How To Mute A Remade Mamba

by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - Things aren’t exactly going according to script in Lakers land lately.

Steve Nash has played just a single regular season game in purple and gold. Dwight Howard has not yet returned to being the dominant defensive force that he was prior to undergoing back surgery earlier this year. Pau Gasol is suddenly just a 50-50 bet to finish games under new head coach Mike D’Antoni. Back-up point guard Steve Blake just found out he’ll have to miss the next 6-8 weeks due to a torn abdominal muscle. And if the season ended today – an admittedly ridiculous statement given that the season is nowhere close to ending, but still – the Lakers would qualify for the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, sneaking in as the Western Conference’s 8th seed as part of a four-way tiebreaker for the West’s final postseason spot.

But let’s not get carried away. They’re still the Lakers, they still have a starting five that, when healthy, can stand toe-to-toe with anyone, and the odds are strong that they’ll eventually put the puzzle pieces together and figure this thing out. There’s no need for anyone in La-La land to be pushing the panic button yet (oh wait, they already did that once this season, haven’t they? Never mind).

Then of course there’s this little tidbit of information that can’t ever be overlooked: They still have Kobe Bryant. And the man who calls himself ‘Mamba’ has started this season as lethal as he’s been in years. It’s not just that Bryant is leading the league in scoring at the age of 34 that’s noteworthy, but rather the way he’s accomplishing the feat. Bryant is currently posting career-best marks from the field, free throw line and beyond the arc, which is why he’s on pace to absolutely obliterate his career highs in both effective and true shooting percentage. This isn’t, then, an offensive outburst that is the result of indiscriminate chucking; Bryant is scoring as efficiently as he ever has.

Adding yet another layer of intrigue to this development is the fact that Bryant is generating much of his offense in a drastically different way this year. According to Synergy Sports, the 17th year pro is operating as a pick-and-roll ball-handler on more than 28 percent of his possessions this season and he’s doing so at an elite level, ranking in the league’s 90th percentile in such situations. In fact, Bryant has scored 133 points via the pick-and-roll this season – more than anyone else in the league (note: James Harden and Portland’s Damian Lillard are just behind Bryant, having scored 131 points via pick-and-rolls this season). This stands as a stark departure for Bryant, who utilized the pick-and-roll less than 12 percent of the time last season, preferring instead to either go one-on-one in isolation situations or post-ups. 

The Rockets got a good glimpse of the new Bryant last month when he efficiently eviscerated them en route to recording his 18th career triple-double. Adjustments must – and will – be made. And no one is better aware of that fact than is Chandler Parsons. Houston’s second-year swingman enjoyed some fine moments defending Bryant last season since he could frequently be left on an island to defend against Kobe’s iso-heavy game, smartly utilizing his length and quick feet to disrupt Bryant’s mojo. But as Kobe’s game has evolved, so too has the approach the Rockets must take to defend him.

“It has to be more of a team defense against him this year,” says Parsons. “This year they have so many guys around him where they can put him in pick-and-roll and let him kick it to Pau Gasol, or throw it into Dwight Howard who’s a beast down low, or they have guys like Jodie Meeks or Antawn Jamison floating around the perimeter waiting to take advantage of all the attention Kobe draws to himself.

“Last year many times it was just me and him. Obviously there was help, but this year I’m getting screened and he’s coming downhill on the other four guys, so it’s all about help-side defense and understanding the scouting report and understanding what the other guys on the court can do.”

But while the scouting report on defending Bryant has changed, the ultimate objective remains the same as it ever was.

“We don’t want to give him anything easy,” says Parsons. “Make him take long, contested jump shots. If I get screened on a pick-and-roll, I want him to take an 18-footer with my hand in his face and with (Omer Asik) contesting it and just everybody pinching in; just not giving him gaps and angles, but making everything extremely hard for him.”

That methodology comes with its own dangers, however. If Houston’s bigs like Asik are helping and attempting to contest Bryant’s midrange shots, that leaves a massive void near the rim where the Lakers bigs will likely be congregating in an effort to gobble up errant shots. Los Angeles is 7th in the NBA in offensive rebound rate, meaning here, too, the Rockets must utilize a holistic approach to slowing down the Lakers’ high-powered attack.

“That’s when they hurt you, too, because they’re big,” Parsons admits. “They’ve got a lot of big, strong, physical guys, so when Kobe shoots these long pull-ups and our bigs are contesting, our guards have to a good job cracking back and blocking out bigger guys.”

No doubt the Rockets’ defense, which has lagged of late, is in for one of its tougher tests to date. But the same could be said of the Lakers’ D. Houston had no problems putting points on the board in Los Angeles and, if anything, the Rockets’ offense has only gotten better since that evening at Staples, with players like Parsons and Patrick Patterson putting their respective offensive games into hyperdrive. Houston has scored at an elite rate over the past few weeks, especially within the cozy confines of Toyota Center.

So yes, the Rockets will have their hands full Tuesday night. But so, too, will Bryant and the Lakers.