Here are Kobe’s shooting stats over LA’s last 11 games, which include their close-out game against Oklahoma City and their series wins over Utah and the Suns:
Overall field-goals: 131-of-253 (52 percent)
Threes: 25-of-60 (42 percent)
Free throws: 75-of-87 (86 percent on 8 attempts per game).
Kobe is averaging 32.9 points per game over those 11 games and has cracked 30 in all but one of them.
Here’s something to ponder: Kobe Bryant enters the 2010 Finals having just played one of three or four best prolonged stretches of high-stakes basketball of his career.
Bryant did not even approach this level of efficiency in the 2008 Finals, and Boston’s ability to turn Kobe into a low-percentage shooter was near the top of the list of things that swung that series for the Celtics. Kobe averaged 25.7 points per game in the ’08 Finals, but he needed 22 shots to get those points, and he hit just 40.5 percent of his field-goal attempts—and just 32 percent of his threes.
Of course, the Celtics defense looks and feels nothing like the Suns’ D, which ranked 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency and had no shot against Los Angeles. Utah’s defense was solid this season (10th in points allowed per possession), but there is no question that the Lakers are facing an elite defensive team for the first time since they struggled against Oklahoma City.
• Kobe will not be able to duplicate the jump-shooting display he just finished unleashing upon the Suns. Faced with taller defenders (the 6’8” Grant Hill and 6’7” Jared Dudley), Kobe basically abandoned his new-ish post-up game and migrated to the outside, according to numbers from Synergy Sports (via The Painted Area).
Against the Suns, 50 of Kobe’s 140 field-goal attempts (just more than one-third) came from between the foul line and the three-point arc—i.e., long two-pointers. During the regular-season, Kobe hit 41 percent of shots from that range, according to Hoopdata; shooting guards overall hit 39.7 percent of long twos.
Against Phoenix, Kobe hit 29-of-50 of his long twos. That’s 58 percent. That’s crazy. And many of those were tough shots, with Hill or Dudley playing Kobe as closely as a defender can play a shooter without fouling.
If Kobe can keep that sort of long-distance accuracy up for another series, the Celtics will be in serious trouble. The entire notion of regression to the mean says he can’t do it. Regression to the mean is our friend.
• Kobe will attack the Celtics much differently than he attacked Phoenix. I mentioned this earlier, so I won’t belabor it again here, but you can expect to see an awful lot of Kobe in the post against Boston. Kobe attempted about 8.3 long twos per game against the Suns, up from about six per game in the regular season, and he attempted most of those shots out of isolations or spot-up situations, according to Synergy.
Against Phoenix, only 2.9 percent of Kobe’s offensive plays came from post-ups. During the regular season, about 22 percent of Kobe’s offensive plays started with post-ups.
Kobe is shorter than Hill and Dudley. He is taller than Ray Allen and Tony Allen.
Kobe’s not an idiot. Though he’s insanely confident, he probably understands that not even he can continue to hit 60 percent of long, contested two-point jump shots. He understands regression to the mean. The post is going to be Kobe’s friend, and how Boston helps on Kobe post-ups is going to be a crucial factor in this series.
The C’s will obviously mix it up, but expect to see a weak-side defender rotate over to the strong side when Kobe posts up to at least force Kobe in one direction. Also expect some true double-teams, and for Paul Pierce to take the occasional turn defending Kobe. Pierce is beginning enough to deal with Kobe alone, but the C’s can’t afford to play him against Bryant full-time for many, many reasons.
No team is better than Boston at devising rotate-and-recover schemes that force difficult passes and coax the ball toward the least threatening offensive option. Good luck, Tom Thibodeau.
• A connected thought: The Celtics must continue to force a ton of turnovers. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Celtics are forcing turnovers in the playoffs at a rate seldom approached in recent NBA history. Boston opponents are coughing it up on just over 16 percent of their possessions, a defensive turnover rate that dwarfs the league-leading rate during the regular-season (15.1 percent, Golden State).
Since the late 1990s, only one other team that advanced past the first round managed to force turnovers on at least 16 percent of opponent possessions in the playoffs, according to Basketball-Reference.
And if you watch Boston, you see how great the C’s are at forcing turnovers on plays, such as screen/rolls, in which they help and recover. Boston is masterful at getting into passing lanes, making the ball-handler on these sorts of plays hesitate and anticipating where he will eventually throw the ball.
The Lakers aren’t a traditional basketball team, and the Triangle involves far fewer screen/rolls than most teams run. But the concept of helping, recovering and forcing tough passes will still apply, particularly when Kobe posts up.
The Lakers have barely turned the ball over in the playoffs, but their post-season turnover rate (a stingy 11.3 percent) is partly the result of playing six games against Phoenix, which forced turnovers less often than any team in the league this season.
Kobe, for instance, turned the ball over just 15 times in six games against the Suns despite carrying such a heavy offensive load. He committed 21 turnovers combined in the Utah sweep and the final game of the Thunder series.
Boston has managed to keep their defensive turnover rate insanely high through three rounds now. Can they do it one last time?