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Analysis: Difference between Bryant, Johnson a mental task

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Feb 18 2009 1:29PM

LOS ANGELES -- You know the old phrase used to describe a girl, "she's good from afar, but far from good"? Twist it around and it applied to the shooting guard matchup at Staples Center on Tuesday, with the Lakers earning a 96-83 victory. The games of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Hawks' Joe Johnson look the same from afar, but are far from the same.

Their bodies just beg for the comparison.

Kobe checks in at 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds. But for the bulk of his career, he was playing at 220. Joe has an inch and 30 pounds on Bryant, but he came into the league at 225.

They both have a versatile offensive game that's built on the ability to score in a multitude of ways -- from deep, off the dribble, catch-and-shoot -- while possessing the court sense and passing ability to get others involved.

Entering Tuesday's game, Bryant was averaging 27.7 points on 47.5 percent from the field, 35.0 percent from 3-point range and 86.9 from the line. Johnson was averaging 21.6 points on 43.3, 34.4 and 80.5 percent, respectively.

Break down Bryant's points and you'll find that 14.6 percent of them come on 3-pointers, 27.5 in the paint, 22.5 on free throws and the other 35.4 percent from midrange.

Johnson's breakdown is 27.3 percent on treys, 26.7 in the paint, 16.9 on freebies and 29.1 percent from midrange.

They score in a similar fashion.

"I've always been a big Joe Johnson fan," Bryant said after the game in which the two beat each other up for three quarters -- Bryant going 4-for-12 for a season-low 10 points and Johnson missing 11 of 17 shots to end up with 14 -- before neither played a minute in the fourth with the Lakers up by 25. "I felt like it was a big mistake for Phoenix to let him go when they did because I felt like you had another player who could create opportunities for others."

"He's extremely versatile," Bryant said. "Go left. Go right. Shoot it. He's a very good player."

It's a mutual admiration society between the two. "I still like to watch him as a player, I'm still a fan," Johnson said. "It's a little different when you're in the NBA playing against him, but most definitely, I watch him and try to take little things that he used to do and try to put it into my game."

The whiteboard in the Hawks' visiting locker room before the game read: "Run Kobe off the three ... Make him hit 2's ... Nothing in the paint." That would be a pretty good plan for Joe, too, according to Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who is responsible for scouting the Hawks.

With one exception:

"I just think Kobe is head and shoulders above everybody in terms of his tenacity and will to compete, that killer attitude and instinct that he has," Shaw said.

Everything that seemed so similar before starts to bear no resemblance. Bryant's success starts in his head and the body follows. Johnson is still the other way around.

Maurice Evans, Bryant's former backcourt mate in L.A. and Johnson's current backup in Atlanta, agrees. "I think you see a little bit of the mental edge [with Bryant] as far as the confidence level, as far as winning championships and having a greater level of success," Evans said. "When [the Hawks] played Boston last year and they went to Game 7, Kobe's been in situations where he's actually won that game and had that type of success. Once Joe gets that under his belt, I think he can start playing on that level."

It's that mental edge that made their USA Basketball experiences so different.

Before Bryant came to the Redeem Team's rescue, averaging 15 points in the Olympics and scoring a clutch four-point play to help seal the gold medal game in Beijing, Team USA had Johnson playing the two. He averaged just 7.3 points on the team that took home bronze at the 2006 World Championship of Basketball.

It's that supreme confidence by Bryant that made their All-Star weekends so opposite.

Johnson and Bryant were both selected to play in Phoenix, but Bryant scored 27 points en route to being named co-MVP while Johnson was the only player in the game to go scoreless.

But neither Bryant nor Johnson were the show on Tuesday.

The man of the hour was University of Southern California senior Robert Ward, who banked in a half court shot to win $165,000.

Pau Gasol had the third triple-double of his career, finishing with an effortless 12 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. New additions Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown suited up for the first time. After Jordan Farmar turned the ball over late in the fourth, Brown chased down Mario West and made an incredible block where he elevated so high he could have rejected the ball with his armpit, according to Bryant. The play was so awe inspiring that the Staples Center video board operators showed it on replay over and over, even though the block didn't technically count because Brown was whistled for a foul.

Lamar Odom won a bet with Bryant that he would snag 20 rebounds after just missing the mark the last three games. Odom finished with 15 points and 20 boards. He also said that by winning the bet, Bryant owes him.

"But what he owes me comes in June," Odom said.

"Kobe did his damage," Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said, not even knowing about the incentive Bryant put out there to make Odom a game-changer on the glass.

"I challenge guys, I just want to get the best out of them really," Bryant said. Even when he scored a season low, he had a hand in his teammate corralling a season high.

Johnson's teammate Josh Smith, playing Odom's same position, finished the game with zero boards. You think Johnson challenged Smith to do that?

It doesn't take a genius to see why Bryant thrives.

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