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To Beat Kobe, the Bench Must Beat Their Bench

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My favorite Lakers story is a Kobe story. I can't confirm it happened as I remember it, but it goes thusly:

The Lakers visited Charlotte a little under a year ago, in February 2008. L.A. beat the Bobcats fairly easily, which, it turns out, was the exception to the trend, since the Cats have won four of the past five against the Lake Show.

Anyway, early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers were ahead by seven when Kobe got a pass on the wing ahead of the pack. He stood at the three point line and looked back at Jared Dudley, still at the half court line, but hustling back to defend. I can't emphasize this enough. He looked back at Dudley and waited for him to engage as a defender.

Just before Dudley could get there, though, Kobe elevated, and stroked a gorgeously arcing three pointer over Dudley's outstretched, helpless, hand.

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The episode perfectly illustrates Kobe's essence. Usually, he performs just to show us how easy the game is for him. But in order to do that, sometimes he has to raise the bar of difficulty artificially, just so it's clear how much better than everyone else he is.

The funny thing, though, is that nobody denies Kobe is one of the five best players in the league on any given night. This season, LeBron, Wade, and Dwight have exceeded all reasonable expectations, so Kobe likely won't win a second consecutive MVP. But his legions of fans will argue his case, regardless. Kobe's in the same boat as Allen Iverson, in the sense that his fans tend to rely on emotional bonds to argue his greatness more than sober reason.

Like I said, sober reason says he's a ridiculously talented, skilled, and productive basketball player, but Kobe looks so damn good playing ball that he's come to represent some kind of aesthetic ideal, just as Iverson's style overwhelms his substance.

Aside: Here's what I mean. Ask a random casual basketball fan to name the five best guards since Magic retired the first time, and Iverson will likely make their list, even though the first five off the top of my head, all better than Iverson, are Jordan, Stockton, Payton, Kidd, and Kobe, and upon further reflection, I could add Nash, Carter, McGrady (if you count him as a guard), and Ray Allen (seriously, he was amazing for a long time) with no problem. I know people for whom it's blasphemous to suggest Baron Davis is on Iverson's level, but they're emotionally invested in AI in ways I'm not.

The Bobcats' "secret weapon" in this matchup is Raja Bell, previously known as a Kobe stopper. Well, insomuch as he was willing to clothesline Kobe in the lane.

See how Kobe smiles after that incident? That's an instance where his style could overwhelm his substance.

Raja's going to try his damndest to contain the Kobester, but the best anyone can hope is to annoy him, really. If Gerald gets a chance to guard him, that would be ideal, but Kobe's not likely to play much at the three in this game.

The key, as it always is for this version of the Bobcats, is for the bench to step up and play adequately while the starters rest. Unfortunately for Charlotte, the Lakers' bench is excellent. Lamar Odom would start for virtually any other team in the league, but, like Manu, he's coming off the bench without public complaint because his coach believes it provides the team an advantage. Vlad Rad, The Machine, Trevor Ariza, and, especially, Jordan Farmar, would all start for at least a few other teams.

So, ultimately, we're depending on Juwan Howard, AmMo, and Diop to hold down the fort against a mid-tier NBA team, on the front half of a back to back with two elite teams. On the Philly-DC back to back, Larry Brown had the starters play big minutes without regard for rest, so let's see if he tries the same strategy on the west coast swing.