This series is one Ariza steal away from being 2-0 in the Nuggets favor, and one Kobe fumble from being 2-0 in the Lakers favor. It’s almost impossible to split these teams over the first two games, but here’s two things we’ve learnt:

  • The Lakers are incapable of stopping Melo, not because they don’t have suitable defenders – Ariza and Kobe have done an admirable job – but because Melo is the most in-form scorer in the playoffs right now. It’s not just his form, it’s his aggression and his hunger for the ball that has impressed me - ”You’re damn right I wanted the ball” was his response when asked why he didn’t get touches down the stretch of Game 1. I think Carmelo senses this series could be the launching pad for him to get to the next level – if he tops Kobe in this series and makes the Finals, he’s back amongst the league’s elite (and the Lebron-Carmelo debate becomes relevant again)
  • The Nuggets are incapable of stopping Kobe, not because Kobe has been doing anything remarkable – he’s had to work damn hard for his points so far – but because the Nuggets don’t have any suitable defenders. JR Smith and Dahntay Jones – the Nuggets two natural shooting guards – are too small to guard Kobe, and the effort they’re having to expend is practically muting their offensive output. Melo has been the best defender on Kobe so far, but Coach Karl knows that can only be a temporary solution during any game – Melo can’t defend Kobe for 48 minutes and be expected to score 30 points. It won’t happen.

So we’re essentially left with an admission from both teams that the opposition’s best player can’t be stopped, and that the key to victory lies in handling their teammates. That means two things: 1) we’re going to get a seriously entertaining series with plenty more epic Melo-Kobe duels, and 2) the team that wins is the team that has the most role players step up. In Game 2 that role player was Linas Kleiza; it was very nearly Trevor Ariza.

This is my problem with the Lakers so far, and this is not really a new observation. Down the stretch of a close game, especially a close playoff game, their offense shrinks to a one dimensional Kobe-show. Against the Nuggs in Game 2, Kobe was the only one that looked like scoring late – Gasol was fumbling the ball and blowing free throws, Walton looked too scared to shoot and Fisher missed shots he normally makes. It’s not only a matter of Kobe’s teammates struggling that leads to the Kobe-show, it’s Kobe’s own desperate insistence of owning the offense. When I say that I don’t mean “ball hogging” – Kobe still finds the open man and obeys the triangle most of the time – but when he gives up the ball in those pressure situations he chases it down like a bloodhound and demands it back. Watching on TV you can sense his overwhelming desire to get the ball, just from his body language and the amount of energy he expends fighting for good position. Imagine what it feels like on the court as one of his teammates? It leads to a lot of possessions where the Lakers appear to be trying to find the best option, but they’re really just going through the motions because Kobe is the only option.

I have deja vu writing this – I swear I’ve said it before – but when its all said and done, down the stretch of a big playoff game, ultimately Kobe still feels like he needs to do it himself. For three and a half quarters he is the new and improved MVP-winning Kobe, and then a switch goes off and he morphs into 2006 Lone Ranger Kobe. The perfect example was his decision to split the double-team in the last minute of Game 2, which practically ended in a turnover (after the loose ball scramble and the jump-ball). When Gasol came rushing over to Kobe for that screen, why on earth try and split the double team when you could run a pick ‘n roll with the best shooting big man on the floor? That’s the 2006 Kobe switch going off, a major brain fade on Kobe’s part. I can honestly say having watched almost every single one of Kobe’s playoff games the last eight years, that may be the most shocking and un-Kobe like moment I’ve seen from him down the stretch of a close game. Kobe usually makes excellent decisions in clutch situations and rarely turns it over. Sure he’s missed his fair share of big shots, even potential game-winners, but you never for one second doubt he’ll at least get into a good position to take that shot. On this night, he didn’t. In my opinion that turnover ultimately cost the Lakers the game – Kobe was in a rhythm having made his last two shots, and I expected him to make another one. On this night though, it didn’t go according to the script for LA.

I know it’s somewhat cause and effect that leads to the Kobe morph (his teammates wilting–> his need to then carry them) and it’s silly to point the finger at Kobe when his teammates clearly need to pull their fingers out. But mark my words – the Lakers will NOT win the championshp until someone other than Kobe has a dominant clutch performance to win a big game. And no, Gasol’s Game 7 against Houston does not count because Houston was essentially fodder and Gasol should have done that every game. You will know it when you see it. It will look something like John Paxson in Game 5 of the 1991 Finals against Magic’s Lakers, the game that clinched Jordan’s first championship. I wrote about the exact same thing when the Lakers beat Boston on Christmas – it just needs to happen in a meaningful game, and soon.

3 votes – Carmelo Anthony. Is averaging 36-7-5 on 53% shooting so far against the Lakers
2 votes – Chauncey Billups. His the free-throws when it matter (well, except for one)
1 vote – Kobe Bryant. That turnover aside, still had a great game. Is averaging 36-5-3 on 47% shooting against the Nuggets so far.

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