10 points per possession evening, shows just how little Triangle was going on.
When the Triangle fails to operate, Kobe is often the recipient of the blame. More often than not, it's a fair conclusion. There are some nights when he just wants the ball in his hands. Yesterday, Kobe had 19 isolation plays. The Celtics as an entire team had five. It's easy, easy to see those numbers and assume Kobe shot the Lakers out of yesterday's ballgame, even as he converted at a high rate. It also may very well be correct. But it is certainly not the whole story.
Because the Celtics Iso'd on 6% of their total possessions, and the Lakers Iso'd on 31% of theirs. And, if you remove Kobe's numbers from the sample size, the other Lakers went Iso 17% of the time. I can guarantee you that those 10 isolation plays were far less efficient than Bryant's 19. Even when the offense wasn't running through Bryant, it was still isolation heavy. Regardless of whether Bryant had the ball in his hands or somebody else did, the ball was not moving around.
Speaking of which, remember the disgustingly low 10 assists the Lakers managed on the day? 4 of them went to Kobe, as in four of Kobe's 16 baskets were assisted. Another three went to Lamar Odom. The only two players who converted more than one pass into a basket were also the only two players to have decent offensive performances (OK, Steve Blake shot 2-3 for 4 points, so decent and influential). Kobe ended up with 29 out of the team's 81 shots, 36% of the overall total. There is no way to explain that without making reference to Bryant's dominance on the ball. But again, this is not the whole story. Ball dominance is not the only thing that set Bryant apart from his teammates yesterday. His activity set him apart as well (from everyone but Odom). The Triangle offense is predicated on ball movement. There can be no ball movement without player movement. There can be no assists without player movement. And I don't think it is at all coincidental that most of the team's assists went to Bryant and Odom. They were the only players consistently moving to receive that assist.
Some move to blame Bryant for the lack of player movement as well. The theory goes that his teammates become disinterested because Bryant dominates the ball early, and they are not prepared when their time comes late. I've never been a fan of this argument because it tends to excuse the lack of effort on the part of the other guy. Think about Game 2 of last year's NBA Finals. In the first half, Ray Allen put on a shooting clinic for the ages, and ended up with 27 1st half points. The Celtics rode his hot hand, and he was their entire offense. In the 2nd half, he cooled down, so they went elsewhere. Did the rest of the team start to relax because of Allen's performance? Were they unprepared to have their number called because it wasn't called early on? No. Riding the hot hand can be a potent opportunity to obtain points, and to ignore that opportunity so that everyone on the team can feel involved is pandering.
But the argument also doesn't really bear out statistically. I took a look at how Bryant's 1st quarter shooting correlates to Lakers wins and losses. Sure enough, when Kobe shoots more than 10 times in the 1st quarter (as he did Friday night against Sacramento) the Lakers are 0-3, and that seems to confirm the theory. But the Lakers are 5-1 in games in which Bryant attempts either 8 or 9 shots in the first quarter. Does that one shot make the difference in determining whether the team is engaged or not? Taking the broadside view, in wins, Kobe averages 5.3 1st quarter shots, in losses 6.1. That is a difference, and a significant one, but it is not definitive. And assists muddle the issue even further, because Kobe actually averages slightly more assists in the 1st quarter of games the Lakers end up losing, 1.53 to 1.45.
Besides, yesterday's game doesn't fit any of these criteria. Bryant took only three shots in the 1st quarter of yesterday's game, due to early foul trouble. Since Bryant wasn't dominating the ball even when he was playing, you would assume the Lakers offense would be more engaged. Nope. The Lakers only had two assists the entire 1st quarter. In the 2nd quarter, in which Bryant did aggressively look for his own shot, the Lakers had 5 assists, and 4 of them occurred while Bryant was on the court. Bryant had 17 shots in the 2nd half, but only three in the first nine minutes of the 3rd quarter. It was only after Boston had turned a 6 point half time deficit into a 5 point lead that Bryant began attempting to will his team to victory by launching 14 shots in the final 15 minutes of action. And in that nine minute period in which Kobe took only three shots to start the 2nd half, there was ... 1 assist. In over half the game in which Bryant was either absent, or not aggressively seeking his own opportunities, the team as whole had 4 assists. In the other half, in which Bryant had the ball in his hands a majority of the time and was actively seeking his shot, the Lakers had 6 assists. Neither number is very good, but it puts to rest the concept that it was somehow Bryant's aggressiveness that caused the offensive failing, at least in yesterday's game.
Were those last 15 minutes ugly, an indication that the all-Kobe, all-the-time offensive approach is rarely effective? Absolutely. Would it have been better if the team had tried to continue to run the offense, and hope for a spark like what it found in the 2nd quarter? Sure. But Kobe deserves, at best, only a portion of the blame for a putrid 2nd half offensive performance, because most of the rest of his team made it pretty clear throughout the game that they weren't all that interested in doing what it takes to generate points against a tough Boston defense. And, if there is one thing we know to be true about the Mamba, it's that, for better or worse, he will not suffer a lack of effort.
On the surface, last night's box score will be used as further indication that, when the Lakers offense goes wrong, it's Kobe's fault. This is often the case. However, a thorough inspection reveals that the Lakers were destined to fail offensively no matter what, and the only time they played effectively as a unit is when the Kobe-centric offense was working. If thorough inspections of each individual high volume game from Bryant were undertaken, I'm sure you'd find this to be a common occurrence. The game as a whole showed that the Kobe strategy is not viable for an entire game, but that doesn't mean the Lakers had better options yesterday. The team at large made it pretty clear from the onset that a collective, team-oriented offense wasn't in the cards.
Bryant didn't come into yesterday's game looking to take command of the offense. He simply arrived on the scene and observed that the triangle was already beyond resuscitation.