Friday, 20 April 2012
Watching the throne.
By Tim David Harvey
Defence wins championships. Sure it's a boring notion but it's an accurate one as well. That's why the Boston Celtics have so many banners. That's why Ron Artest won Game 7 in the 2010 NBA Finals and that's why Bill Russell remains the real lord of the rings.
The Lakers three-peat run was brought to an abrupt end in Texas last year, but before that they where back to back champions and you can't spell 'double' without 'D'. Historically they are known for their 'Showtime' offence and Kobe Bryant is one of the associations greatest ever players and offensive threats, but the Lakers are much more than prolific scorers. In defending the throne that now crowns the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. are stepping up their defensive play once again. You can't spell 'dominance' or 'dynasty' without a lot of 'D' either, first and foremost. The Lakers have become a great defensive team and have learned from their 2008 Finals loss to Boston and their 2004 heartbreak in Detroit, now it is time to learn from last years disappointment. They have learned that you can score on someone all you like, but if you can't stop them, it's all Dirk and it's all over.
Now the Lake Show is stocked full of great stoppers. Gasol and Bynum are good defenders in the post and as for the backcourts ability the Ramon season is in session. The Lakers bench may often be overlooked in favour for the Hollywood elite that sits behind them but these players certainly can take offence too, from the points made by experienced veteran Steve Blake or the youthful exuberance of sophomore Devin Ebanks.
To win big games though you need difference makers. The Lakers have that on both ends of the floor but when it comes to defence the Lakers have a three pronged attack that can lock down even the best in the league. Why do they have this? They have this because they've got three of the best perimeter defenders in the league, one of the first lines of defence in basketball. They've 2010 acquired free agent Matt Barnes. They've got former 'Defensive Player of the Year' and former Ron Artest, Metta World Peace and they've got Kobe Bryant, a basketball legend on both ends of the floor.
So when you've got three of your best defenders in the L guarding your best player (or best two players for that matter), you've got trouble. The Lakers could play two of these guys at a time, with one guy tagging in off the bench or all three at once. Either way it's about to become real hard for any team to match up with the Lakers as their best athletes wrestle with the competition, especially now Barnes has pinned down a solid position and Metta has taken his career off the ropes with some new moves. Even Dallas' three balls may call shenanigans on a healthy defensive big three, Miami or anybody will find it hard to beat. It doesn't matter who you are. Even if you think you've got the luck of the Boston Irish. Even if your names Tim Duncan or Dwight Howard. Any dream team will suffer a nightmare playing this three headed monster.
It all begins with Kobe. The franchise player, the' go to guy'. He makes all the big plays, not every time (we see you Pau, Andrew and Sessions) but nine times out of ten. The clutch shots may be remembered and rotated on youtube for decades but his key steals and blocks ice games just as well. See Kobe suffers from the same thing all star players do. People focus on all the exciting things too much that the intangibles get overlooked. Lets take basketball back to the basics. Kobe is a 'guard' after all, even if he is a 'shooting guard' and guard does he.
Kobe may have made the NBA All-Defensive team year after year but his work on the 'other' end of the floor is still very much underrated. Put it this way, who do people talk about more, the 'Defensive Player Of The Year' or the league MVP? Sure highlights are highlights but the 'little' things that are done and that don't show up on the stat sheet are just as important. As a matter of fact these aren't 'little' things anyway. Everything in basketball is a big thing and the difference between achieving the 'W' or being left games behind.
Kobe doesn't just go at the opposing teams best player, he guards them too. Bryant has good wingspan, he's strong, he holds his own and most importantly, he's fearless. Kobe is so competitive and has a killer instinct that is matched by nobody in this league...nobody. Number 24 doesn't just want to beat you...he wants to stop you too. A Black Mamba can kill you in more ways than one and the self dubbed 'Doberman' of the Beijing Olympics doesn't bark, he bites. Just like when he won a gold medal Bryant showed that he is just as dedicated to hounding someone on defence as he is at being chased on offence, even if it was his teammate and friend Pau on the Spanish side. It's all about no mercy. Still, not only do the Lakers have one of the best all-round players guarding their house, they've also let two more hungry dogs off the leash.
The Lakers may have lost some 'Showtime', when they gave up Trevor Ariza in the free agent period of 2009 but they picked up a real 'show stopper' when they acquired Metta World Peace back off Houston. Ariza was a big reason the Lakers won in 2009 but Peace was an even bigger reason why the Lakers repeated in 2010. Sure when the Lakers lost Ariza's athleticism they lost a lot of speed but having Metta's calm slowing things down on defence isn't exactly a bad thing. The small forward formerly known as Ron can see the game like Magic and blind his opponents outputs with his tricks. See a player who can see the game developing in a much slower way can master the court and therefore the game itself. A player like this sees plays before they happen. A player like this wins championships and becomes legendary. A player like this sees the game like Earvin Johnson. This is no illusion, great minds think alike and great players move in time.
Now Metta Worlf may not move with the quickness but what he doesn't have in speed he makes up for 100 times over in strength. He may not look like he could run track but he's built like he could play football. Imagine trying to get round a pick set by this guy. Or imagine the exhaustion of managing to elude Kobe after being chased around the court only to be hit and bounced by World. Now even the strong body of LeBron James couldn't put up with much of this punishment. There's no peace from World, on the war of the court, Metta lays it down with authority like a gavel. When it comes to legendary defence, he's as guilty as charged. Metta World Peace got his Pat Riley on again to begin this campaign, promising another championship like when he took the blame for 2010, the one time Artest may have not had the form or the fitness to back this statement up to begin this season, but now his conditioning and predictions seem to be working their way into shape.
Any team in this league can throw anything they want at the Lakers because they have the players to counter. When the Lakers picked up Pau Gasol in 2008 Kobe remarked that he wasn't going to war with 'butter knives' anymore, well now he and his Lakers aren't lying in trenches either. Their standing in a fort. Let's take nothing away from this brilliant Miami team crafted last Summer but with the same offseason pick up of Matt Barnes in 2010, the Lakers can match them, outlast them and even challenge and defeat them. Think about it they match up piece for piece. Chris Bosh has the unstoppable force of Gasol and the immovable object of Bynum to deal with in the post while Kobe and LeBron will face off. This leaves Dwyane Wade, not open but closed off by both Barnes and Peace. Checkmate. Denzel sitting courtside knows this. This is chess not checkers.
Barnes can burn his opponents with his play, with his defensive smarts inked in to him like his tattoo's ingrained. Built with a slashers body, sure he can score but he can take more stabs out of his opponents final box score. Plus with the Ariza like replacement of Devin Ebanks in the potential bank, the Lakers perimeter power looks to go forth. Still with all three defenders on the court at the same time the Lakers become arguably both the most powerful offensive and the most powerful defensive team in the league. Then, even when Kobe takes five (or more like two) on the bench, the Lakers still have two of the best perimeter preventing players in the league disarming the opposing teams primary weapon. When Kobe is back on the court during crunch time he can focus more on the offence when he knows his first and second line of defence has his back.
The reason these guys excel in the lost art of defence is attributed to much more than 'just' their strength, their positioning or their undeniable, proven talent. The reason these guys are three of the top ten defenders in the league is because they share the same three attributes that every player needs to become a premier defender in this league. These attributes are courage, passion and competitiveness. Bryant, World Peace and Barnes have the die hard bravery to risk anything and everything to win and they have the passion that goes beyond the 'I Love This Game' slogan. This is because they want to win and rule this game that they love. It's one thing loving something, it's another thing to actually 'want' the thing you love. Now as far as competitiveness is concerned we needn’t get into it...but we will.
How competitive are these guys? Well look at it this way these guys may be team-mates now but before as opponents, there was no love lost. These guys where far from friends. We remember World in Kobe's face all series long as Houston and LA sparred in the 2009 Playoffs. Also how can we forget Barnes and Bryant getting into it in 2010 during a Magic, Lakers game? Things got so heated that Barnes even faked throwing an inbounds pass right at Kobe's face! Bryant even one-upped Barnes however by coolly not even flinching at this. Kobe just stared right through the ball and right through Matt owning the moment. Chris Rock knows this kind of humiliation. These friends are anything but when it comes to the competitive nature of the game. Cold as the ice in their veins and cold blooded with a Rick James slap.
Kobe is without a doubt the most competitive player in this league. When Barnes and Peace showed they weren't fazed by this legend they garnered more than just Kobe's frustration and attention. They earned his respect. It's almost like it was all written, just like K.B. was testing these two guys, but the fact is Kobe plays like this against everyone. The thing that separates World Peace and Barnes from the rest was their willingness to see Kobe's competitiveness and up the ante. Now as team-mates what separates these two from the rest is their willingness to put this old rivalry aside in order to come together with the same passion for the same goal. That's what separates a Metta and a Matt from say a Raja Bell. This is what separates ordinary players from champions.
With three of the most competitive, passionate and aggressive players on the same page defensively the Lakers become as strong as any defensive minded team they've tried to overcome over the last ten years. Adding this element to an already championship calibre team gives the Lakers that extra dimension, that Championship x-factor. Los Angeles now-on both ends of the floor-has a team like no other. A team that is both dominant in the paint and on the perimeter. They may not have a 'Dream' team like in Miami and Dallas may have given them a year off but what they do have is a potential new dynasty in the making. Now that's real. Don't sleep. The giant has woken up. The champ is here. Case in point, the defence rests...until the next competitor.