It was the summer of 2003, and Michael Jordan re-re-retired. After being ousted in the 2nd round, the Lakers added Karl Malone and Gary Payton, moves that everyone involved with and fans of the NBA thought would bring the title back to the city of Los Angeles.
Despite a rigorous traveling schedule Kobe Bryant had to maintain due to legal issues, he was still able to average 24 points 5 rebounds & 5 assists for the season, playing alongside 3 potential Hall Of Fame players.
The Lakers captured the Pacific Division title (thanks to a Kobe game winning 3 pointer in Portland) and stormed through the West in the Playoffs, including defeating the then MVP Kevin Garnett.
Mayor Jim Hahn had already scheduled the parade, and I’m sure I remember Jannero Pargo & Kareem Rush shooting “I’m going to Disneyland!” commercials.
Waiting was another shooting guard from Philly on his own quest. He and a kid form Dominguez High School in Compton were able to do the unthinkable and defeated Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.
Richard Hamilton relentlessly ran Kobe Bryant through screens, even if he wasn’t getting the ball. He made sure he didn’t get a single chance to rest.
On offense Tayshaun Prince, who has a 7-Footer’s wingspan, forced Kobe to shoot tough, contested jump shots. Add Ben & Rasheed Wallace crowding the lane via the new zone defense rules, and you can understand how it was possible for Kobe to shoot an unthinkable 38% and 17% from three-point range in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Even Michael Jordan had been put out of the Playoffs, but he never lost an NBA Finals. This was not the way Kobe envisioned accomplishing things Jordan never had.
2008 brought the epic return of the Lakers vs. Celtics NBA Finals. Many analyst picked L.A., thanks to some inconsistent playoff play from the Celtics.
The Spoiler this time was Inglewood’s Paul Pierce, who was able to get to the free throw line in key situations in Game 4 and hit big shots all series long. Ray Allen played the role of Kobe exhauster, running him through numerous baseline screens, the equivalent of a boxer throwing jabs to wear down his opponent. Reinforcements were in the form of James Posey, P.J. Brown and Leon Powe, as another team by committee was able to make Kobe look human.
But this NBA Finals will be different. Kobe is not facing other top tier 2 guards like he did in 2004 & 2008.
There will be no ganging up on Kobe Bryant this NBA Finals. There will be no Richard Hamilton or Ray Allen to try to chase and fight through screens with. There is no Paul Pierce who will be able to match Kobe’s skill at the guard position and bait him into fouls in the 4th quarter.
Bryant will not have to have his track shoes on, which was the case in his last 2 NBA Finals appearances.
The last 2 NBA Finals losses have come at the hands of teams with great team defenses. It simply just wasn’t Tayshaun man-to-man with Kobe, but it was also former DPOY Ben Wallace protecting the paint, along with Rasheed Wallace who was guarding… Slava Medvedenko and had the benefit of sagging off and crowding the lane.
Kevin Garnett was the anchor in the 2008 Finals, and he was unique because the Celtics did not have to switch on pick-and-rolls he was defending. Pierce was never known for defense, but his determination and will led him to be one of the few to block a Kobe turn around jump shot. To preserve Pierce & Allen, the Celtics had the luxury of throwing defensive specialist James Posey on Kobe (who was fouling him after the whistle was blown). With Garnett, Perkins and Brown sagging off and clogging up the lane, Kobe had another uneventful Finals series including 7-22 in the decisive Game 6.
Although Dwight Howard is the new Defensive Player of the Year, the Magic’s supporting cast does not have the group of defenders that will be able to challenge the Lakers.
Do we really expect Rashard Lewis to do anything with Pau on the box? Trevor Ariza, who’s shooting 50% from three-point-range, will be a load for Hedo Turkuglou, a guy not nearly known for his defense. They won’t be able to help on Kobe, and he will have some much needed breathing room in the NBA Finals for the first time in a while.
Jordan only saw his equivalent once in the NBA Finals in the form of Clyde Drexler in 1992, which coincidentally was his toughest Finals series. The other 5 times he saw Jeff Hornacek (twice), Dan Majerle, Hersey Hawkins, and our own beloved Byron Scott.
Now it’s Kobe’s turn to have a whipping boy in the NBA Finals.
Courtney Lee is not capable of demanding Kobe’s full attention, i.e. Ronnie Brewer and Dontae Jones.
Michael Pietrus is a good defender by today’s standards, but LeBron James’ 35 points on 51% averages against the Magic seem to indicate they are nowhere near the 2004 Pistons. Prince was a starter and the primary defender on Bryant. Pietrus will see some time, but after going face-to-face with AK-47 and Ron Artest, how concerned will Kobe be with the French native?
Pietrus will be the equivalent to Byron Russell on the 97 & 98 Jazz teams. He is a suitable defender who can knock down the 3, but not nearly talented enough to hold Kobe for an entire 7 game series.
And we all know Jordan pushed off on him in that Game 6. But he’s Byron Russell and there is no way he gets that call.
Paul Pierce, an All-Time Celtic great in his own right, was able to get the cheap whistles that will undoubtedly evade Courtney Lee. He will not simply be able to put his head down and charge to the basket and get whistles like LeBron James would have. His jump shot is not silky enough to make Kobe go for the pump fakes which lead to fouls like Pierces’ is. He is also not a focal point of the offense who can wear Kobe’s legs down over the course of a few games.
Kobe should have his greatest NBA Finals yet. No Reggie Miller, no Allen Iverson, no problem.
Only 4 games separate him from quieting his critics who said he could never win without you-know-who.
At this point, only Kobe can stop Kobe… because it sure won’t be Courtney Lee.