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Lakers 90, Nuggets 99: Gunned Down

This was not just a bad game.

The Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Denver Nuggets by a final score of 99-90, and they lost because Kobe Bryant is on their team. Not because Kobe had a bad game, not because Kobe made mistakes. The Lakers lost this game because Kobe Bryant suited up for it. Tonight's loss sits squarely on his shoulders, and he alone carries that burden. I've done my fair share of defending Kobe over the years. Explaining away similar box scores, providing reasoned explanations about why Kobe might have thought what he was doing would be in his team's best interests, or why he might feel justified in trying to go it alone every now and then, despite the fact that it so rarely works these days. Tonight, however, was the culmination of every negative Kobe Bryant stereotype you've ever heard. It was one of the most actively selfish games you will ever see in the game of basketball, in part because if most any other player tried to get away with what Kobe did tonight, the coach would pull said player in a heartbeat.

The stats are pretty staggering. 6-28 shooting, 1-8 from three point range, just four free throws and 16 points. Two rebounds and four assists, both season lows. Six turnovers. He was outscored by both of the Lakers' star big men, despite shooting more than those two players combined. I'll say that again ... Both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol contributed more points to the Lakers' cause than Kobe, despite taking less shots combined than Kobe took by himself. But stats never tell the whole story. Normally, the story not told by the numbers does some small part to mitigate Kobe's behavior. Maybe the team wasn't playing with strong effort and Kobe decided to try and lead them to victory with his formidable will. Maybe the team fell behind big early, so Kobe thought there would be no way back without him going Nova. Maybe he thought his team was playing soft, and decided to show them what tough play looks like. The story behind the numbers usually paints Kobe in a better light.

Stats don't tell the whole story this time either. The difference, this time, is that the story is much worse than the numbers show.

Tonight's story starts where it has all season, with Kobe facilitating the team's offense in the 1st quarter. He played the entire 1st period. He didn't score, missing all five of his shots, but he did dole out two assists. The Lakers ended the quarter down five. Then Kobe came out, and the bench kept things close against their more vaunted Denver counterparts. The bench even trimmed 3 points off the lead, when Kobe returned to play out the half. Kobe took just 5 shots in the 2nd quarter too, but, having already established that he was struggling with his shot, you might think that Kobe's shot selection might be a bit more ... selective. Instead, three of his attempts were from distance. He even made one, the only three point shot he would drain on the night. Every time he took a three point shot, his defender would leak out in transition, and Kobe would not go with him, with the Nuggets turning many of Kobe's missed shots into easy layups. The Nuggets re-built their lead, up to 11 at the half, though we certainly can't blame all of that on Kobe.

Now comes the 2nd half. To start the half, the Lakers make a considerable effort to start getting the ball to their two big men. The 11 point deficit facing the team at the half is erased. Eight possessions later, five of which were used by Kobe(1-3 shooting, two made free throws and a turnover), the Denver lead is back up to 9. Kobe is taken out of the game. His third quarter totals: 7 points, 2-8 shooting, 3-4 FTs and one turnover. As Kobe comes out, Andrew Bynum comes in. He gets an And-1 on the next possession. Then a Steve Blake three. Then another. The bench + Andrew erases the lead again, and even brings the Lakers a two point lead when Kobe returns to the game. Over the next 18 possessions in which the game is decided (cutting off the last 30 seconds in which the game was no longer in doubt), Kobe Bryant uses 12 of them. He takes 10 shots, takes no free throws, commits two turnovers, and provides a lone assist to Pau Gasol. He makes 3 shots, scoring six points. Seven of his shots are from outside 20 feet. Four are from three point range. Two of those attempts, and the turnover, lead to easy fast break buckets for the Nuggets.

Now let's tell the story again, in broader strokes. Kobe starts the game with the normal mix of offense facilitation and scoring, but he struggles with his shot. The bench plays well while he's out and keeps the team in the game. Kobe comes back in and continues to struggle, and the team is down big at half. The second half starts, and an emphasis on utilizing the bigs gets the Lakers back in the game. Then, Kobe starts trying to find his shot, and continues to struggle. He leaves the game and Andrew Bynum and the Lakers bench once again gets the team back into it. Kobe comes back in and shoots the game into oblivion. There's only one thing missing from that story ... a single team related reason for Kobe to do what Kobe did in the entire second half. He wasn't trying to rescue his teammates, because his teammates spent the whole game rescuing him, except that in the end, he refused to let them. He wasn't trying to send a message to his guys about effort, because his guys were playing as hard as they could on the 2nd night of a back to back. This was purely about Kobe. He was unhappy about missing all the shots that he thinks he should be making, so he decided to shoot himself out of it, his teammates, and this game, be damned.

It was a waste of some very solid efforts. Andrew Bynum continues to look the real deal, with another 18 points and 16 boards. He missed a bunch of free throws, but his touch around the basket has been fantastic early on this season, and with that in place, his ceiling is insanely high. Pau Gasol chipped in a very strong, aggressive effort himself, with 20 points and 13 boards. Metta World Peace was solid, with 10 points off the bench on 7 shots. Steve Blake continued his roller coaster of a season, going 6-9 from the field for 14 points. The rest of the guys didn't provide any notable contributions, but the team played hard, especially in the second half, after it looked like this would be another tired performance on the second night of a back-to-back in the first half. The Lakers nearly held the previously high-flying Nuggets to less than 1 point per possession again, and limited the damage done from three point range as well, with the Nuggets hitting just two of their 18 attempts. Ty Lawson did well, but the damage done by his quickness was limited.

Is this game evidence of a bigger underlying problem? Maybe, maybe not. Only time can answer that question. I'm not going to sit at my keyboard and speculate whether Kobe's display tonight is evidence that Kobe will continue to play like this in the future. I'm not going to say that tonight's shot distribution is going to make Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum angry. I'm not going to guess whether the rest of this team is thinking quietly to themselves that Kobe is more of a problem than a solution. It would be silly of me to speculate. I'm not a mind reader. What I do know is how it feels to give everything to a team that loses because somebody else plays terribly and selfishly at the same time. I do know what I think about having those types of people on my team, even if they are considerably better than I am at basketball. I won't speculate on what the Lakers team thinks about Kobe's play tonight. But if I were in their position, I'd be pretty pissed off.

Kobe is one of the greatest to ever play this game. Maybe he can still play on that level consistently, or maybe he can't. That's not the point. Maybe today was just a bad game, something to which everyone, especially Kobe is entitled. That's not the point either. The point is this: Added to last Sunday's Bulls game, the Lakers have now sacrificed two games in one week at the altar of Kobe's greatness. With that in mind, you can't help but wonder just how restless the natives are getting.










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