NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: Boston manages to slow down Kobe

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Kobe swarmed.jpgComing into Sunday night’s game, Kobe Bryant had scored 30 or more points in 11 of his last 12 games. He had not shot 40 percent or lower from the field since April 22nd. He didn’t just defeat the Jazz and the Suns; he completely demoralized them with tough shot after tough shot. In the twelve games between his thirteen-point performance against the Thunder and the start of the NBA finals, Kobe looked nothing short of unstoppable.

The Celtics were hoping that their vaunted defense would be able to take Kobe out of his comfort zone in a way that Utah and Phoenix couldn’t, but Kobe sliced through their rotations with ease en route to a 30-point game one performance. After game one, it looked like Kobe’s campaign of destruction was going to keep right on rolling until he was holding the Bill Russell trophy for the second time in as many years.
But something changed in game two. It wasn’t that Kobe stopped looking like Kobe; he still knocked down the shot almost every time he got a decent look at one, made some beautiful passes when the Celtics threw multiple defenders at him, managed to bother Ray Allen when he switched onto him late in the second quarter, and made one of the best plays of the playoffs when he stole the inbounds pass and hit a contested three at the end of the first half. Kobe missed a few shots he’s more than capable of making, but for the most part Kobe looked like Kobe. The only thing that changed in game two was that the Celtics defense looked like the Celtics defense. 
In game one, Ray Allen found himself on the wrong side of the line that separates physical play from rampant fouling. In game two, he made the necessary adjustment, and managed to bother Kobe all night long while only being whistled for three fouls. Instead, it was Kobe who found himself on the wrong side of the rulebook; Bryant committed five fouls in game two, and was limited to 34 minutes of play because of foul trouble. 
When Kobe caught the ball, Allen was right there to contest him. When Kobe tried to make a move, Allen was there to bump him just enough to throw him off his balance. When Kobe rose up to shoot, Allen made sure that Kobe’s momentum was carrying him away from the hoop, and that there was a hand in his face. Like Shane Battier in last year’s playoffs, Allen seems to be able to occasionally make Kobe uncomfortable on the perimeter without having to take crazy gambles or trying to be overly physical. 
Of course, it wasn’t just Allen who kept Kobe from going off in game two. When Kobe caught the ball in the mid-to-high post area, there were at least three or four pairs of Celtic eyes trained on him. When he tried to post up on the wings, the Celtics frustrated him by bringing fast, aggressive double-teams from the top. When he turned into the paint, there was a Celtic in position and waiting for him. By keeping Bryant in front of them at all times and cutting off Kobe’s passing lanes, the Celtics were able to turn the Laker offense into Kobe vs. The World.
After the game, Phil Jackson had this to say about how Boston limited Kobe’s ability to get where he wanted to go with the ball:  “Well, they got on him and made him go left all the time. There were not letting him come back to his right hand, shoving him to the left then going to help when he started to push the ball. That changed things up for him. He still figured it out pretty well toward the end but couldn’t complete it.” Bryant is as good as any player in basketball at driving to his off-hand, but even Kobe can’t take apart a defense like Boston’s without being able to drive to his strong side. 
When Tony Allen guarded Kobe, he used his athleticism and length to keep Bryant from catching it where he wanted to catch it, then played wildly aggressive defense on him to force him to drive into the help. When Rondo guarded Kobe, he used his superhuman length and quickness to go straight at the ball, and was able to make a couple of key defensive plays by doing so. It takes an entire team to (try) and defend Kobe Bryant effectively; on Sunday night, every Celtic was up to the challenge.
When the Celtics played LeBron James and the Cavaliers, their strategy was to wall off the paint, cut off LeBron’s drive-and-kick opportunities, and force James to beat them by shooting from the perimeter or playing off the ball. When the Celtics faced the Magic, they chose not to over-help on Dwight Howard, instead staying at home on Orlando’s shooters and making them run the offense through Howard. Both strategies worked perfectly, and that’s just another reason why Tom Thibodeau now has an NBA head coaching job
Against Bryant, the most complete offensive player in the game, Boston’s strategy seems to be this: if you want to defend Kobe Bryant effectively, you have to be the aggressor. It doesn’t matter how fundamentally solid your defense is, or how well you contest Bryant’s looks — if you let Kobe operate on his own terms, he will find a way to absolutely destroy you. It can be from three, from midrange, in the paint. Left hand, right hand, busted right hand. In the post, off the dribble, catch-and-shoot. If you let Kobe pick the game, he wins. Boston made Kobe react instead of giving him that luxury, and it helped them get the series split in Los Angeles. 
The battle between Bryant and the Celtic defense is very, very far from over. Kobe will come out guns blazing in game three, and could easily hang 30 or 40 on the same defense that gave him trouble in game two. There’s no way to stop a player like Bryant; the best you can do his hope to slow him down. On Sunday night, that’s exactly what Boston was able to do. 

Three Things to Know: Jason Kidd out in Milwaukee, now what for Bucks?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Milwaukee fires Jason Kidd as coach. It’s the right move, but now what? It’s a move that caught the players in Milwaukee off guard, a move that will be trashed by some of the NBA’s old boy network, but something expected by many officials from other teams and league observers (although most thought it would be an offseason move).

Jason Kidd was fired as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks Monday.

It was the right move. Individual players grew under Kidd — Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a superstar with the ball in his hands, and he was so unhappy with the move he offered to intervene and try to save Kidd’s job — but the team did not. Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six, but as had happened too much with this team it was two steps up and one step back. The Bucks didn’t grow from there. The team entered this season with players talking of 50-win season and a top four seed (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the wins under/over at 47.5), and the expectation was the defense would finally come around. It didn’t. Kidd blamed the team’s youth to everyone — the media publicly and team management privately, asking for more veterans — yet he made some, shall we say, “interesting” end of game coaching decisions that left everyone bewildered. Kidd eventually backed off some on the ultra aggressive, trapping defensive style this team played — a style teams figured out how to beat with ball movement — but it wasn’t enough. The Bucks are 25th in the NBA in defense. With that they are 24-22, but with a negative point differential that suggests a 20-26 team, not one clinging to a playoff slot (currently seventh in the East, 1.5 games up on ninth-seed Detroit and missing the playoffs all together, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 68 percent chance of making the postseason).

Now what?

For the rest of this season, long-time assistant Joe Prunty will run the show, and he will get the chance to Frank Vogel his way into the job if the team excels under him (and the moved was timed as the Bucks enter a soft part of the schedule, they can rack up some wins right now). However, more likely is a big off-season search where the biggest names in coaching without a job will come calling. Already two names bandied about are Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams. David Fizdale has to be considered. Every coach without a job will want this one — with Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and a host of long, athletic, quality role players (such as Thon Maker, Jon Henson and others) this team has a world of potential. It should be talked about with Minnesota and Philadelphia as the teams who have next in the NBA.

The Bucks have been rumored to be interested in DeAndre Jordan, is that still the case or will they try to make their moves in the off-season (when they can’t afford to sign Jordan or much of anyone else of consequence without shedding salary)? My guess is now the team now waits, it will want to consult with whoever is hired as coach.

Also, how will the Bucks at times feuding ownership play into all of this? New Yorkers Mark Lasry and Wes Edens have had their differences — Jon Horst is the GM now because the two sides could not agree on a candidate so they compromised on him, someone farther down on both lists. On the court this team is seen as one of the league’s best jobs with the most potential, but the coach may need to navigate ownership landmines along the way.

The Bucks move into their new arena next fall and there will be pressure on the new coach to bring the team up to the level of the building — the Bucks have the pieces to be one of the top teams in the East (a conference that could open up depending on what LeBron James chooses to do next summer). It’s a coveted job, but not an easy one.

2) DeMarcus Cousins has the kind of night nobody has had in 46 years. All-Star starter DeMarcus Cousins went off on the Bulls Monday night — 44 points, 24 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

The last time somebody had a 40/20/10 night in the NBA Elton John had just released “Rocket Man” — Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1972 when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

3) Locker room issues bubble up in San Antonio and Cleveland, but will it matter? Two things that can lead to locker room dissent in the NBA? Struggling teams on losing streaks pointing fingers, and guys with lingering injuries that were expected back.

We saw both of those creep up Monday, in San Antonio and Cleveland. The question is, will it matter to either organization come the playoffs? Probably not.

In Cleveland, losers of 8-of-11 and heading into a tough stretch of games, they held an emotional team meeting Monday’s practice, and Kevin Love became the whipping boy. Because the more things change, the more it’s still always Kevin Love’s fault. Other players questioned the illness that Love said he suffered that forced him to sit out much of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Thunder (he left the building before the game was over) and then miss practice Sunday. The meeting got heated, but Love spoke to the team to explain himself and that seemed to calm things down, mostly. For now. These team meetings make headlines, but most of the time prove to be meaningless on the court. Are the Cavaliers going to start to care and at least give some effort on defense after this? We’ll see. I wouldn’t bet on it lasting, it almost never does, but we’ll see.

In San Antonio, reports came up that the always quiet Kawhi Leonard has become “disconnected” from the team while dealing with the thigh injury that has let him play just nine games this season. Leonard and Popovich have always been on the same page, is this just frustration with a rehab on a quad injury that is just not healing as fast as anyone hoped and expected? Is it more than that? Both GM R.C. Buford and Leonard’s uncle denied any rift.

What happened with LaMarcus Aldridge shows us how this likely plays out. Aldridge demanded a trade last summer, but rather than panic and ship him out (for less than fair market value) Popovich sat down with Aldridge, figured out why he was frustrated, adjusted how he used him, and now Aldridge is happy — he signed an extension — and is having an All-Star season. Expect Popovich to figure out how to work with Leonard, too.

Are these leaked black and white uniforms the All-Star Game jerseys?

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Nike faced a challenge with this year’s All-Star Game in designing the uniforms — there is no East vs. West. How do you design a uniform for the teams captained — and selected — by Stephen Curry and LeBron James? Maybe go back to 1997 (and a few years after) where players just wore their team’s uniform, either home whites or road colors.

It looks like Nike has solved the problem by going black-and-white.

Conrad Burry of Sportslogos.net — who in the past has nailed early leaks of NBA uniforms — confirmed ongoing Web rumors that the league is going black and white (hat tip ESPN).

What do you think? I’m with Conrad here — if these are the really the uniforms they don’t work for me. Maybe it will work better in person and on the broadcast, but I don’t know. We’ll see.

Hornets’ owner Michael Jordan: “I’m not looking to trade Kemba” but he’ll listen

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The Charlotte Hornets are having a disappointing season. Projected by many (myself included) to be a playoff team (with an under/over of 42.5 in Las Vegas), Charlotte is 19-26 and four games out of the playoffs in the East.

That has left Charlotte management with a question: Is it time to trade Kemba Walker, work to tear the team down and rebuild, or do they chase the eight seed? Walker doesn’t want to be traded.

Team owner Michael Jordan doesn’t want to trade him, but he’s listening to offers, he told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

“We bred him, we chose him, we groomed him to be a good player for us,” Jordan said of Walker, who the Hornets drafted ninth overall in 2011, to a great extent because Jordan saw traits in Walker that reminded him of his own playing career.

“I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities….

“It’s not like we are shopping him. We would not just give him up. I love Kemba Walker. I would not trade him for anything but an All-Star player.”

Charlotte with Walker is in the same place as the Clippers with DeAndre Jordan — moving him would mean a dramatic shift for the organization going forward, so they are only going to do it with a quality offer in return. It’s going to take some combination of good young players and picks that can jumpstart a rebuild, and in the Hornets case they want to attach one of their bad contracts (such as Marvin Williams).

So far, those offers have not come for either team. The trade market has been tight, in part because a lot of teams are in the playoff hunt (such as the Hornets) and don’t want to move quality players, and in part because teams spent a lot of money in 2016 and are pushing the luxury tax (such as the Hornets) and they can’t take on salary (and with that are finding it hard to move bad contracts).

Come Feb. 9, expect Walker to still be wearing the team uniforms of Charlotte as no deal is found. But also expect Michael Jordan to feel cans for another day.

Watch DeMarcus Cousins’ historic 44/24/10 night

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The last time somebody did this — scored more than 40 points, had more than 20 rebounds, and dished out more than 10 assists in a game — “Poseidon Adventure” was in the theaters and Elton John had just released “Rocket Man.” It was Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

Monday night, DeMarcus Cousins did it.

Cousins scored 44 points, had 24 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

Cousins has had a monster first half of the season and earned his first All-Star Game start this year.