Kobe vs. Lebron in Los Angeles

The stage was set last night for an epic battle between the game’s preeminent superstars but the race nearly ended in the starting blocks as Kobe Bryant dislocated the ring finger on his shooting hand early in the first quarter (while guarding Lebron James).

After having the finger popped back into place, Kobe returned to the game and, despite the pain, he continued to show why he is the league’s best competitor.

Throughout the game James showed a dazzling array of moves with a strength and quickness that is unmatched in the game today. Lebron continually proved that he can hit shots of the greatest degrees of difficulty as he made many highlight-reel-worthy moves.

But in the match up between the Lakers and Cavs it was clear that Kobe Bryant had not only the better supporting cast but the leadership and toughness to maintain control of the game despite playing through pain.

Kobe looked to get his teammates involved and the numbers show it as he dished out 12 assists to Lebron’s 4. And although held to 20 points, Bryant hit timely shots to keep the Lakers ahead, continually putting the game out of reach for the Cavs.

It’s clear that Lebron James knocks on the door of greatness and, individually, he might be the best player in the NBA, but it was Kobe Bryant, now in his 13th season, who displayed greater leadership and poise.

This is a lesson that James needs to take personally. For much of the game Lebron was content to take on the Lakers all by himself and while he proved to be a difficult opponent it is nevertheless true that basketball is a team sport and it is the better team that usually prevails.

The Setting Suns?

It was hard to watch last night’s game between the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns. While it was just one game it was enough to show that Phoenix is a team divided.

The first and most obvious place to look is at the front court where Shaquille O’Neal and Amare Stoudemire are clearly not on the same page. Since the arrival of O’Neal, Stoudemire has had to adjust his game as well as give up few shots per game (Stoudemire is currently averaging about 1.5 fewer fg attempts and about 1.5 fewer ft attempts per game). Shaq has been the beneficiary of this decreased role for Stoudemire and it is a questionable decision made by the coaching staff (Terry Porter) and management (Steve Kerr).

Shaq & Amare

Trading for Shaq in the first place was a gamble. Not only is Shaq clearly on the downside of his career (due to age and accumulating injuries) but the suns gave up the player (Shawn Marion)  that most epitomized their style of the last few years.

It is clear that the rationale was that the run-and-gun style of Mike D’Antoni’s Suns had not produced a championship (or even a Finals appearance) and that if the Suns wanted to advance further in the playoffs they would have to do a better job playing defense in the slower, half court pace of the postseason.

As a former player with championship experience, Steve Kerr knows better than most that defense wins championships. The opportunity to acquire the decade’s most dominant center would seem to be the perfect opportunity to add a half court flavor to the suns game plan.

The trade was made and with that the change in style and team philosophy followed suit. as it may come to no surprise, Mike D’Antoni and the suns promptly parted ways at the end of last season. Without the “:07 seconds or less” coach at the helm, the half court philosophy could more easily be put into in effect for the suns.

But while Kerr’s change may have merit in philosophy, so far it has not worked out in practice. It appears as though Shaq’s presence in the post is limiting the younger stoudemire from taking the next step in his career.  The time is right for the 26 year old  to be the number one option and yet he is decreasing his role to make room for a man who will soon be 37.

Of course the true measure of success or failure will be judged by how this change in philosophy affects the suns in the playoffs. If the Suns advance beyond the conference finals, it will be obvious that the change was the right one.

But the Suns are currently in 7th place in the west with Utah and Dallas hot on their heels. Given the competitive western conference, it’s possible that the Suns will not get a chance to see if the gamble pays off in even one playoff series.

And they could lose Amare Stoudemire in the process.