Unfounded stigma still following Bryant
Suspicions surrounding his performance against the Suns four years ago don't hold up
The Suns, behind Barbosa, won by 31 points that night.
For Kobe Bryant, "this" loss was where reputations were tarnished as well.
It's a game that lives in infamy in Lakers lore, completing one of the biggest letdowns in NBA playoff history, as the Lakers became the eighth NBA team to lose a series after leading 3 games to one.
"The reverse sweep was ridiculous," Andrew Bynum said, looking back at the loss this week.
Bryant, who took only three shots in the second half of Game 7, is largely thought to have given up that night. Analyst Charles Barkley called the Lakers' star "selfish" after the game, suggesting he was passing up shot attempts to make the point that his teammates couldn't win without his scoring.
"Lots of people who were critical of me didn't even watch the game," Bryant told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times this past weekend.
With the Suns and Lakers now battling in the Western Conference finals, giving Bryant the chance to put memories of that 2006 series to bed, I watched Game 7 again the other night.
What I saw complicates the conventional wisdom about Bryant's performance, and calls into question the stigma that still surrounds him because of it.
The Lakers as a team suffered a beating in the first half. The Suns led 32-15 after a first quarter in which Phoenix shot 70 percent from the field. The Lakers shot just 30 percent (6-for-20), with Brown going 1-for-5, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker going 1-for-4 apiece, Walton going 1-for-3 and Bryant going 2-for-4.
Bryant took shots on consecutive possessions once in the quarter, hoping to ride the momentum of back-to-back layups by Odom and Parker and to get back into the game after the Lakers had fallen behind by 10 points in the first six minutes.
After Bryant's teammates started the game 0-for-3, he made his first shot, a fadeaway that made the score 4-2 Phoenix.
TNT analyst Doug Collins said at the time: "That's what Kobe's got to do. When he senses his team needs a basket, that's when he's got to go to work, and he's got to get guys involved. He has a delicate balance here today."
This echoed TNT studio host Ernie Johnson's question from the top of the telecast: "Which Kobe will take the court? The one who makes his team the star? Or the one who drops 50?"
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Los Angeles was 18-9 during the regular season when Bryant scored 40-plus points.
But that approach had not worked against Phoenix.
The Lakers had won only once in the five games in which Bryant scored big against Phoenix that season. They lost the 50-pointer in Game 6 of the first round, and during the regular season his point totals against the Suns were 39 on Nov. 3, when the Lakers lost by 10; 37 on Jan. 20, when they lost by 13; and 51 on April 7, when they lost by 11.
Bryant got hot in the second quarter of Game 7, going 4-for-6 from 3-point range and scoring 18 points in the period, but the Lakers still trailed by 15 points at the half.
In the Lakers' three previous wins in the series, in Games 2 through 5, Bryant had averaged just 23.3 points and 6.7 assists, and the Lakers' frontcourt trio of Walton, Odom and Brown combined to average 43 points per game. Bryant's approach and the contributions of his teammates had, to that point, made the Lakers a more balanced team, more difficult to defend.
Bryant started the second half of Game 7 apparently sticking to a game plan of getting everybody involved. Parker missed a shot in the lane on the team's first possession. Bryant could have taken a contested 3-pointer the next time down the court, but instead worked it around the perimeter, seeing he could get a hockey-style assist if he kicked it to Parker and Parker fed Walton for a wide-open 3-pointer. Walton canned the shot.
Several possessions followed in which Bryant didn't even touch the ball, as Parker, Brown and Walton took turns missing layups down low.
If the plan at halftime laid out by Lakers coach Phil Jackson was to continue to try to get everyone going, Bryant was sticking to the plan. He had tested the beat-the-Suns-singlehandedly approach in previous games. It hadn't worked. Moving the ball, facilitating teammates' opportunities was a proven approach in the series.
About a minute later, Bryant ran down a loose ball at half court and reset the offense, looking for an opportunity. Odom eventually threw the ball away on a bad pass to a cutting Walton on the baseline.
"To get back in the game, we needed somebody else to start making shots," Bryant said to Plaschke this past weekend. "I was just trying to get the other guys going, turn the momentum around."
As the Suns' lead settled into the 20-point range and stayed there with a quarter-and-a-half of basketball left to call, Harlan and Collins focused on Bryant's shot selection, or lack thereof.
"When is Kobe going to start becoming aggressive?" Collins asked, with 5:23 to go in the third and the Lakers down 20, after Bryant made a basic entry pass to Parker on the wing to start the offense.
"You would think any moment," Harlan responded, as Parker turned the ball over while forcing a lazy entry pass and then fouling Shawn Marion who had just stolen it from him.
It was reasonable, given Kobe's ability to take over a game and his recent history of putting up big lines against the Suns, to focus on his point production and offensive aggressiveness. But it may have missed the point of his attack.
Moments later, out of a timeout, Bryant looked noticeably energized and got Raja Bell called for a foul as he made a hard cut to the hoop. After the ensuing inbounds pass, Bryant ran a give-and-go with Brown and missed a 3-point attempt from the corner.
The Suns then used a 7-0 run to go back up by 24 points. Jackson called for Odom to start taking his man off the dribble one-on-one from the top of the key. This produced moderate success, with Odom getting a bucket and then feeding Brown for a layup on consecutive possessions. The Lakers continued going through Odom for the rest of the quarter.
With the Lakers down 87-62 and the Suns doubling Bryant 25 feet from the basket, he found Devean George for an open 3-point attempt. George missed.
After the Lakers ran a successful set to get Sasha Vujacic an open 3-pointer that he made, Collins said, "Kobe's not even looking for his shot right now, just looking for these other guys to shoot the ball."
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Harlan: "Well, we're either going to see Kobe go like crazy in the fourth or the Los Angeles Lakers are going to be a part of playoff history: leading a series 3-1 and losing."
The look on Kobe's face as he hopped in place, awaiting the ball to start the fourth quarter, didn't look like somebody who was tanking. Brian Cook took the first three shots of the fourth for the Lakers, and the Suns' lead ballooned to 28. Next, even with the game long decided, Bryant was called for offensive fouls on consecutive possessions, apparently trying to spark something by going to the hole. And coming out of another timeout minutes later, Bryant aggressively split a double-team from Bell and Tim Thomas and was fouled. After the inbounds pass, Bryant worked the ball around and the Lakers went back inside to Odom who scored at the rim.
"Kobe Bryant took 35 field goal attempts on Thursday; tonight he has taken 16," was the on-air analysis after the made layup by Odom. Later it was, "Kobe's taken three shots this entire half. He has not gotten a field goal," immediately after Bryant passed the ball to change sides of the floor, a staple of the triangle offense. Walton canned an open jumper off the pass.
Bryant checked out of the game with 4:54 remaining and the Lakers down by 28 points. Pat Burke, a backup center from Ireland, came in for Phoenix and hit a 3-pointer from 28 feet out.
The Suns won the game 121-90. But they didn't win because Bryant took just three shots in the second half.
The Lakers, as a team, shot poorly and were routinely beaten by the Suns' pick-and-roll sets on offense.
L.A. decided to switch on the screens, leaving Nash free to shoot over big men who didn't close out fast enough to harrass his shots. Marion, Thomas and Boris Diaw were free to either shoot over smaller Lakers guards or roll all the way to the rim. When the Lakers did close out fast enough, they often over-pursued, leaving Nash and Barbosa opportunities to use their quick first steps to blow by unbalanced defenders. There was even one possession in the third quarter in which Parker was picked and George stayed with Diaw instead of switching, leaving Nash wide open as he traipsed in for a layup.
Lost in the "Kobe tanked" narrative was the fact that Barbosa and the Suns' bench outscored the Lakers' reserves 50-21. And obscured by the idea that Kobe didn't do enough to help his team win was the fact that the Suns shot 61 percent from the field, while no Lakers player (other than Bryant, who finished 8-for-16) shot 50 percent or better.
Current Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry was a Suns assistant at the time. He was asked about Bryant's Game 7 before the start of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Monday.
"Kobe is not a guy who has ever tanked anything," Gentry said, providing a view from the other side. "I don't see him as doing that. We played a great game that night and were able to win. I don't see him as a guy who would ever go there. I would never use the word 'tank' and 'Kobe' in the same sentence."
Kobe's night, his tendency to pass the ball and to not force shots on offense, might have been the headline coming out of Game 7, and ever since.
But don't mistake it for the story.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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