Saturday night, the Lakers were facing elimination. They were in this situation largely due to the fact that in Game 6, the twin towers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol ironically came up small against an undersized Nuggets front line whom they were supposed to dominate. Guards Razor Ramon and Steve Blake were handily outplayed by New York castaway Ty Lawson and a 36 year old Andre Miller. Kobe, on the other hand, played with all of the guts he didn't puke up that morning while his teammates appeared lackadaisical and indifferent. Things looked bleak for the Lakers and many wondered how Kobe would respond.
In Game 7, Kobe responded by passing the ball. He regularly threw it to Bynum and Gasol in the post. When they got doubled and threw it back to him, he would let them re-post and passed it right back. Steve Blake and Metta Woldpeace missed numerous wide open shots that night but in the 4th quarter of a tightly contested elimination game, Bryant didn't hesitate to give them the ball when they were open. Bryant trusted his teammates. Bryant trusted that new guy in the suit who has 5 less championship rings than he does. It worked. Worldpeace and Blake combined to hit nine 3-Pointers. Gasol and Bynum combined to score 39 points.
Make no mistake, Kobe still has the ability to take over a game. The 16 year veteran missed the scoring title by a tenth of a point this season. In Game 5, he almost single-handedly put the Nuggets away with his 4 minute 12 point barrage. Far be it for me to claim to know what was going through the gifted basketball mind of Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers won the game and it was truly a team effort. Whether or not it was by design, one would assume that the role players on this team will have much more confidence going into the next round and possibly beyond.
This is a different approach than Kobe has taken in the past. When facing the Pistons in '04, Kobe kept shooting the ball ineffectively even though Shaq was having great success in the low block. The Lakers lost that series. In '06 Kobe petulantly took only one shot in the 2nd half of Game 7 versus the Suns, even though he was scoring at will against their perimeter defenders. They lost that series as well. On Saturday we saw a mature, determined, intelligent basketball player letting the game come to him. He commanded double teams and made the right pass. When the double teams didn't come quickly enough, he took the shot.
Now this squad will face a very talented, very hungry, well rested Thunder team who has already beaten them two out of three times in the regular season. The Lakers' only chance of pulling off an upset lies in their ability to play as a team. When the Lakers are moving the ball and shooting with confidence, they are dangerous. When they let the ball stagnate and their role players become scared to shoot, they are predictable and easy to defend. Which Lakers team will show up in this series? When the Thunder make runs (and they will) can the Lakers stick with their game plan? When guys miss a few consecutive shots (which will happen), will Kobe keep giving them the ball? Nobody with any sense has ever questioned Kobe's individual greatness. Many have questioned his ability to raise his teammates' level of play. Some of that comes from effectively distributing the ball on the court. Some of that comes from being a motivational presence in the locker room and in the huddle. Kobe and the Lakers will face quite a test in this series. Let's see how they respond.