NBA Playoffs, Lakers Suns Game 1: Kobe is hurt, Grant Hill is old. One will key a win tonight


Thumbnail image for Kobe_layup.jpgThrough the years, the one constant in the Lakers/Suns battles is that the Suns never really stopped Kobe Bryant. Raja Bell did a respectable job, but those were the days Kobe had to keep gunning because his other options were pass to Smush Parker or pass to Kwame Brown. Better to shoot over the triple team.

Slowing Kobe will again be crucial for Phoenix — the Lakers are going to get points inside from Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The Suns are going to struggle with that. But if the Lakers are getting points from the perimeter, efficient points from Kobe as well, the Suns are in a lot of trouble.

Good luck Grant Hill, the job is all yours.

Grant Hill has been the defensive specialist for the Suns. He made the Trail Blazers offense sputter when he was on Andre Miller (well, that and Brandon Roy being injured made their offense sputter). He slowed Manu Ginobili of the Spurs last series.

Grant Hill is 37 years old. We are required by law to mention that. Doesn’t mean anything except one thing — he’s not as quick as he was at 25. Hill now relies more on veteran savvy and his fantastic basketball IQ than just pure foot speed anymore.

He is not as quick as Kobe Bryant anymore. In a pure isolation clear out, Kobe should be able to blow past Hill.

That “should” could be a “would” if not for one thing — Kobe’s not healthy. He has not practiced with his team once in the week off between series. He had his knee drained of fluid. His ankle is still sore, his finger still hurts. Kobe is not the explosive Kobe of old.

Kobe now relies much more on his veteran savvy, his basketball IQ to get the shots he wants in the offense. To set up his teammates.

And that’s where Game 1 gets really interesting — if Kobe is explosive enough to get the 28 points a game he is averaging in the playoffs in an efficient manner on Hill, the Suns are in trouble. They have to commit resources inside, they can’t bring reinforcements away from the basket, too. All that would mean the Lakers are getting easy baskets.

There are a lot of other things to watch — can the Suns keep the pace up? Can the Lakers slow the game by pounding the Suns inside? Can Pau Gasol guard Amare Stoudemire? Can Stoudemire guard Gasol? Who would win a footrace between Robin Lopez and Andrew Bynum at this point? Smart money on the last one is on the tortoise.

But as always, things circle back to Kobe. During the season, the Suns used Jason Richardson on Kobe, and he backed Richardson down in the post and beat him up pretty good. The Lakers won three of four. If Hill doesn’t change that equation, the Lakers will win four in this series pretty quickly.

Here is Kobe Bryant’s letter given to every fan at Lakers’ game Sunday

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers

LOS ANGELES — In a classy move — and one done in a very Kobe Bryant tone — every fan coming into Staples Center Sunday night to see the Lakers take on the Pacers received a letter from No. 24.

Inside a sealed black envelope, on quality, embossed paper, was this letter from Bryant (photo below):

When we first met I was just a kid.

Some of you took me in. Some of you didn’t.

But all of you helped e become the player and man in front of you today.

You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.

Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.

You witnessed my fears morph into strength.

Your rejection taught me courage.

Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.

What you’ve done for me is far greater than anything I’ve done for you.

I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.

I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.

My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.

Thank you for this incredible journey.

It speaks to Kobe’s mindset over the years that he talked about the fuel from the rejection of Lakers’ fans motivating him. As a Los Angeles native (and former Laker blogger), let me tell you there was precious little rejection of Kobe from this fan base. There were questions and doubters early on, but even when Shaquille O’Neal was seen as the driving force of the team Kobe was beloved in Los Angeles. Something that continued through his trial in Colorado — Lakers fans have almost always had his back.

But Kobe finds fuel everywhere. Which is why he is a future Hall of Famer.


Jahlil Okafor tweets apology for recent off-court behavior

Jahlil Okafor

The off-court incidents have been piling up for Jahlil Okafor over the past month: first, an incident captured on video that showed Okafor getting into a fight with a heckler early Thanksgiving morning; then, a report that Okafor had a gun pulled on him in a previous incident; and finally, this morning’s report that the Sixers’ No. 3 overall pick in this June’s draft had been pulled over in recent weeks for driving 108 miles per hour in Philadelphia. Together, they aren’t a good look for the rookie.

On Sunday afternoon, Okafor apologized for his recent behavior in a series of tweets:

The recent incidents involving Okafor are surprising—going into the draft, he never had any red flags for maturity or off-the-court issues. He’s certainly saying the right things after the fact, and he’s only 19, so hopefully this is nothing more than a small rough patch where he’s made some bad decisions, and not an indicator of things to come.

Kobe Bryant announces this is his final season


LOS ANGELES — It has seemed like this was it for a while. Kobe Bryant has been frustrated; he hasn’t been able to produce like he expects — his play has been hard to watch — and the Lakers are a train wreck.

Kobe made it official Sunday via the Players’ Tribune — this is his final season. He did it via a letter called “Dear Basketball.”

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.

It’s not coincidental this was announced a couple days before the Lakers travel to Kobe’s hometown of Philadelphia to face the Sixers. Also remember Kobe is an investor in The Players’ Tribune.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver quickly released this statement:

“With 17 NBA All-Star selections, an NBA MVP, five NBA championships with the Lakers, two Olympic gold medals and a relentless work ethic, Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players in the history of our game.  Whether competing in the Finals or hoisting jump shots after midnight in an empty gym, Kobe has an unconditional love for the game.

“I join Kobe’s millions of fans around the world in congratulating him on an outstanding NBA career and thank him for so many thrilling memories.”

Kobe will go down as one of the game’s all-time greats. Few can come close to his resume: Five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVPs, 15 time All-NBA teams, one MVP, 17 times an All-Star (and the All-Star Game MVP four times). And we could go on and on.

Good on Kobe for doing this now. After 55,000 NBA minutes his body has quit on him, and where his mind is still willing the flesh is clearly weak right now. He has not been able to adapt his game to the changing realities of what he can do.

Kobe has said he doesn’t want a “Derek Jeter Farewell Tour” but that will be the feel from here on out. Expect some special recognition at the All-Star Game in Toronto.

Bulls’ Dunleavy to see specialist after suffering setback with back injury

Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah
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CHICAGO—Over the past few weeks, Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy has seemed to be making progress in his back rehab. Dunleavy underwent back surgery shortly before the start of training camp and was initially given a timeline of 8-10 weeks. Recently, he’s been increasing his workload, and he traveled with the team on their recent west coast road trip.

However, his recovery may have hit a snag.

“Mike is going to see a doctor again tomorrow and then we should have a better update after that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after practice on Sunday. “He had a little bit of soreness. But we’ll have more on that tomorrow.”

An update to Dunleavy’s status is coming, but given Dunleavy’s age (35) and the frequency of back injuries to reoccur, this news certainly isn’t encouraging. Between Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, the Bulls have struggled at both ends of the floor on the wing. Getting Dunleavy back, whenever that happens, will be a huge help. But nobody knows when that will be.