Part of the reason the tiresome LeBron James/Kobe Bryant debate lingers on is that they’ve never, ever played a meaningful game. All-Star antics and a handful of regular-season meetings aren’t enough to shift either party’s ideological platform. Kobe has five championship rings. LeBron is statistically superior. Kobe has played with an outlandish collection of talent. LeBron is a choker. Stop me if you’ve heard any of these arguments screamed at high, spittle-flecked volume before.
Despite any grand-scheme relevance, the rarity of watching LeBron and Kobe on the same floor makes their infrequent clashes magnetic. The two barely guard each other, but there are fleeting moments of on-court interaction where polite, mutual admiration is stripped away and their rivalry is exposed as deeply personal. With under a minute remaining in the first half of Thursday night’s game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, we were treated to one of those memorable encounters.
LeBron, dribbling the ball near the right wing, was finally guarded by Bryant. Cheering from the Miami crowd crescendoed. Kobe edged in, suffocatingly close, and for a second, the two men shouldered at each other like prizefighters in a clinch. LeBron muscled free and drove to the top of the key, where he picked up his dribble as the lane clotted with defenders. Kobe blanketed him again, but James whistled a pass to Shane Battier in the left baseline corner. Before the 3-pointer splashed home, James was strutting the other direction with three fingers raised.
It was impossible not to interpret LeBron’s demonstrative pirouette as a statement. As much as he has been maligned for giving up the ball in key situations, it could be viewed as a refutation of hero ball, an affirmation of his identity as a superstar who regards finding an open teammate more valuable than the risk/reward of attempting a difficult shot. The defender’s belief system veers the opposite direction, and on the Lakers’ next possession, Kobe bricked a contested jumper from almost the exact same spot. The opportunity to grasp for meaning in such tidy vignettes is why we love to watch Kobe and LeBron play in games that don’t actually matter.
At the peril of engulfing this column in the hellfire of a LeBron/Kobe flame war, the gulf between the two players has never been wider. LeBron is in the prime of his career and by far the best player in the NBA. Last night, he decimated the Lakers almost singlehandedly. He led the Heat in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, and steals. He tossed in a pair of delicate, running floaters than no one had even seen him try before. He blocked center Andrew Bynum’s point-blank shot. It was ridiculous, but in the way that LeBron has become ridiculous every night.
For Kobe, now in his mid-30s, some nights are better than others. Using guile and grit — and perhaps pent-up rage at the ex-wife who snagged $75 million despite rarely shooting with him in the gym — he remains an elite, but aging, player. At every step of his career, Kobe has mulishly resisted appeasing coaches, teammates, or critics who suggested he alter his approach to basketball. This is not breaking news. Since he was a rookie flinging up four late air balls against Utah in ‘97, Kobe’s oxygen-snatching, forest fire of an ego has made him both compelling and divisive. To devotees, he possesses a will to power that would make Nietzsche swoon. Detractors argue Kobe’s reputation for heroism is comically overblown. Whatever you believe, years of mileage over rough terrain have not diminished his drive.
With conventional wisdom recommending the Lakers mash the ball down to Bynum and Pau Gasol this season — they are, after all, two of the league’s best three centers — Kobe responded as if someone hocked a wad of phlegm in his Nutella. At press time, he’s jacked up 394 shots. For some perspective, Kevin Durant is second in the NBA with 277 attempts. Kobe’s current usage rate is the highest in recorded history, topping the record-setting 38.9 percent he notched in 2005-06, when the Lakers started Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Brian Cook, and Chris Mihm. And, in the majority of games where the Lakers have had both of their big men available, Kobe has taken more shots thanBynum and Gasol combined.
Are there consequences to treating the finest post tandem in the NBA like a duo of adopted gingers? It’s early, but let’s inspect some numbers. The Lakers’ defense is as solid as it was last year. They play at about the same tempo. But the offense has dropped from sixth in efficiency to 18th. Considering Kobe’s overwhelming influence on the Lakers’ performance on that side of the ball, he’s either keeping a leaky ship afloat — or he’s been a 33-year-old pair of cement shoes. The last time new Lakers coach Mike Brown orchestrated an offense where one player dominated the ball, it was with a judicious passer who erred on the side of socialism. Now, with Lamar Odom traded to Dallas, Derek Fisher ineffective, and Steve Blake injured, the Lakers have to let Stalin distribute pumpernickels in the breadline.
Last night, the Lakers’ advantage in the paint against the Heat was obvious early on. Bynum was able to hip-check Chris Bosh out of his way with ease. Gasol, who has weirdly taken one less 3-pointer this year than in the rest of his entire Laker career, fluttered in jumper after jumper over undersized Udonis Haslem. Those guys are a beastly pair for any team to handle, let alone one hoping Eddy Curry will contribute in the pivot.
But even with Dwyane Wade sitting out, the Heat used speed and skillfulness to thwart the Lakers’ superior bulk. The threat of two of the league’s most athletic perimeter players streaking down the court like bullet-spraying Apache helicopters has terrified opposing coaches since “The Decision” — there were enough parabola lobs and mean dunks last season to confirm those fears — but the Heat didn’t truly push the ball. This year, they do. Guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole ratchet up the tempo, and Mike Miller, Haslem, and Bosh are all mobile forwards. The Heat’s pace has gone from 20th in the league to second fastest, and, as a result, they lead the NBA in scoring. Last night, they spread the floor with .500 shooting from 3-point range and then attacked the Laker oafs off the dribble without mercy.
Los Angeles may be the most physical team in the league — Bynum, Metta World Peace, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, and even Kobe have had moments of gooning out — but they’re collectively sluggish. The group is awful at knocking down outside shots, they rarely score in transition and, outside of Kobe, none of the perimeter players create easy baskets for teammates. Last night, against heliotropic defense that often doubled Kobe on the wings, Fisher, Barnes, World Peace, McRoberts, Darius Morris, and Jason Kapono combined for 12 points on 5-for-24 shooting. They pitched in 13 rebounds, 8 assists, and 8 turnovers. All this hand-wringing about what Kobe has left in the gas tank is pointless when his teammates contribute so little.
Members of the Heat supporting cast, at least, have roles. Haslem and Joel Anthony defend and rebound. Miller and James Jones shoot. Chalmers and Cole dribble. Curry dutifully avoids snacks. Then there’s offseason acquisition Shane Battier, who was given the assignment of guarding Kobe last night. He’s exactly the kind of player who could turn a Finals runner-up into a champion.
After The New York Times Magazine ran Michael Lewis’ story that detailed Battier’s scholarly approach to guarding Bryant, their individual matchups have become especially fascinating. Even with his defensive strategy published and surely read by his foe, Battier doggedly forced Kobe to go left, prevented catch-and-shoot jumpers and avoided sending him to the free throw stripe at all costs (Battier finished the game with one foul last night, committed against Gasol). Battier’s devotion to data paid off. Kobe settled for contested perimeter shots for most of the evening, missing six of his first seven attempts en route to an unimpressive 8-for-21 shooting performance. “The numbers don’t lie,” Battier said in the story.