You’d be forgiven if you have a sense that we’ve been through all this before. A tremendous postseason performance by one of basketball’s greatest players, on a national stage is paired with a convincing win, and what is to follow is days full of lavish praise for the star.
Same script, different series. Can we really breakdown an entire playoff series by discussing one player’s singular brilliance? Can our analysis of a bullish beatdown in a Conference Final game really just be a story of one player?
Well, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, it seems.
As is so often the case in a playoff game involving the Lakers, the story of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals does start with Kobe Bryant, but what is encouraging for Los Angles fans is the fact that Bryant serves only as a jumping off point – the Lakers won this game, and took direct control of this series, thanks a number of performances that had nothing do with Bryant.
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Los Angeles will need that to follow that formula going forward if they are to win the seven games they need to repeat as champs: Bryant can be a central plot thread, but the story has to be bigger than that.
In what can only be perceived as a statement game, Bryant delivered a vintage performance. Whatever his message, whether he was out to prove a point that his knee is healthy, that he is still the league’s premier talent, or that he did not quit on his team against these Suns three years ago, Bryant’s meaning were absorbed completely, and the NBA world was put on notice.
This was the 11th time 40-point night of his playoff career, and the sixth straight game he has gone for 30 or more. That he did this on the back of the 21-point third quarter and just 23 overall field goal attempts, is scary.
More frightening though for Laker haters is that Kobe’s excellence oversimplifies the real dominance they showed Monday night. Some examples of that dominance: Los Angeles put up a 56-36 scoring advantage in the paint; Lamar Odom had 19 points and 19 rebounds en route to his best game of the season; the Lakers shot 58 percent from the floor; Pau Gasol had the quietest, most efficient 21 points you could ever imagine.
And the list goes on from there. Whether it was the 14 points they got from an exceedingly patient Ron Artest, or the 19 points cobbled together by the much-maligned Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, the Lakers had an answer to every one of their perceived flaws.
So if the story is not just about Bryant’s singular excellence, how do the Suns adjust? If the truth is that Bryant could have been far less effectively and the Lakers still would have won handily, where does Phoenix improve before Wednesday night?
Steve Nash joked after Game 1 that the Suns were unlikely to grow in height much before Game 2, so that the Lakers size advantage would remain a reality. Jokes aside though, that length played a big role in Phoenix’s imprecise performance Monday night. Whether it was Gasol’s long limbs obstructing passing lanes after screen and rolls, Andrew Bynum’s presence at the rim preventing easy dunks, or Odom’s out-stretched arms taking away sight lines for outside shooters, the Lakers’ length proved invaluable in disrupting the Suns’ game plan.
That is not to say they cannot improve. The Suns wings, most notably Channing Frye and Jason Richardson, will not go the rest of the series shooting as poorly as they did in Game 1. The Lakers can be assured that Nash will continue to set these shooters up in the right spot, and will not waver in confidence, so it would be prudent to expect a much better performance in Game 2.
In Nash, Phoenix has a point guard and a leader who is unwilling to accept defeat, and his determination are likely to elevate him to a transcendent performance in one of the games ahead that will steal at least a game.
But the Lakers length still poses a (pun intended) massive problem for the Suns. Too much of what the Lakers did on offense was too easy, as they seemingly scored at will at the rim. The Suns may well be able to score 115 points a night against this Laker team, but it won’t much matter if they give up 130 thanks to so many layups.
So the story of this series isn’t as simple as Bryant against the world, or Kobe sending a message to LeBron. By sheer force of personality and his polarizing nature, Kobe will always dominate the discussion on all things Lakers.
Game 1 proved though that even when he is at his personal best, the story of his team is way larger than that of Kobe and Friends.
This is a team, and one heck of one at that.