What's wrong with Kobe Bryant? That question has been asked more than "what's wrong with you?," which was thrown at me by my 10th grade English teacher. Believe me, that’s quite the feat.
But in Kobe's case, at least, the answer is simple: He's hurting. Badly.
I look for two things to tell whether or not a great scorer is at 100 percent.
First, is he getting lift? Even as Kobe has slowed in the later stages of his career, he’s always been able to elevate over defenders to get the clean looks at the basket necessary for high percentage shooting. In all eight Lakers playoff games –- even the ones when he went off -– that lift has abandoned him.
It’s almost as if he’s hesitant to fully push off his knees and rise to shoot, or, that he’s saving his allocated number of jumps for when he really needs them, like the potential game-winner in Game 1 against Dallas. Make no mistake: He got way off the ground on that one – it just happened to be an extremely difficult shot which he missed.
But the far more glaring problem is Kobe's sheer inability to get to the rim.
Look, I’m not expecting him to return to the days of old when he was the true Black Mamba, literally getting into the lane whenever and against whomever he wanted. In his older age, Bryant has become a much more cerebral player.
He has developed a marvelous post-up game on either block that has certainly extended his career by years -- at least in terms of being an elite scorer. But in these playoffs, with the exception of his one beastly performance against New Orleans, Bryant has not attacked the rim at all, especially against Dallas.
According to Hoopdata.com, Kobe has one attempt at the rim in the two games against Dallas. In both games of this series, he has gotten to the line a mere five times a game.
Why is it such a problem for LA?
When Kobe is not attacking the rim, he’s not putting pressure on the defense. When he’s not putting pressure on the defense, Tyson Chandler is not getting in foul trouble, and, just as importantly, Jason Kidd can defend Kobe all game and allow the undersized Jason Terry or even J.J. Barea to play the off-guard spot, which he has done to great effect thus far.
In the first round against Portland, the size factor played a pivotal role for the Mavericks. The Blazers used a slew of long perimeter players against the Mav's smaller guards, namely Nicolas Batum, Brandon Roy and Wes Matthews, all of whom provided some resistance. The Blazers were outclassed in that series without a fully healthy Roy, but the blueprint for LA was right smack there: Use the dramatic size advantage and force Dallas to pay the price. The foundation seemed clear.
But without Kobe attacking his man off the bounce and instead relying on a litany of post-ups and pull-ups, the Lakers’ key advantage, size, is immaterial. He’s shooting 46.9 percent in the playoffs, over 4 percent lower than his regular season average.
As I said early on in the first round, the key for LA to win another title was to run the offense through Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers have to use the balance of the triangle to mitigate Kobe’s lack of explosiveness and inability to put pressure on the defense. The Lakers are just 9-10 this season when Kobe takes 25 shots or more, but a staggering 16-0 when he shoots 15 times or less.
Ron Artest is suspended for Game 3, which is a perfect opportunity for Phil Jackson to give more responsibility at both ends of the floor to Lamar Odom, who in my estimation, is the best defensive weapon to use against Dirk Nowitzki. If L.A. is going to make this a series again, Odom is going to step up.
To be sure, taking the ball out of Bryant's hands is a big risk -- and goes against everything this team has done during its four consecutive Western Conference titles. But unless Jackson implements that style, the the Lakers' chance to round out a three-peat will be soon be over.
Only three NBA teams have ever lost the first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series. But one of those teams was the 1969 Lakers.