What’s gotten into Kobe Bryant?
It certainly appears that Bryant has bought into his teammates to start the New Year.
On Thursday, Bryant got the Lakers off to a very hot start in Sacramento by distributing the basketball. He took only one shot in the first quarter and dished out four assists as the Lakers took a 33-18 lead.
Then he got rolling, led the team in scoring, and when the Lakers had blown a seemingly easy victory, it was Bryant who carried them back…by passing.
Sacramento thought doubling Bryant at the three-point line was the way to go, and Bryant shocked Arco Arena, a national TV audience on TNT, his former critic and current biggest fan Charles Barkley, and most importantly the Kings by finding a wide-open Smush Parker for the game tying lay-up.
Overall, it was an amazing performance, as Kobe came up just short of a triple-double finishing with 42 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists.
The following night at home against Denver was even better for #24. He had nine assists in the first quarter. He finished the game with more assists (10) than points (8). He sat laughing on the bench for much of the second half, even finding the time to play a great practical joke on Smush Parker. And it appeared on TV as though he couldn’t have been happier.
This is a new Bryant. He’s putting trust in his teammates and is playing as though he truly wants the team concept to succeed. Frankly, why wouldn’t he? Bryant has tried it the other way, the games where he scores 62 in three quarters or takes 45 shots to keep them closes (i.e. the 3-OT loss at Charlotte), and it doesn’t work.
I’ve mentioned this before in this space, but the Lakers are a much deeper team than a year ago, even without Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown. In years past, Bryant would have had no other option than to try to do it all, since there wasn’t much around him to help. The fact that he is taking this opportunity to show his teammates he trusts them will only help the Lakers down the road. It’s maturity from Bryant that we’ve never seen before, and so far, it’s working. The Lakers are 22-11.
DENVER IS STRUGGLING
When Allen Iverson became a Denver Nugget, the conversation rightfully focused on what an offensive juggernaut this team would be. But what may be of much larger concern is how horrible this team could be defensively.
We won’t know for sure until J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony return from suspension, however, what I saw Friday night from Denver might very well have been the worst defensive showing of the year.
The Nuggets allowed the Lakers to connect on their first 11 shots from the floor. Hey, teams can get hot, no big deal. No. Eight of the baskets were dunks or lay-ups. There was no attempt being made to stop anything. The Lakers looked like the Harlem Globetrotters.
And it just kept going. The Lakers scored 35 in the first, 33 in the second, and 36 in the third.
This came one game after the Sixers rolled up 108 points in Denver.
Denver is going through a predictably rocky period without two of their starters. In addition to problems on defense, they're not shooting the ball very well. The Nuggets have dropped five straight and are now 2-6 since the Iverson trade after a loss to Utah last night. They find themselves 6.5 games back in the division, and suddenly, the Timberwolves and Nuggets share the same record.
We all know Denver can score the basketball at will. For Denver to join the ranks of the best in the west, they’re going to need to find a way to get stops consistently. Until they prove they can do that, they can’t be in the title contender discussion, regardless of how many points they score.
BIG BEN FACES HIS FORMER FRIENDS
Ben Wallace played his first game against his former Detroit Pistons teammates last night. The Bulls prevailed easily with a 106-89 victory.
Get ready for a healthy dose of this storyline for the rest of the year.
Big Ben played a strong game, scoring 12 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. He also added six blocked shots. However, the Pistons were without Chauncey Billups, so keep that in mind when you analyze the victory.
Here’s what I think I know. With apologies to LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas, the Bulls and Pistons appear to be the two best teams in the East right now. If the Bulls can figure out how to win on the road, I think we’ll see a playoff series between these two teams. If that playoff series takes place, I fully expect Ben Wallace to be fouled often and forced to make some free throws. That will be interesting.
Rasheed Wallace insists that there is no rivalry between the Pistons and Bulls since the meetings have been rather one-sided in recent years. In fact, the Pistons had won 12 in a row at the United Center before Saturday night. So, for once, Sheed has a point.
But that was then. This rivalry is about to return, and for anyone who remembers MJ vs. the Bad Boys, that’s a good thing.
Ben Wallace returns to the Palace for the first time on February 25th. When the emotions of his visit wear off, he might realize that his jump from Detroit to Chicago was the spark that re-ignited one of the best rivalries in the league.
Either that, or I’ve got a case of wishful thinking.
-Allen Iverson leaves and Larry Brown returns to Philadelphia. Great. I don’t think it’s possible for me to care less.
-Take some time and vote Luol Deng onto the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He deserves a trip to Vegas. While you’re at it, punch Dwight Howard’s name repeatedly so Shaq doesn’t start. There are times when fans should be ashamed of themselves. Shaq being named a starter will be one of those times.
-Dallas has won 13 in a row going into tonight’s showdown with the Lakers. They’ve had double-figure winning streaks twice this season, and they’ve smacked down the Spurs in both meetings, yet “experts” continue to say aloud that San Antonio is the favorite in the West. I don’t see how you can say that. I maintain my Mavs/Suns conference finals prediction, and, based on their game on December 28th, I have no idea how to pick a winner in that series.
-If Sacramento is going to make the playoffs in the tough West, they’re going to need to make free throws at the end of games. They lost to the Lakers and Blazers in OT this week mainly because of their inability to close out games at the line.
-This could be the worst rookie class ever. Seriously, look at the numbers. Jorge Garbajosa is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year? Really? If Brandon Roy stays healthy, he is going to run away with the award.
-The Clippers road woes are getting absurd. Their loss last night in Atlanta is probably the low point of the season, and the playoffs are looking like a long shot right now. That must be rough for people who thought they were going to be atop the West. You may recall, I was not one of them. Sorry, I’m rarely right about anything. I have to point it out when I am.
-I’ll leave you this week with something horribly unfair. The 24-8 Phoenix Suns could have three first-round draft picks in the alleged deepest NBA Draft ever. They have the rights to Atlanta’s first pick as long as it isn’t in the top three. Right now, that would be the fourth overall selection. Then, they’d have their own pick and Cleveland’s pick in the 20s. The rich could get much richer, or the Suns could have a lot of trade assets in the off-season.