“I hate him. If I don’t ever see him again, it will be too soon. I hate him.”- Sam Mitchell
Ten years and eleven days after Sam Mitchell suffered his worst defeat as a head coach, he walked into Staples Center, a little bit grayer around the edges, and a little bit salty. He knew the question was coming but this time when asked about Kobe Bryant’s illustruous 81 point dismantling of the Raptors, his face shifted into a twist as it hardened like stone. He made it clear he was having none of the 81 talk. He’s been asked that question over and over again the last ten years, so many times he’s fed up. Whenever the anniversary rolls around, like it did ten days ago, and whenever Mitchell plays the Lakers and Kobe is in the lineup, the question comes at him like rapid fire. How did you allow one person to score 81 on you?
Not that Tuesday night’s game will surpass the mythology of 81, but for Kobe Bryant, bad shoulder, bad knees, bad Achilles, and Sam Mitchell watching again, delivering his version of 81 (at his very advanced basketball age of 37) was a descent into the Laker days when there was glory and high expectations.
They say old man cometh. But sometimes, old man stays away.
On this particular night, when it was all said and done, Sam Mitchell was once again at the precipice of despair. He sat on the sidelines, he stood barking at the refs, he cussed under his breath. He was helpless again in the 4th quarter as Kobe Bryant scored 14 of the Lakers last 18 points. (In the 81 point game, Kobe had 28 4th quarter points.)
Kobe Bryant, who is breathing his last gasp of NBA oxygen, single handedly snapped a ten game losing streak for the Lakers, keeping them from adding another bitter line to the Lakers record books- 11 straight losses- but that was an afterthought. It was all about how Kobe keeps eviscerating Sam Mitchell.
He made 7 out of 11 three pointers, something he hadn’t done since 2008. He scored 38 points, something he hadn’t done in fifteen months, when he scored 44 points against the Warriors. He put on a fourth quarter clutch clinic, something he hadn’t done since the Wizards game in early December. He looked like the Kobe Bryant who has been the centerpiece of the Lakers franchise since 2004. Bald head and all, not as athletic and all, he matched Andrew Wiggins in the 4th, who was pretty damned good himself, 10 points, five straight jumpers in a row. Even Kobe had to give him props.
“I was very impressed with his turnaround in the post. When he first came into the league, he was off balance with it, exposing the ball. That was textbook. He hid the ball well, he elevated. I was impressed. It was a joy to watch the growth.”
Kobe struggled to finish in the paint, all his 4th quarter misses came from there, but his perimeter game was pure spot-on Kobe, and just like that January night in 2006, Sam Mitchell refused to double team him. Kobe knew why.
“I knew where he was going to double from if he decided to double and I knew the double was going to be too late.”
Regardless of Kobe’s confidence and ability, the facts remain: Lou Williams couldn’t beat you in game one of the season, why would he do it now? Julius Randle doesn’t have a jumper. Jordan Clarkson is the only real offensive threat. Why not try a double?
It was honorable of Sam Mitchell to give Andrew Wiggins confidence by allowing him to try to stop Bryant one-on-one. Wiggins is a nice defender, in this his second season. But as Byron Scott said post-game, the one thing that Kobe hasn’t lost is his willfulness and drive. Wiggins, a Kobe imitator, attempting to guard Kobe, the aged superstar, on a night when he had energy in his legs and a shoulder not hurting and his Achilles feeling as normal as it ever will, was going to come up on the short end as Kobe demonstrated: I’m the teacher, you’re the student.
And yet, in the last two minutes, you had to wonder if Kobe still had it in him. Could he pull it off?
“I felt good. Everything revolved around the jump shots. The shots were falling. Tonight I made shots I was supposed to make. You get in a rhythm. You start making more difficult shots. It feels good to make those shots. I’ve been working on those shots all summer. Last game, going into this game, I had good rhythm.”
The Timberwolves took a one point lead with five minutes left. For his 30th point, Kobe drained a three. The Lakers never trailed again. With 26 seconds left, the Lakers had a very thin one point lead. Kobe dribbled to the right, elevated with perfect technique and drilled one of his patented 18-footers to give the Lakers the lead. Then he went to the free throw line three consecutive times and didn’t miss.
“I don’t know if he’s going to replace that fierce competitiveness (after he retires). He loves to compete.” (Byron Scott)
It’s a different mental challenge for Bryant, being on such an awful team with young players whose work ethic and attention to detail continually irk Bryant. After the game, he noted how unhappy he was with the Lakers kids who let the lead slip away once he went to the bench at the end of the third quarter.
“It shows a lack of focus and attention to detail. I’m constantly on them about ball pressure defensively, denying passing lanes, having a physical presence defensively.”
The young kids casualness in the 4th quarter was what Andrew Wiggins exploited with his array of shots that erased the lead. Wiggins had a superb fourth quarter, he made all five shots he attempted, and he defiantly brought the Wolves back from a 9-point deficit. But, he just couldn’t stop Kobe on a night when even a young Kobe couldn’t stop himself.
Kobe said, “I play as hard as I can”, a lesson to the younger players who struggle with the weight of playing in Los Angeles with the “peripheral opponent”, as Pat Riley used to call all the outside noise, constantly lingering in their ears. You’re a bust. You’re can’t shoot. You’re lazy. You don’t play hard…
Kobe’s advice to D’Angelo Russell was his advice to all young NBA players.
“You have to count on your process, do what you are told to. Train as hard as you can. Before practice. After practice. At night. You have to stick to your process. You can’t let outside voices influence you. That will knock you off course. You have to work day and night, stay locked into your game. Focus on what you can control and not worry about anything else.”
What Sam Mitchell couldn’t control on Tuesday night was a throwback game from Kobe Bryant, the 3rd greatest scorer in NBA history. There will be a couple of more here and there for Bryant, as the season and Kobe’s career winds down.
Nearly ten o’clock local time, the once 17 year old, now 37 year old Kobe Bryant, drained the last free throw to end the game; he exhaled, soaking in the victory and his performance. He smiled. Nearby, Sam Mitchell hung his head. He had that same perplexed look he had on January 22, 2006 when Kobe scored 81 points.
photo via llananba