My lingering memory from Game 3 of this series will not be Kobe’s clutch three or Ariza’s steal. It will be Pau Gasol’s fourth quarter performance and the Lakers persistence in running their offense through him. That Gasol needed more touches was painstakingly obvious through the first two games of this series, because as was evident late in this game, he is kind of unstoppable when he wants to be. Birdman is a great weak side defender but one-on-one he is out of his league against Gasol (as are most forwards/centers in this league) and the Lakers look so much more dangerous when they exploit that.

I cannot overstate this enough. A lot of the time Pau is involved in the offense at the high-post where they utilize his smarts and passing ability and like to execute backdoor cuts, pick ‘n pops or quasi-isolations for him at the elbows. Late in Game 3 though Gasol was getting the ball in the true low post, not necessarily looking for his shot all the time, but at least making the Denver defense extremely honest and allowing Kobe to catch his breath on the perimeter a bit more. The Lakers look like a completely different team, a better team, when they run their offense through Pau. You kind of have to pinch yourself sometimes when you realise, “hey, this guy is one of the most skilled big men in the league… he could dominate every game if he had enough shots… he could be (and was) a franchise player in his own right… this is unfair”. When those realisations hit you, and late in this game it did hit me, you can start to appreciate how the Lakers talent is simply unmatched in this league. I don’t want to go as far as saying only the Los Angeles Lakers can beat the Los Angeles Lakers, but from what I’ve seen so far these playoffs, that seems to be the case.

Trevor Ariza was amazing in this game.  What more can you say about a guy who is defending one of the best scorers in the league (Melo was coming off five-straight 30 point games), still manages to score 16 points and knock down three treys, doesn’t miss a shot in the fourth (or a free throw) and pulls off the game-winning steal… again. I just love his attitude and his demeanor. You never see him complain too much or get too worked up and when he nails big shots he doesn’t carry on like a douche (see JR Smith). He is extremely level-headed which is invaluable in pressure situations, and he’s developing quite a clutch reputation. You look back at the great Lakers teams Kobe has been on and you’ll see great clutch players who lined up alongside him – Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Brian Shaw and Derek Fisher always came up big when it counted. It’s the whole John Paxson thing I wrote about yesterday. Ariza is stepping up to fill that void, and something tells me Kobe is sleeping a lot more peacefully at night knowing this.

Kobe’s performance today ranks somewhere amongst his best post-Shaq playoff games. The top of that list looks something like this (in chronological order):

Game 4 vs Phoenix, Round 1 2006 – The buzzer-beater in OT (along with the game-tying shot in regulation) to put the Lakers up 3-1 in the series. The shine on this game somewhat worn off by the fact the Lakers lost the series.
Game 3 vs Phoenix, Round 1 2007 - One of Kobe’s forgotten gems. The Lakers were grossly out-matched by a superior Suns team this year – they had no right winning even one game that series. But Kobe scored 45 points to go with 6 assists, 6 rebounds, and best of all, a dagger turnaround J in Raja Bell’s face in the final minute. Proof of Kobe’s superhuman efforts was that Kwame Brown was the second best Laker on that day, and Kwame Brown has never been the second best of anything in his career.
Game 2 vs Denver, Round 1 2008 – Kobe has 49 points and 10 assists, on 67% shooting. Perhaps Kobe best ever shooting display in the post-season (also hit 5/9 threes).
Game 1 vs Utah, Round 2 2008 - Kobe was great in all six games against Utah in this series, but Game 1 probably had the biggest impact. Had 38-7-6 and shot an epic 21-23 from the free-throw line, dismantling Brewer, Kirilenko and Harpring along the way.
Game 1 vs San Antonio, WCF 2008 – Lakers found themselves down by 20 midway through the third quarter before Kobe kicked into gear, scoring 25 of his 27 points in the second half. He capped it off by hitting the go-ahead jumper with 23.9 seconds left.  Amazing comeback by a young, inexperienced Lakers team playing against the veteran Spurs.
Game 5 vs San Antonio, WCF 2008 – One of the best close-out performances in recent years. The Lakers again found themselves trailing big, this time by 17 points, before Kobe scored 17 of his 39 in the fourth quarter to snare an eight-point win.
Game 2 vs Boston, Finals 2008 - Kobe’s 36 points gave the Lakers their first win of the Finals. His two shots in the final minute were daggers. Without doubt his best performance of the Finals.

The look on Kobe’s face when he hit that three over JR with a minute left pretty much summed it up – he wanted to eat Denver alive tonight. Go watch the clip of his post-game interview – when talking about that shot he looks like he’s in a psychotic trance. What I found most interesting was the comment he made when asked how good it felt to silence the crowd after a shot like that:

It’s a great feeling, it’s a much better feeling actually than being at home…  you enjoy it a lot more, because everyone’s against you, everybody’s wanting you to lose, wanting you to fail”

Doesn’t that just sum up Kobe Bryant to the tee? Being surrounded by doubters and haters most of your career will do that to you; the thought of taking something away from them is more exhiliarating than giving something to your fans. Lebron is an exact polar opposite.

Speaking of Lebron, what did Kobe think of his game winning shot? At today’s shootaround he had this to say:

It was a crazy game and a hell of a shot. He got a clean look, that’s what you really want to do is get a clean look at it. He got a good look. No matter whatever Hedo [Turkoglu] does, or if you put your hands up, it’s not going to matter. If you get a good look at the basket, that ball’s going down.”

Kobe praising Lebron. That doesn’t quite fit with their latest Odd Couple TV commercial does it?

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And if you haven’t already seen the first two, here they are:

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3 votes – Kobe Bryant
2 votes – Pau Gasol
1 vote – Trevor Ariza

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