You take your thrills where they come in this business, and one of them is annoying Kobe Bryant. It’s easy to do. You just have to suggest someone shut him down on a basketball court. That does the trick every time.
This is because Kobe considers himself unguardable. Or, at least, he has yet to meet the human capable of doing it. So if he has a bad game — as he did Friday night, missing sixteen of twenty-three shots as the Nuggets beat the Lakers for the first time in their playoff series — there is always some reason other than whoever was guarding him. He was off, his teammates didn’t do enough, he was unaccountably shooting from the wrong spots. Something.
So I took my turn in Kobe’s wheelhouse when he showed up in the Pepsi Center interview room as Friday prepared to give way to Saturday.
First, I asked if JaVale McGee’s offense had surprised him. McGee was the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer in Game 3, behind Ty Lawson, after not being much of an offensive factor in the first two games in Los Angeles. McGee’s teammates credited his big night — sixteen points, fifteen rebounds, three blocks, two steals, two assists and just one turnover — with a major role in the Nuggets’ victory.
“No,” said Bryant, who admits to being surprised only slightly more often than he admits to being well defended. “He did what I know he can do — running hooks, big spin moves, scoop shots with his left hand. Those are things he’s capable of.”
Thus encouraged, I trod deeper into the unthinkable, asking if Danilo Gallinari’s length had bothered him. Nuggets coach George Karl deployed the 23-year-old, 6-foot-10-inch forward on Bryant for much of the second half, during which Kobe took eleven shots and made two.
Bryant smirked. Was I serious? Yes, I said. That’s a real question.
“Sure,” Bryant said, still smirking, sounding at least as sincere as Dr. House. “Somewhat real answer.”
Just in case his opinion of the question, and perhaps of Gallinari, wasn’t clear enough, he added a sardonic postscript to his final response of the night, in which he attributed the Lakers’ first defeat of the postseason to a single statistic:
“We shot six for twenty-five from the three-point line. We can’t do that,” he said. And then, in his best deadpan:
“And Gallo’s defense was exceptional.”
It should come as no surprise that Bryant would never admit being bothered, certainly not by a player with as brief an NBA resume as Gallinari, whether or not he was. In response to a similar question earlier, Karl suggested Gallo had been the Nuggets’ best defensive matchup on Bryant, owing chiefly to his length. Bryant can shoot over anyone, Karl said, but it’s a little harder over Gallinari.
The Italian forward is likely to continue to get the most minutes checking Bryant, Karl said, although Arron Afflalo and Corey Brewer will share the duty.
“I don’t think you want to go one way on Kobe Bryant,” Karl said.
Kobe’s explanation for his offensive struggles credited the Nuggets’ scheme, but no individual defenders.
“I wasn’t on my sweet spots,” he said. “They tried to do some things defensively. They tried to keep me more on the perimeter. I wasn’t in the post a lot. I lived at the elbow the first two games and we got away from that a little bit in the second half. Pau (Gasol) as well, we saw him on the perimeter way too much. We can’t do that. We have to stick to our ground and pound game.”
Bryant has described this season’s Lakers as a championship-caliber squad, and he seemed to view their first playoff loss as a minor bump in the road, calling it “a good learning experience” for the team’s younger players.
For the Nuggets, the formula for success was the usual — outhustling their opponent.
“The game for us is all about our energy and our enthusiasm to play,” Karl said. “It’s not complicated for us. When we play poorly, it’s because we don’t play with enough energy, we don’t push the pace and we shoot too many jump shots.”
He credited the “intensity and guts of JaVale and Kenneth (Faried) and all our bigs” as well as Lawson’s thirteen-point first quarter, which helped the Nuggets build a 30-14 lead after one. The Lakers fought their way back, but by the time they got within striking distance, they were out of gas. The Nuggets took the fourth quarter 27-19 to win going away, 99-84, before a raucous full house.
Like everything else the Nuggets did well, Karl attributed McGee’s big night to aggressiveness. “I think he was working underneath the defense,” he said. “With all the penetration we put in the game, their big guys are always helping uphill and helping out of position a bit.”
Lakers coach Mike Brown also credited the Nuggets’ energy:
“Denver played a great game,” he said. “I thought Ty Lawson came out being very aggressive. We’ve been talking to our guys about him coming out and being aggressive the last couple of days. I thought he was very impactful to start the game to help them get out by however many they got out. I thought that Denver’s two bigs, Faried and McGee, brought a lot of energy to the table for their team. The twelve offensive rebounds for the two, the thirty overall, plus the double-double in points with them also bringing twenty-eight points to the table between the two was a very, very good game for those guys.”
Karl tweaked his starting lineup for Game 3, replacing Kosta Koufos with Timofey Mozgov as the starting center. Mozgov played fourteen minutes and failed to score, but he did establish a more physical tone than Koufos had, banging willingly with Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who was shut out in the first half before putting up eighteen points after intermission. Still, McGee came off the bench to play most of the minutes at center.
Can the Nuggets repeat the feat Sunday to even the series at two games apiece and turn it into a best-of-three, or was this their token win in the usual five-game first-round elimination?
“Every game we’ve played we’ve been down to the Lakers,” Lawson said. “We’ve been down big and always trying to fight back. We wanted to make it a point to come out early and see how they did with a deficit, and they reacted well to it, but we held on.
“We dealt with having a big lead. We dealt with them coming back and making it a game. Nobody got nervous, so we learned a lot today and it’s probably going to help us out throughout the series.”
If Kobe responds to his poor shooting night with a big game Sunday, as he often does, I wouldn’t be surprised if he revisits the question of Gallinari’s defense, just to pound home how stupid he considered the question. Bryant enjoys few things more than the “I told you so” moment.
In Kobe’s world, the only one who can stop Kobe is Kobe. The great ones generally feel that way. The difference with Kobe is he makes no attempt to disguise it with false modesty or humility. He oozes arrogance. The only way to wipe the smirk off his face is to end his season prematurely, which remains a decidedly uphill battle for the Nuggets.