Last season, one of the reasons the Rockets were able to take the eventual champion Lakers to a seventh game was the defense Shane Battier played on Kobe Bryant. Kobe got his points, but Battier’s hounding defense forced Kobe to work for each and every one of them, and it was a thrilling battle to watch.
In this year’s playoffs, Bryant and the Lakers have a first-round date with another very good defensive team featuring a defensive specialist on the perimeter. The Thunder were a top-10 team in defensive efficiency this season, in large part because Thabo Sefolosha has emerged as perhaps the league’s best perimeter defender. Thabo’s combination of tenacity, athleticism, and length have earned him the unofficial title of “the next Bruce Bowen,” although though Sefolosha can’t knock down open threes as well as Bowen could.
On the other side, there’s Kobe Bryant. Not only is he one of the best offensive players of all time, but he’s one of the few perimeter players who can destroy a team without needing to blow by his initial defender. With his series of pull-ups and post moves, Kobe is capable of scoring 30 points without taking it hard to the basket once. That means more one-on-one battling then you’ll see in any other superstar vs. stopper matchup this playoffs.
“The last time the Thunder played the Lakers, on March 26, Sefolosha had one. During the 22-plus minutes that Sefolosha guarded Bryant, Kobe made exactly one field goal, and that was an end-of-shot-clock special. For the game, which the Thunder won, Bryant finished with 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting and committed a career-high-tying nine turnovers. Afterward, he even admitted that Sefolosha had bothered him. Copping to weakness? Now this is not the Kobe we’ve come to know and (pick your choice) love/detest/grudgingly respect/name our firstborn after.
No doubt, Bryant will use that game as fuel for the playoffs. As you read this, he’s probably holed up somewhere, masochistically watching film of Sefolosha while chanting whatever mantra Kobe chants when he’s doing some serious self-improvement. And as a result Bryant will likely come out focused and dangerous, which in years past would have led to a ritual thrashing of his opponent.
This year, I’m not so sure.”
On paper, this certainly doesn’t look all that good for Kobe. His team is coming into the playoffs without any momentum to speak of. He hasn’t been fully healthy all year, and had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. He’s not old yet, but he’s not getting younger either. Now he has to go up against an ultra-tough, ultra-hungry team of young guns who feature the best perimeter defender in the game. However, if there’s one thing NBA fans know, it’s that counting out Kobe is a very, very bad idea. As bad as this matchup looks for Kobe and the Lakers, I’d be shocked if Kobe didn’t end up going off for at least one or two signature performances before the series is over.
Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.
Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.
It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.
Isaiah Thomas previously explained his emotions in a statement, but the Celtics guard spoke publicly yesterday for the first time since the death of his sister in a car crash just before the playoffs.
Thomas, via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:
“Mentally and emotionally I’m not here,” Thomas said after Game 4, the first time he has spoken publicly since his sister’s death. “So I just feed off of what the guys give me. They give me a lot of confidence. I can’t do it without those guys. They believe in me. Being here is what makes me sane and makes me feel somewhat normal through these tough times.”
Thomas has played well for Boston, which won twice in Chicago to even its series with the Bulls, 2-2. It’s remarkable considering the heavy emotional burden and extra travel, going to Seattle for his sister’s funeral then joining the Celtics in Chicago.
His teammates have clearly rallied around him, and that surely helps. But I can’t even imagine how he’s simultaneously handling such a tragic family situation and the biggest games of his career.
Pacers super fan Matt Asen brings his lucky flamingo to each game.
He also annoyed the heck out of Kyrie Irving by trying to hand it, rather than the ball, to the Cavaliers guard.
James Harden didn’t lead the Rockets in scoring in their Game 4 win over the Thunder yesterday.
He didn’t even rank second – or third.
Nene, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each outscored Harden, who scored 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 0-for-7 on 3-pointers.
What happened to the Houston star?
Calvin Watkins of ESPN:
Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said he has been hobbled by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3 of this first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Harden made the revelation to ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Rockets’ 113-109 Game 4 victory on Sunday afternoon.
“It was pretty tough; we don’t make excuses,” Harden said in a news conference when asked about his health. “We just try to go out there and get the job done. You build trust, and trust in your teammates all year long. When there’s moments like this, guys step up and they did tonight. We have another opportunity in a few days to go out there and win on our home court, and we’re going to have to get off to a really good start.”
Many players are grinding through injuries this time of year. Is Harden’s exceptionally bad? There’s no way of telling from the outside.
But he didn’t look quite right in Game 4, and if he’s hobbled, that opens the door slightly wider for Oklahoma City to come back from its 3-1 deficit.