Yesterday, the Los Angeles Lakers eked out an important victory in Denver, beating the Nuggets to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven 1st round playoff series. It was a gritty effort in which the Lakers were behind for most of the contest, but always kept the Nuggets within striking distance. In the end game, the Lakers closed well, as they have all season long. The formula was a bit of a strange one; if you check the box score, very few performances stand out. Kobe Bryant scored 22 points, but took 25 shots to get there. Andrew Bynum had 19 points and 3 blocks, but just 7 rebounds. Even unlikely hero Steve Blake didn't have spectacular numbers. Sure, he scored 10 points, but it took him 9 shots to get there, although if we're being honest, Steve should be commended for simply attempting nine shots. Jordan Hill was the only guy with eye-catching numbers, logging another double double off the bench, and picking up seven (!) offensive rebounds.
The formula used by the Lakers to achieve victory was an interesting one, however. It involved quite a bit of Kobe Bryant. Twice as much, in fact, as the two-headed big man monster of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. This is not an altogether unusual occurrence. Kobe Bryant tends to shoot the ball a lot, and has the highest usage rate in the league by a wide margin. On occasion, his shooting habits tend to dwarf the amount of touches his big men receive, even if his big men tend to be a bit more efficient with their scoring chances. This is a criticism often levied at the Lakers, and at Kobe Bryant specifically. There should be no reason why Kobe shoots the ball as much as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined.
Well, maybe one reason. Yesterday, Bryant shot more than Bynum and Gasol combined. He didn't do particularly well with those shots, shooting 40% and ending up with more shots than points. But there was a pretty good reason why he was taking so many. Denver wouldn't let Andrew Bynum get involved.
Andrew Bynum had 12 shots in yesterday's game. He scored on eight of them. Normally, it would be striking that he shot so successfully, yet had so few attempts, but in yesterday's game, he had so few attempts because the Nuggets would not allow him to have more. Denver has double teamed (and even triple-teamed) Bynum so aggressively in the series that it is all Andrew can do to pass it back out to the perimeter whenever he touches the ball. That 8-12 shooting mark is a big reason why; whenever they let him go to work, he usually provides solid results. So Denver, undersized as they are, have decided to eliminate Bynum's effect on the game. They've done so at the cost of attention to Kobe Bryant.
That point needs to be illustrated more clearly; given the lose-lose proposition of letting either Kobe Bryant or Andrew Bynum work primarily in 1 v. 1 situations, the Nuggets have quite clearly decided to let Kobe do what Kobe does the vast majority of the time. They have decided to let Kobe Bryant beat them in order to make sure Andrew Bynum doesn't. For the first time in nearly a decade, Kobe Bryant is no longer the primary focus of an opposing team's defense.
It's a pretty clear indicator of just how far Andrew Bynum has progressed. He still has issues with discipline, attitude, and work ethic this season, but he's shown enough ability to scare the living crap out of teams. Denver, in particular, has decided they can't afford to let Bynum do much of anything. The majority of possessions in which Bynum receives the ball, they are double teaming him on the catch, the very second they first have an opportunity to do so. Sometimes, the Lakers do a good job of re-posting Bynum. Sometimes they do not. There are still times they forget to utilize him. But most of the time, at least in this playoff series, Bynum's shot attempts have remained low because Denver has decided they don't want him shooting the basketball.
Does this mean Denver considers Andrew Bynum to be a better player than Kobe Bryant? That's one simplistic interpretation. The more complex interpretation would be that Denver considers Bynum the bigger threat. A player's ability does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it must be measured up against an opposing player's ability to prevent. In Arron Afflalo, Corey Brewer and, in limited opportunities, Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets have multiple perimeter defenders who are all as capable of limiting Kobe solo as anybody can be. Their interior defenders are far less capable. JaVale McGee, Timofey Mozgov, and Kenneth Faried offer up about as much resistance against Andrew Bynum's height, agility and power as a stiff breeze. If Denver had Tyson Chandler on their roster, we might be seeing a lot more Kobe double teams.
But the Nuggets don't have the personnel to handle Andrew Bynum, and so they have decided to remove him from the equation. This creates open shots from the perimeter, which the Lakers have mostly failed to take advantage of, but it also creates a situation in which the Nuggets often can't afford to pay Kobe Bryant as much defensive attention as they might otherwise do. In Los Angeles, Kobe has been able to easily take advantage, scoring 30+ points in both contests in fairly efficient style. He wasn't so effective in Denver, though his Game 4 performance was enough to get the job done. Still, it's a position the Mamba hasn't been in for a long time.
Kobe Bryant is used to carrying his team. For years, he's done it because he's had to, because he's wanted to, because it's been what's expected of him. He's done so even as opposing teams have focused on preventing him. Now, Kobe needs to carry the Lakers because Denver has decided that Andrew Bynum cannot be allowed to. They are daring Kobe Bryant to beat them. Does this mean Andrew Bynum has surpassed Kobe Bryant as a player? Probably not. But given the choice between death by Mamba, or death by giant, the Nuggets have quite clearly decided to take their chances with the former.