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NBA Finals 2008 – Can Kobe Bryant Guard Ray Allen?

NBA Finals 2008 | Kobe Bryant, Defense, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce

June 3, 2008 – Dr. J-Water

Kobe Bryant has not been named to the NBA’s first team all defense 6 times out of his 12 seasons in the league without rightfully being recognized as one of the NBA’s elite defenders. Kobe’s reputation as a quality defender was solidified in last summer’s Olympic qualifying tournament for team USA as Kobe consistently deferred offensively to his all-star teammates and focused on shutting down the best player on the opposing team with his lock-down defense.

Although the Lakers have a great offensive team with a good balance of outside and inside scoring threats, they still become stagnant at times against good defensive teams and in such cases rely heavily on Kobe to “take over” a game with his unparalleled scoring abilities. Game one of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs was the perfect example of this. In this league and on this team, Kobe does not have the luxury of deferring offensively for an entire series as he did with team USA.

What does this have to do with Kobe’s defense against the Celtics?

Plenty. There have been very few players in the history of the league that can carry a team offensively and be a lock down defender at the same time. Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan come to mind to name a few. Kobe is exceptionally gifted athletically, therefore I don’t doubt for one minute he is capable of shutting down any opposing player on any given night. But can he do it for long stretches of a ball game and still carry the Lakers offense when they hit a scoring slump? Probably not. Playing against arguably the league’s best defensive ball club in years, and certainly the best defense of the post season where the Celtics have only allowed 88ppg on average from their opponents, the Lakers are likely to face numerous stretches of scoring slumps. So that leads us to the question of the day:

Can Kobe Bryant guard Ray Allen?

Historically speaking, if you look solely at Kobe’s one-on-one defensive performances against Ray Allen, probably one of the purest shooters the NBA has ever had, the answer would be an emphatic, NO. In fact Kobe over his career has struggled defensively against most shooting guards who like to run and come off multiple screens. Players like Manu Ginobili, Rip Hamilton, and Ray Allen always seem to give Kobe fits defensively. Even the Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter (creator of the Bulls/Lakers famed “Triangle Offense”) this past week pointed to Kobe’s struggles defensively in the past against Ray Allen as a possible “key to the series” for the Lakers. Tex stated “You don’t want to put Kobe on Allen. Allen has always been very effective against Kobe. Kobe just won’t pay enough attention to him.”

The Lakers in their last series against San Antonio had to address a similar problem with Manu Ginobili. They did so by sliding Kobe Bryant to the small forward spot on defense and having either Sasha Vujacic or Vladimir Radmanovic guard Ginobili at the two spot. This worked to perfection as Vujacic used his quickness to stay with Ginobili fighting past all of the screens, while the Lakers gave Ginobili a different look with Radmanovic who used his length and size advantage to take away Ginobili’s shot. Don’t get me wrong, Ginobili still got his numbers in the series as expected, but he did have streaks where he couldn’t get good looks. All the while Kobe Bryant was conserving his energy on defense by guarding the Spurs defensive specialist Bruce Bowen. What a luxury for Bryant to be able to guard a player who is essentially one dimensional offensively and is only a threat on spot-up three pointers from the corners. This move by the Lakers coaching staff was ideal, and proved to be the biggest key to the Lakers winning the Western Conference and moving on to Thursday’s NBA Finals show down against the Boston Celtics.

Will the same defensive scheme work in the Finals against the Celtics?

In theory, I’d have to say no. Where the Celtics differ substantially from the Spurs is at the SF spot. If Tex Winters and the Lakers want to have Bryant avoid guarding a quick energetic shooting guard such as Ray Allen, when the Lakers switch defensively to have Bryant guard the small forward spot they are asking him to defend one of the top 5 slashing forwards in the whole league, the Celtics leader Paul Pierce. And if you are talking about ability to get to the free throw line and get a defensive player in foul trouble, there probably is no one in the league that can match the skill of Paul Pierce. This means the Lakers are in a situation where they have to pick their poison. If they leave Kobe to guard Ray Allen he will surely get worn out early in the series trying to chase Allen around the floor. If they switch Kobe to guard Paul Pierce at the 3 spot, they are running the risk of Kobe getting in foul trouble each game and watching the game in stretches from the sideline.

I don’t want anyone to confuse my position as saying that I think Kobe Bryant is unable to play defense. In fact I believe the opposite that if Kobe puts his mind to it, he can pretty much shut anyone down he wants. Nor do I want anyone to misconstrue my comments to mean that the Lakers are somehow doomed to lose this series. There are too many variables at play here, including the poor play of Ray Allen in the shooting department during the post-season, and the Celtics inability thus far to shut down the opposing player’s biggest scoring threat down the stretch of a game (think Joe Johnson, then Lebron James).

Hey, maybe Kobe Bryant will lay it all out on the line defensively and trust in his conditioning to carry him through for the entire series. I am sure Kobe Bryant would love nothing more than to be the best defensive and offensive player on the floor in the mould of a certain Michael Jordan and his legendary Finals appearances. If he can do so, it would certainly solidify Kobe’s first career NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award and most likely earn him his 4th career NBA championship ring.

Dr. J-Water’s Key to the Series: Kobe Bryant’s defense;
Lockdown or Letdown?

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