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.
Report: Knicks grumbling about Jeff Hornacek’s lineups and rotations
Privately, players have been grumbling about lineups and rotations during the recent losing skid, according to sources. Brandon Jennings hinted at this after Monday’s loss when he spoke with frustration about the inconsistent nature of the Knicks’ recent lineups.
“Every day is something new. So just got to be ready I guess. You never know when you’re going to play,” he said.
Jennings was asked if the inconsistent rotations make things difficult for players.
“Yeah, when you come in here you don’t really know what’s going to happen, so it’s kind of no consistency and it’s really tough right now,” he said. “Right now, you come in here you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m struggling. It’s difficult for me, because I don’t really know what’s going on. Just take it one day at a time.”
Jennings isn’t the only player expressing dissatisfaction beyond anonymous leaks.
After the game, Courtney Lee – whom Hornacek removed the starting lineup – posted and deleted photos of Dumb & Dumber on Instagram. Lee then followed with this caption:
I posted a pic of dumb n dumber cuz that was my mood, no jab at no1. It’s dumb that we have a talented team and we’re in position to win games n keep losing by 1 possession. We’ll figure it out collectively as a team but that was my mood after the game. Has nothing to with any change, rotation, system, players, coaches, so let that be clear.
Are we reading too much into vague social media postings and distant body language? That is a real risk.
But Hornacek still appears to have issues with these Knicks. The debate should be a matter of the depth of the problems, not whether they exist.
This is what happens when teams lose 11 of 13. Players get frustrated and grumble.
The coach also often adjusts the rotation, which Hornacek has done, including starting Ron Baker. Jennings and co. haven’t earned stability in their roles. When they had that, they were losing.
The question now: Can Hornacek reclaim the players’ trust, which would help the team break its skid? Or does the griping – and, partially as a result, the losing – continue in a season-destroying snowball?
PBT Extra: Carmelo Anthony/Phil Jackson rift just adds to Knicks stagnation
Carmelo Anthonyand Phil Jackson had a chilly talk, and Anthony told Jackson the star forward wants to stay in New York. Which, based on the mind games we’re seeing, is not what Jackson wants — although you get the feeling Jackson wants to move Anthony to bring in more stop-gap, win now pieces rather than try to build a future around Kristaps Porzingis.
Which all speaks to why the Knicks have made the playoffs just three times in 13 years. What is the Knicks long-term plan?
I discuss it all in this latest PBT Extra. Well, except the long-term plan because nobody knows what that is.
Rajon Rondo strangely runs behind Rick Carlisle during play (video)
It’s not exactly Seven Seconds or Less Part 2 in Houston, but it may be closer to Mike D’Antoni’s ultimate vision.
The Rockets are 32-12 with the third-best offense in the NBA (Toronto and Golden State), and it’s an analytics wet dream of threes and shots at the rim. It’s all come together because James Harden bought in. Steve Nash ran the offense brilliantly but differently — Harden is as good or better with his style (which gets him to the line more often).
“I thought he was crazy,” says Harden, who earned his stardom at shooting guard….
Or as D’Antoni put it, “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.”
“People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'” (Rockets GM Daryl) Morey says. “I’m like, ‘F–k no!’ I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did.”
But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today.
Harden is MVP-level good. What’s more, the Rockets are knocking on the door of contender good. The pedestrian defense isn’t there yet (18th in the NBA for the season, 15th for the month of January), questions about depth and if young key cogs like Clint Capela can grow into the roles the Rockets need them to, and there are the health concerns considering the histories of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
But the Rockets are dangerous right now and could reach the Western Conference Finals this season if healthy and things break right (their style and athleticism would be a tough test for the Spurs). And the story of how it all came together is fascinating.