The big story out of the Los Angeles Lakers 111-107 victory Tuesday night was once again the recent resurgence of Kobe Bryant, who after a brutal start to the season is averaging 22.4 points on 49.4% shooting with 5.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists over his last five games. The Lakers have won two of the last three contests Bryant has played in, and against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night Bryant willed his team to victory with clutch buckets down the stretch.
Bryant's offense received most of the plaudits, but one of the major reasons the Lakers were able to win a game in which they trailed by as much as 21 points was the collapse of Nuggets' sixth man Will Barton. After beginning the game with 15 points on 7-9 shooting in just over 8 minutes in the first quarter, and 23 points total in the first half, Barton went just 1-5 in the second half, finishing with 25 points. After the game, Bryant and coach Byron Scott credited the decision to switch Bryant on to Barton as on of the major factors in Barton's struggles, as captured by Baxter Holmes of ESPN:
"[I] decided to ask Kobe if he wanted to guard him," Lakers coach Byron Scott said.
Bryant's response: "I got him."
Barton scored two points from then on.
"I can still play a little bit," Bryant said with a smirk.
What did he relish more, his impact on offense or defense?
"Both. Because it's a great test for me tonight to be able to see if I could still play both ends of the floor," Bryant said. "I felt like I could do one. I didn't know if I could do both. It felt good to be able to do that."
Bryant indeed guarded Barton for all of his second half shots, but what is less clear is if Bryant really deserves full credit for shutting down Denvers' primary bench scorer.
On Barton's first shot of the half, Bryant begins the possession picking up Barton at half court, a sign of respect and defensive engagement Bryant may have not done a single time previously this season. In an example of effort not always directly translating to effectiveness, Barton responded with a crossover dribble that lead to him easily leaving Bryant in the dust and forced to (probably) foul Barton in an infraction that went uncalled. Barton missed the dunk.
Barton's second shot of the half is a three-pointer off of a ball screen from Nikola Jokic. Bryant does not really fight through the screen and is slow to recover, but Julius Randle steps up Barton and contests the jumper. Barton misses, and Brandon Bass rotated over to Jokic to box him out and keep him from the offensive board, which Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams worked to secure from Bass' man, Kenneth Faried.
Barton's third shot of the half sees him flare towards an off-ball screen from Jokic before cutting back towards the basket and losing Bryant in the process. Bryant is noticeably locked in and focused on defending Barton off the ball, something that has been a rarity for the 37-year old veteran over the last few years, but it's hard to argue that this was the reason for Barton's miss.
Barton's fourth shot, his only make of the second half, came off of a dribble hand-off from Darrell Arthur that allowed him to get into the lane for an easy floater. Bryant again begins the possession focused on Barton off the ball, but the younger guard is still able to leverage his superior speed to leave Kobe chasing him.
For Barton's last shot of the game, with the score 101-95 in favor of the Lakers and 3:32 remaining in the game, the Nugget's repeated the same dribble hand-off action from the corner with Faried in place of Arthur. Kobe is again lost when veering around the Nuggets' big man, but Bass does an excellent job cutting off the paint, and Clarkson dug down towards the free throw line. The defensive pressure forced Barton to throw up an off balance miss, and Bryant scored four of the Lakers final eight points to put away the purple and gold's fifth win of the season.
The verdict? After watching Barton's five second half attempts, it is hard to argue that Bryant's defense was the primary factor. While it was easy for Scott and Bryant to credit Kobe for his increased engagement, this was a case of rewarding results over process. Barton, a reserve averaging 15.7 points per game on 45.8% shooting, was probably due for some regression to the mean after his absolutely torrid start to the game.
However, the team did seem to follow Kobe's lead in paying more attention to Barton, an all-too-rare defensive adjustment by the league's second worst defensive team. For those looking for a positive here for the Lakers, that is it.