Hear those footsteps tapping? That's NBA commissioner David Stern, dancing in his New York City office. After years of lethargic finals match-ups (Spurs-Nets! Spurs-Pistons! Anything with the Spurs!), Stern, and basketball fans, get a gift starting Thursday night: the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, a rekindling of the sport's most thrilling rivalry. The much anticipated matchup has already been touted with endless clips of Bill Russell, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and, of course, Bird vs. Magic. This year the battle of the NBA's two most storied franchises feature the sport's most breathtaking player, Kobe Bryant, against Boston's vaunted Big Three, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
There's just one problem. Kobe Bryant might hijack the show. He's just too damn good right now, averaging almost 32 points per game in the playoffs, hitting every ridiculous shot you can imagine, looking every bit as good as Michael Jordan in his heyday. He scored 17 fourth-quarter points in L.A.'s decisive Western Conference finals win over the Spurs, lifting his growing legend.
But no one wants a Boston Massacre. We want to see this thing go the distance, seven games, a classic finals that lives up to the hype. In the late '80s, the Detroit Pistons devised a defensive scheme called "the Jordan rules" to slow down His Airness. So in the same vein, to give Boston coach Doc Rivers and his team a fighting chance, here is a version of what can be called "the Kobe rules," culled from some of the best minds in the game.
1. Hustle Back
Kobe is unstoppable everywhere, but he's really immortal on the fast break, so if nothing else the Celtics need to get back on defense. "Make him play five-on-five basketball as much as possible," says former NBA point guard and current ESPN analyst Greg Anthony. He'll hit those crazy fade-aways and spinning layups in the half-court game, but even for Kobe, those shots are measurably more difficult, and physically draining, than dunks and open threes on the fast break.
Boston's point guard, Rajon Rondo, is a scrappy player, and loves to fish for loose balls and offensive rebounds under the basket. But against Kobe, that could be a a very costly error for a point guard, who is usually expected to be the first defender back. "You want to be more disciplined than usual," says Anthony. "Pick your spots to be aggressive." When playing an explosive team like the Lakers, you're going to have to make sacrifices. What does Boston need more, a few loose balls for Rajon Rondo, or the brakes on Kobe Bryant? If they want to hoist the championship trophy, it's the latter.
2. Dare Him to Sink a Few
In Boston's Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics double- and triple-teamed LeBron James, holding him to just 36% shooting in that series (including a truly awful 19% in the first two games, both of which Boston won). So Boston should do the same thing against Kobe, right?
Wrong. Cleveland runs a junior high school offense — give it to LeBron and get out of the way. The Lakers, on the other hand, run the "triangle" set, which relies on pinpoint spacing and smart cuts to the basket to create openings for Kobe's supporting cast. So if you needlessly double-team him, Kobe will find the open man. Unlike in years past, Kobe is willing to pass the ball, and he does it quite well, thank you. Part of his newfound generosity is due to the fact that he now has All-Star-quality teammates in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom who can finish.
So what's the alternative? If you're not going to double, play off him a bit, and force him to hit some long shots at the start of the game (preferably with a hand in his face, of course). "Make him a jump shooter," says Los Angeles Clippers scout Evan Pickman. "And just hope he misses." Of course, Kobe is no shooting slouch. But over his last two series, against the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs, he sank only 27% of his three-pointers, well below his 36% regular season average. If he's shooting from the outside instead of driving to the basket, he's less likely to get fouled. And Kobe kills you from the charity stripe — he shot a sterling 84% in the regular season, and is at 81% in the playoffs.
3. The Baseline Is Your Buddy
Of course, if Kobe gets in rhythm — and he is bound to at some point — Boston can't let him hit outside shots all day. So when the time comes to body up and force him to the basket, they need to send him to the baseline. In the triangle offense, Bryant often receives the ball on the wing. There, he has two choices — drive to the middle of the floor, or towards the corner, where he can turn and dribble to the basket along the baseline.
If he gets to the middle? "You're screwed," says Hubie Brown, the Hall of Fame coach and analyst. Why? "He has so many options," says 6-ft 9-in Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng, who has matched up against Bryant in the past. "He can go back to his left, go right, pull up, take the fade-away." He has lots of room to float — and no one floats further away from his defender, and still makes the shot, better than Kobe. Plus, when he's in the middle, Kobe's superior peripheral vision allows him to see the entire floor, and spot more open shooters if he can't fire away himself.
On the other hand, the baseline cuts off Kobe's passing angles. "If he's driving left on the baseline, and I'm behind him, he can only go left," says Deng. Turn his head one way, he sees the Laker Girls, and the late-arriving L.A. crowd. Turn his head the other way, a long-limbed defender like Deng is right in this face. Kobe can keep going toward the basket. But if Boston rotates the right way, Kevin Garnett, the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, should be under the hoop, ready to help. Of course, even this often doesn't work, which means Kobe ends up dunking it in his defender's face.
4. Share the Load
Against the Spurs, Kobe faced Bruce Bowen, the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA. The Celtics don't have a perimeter stopper quite as good as Bowen, so it's best that they throw different guys at him. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and James Posey will likely share the burden of stopping Kobe. "All players thrive off rhythm," says Anthony. "If Kobe spots one guy's weakness, he'll run with that all day. If you mix up your defenders a lot, it might make him think. And if he's not just relying on his instincts, he won't be as aggressive or explosive."
Over the years the New Jersey Nets, for example, have put Vince Carter on Kobe in the first quarter, and Jason Kidd on him in the fourth. It's probably not a coincidence that, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has held Kobe to a lower scoring average during his career (21.9 points per game). Deng's Chicago Bulls match up different players on Bryant as well, and they held him to just 18 points per game this season.
5. Defensive Offense
Kobe could be defending your worst player, the guy who makes his team's fans cringe when he has the ball. It doesn't matter — against Kobe, you have to treat that guy like he's Larry Bird. Pass him the ball. Make Kobe chase him all over the court, and run Kobe into a million screens. "He has to feel the contact," says Deng. If Kobe can have the luxury of relaxing on the defensive end, he'll have more energy on offense. And is more likely to score 50 points.
Luckily for Boston, its arsenal is so varied that Bryant is likely to end up guarding Allen or Pierce. The Celtics set lots of picks for Allen, so they can bruise Kobe a bit in that match-up. Pierce is a lethal scorer off the dribble, and will make Kobe work too.
There you have it, the Kobe rules — ignore them at your own risk. Then again, it may not matter what you do against a player Kobe's caliber. "You have all the right defensive principles, rotations, all that bullsh–t going for you," says Brown, one of the best defensive tacticians of all time. "And Kobe just negates it all. That's what this guy does."