On the John
When Kobe met Michael… and other stories…
Originally completed June 17, 2010
Ten minutes after Game 6 was in the books, Scoop texted:
“Game 7. Who you got?”
As always, I was excited for the hoops talk. In fact, before responding to Scoop, I called Bulls beat reporter Chris Cason to discuss everything from the Perkins injury to The Incredible Hops of Shannon Brown. We spoke for a half hour, and it still took me another hour to give Scoop my answer. I just did not want to face it.
Which is curious. Because a sports prompt like “Game 7. Who you got?” is usually the type of discussion I relish. Something about the way Boston had lost…
Early on, Game 6 was shaping up to be L.A.’s answer to Boston’s clinching Game 6 in 2008, a game that may well be known in some circles simply as The Spanking. Boston was so good that night, they nearly topped the Bulls’ record from ’98 for biggest margin of victory in a Finals game. That was Game 3 against Utah, a game in which every Bull scored, while the Jazz set a mark for fewest points in a Finals game. It was massively ugly and overpoweringly beautiful, and the ’08 C’s and Lakers did their best to match it.
Now here was Game 6, the Lakers needing a win force a Game 7, and for a while there it felt as if they were going to run the Celtics out of the building. The lead kept ballooning: 20 at the half, 25 after 3. But in the end, L.A. could only muster 89 points, and their margin of victory was a relatively pedestrian 22.
The Celtics seemed… calm, I suppose. Maybe it was because the Lakers had a chance to annihilate them, to pulverize them, to send them zombie-marching into the deciding game, dazed and confused and whipped and tired and beaten.
And they couldn’t really do it.
Game 7. Who you got?
If Game 7 were in Boston, even after a Lakers road win to stave elimination, I would ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY be picking the Celtics. So the fact that Game 7 is in Los Angeles and I’m wavering tells me that there is something about this Boston team that gives me confidence.
And I think it’s this: the Celtics are a team that seems built for That One Game.
Fans often define that quality by saying a team “knows how to win.” That seems a touch vague; what that really means, I think, is that a team respects The Moment. That they have a total grasp of precisely what’s at stake, be it for the possession, the last two minutes of a half, the game, the series, or even their legacy.
Boston’s Big 3 might not all be Hall of Famers, but they are all Hall of Fame understanders of That One Game. Rondo and Doc seem to be as well, as is sometimes Sheed. Kobe, Phil, and Fisher are the only three Definites on the Lakers.
As for the Perkins injury: it’s definitely a blow, but probably not a game-changer, for four reasons.
1. Perk is the least important member of that vaunted Celtics starting five.
2. While he is a strong defender, his primary area of defense (Andrew Bynum) is not a severe point of concern.
3. For whatever reason, Perkins collected 33 blocks in the first 15 games of this postseason, and then blocked ZERO shots over the final eight.
4. Boston has two dependable backups at the post position in Big Baby and Sheed.
So you’re not swaying me to L.A. on the Perkins injury.
Then you start looking at matchups, and asking yourself which matchups might go one way or the other due to the weight of a Game 7. Other than at head coach and shooting guard, the matchups right now seem to favor the Celtics.
I keep coming back to the Garnett-Gasol, for instance. Garnett is averaging 15 and 6 in the Finals. Gasol is averaging 18.5 and 10.5. To me, the possibility of Garnett summoning a big game (like his 22-12 in the clincher against the Cavs) to match Gasol is way more likely than Gasol summoning a big game (like his 33-14 in the clincher against Utah) to completely overwhelm Garnett.
Likewise, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each dropping a purposed 20 points with timely jumpers seems more likely than Ron Artest and Lamar Odom coming up with monster defensive performances + ten to fifteen points a man. And Rondo doing what he does best (steady to breathtaking point guard play) seems more likely and more valuable than Fisher doing what he does best (keeping his composure and hitting circumstantially incredible late-game jumpers).
And that makes Kobe the x-factor.
Okay, I started thinking as I drove home, what if Kobe has a Monster Game? Would that carry it for L.A.?
Probably… But what does a monster Kobe game even look like?
It is natural to discuss Kobe Bryant in terms of Michael Jordan. Kobe fans might not like admitting it, and Jordan fans might not feign to approach it, but there we are.
The reason is simple: sports fans experience players, teams, seasons, series, and games all within a vast historical perspective. It’s the reason why baseball old-timers regularly end arguments by reminding us young pups, “you can’t compare eras.” It’s the reason football fans are driven by Brady v. Montana and Manning v. Marino and Unitas v. All of Them. It’s the reason Bill Simmons wrote a 700-page book about basketball, and why it was so much damn fun to read.
Back in 2001, Kobe Bryant was one of four equally remarkable and respected young perimeter players: Iverson, Bryant, Carter, McGrady. Iverson was always IVERSON, while the details of T-Mac – with his height, length, sudden breakout in Orlando, and three-point ability – separated him from the pack, no matter where his career ended.
Bryant and Carter were the Jordans. Carter, because he was a 6’6 bald-headed high-flying super-dunking guard from North Carolina. Bryant because he was everything else.
Ultimately, Carter was The Dunker, McGrady was The Hybrid Scorer, and Iverson was Iverson. By any statistical measure, Bryant produced the best career of the four. He is one of five no-doubt-abouter first-ballot Hall of Famers drafted in the 1990s, and is making his case as the Greatest Laker with Magic, West, and Baylor.
Even if he loses tonight and retires tomorrow, Kobe Bryant will have produced a career with few rivals to his greatness.
And that is the question that gnaws at hoops fans. That drives conversation. That gives careers to columnists. Since Kobe’s game resembles Jordan’s more than it resembles anyone else’s AND more than anyone else’s resembles Jordan’s, and since there is no obvious trait or flaw to categorically differentiate the two, how do we measure Kobe against Michael? We know where MJ stands. At the tippy tippy top.
And we know that Kobe is greater than Garnett, more driven than Shaq, more complete than Iverson, and possibly more imposing than Duncan. We know more or less where he stands among his peers. What we want to know is where he stands all-time.
The Jordan comparison seems the place to start. Both players are similar in size and leaping/dunking ability, and both can be fairly described as “dangerous scoring guards with an understanding of The Moment, a psychotic hunger for victory, a complete offensive arsenal, the best defender at his position, a multiple champion, and captain of the Holy Crap, Did You See That??!!! brigade.”
I grew up a Kobe dissenter. I evolved into a Kobe admirer. Somewhere in that time, I lost my perspective on what Kobe was doing and what Jordan had already done. I believe that happened to many of us. I simply processed Kobe in the ways described in the previous paragraph, and those outlines matched the outlines of how I had processed Jordan. Kobe “scored a lot.” Jordan “scored a lot.” Kobe left me regularly awed, first as a dunker and flyer, now as a Maker of Impossible Shots. Jordan did the same. From a technical standpoint, they both seemed physically impossible to defend. From a mythic, mind-control standpoint, they both seemed impossible to defeat.
We know what a monster Jordan game looks like, especially in the playoffs: LOTS of points stemming from LOTS of shot attempts and trips to the line, a total control of the flow of the game, and a Bulls win.
Presumably, based on our understanding of Kobe Bryant, a monster Kobe game should be similar to a monster Jordan game. Right?
A quick study of the numbers shows it just ain’t so. And it starts with the aspect of Kobe’s game that seems least in question: his scoring.
Kobe simply is not the scorer that Jordan was, and DEFINITELY not the postseason scorer.
When you think of a Big Jordan Playoff Scoring Output, the number 63 comes to mind.
But fine: he was 23-years-old then, with no teammates, responsible for the entire load.
Let’s flash forward to the title years, his six full seasons from 1991-1998. And let’s compare those six seasons to Kobe’s seven postseasons that ended in the NBA Finals (2000-2002, 2004, 2008-2010).
Our sample section here is 116 games for Jordan over six seasons, and 145 games for Kobe over seven.
In those 116 games, Jordan scored 50+ points four times, had another 13 games in the 40-49 point range, and another 25 games of at least 35 points. That’s 35 + points in 36% of his championship season playoff games.
In 145 games, Kobe did not notch a single 50+ playoff game. He had 8 games between 40 and 49 points, and another 16 of at least 35. That’s 35+ points in 17% of his NBA Finals seasons playoff games.
Kobe holds only one 50+ playoff game: Game 6 of the 2006 Phoenix series. A potential series clincher, at home – the game went overtime, Kobe nabbed 50 on the nose, and the Lakers lost 126-118. The Bulls were 4-0 in Jordan’s championship season 50+ games.
Okay, now branch out, and take a look at Bryant’s entire postseason career. 197 games and counting. One 50+, 9 40-49, 22 35-39. Still well behind Jordan’s marks, and we haven’t even accounted for Jordan’s pre-1991 games.
Without getting too grimy with the stats, I’ll just say that from 1985 to 1990, Jordan’s postseason PPG’s were 29.3, 43.7, 35.7, 36.3, 34.8, 36.7. In 13 total postseasons, Jordan averaged 30+ PPG 12 times, missing by 7/10th of a point in his rookie year.
In 13 total postseasons for Kobe, he cleared the 30+ mark four times.
Alright, you say, but you can’t compare Kobe’s first two seasons to anything Jordan did, since Kobe was a backup. True. So lop off those 20 games in ’97 and ’98, and Kobe now has 177 career playoff games to Mike’s 179. Perfect! Kobe’s career playoff scoring average jumps from 25.5 to 27.4, still behind MJ’s career 33.4 mark.
The weird series in Kobe’s career is that 2006 Suns series. With Kobe in his scoring prime (his 81-point game was in January of ’06, and his only two scoring titles were ’06 and ’07), and with “no teammates” and “no shot at victory,” this series seems like the perfect situation for Kobe to simply unload on people. Yet he averaged only 27.9 for the series, and if you remove the 50 point Game 6, he did not top 30 in any of the other six games. I find that astounding.
Any meaningful comparison between Jordan the postseason/Finals scorer and Bryant the postseason/Finals scorer shows a huge edge for Jordan.
PPG IN THE NBA FINALS, by series
Jordan: 31.2, 35.8, 41.0, 27.3, 32.3, 33.5
Bryant: 15.6, 24.6, 26.8, 22.6, 25.7, 32.4, 29.5
NBA FINALS, GAME 1
Jordan: 33.0 points on 51.6% shooting
Bryant: 24.3 on 40.0%
NBA FINALS, potential championship clinching game
Jordan: 10 games, 32.0 on 44.6%
Bryant: 5 games, 23.0 on 34.6%
TOTAL AVERAGES IN ALL NBA FINALS
Jordan: 35 games, 43.0 min, 33.6 points, 6.0 boards, 6.0 assists, 1.8 steals, .7 blocks, 26.0 field goal attempts, 9.1 free throw attempts. PERCENTAGES: 48.1-80.6-36.8
Bryant: 36 games, 41.3 min, 24.7 points, 5.2 boards, 5.0 assists, 1.7 steals, .9 blocks, 21.2 field goal attempts, 6.7 free throw attempts. PERCENTAGES: 41.7-85.5-32.9
In potential clinching games, it should be noted that Kobe raises his overall floor game while Jordan’s drops: Kobe has a 7.8 to 5.5 edge on the boards and a 5.2 to 4.7 edge on assists.
But as we saw in Jordan’s final postseason game when he notched 45 points with only 1 rebound and 1 assist, all that matters is the W.
That game ended with Jordan’s famous layup-steal-jumper sequence. The Bulls were on the road playing an excellent Utah Jazz team, Scottie Pippen was courageously hurt and ineffective for much of the second half, and Jordan was 35-years-old. A “monster Jordan game” under those circumstances yielded 45 points, a total Bryant matched or exceeded in his postseason career only five times.
Compare that to Kobe’s most recent Finals game, an absolute must-win both in terms of extending the series and in terms of his legacy, since losing the NBA Finals to the 2010 Boston Celtics by dropping three straight games including the deciding Game 6 at home would be a pretty nasty mark on Kobe’s record. In an Absolute Must-Win, Kobe Bryant came through with a nice game: 26 points on 9 of 19 in 39 minutes, knocked down all seven of his free throws, grabbed 11 boards, dished out three assists, and collected four steals. I’ll say it again: that’s a nice game. But not GREAT by Kobe’s standards, and certainly not by Jordan’s.
Perhaps the best comparison between the two can be found in their second batch of three-straight Finals appearances:
Jordan, ’96 to ’98: 18 games, 42.1 min, 31.1 points, 5.4 boards, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals, .6 blocks, 24.7 field goal attempts, 10.7 free throw attempts. PERCENTAGES: 43.4-80.7-31.6.
Bryant, ’08 to ’10: 17 games, 42.1 min, 29.0 points, 5.7 boards, 5.4 assists, 2.2 steals, .8 blocks, 23.8 field goal attempts, 8.1 free throw attempts. PERCENTAGES: 42.2-85.5-35.1.
That seems to sum up the Jordan-Bryant postseason comparison pretty reasonably. Jordan took more shots from the floor at a higher percentage, got a point and a half more at the line on 2.6 more attempts, kept his game inside the arc with two fewer threes, rebounded and passed a bit less, scored a bit more, won a lot more.
Yes, the comparison in wins is difficult because Jordan was blessed with a teammate who was ABSOLUTELY DESIGNED to make his basketball life easier and more fluid. But that’s why Game 6 of the ’98 Finals is such a good primer for understanding the difference between Jordan and Kobe. With Pippen limited, the game rested on Jordan. 45 points. Three game-winning plays. Ring number 6.
Bryant has been masterful in his last two Western Conference Finals. His performances against Denver and Phoenix in deciding Games 5 and 6 were particularly dominant: 31.0 points, 7.0 boards, 7.3 assists, 42 of 85 from the floor, 30 of 33 from the line, and tons of late-game, impossible-to-stop shots down the stretch, particularly in Game 6 against Phoenix.
In fact, the most telling statistic of Bryant’s career just might be a comparison between his seven victorious conference finals and his seven NBA Finals. His scoring average dropped in all seven occasions, and his field goal percentage dropped in all but one (2002, in which he played seven games in the WCF and four in the NBA Finals).
Kobe Bryant, 7 victorious Western Conference Finals: 41 games, 42.3 min, 28.4 points, 5.8 boards, 5.7 assists, 1.3 steals, .9 blocks, 21.7 field goal attempts, 7.5 free throw attempts. PERCENTAGES: 47.3-82.1-37.6
(Maybe that’s why his flying move after yet another bucket to dagger Phoenix was so instantly perfect, memorable, classic. It was, in a way, his peak.)
In short, Kobe shoots more, scores more, shoots way better from the floor, grabs more boards and distributes more dimes in the conference finals than in the NBA Finals.
And don’t forget that Jordan’s career averages in boards and assists easily outdo Bryant’s, and that Jordan The Great Scorer led the League in that category ten times, while Kobe The Great Scorer did so only twice.
All of that adds up to this final conclusion: Kobe is Jordan, only not nearly as good.
So what valuable conclusions can we reach? And what does it mean for tonight?
Well, the big conclusion is that nothing Kobe will possibly do at his natural Kobe rate for the remainder of his career will top Jordan. Short of becoming a different player, (namely, MJ), it is impossible.
As for Game 7 prognostications, let’s say you’ve determined that either A. The Lakers will win because “Kobe is going off tonight!”… OR… B. The Lakers can only win if Kobe goes off tonight… you know, if you’re waiting to see the kind of “that game” that Scoop wondered about three days ago, just know that Kobe has only one 40+ NBA Finals game and only four at 35+. (Jordan: six and 14.)
In short, if Kobe tops 35 tonight to lead his team to a title in Game 7 against this VERY tough Boston defense, it will immediately surpass anything else he’s done and become The Definitive Kobe Bryant Game. Failing to score 35 AND losing would, in a way, also be the definitive Kobe game.
Any way you cut it, this is the biggest game of Kobe’s career. In that ’98 Game 6 (arguably the definitive game of Jordan’s career), MJ bagged his 45 by shooting a putrid but, I suppose, effective 15 of 35 from the floor, while shooting 12 of 15 from the line and knocking in three three-pointers out of seven attempts. For all the points they scored, both versions of the 90s Bulls were actually defensive-oriented teams that happened to have the game’s greatest offensive player, along with another 19 points from Pippen and 12-15 from Grant/Kukoc. Their defense (especially in the second peat) PLUS the guaranteed 40 points from the next three guys gave Jordan the freedom to post a 15 of 35 shooting night; the Lakers give Kobe the points but not the defensive slack.
Between field goals and free throws, Kobe gets fewer scoring opportunities than did Jordan. He outshoots MJ at the line but shoots worse from the floor, meaning he can only hit that 35+ “Monster Kobe Game” status by improving his floor percentage or increasing his free throw totals.
Can the Lakers win without a Monster Kobe Game? I think they can. If Kobe goes for 30, Gasol for 20, and Artest, Odom, and Bynum come through with top flight de-fense and 30 more between them, that might negate whatever it is the Celtics deliver.
But that’s what makes the Monster Game so important in placing someone historically. Jordan repeatedly came through with MGs in crucial postseason matches. From ’91 to ’98, Jordan scored 35 or more points in ten potential playoff clinchers. The Bulls won nine. Kobe, career: six times, four wins.
Kobe does not need to outdo Jordan to beat the Celtics. He only needs to outdo himself. What makes tonight so exciting is this moment, right here, four hours away, when that possibility exists. Kobe flying around the court, scoring as he pleases, mastering the tempo, playing hound dog defense, his effort and performance matched in full by his enormously talented, long-limbed teammates. My oh my, how marvelous that would be.
Copyright 2010, jm silverstein
June 5th: Rooting for the T-1000
June 3rd: And the Finals MVP trophy goes to…
May 30th: Getting hot
June 15, 2009: Becoming Kobe
June 1, 2009: More than just a puppet