Lakers guard Kobe Bryant
stood wide open behind the perimeter, waving his arms up and down, hoping the outward body language would help get him the ball. But Lakers guard Derek Fisher
didn't see the movement, too busy fixated on driving through the lane. With the shot clock ticking down to five seconds, Bryant flailed his arms again. But Fisher didn't see Bryant again, and instead, attempted a corner three-pointer, which Phoenix forward Channing Frye
quickly swatted away.
On the other end, Suns forward Louis Amundson set a screen on Fisher, Phoenix guard Goran Dragic dribbled around Pau Gasol, and Amundson rolled inside. Frye then curled to the nearside perimeter and caught Dragic's pass before finding Amundson down low. He missed the lay-in but drew a foul on Odom, converted on one of two free throws and gave the Suns a 10-point lead with 4:37 remaining in the game.
The described play served as the most visible example that despite Bryant's tremendous effort with 38 points on 15 of 22 shooting, 10 assists and seven rebounds, the team actually didn't do enough to allow Bryant to carry the Lakers when nearly all parts of the team's game, including the post play, bench, three-point shooting and defense, had fallen apart in its 115-106 Game 4 loss Tuesday to Phoenix. Yet, the following play also illustrated how Phoenix made the necessary fourth-quarter adjustments in double teaming Bryant after he scored 15-second quarter points by playing off the weakside of Phoenix's 2-3 zone. With the Lakers trailing by nine with less than two minutes left in the game, Bryant manned the point, met a double team from Frye and Steve Nash on the perimeter and met help defense from Jason Richardson above the circle. Bryant had no choice but to pass to the far corner where Ron Artest stood unmarked for a pretty obvious reason. His shot wouldn't fall. Bryant, on the other hand, wouldn't be given an inch from the Suns' D.
Said Bryant: "It's just knowing that when you catch the ball they have three guys around you, somebody else is open."
"They knew where he was," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson
said regarding the Suns' defense on Bryant, who attempted only four field goals in the fourth quarter. "He really had put in an effort to riding that hot spell he had during that period of time [in the second quarter]. They had a double team design out there that they had tried to use to try to limit his touches."
That couldn't have been more apparent at the beginning of the fourth quarter, when Bryant ran off a pick set by Andrew Bynum on Phoenix guard Jason Richardson. Just as Bryant appeared to drive the lane, Richardson swiped the ball, which bounced off Bryant and went out of bounds. There was a play where Bryant caught the ball on the right block and immediately met a double team, causing Bryant to kick the ball out to Lakers reserve guard Jordan Farmar, who missed an open three-pointer. And then there was the time Bryant drove the lane, met an aggressive Goran Dragic and kicked the ball out in mid air to Shannon Brown, who also missed an open three-pointer.
Yet, plenty of sequences in the fourth quarter simply illustrated the Lakers didn't fully utilize Bryant's ability to take over a game.
After catching an entry pass from Farmar in the near post, Bynum didn't notice an open Bryant on the weakside. Instead, Bynum passed the ball out to Farmar, who missed a corner three-pointer. Then, Amundson boxed out Lakers forward Lamar Odom and cleaned the glass. Moments later, Dragic ran the break, crossing past Farmar into the lane. Bryant caught up to help, while Brown confronted Dragic from down low. But Dudley stood open on the nearside corner. Bryant reacted quickly and contested Dudley's shot, but it went in and widened the gap to 98-89 with 6:47 remaining.
On another play with nearly five minutes remaining, Bryant cut to the top of the key once Artest fed Gasol an entry pass. After getting double teamed by Amundson and Dragic, Bryant waved his arm, but it didn't get Gasol's attention. Gasol didn't necessarily make a bad decision, kicking the ball to an open Fisher in the near corner. But had Gasol seen Bryant continue cutting to the far end of the court and passed the ball to him on the play, Bryant likely would've produced a far better result than Odom's mishandled shot in the paint.
Fast forward to the 4:23 mark and you have Gasol unsuccessfully shooting over Amundson and Dudley in the paint instead of kicking the ball out to Bryant, left unmarked at the top of the key. On the other end, Dragic manned the point up top against Fisher, dribbled left, crossed to his right and then spun past Fisher at the free-throw line. Odom attempted to help, but Dragic switched to his right hand and converted on the layup, widening the gap to 103-90.
When I asked Gasol if a better effort should've been made for Bryant to get more looks when he had them, it appeared Gasol didn't want to come across criticizing Bryant considering the work he put in Game 4.
"I don't know," Gasol said. "He obviously shot the ball extremely well last night. He also made big plays as far as assisting. It was a great game on his part. Unfortunately we couldn't capitalize on it and make it a better chance for us to win the ball game. I don't know if he could've taken any more shots. I think in the fourth quarter, they threw two or three guys at the zone on him to make sure he got rid of the ball or made somebody else make a play. When that happens, we have to understand that we have to be aggressive."
Surely, that's understandable and there were plenty of areas that the Lakers could've sharpened to ensure a victory. But there were a few plays Bryant served as the better option where he had a rare open look.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, encourages his teammates after hitting a three-pointer over Phoenix guard Jason Richardson, left, in Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Phoenix center Louis Amundson tries to get to the basket after pulling down a rebound in front of Lakers forward Lamar Odom, left, and guard Kobe Bryant during Game 4 on Tuesday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times