To the surprise of exactly nobody, playing two of the three best teams in the NBA has brought our Timberwolves back to Earth. What's more, it appears that much of the good fortune that enabled the team's improbable January success--namely, mind-alteringly hot shooting by Randy Foye and Rodney Carney (the two are now a combined 22-72 in the last three losses)--has begun to fade, as we knew it would. The Wolves would have needed some of that magic to compete with the Lakers and the Celtics. Without it, they looked almost exactly as overmatched as they should have, losing 132-119 and 109-101, respectively. Now, when whatever admixture of weak opponents, group synergy and shimmering fairy dust that propelled you onward begins to wear off, when you're left to your own devices, this is when the season gets hard.
I've spent a lot of my life hating on Kobe. For his arrogance, for his rich-boy sense of entitlement, for his affected, self-conscious melodramatics, for his slightly too studied playing style--and, ok I admit it, for the way he used to torch the Wolves in the playoffs. And I've also spent lots of time arguing Lebron's case as the league's best player. But I must say that playing with these confident, talented teammates, within a system that fosters both individual and group creativity, Kobe Bryant is a sight to behold. On Friday nearly all of his looks--the explosive drives, the smooth step back jumpers, the zero-gravity fades--came almost effortlessly, within the flow of the reactive, flexible triangle offense. I'm not about to change my mind about the guy, but after seeing Kobe's dynamic, patient performance (a quiet 30 points, eight boards, five assists) I guess I'm starting to waver.
That offense (as it was for Michael Jordan) is the perfect context for Kobe's abilities. Running it, the Lakers were calmly and consistently able to create fluid ball and player movement, usually finding open shots within the first 15 seconds of the shot clock, no matter how the Wolves attacked them. Offensively, the Lakers are simultaneously more open and more cerebral, both more disciplined and more improvisational than any team I've seen this year. Their half-court sets looked like an extension of their fast break, while their break was just as intentional and composed as their half-court. The Lakers don't play with the frenetic pace we've seen in recent years from the Suns, Knicks or Warriors, but their offense might be even more satisfyingly prolific, even more florid and beautiful.
It doesn't hurt that that offense is in the hands of insanely skilled, freakishly athletic players. Bryant is self-evidently amazing, of course, but the Wolves were even more baffled by Lakers forwards Pau Gasol and especially the huge (really, really huge), lithe 21-year-old, Andrew Bynum. On the face of things, Al Jefferson "answered his critics" as they like to say, responding to his All-Star snub with a 34-point, 13 rebound night. But just between you and me and everyone who watched the game, Big Al got schooled; the longer, stronger, more athletic Bynum overwhelmed him at both ends of the floor. Bynum pushed Al out of his range, forced him into awkward shots and even blocked his jump hook (not easily done). And Al was neither strong nor tenacious enough to prevent Bynum from getting perfect low post position of his own. Once Bynum actually caught the ball, the easy layup or foul was a formality. Whenever the Lakers felt the least bit threatened, they were able to rely on Kobe's midrange game or their unstoppable big men. By the fourth quarter, Jefferson looked flummoxed and defeated.
Everything's Gone Green
If the Wolves learned that the Lakers' offense is fairly awe-inspiring, they then learned that, even without the flu-y Kevin Garnett, the Celtics still play some gnarly D. It's obvious that Garnett's unrelenting intensity has rubbed off on his teammates. For most of Sunday's game, the they swarmed the lane, contested shots, challenged every pass--even in transition, when a team expects open passing lanes and clear paths to the basket, the Wolves had to work hard for every pass and shot.
The Celtics used that fierce defense, and their patient, efficient offense to build a 20 point third quarter league; it's a testament to KG's importance to his team (and also to the Wolves incredible progress) that they had to struggle to hold onto it. Garnett is usually able to put intense pressure on the ball and then to recover and challenge shots inside; basically, he can single-handedly disrupt the opponents' entire offense. In the fourth quarter, Sebastian Telfair, Mike Miller and Ryan Gomes were able to exploit his absence by creating some pretty smooth, aggressive ball movement, generating open shots for the first time in the game.
Big Al also took the opportunity to abuse his old buddies Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby Davis. As lost as he looked against the Lakers, he was just that aggressive and purposeful against Boston. He was hitting face-up jumpers and fadeaways; he was cutting to the basket and finishing with authority; he was blocking shots and battling for boards. (It's worth noting here that Jefferson is a player who draws enormous energy from his own success. When he's playing well, he tends to become all the more aggressive and intense. Whereas, when he struggles, as he did on Friday, he can get a little sulky.) For a while it looked like their fourth quarter execution and Al's vigorous play might be enough to pull the Wolves even. In the end though, Paul Pierce turned out to be even tougher to guard than Kobe had been. "I just try to give the game what it needs," said Pierce. "Today I thought it needed my scoring." Get ready to have your mind blown: turns out, really good teams play great defense, but are also very good at scoring, and vice versa.