Time was winding down on the shot clock, game clock and — though it wasn’t quite certain yet — the Phoenix Suns’ season. Grant Hill, desperate to keep his season alive while fully aware of the dangers presented by guarding the most-feared late-game killer in the entire NBA, gave Kobe Bryant not a single inch to breathe.
Not that it mattered.
Hill stayed glued to Kobe as basketball’s Mariano Rivera dribbled once to his right, picked up his dribble, gave a quick upfake and finally released an impossible fadeaway with both his feet standing on the three-point arc and Hill breathing down the front of his neck. The ridiculous attempt would have been more than enough reason for a coach to substitute a lesser player out of the game, but for Kobe it was just part of the plan. The jumper went down, Kobe tapped Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry on his rump, and the Black Mamba’s legend ascended one more rung.
But why does he always have to take such a tough shot?
Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball is a lesson in shot-making. He spins with perfect footwork, fakes with the utmost precision and miraculously keeps his balance and concentration no matter how many directions his body is moving or how many hands are in his face. But still, no matter how breathtaking it can be to watch Kobe send yet another improbable shot splitting through the nets, the question remains: Why don’t any shots come easy for Kobe? Why doesn’t he get many layups? Why does he always seem to settle for contested fadeaway jumpers?
The easy answer would be that Kobe has more people guarding him during crunch-time than Barack Obama did during his Inauguration. No team wants to let Kobe get off a good look as the game’s seconds wind down, so they send waves of defenders at him. Kobe wants to take the last shot himself, almost regardless of what the defense does, so teams use that to their advantage. Kobe ain’t gonna pass, so coaches load up defenders to stop him. Everywhere Kobe looks, there’s a help defender waiting. It’s difficult to find an easy shot against a regiment of defenders, so THAT’S why Kobe doesn’t get many good looks. But that would only be the easy answer. Every star has two or three guys running at him during crunch-time, but not every star routinely takes such impossible shots.
The more difficult answer? I’m not sure I even know it. I’ve watched countless games during which Kobe seems to shoot nothing but contested jumpshots, but I don’t know why he settles. Is it that he doesn’t have the same athleticism he once did? Doesn’t want to waste too much energy searching for a good shot when he can hit all the bad ones? Is it really just all the help defense? Whatever it is, Kobe’s shot selection perplexes me.
In comparing Kobe to Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson once said something along the lines of, “Michael gets easier shots, but Kobe is a better bad-shot maker.” And Kobe is certainly that, perhaps the best bad-shot maker ever and definitely the best bad-shot maker I’ve ever seen. Good defense hardly seems to bother Kobe. Hands in his face, hands in his eyes even (shoutout to Shane Battier), don’t seem to effect Kobe the way they should. No matter the circumstance, Kobe can get off a make-able shot. Of course, “make-able” and “good shot” are two completely different entities.
Kobe’s ability to make bad shots is part of the reason everyone believes Kobe is the most clutch human being on the planet when all the statistical evidence in the world tells us otherwise. (Don’t get me wrong — when Kobe has the ball tonight in Game 5 with the clock winding down, I’ll be shivering in my boots. But when every stat I’ve ever seen says Kobe is not the best clutch player in the game, I tend to believe the stats.) We believe Kobe is the most clutch player, the best closer, because he has so many — sooooooo many — impossible buzzer-beaters and clutch shots under his belt. When Kobe hits a clutch shot, you remember it. The bank-job against Miami, the aforementioned facial of Grant Hill, the back-breaker over Ray Allen’s outstretched fingers to beat the Celtics — Kobe leaves an indelible mark whenever he hits a game-winner or clutch shot because every shot he takes seems, and I wish there were another word for it so I didn’t have to keep repeating the same one, impossible. When those shots do go down, he’s Michael Jordan disguised as Kobe Bryant. When they don’t go down, they weren’t supposed to go down in the first place — they were too impossible to begin with.
As Slate’s phenomenal piece on Kobe’s clutchness quotes a David Berri email, Lebron James is a more effective crunch-time player than Kobe. “”Most importantly, [James] improved with respect to shooting efficiency and rebounds,” Berri wrote. “Kobe also improved by lesser amounts with respect to rebounds and free throws. But he also got worse with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, assists, blocked shots, and steals.
“Basically each player tries to do more in the clutch. But LeBron is better at turning this effort into results.”
Yet we don’t see it that way. We see Lebron failing while Kobe rises. We see Kobe making impossible shots while Lebron sits at home watching on TV. We see Kobe as, undoubtedly, the league’s best closer. We see all those impossible makes, all those highlights, every time we think about Kobe’s clutchness.
But the same thing that makes us remember Kobe’s highlights is perhaps his biggest fault as a player. Kobe takes tough shots all the time, and while he can hit those better than anybody in today’s NBA and possibly anybody who’s ever played the game of basketball, tough shots are more likely to miss than good ones. Kobe’s inability to manufacture easy shots — or unwillingness, whatever it may be — is what has allowed the Celtics to slow him down in the fourth quarter this series.
Over the past two games, Kobe is 3-12 in the final stanza and has been unable to find any easy shots or get to the free throw line. He is now shooting 40.8% for the series, and I can count on one hand the number of easy looks he’s gotten. At this point, it seems like Kobe doesn’t even try to get easy shots. He’s hit so many bad ones in his career that he’s perfectly content with launching 21-foot fadeaways. To be fair, he makes an ungodly amount of them. I just don’t understand why everything has to be so difficult.
Some credit should go to the Celtics defense, but it isn’t only against the Celtics that Kobe takes tough shots. He does it all the time, against everyone. He gets more easy looks against every other team than he does against the C’s, but half his shot attempts would still get a lesser player benched or, even worse, cut. He makes a lot of them, sure, but so many shots Kobe takes are so, so, very, very tough.
And that is the conundrum about Kobe Bryant. He makes the impossible look easy, but he doesn’t make anything easy. He has unending talent to make any shot one could ever fathom, but for some reason that evades my grasp he doesn’t get many easy shots. It’s the ability to make impossible shots that sets Kobe apart from every player in the NBA, but it’s also the one thing you could say might be holding him back.
When Kobe catches the ball tonight in the fourth quarter, he’ll almost inevitably shoot a tough fadeaway with a Celtic draped all over him, so close that Kobe will be able to smell his defender’s breath. It’ll be a bad shot, one that would make a high school coach shake his head, scream, “NOOOO!!!!” and want to strangle his player. But that’s just how it is with Kobe Bryant. It’s what you have to accept about his game. It’s his mind-boggling genius that allows him to make those shots, shots no other man alive would dare attempt.
And that shot I told you about, the one he’ll undoubtedly take in tonight’s fourth quarter, the one he’ll shoot with defenders in his shorts? Unless that shot clangs off the rim, I’ll know for certain it’s going down.