Normally, the Kobe Bryant clutch argument doesn't much intrigue me. An element of "clutchness" is possessing the confidence to fail rather than actually succeeding, and people tend to make too much out of that element. Bryant certainly isn't afraid of failing, even though he succeeds far less often than people think these days.
All that said, what transpired at the end of the L.A. Lakers' Game 2 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night illustrates everything that's wrong with the Kobe clutch myth. It's not about mythological debates between Bryant and LeBron James. It's not even about the philosophy of hero ball, which is a far more complex topic than most who debate it on both sides ever want to admit.
Really, it's about the way the myth catches hold with the men who draw up the plays.
It's a vicious cycle, really. Because Bryant has a reputation for being the king of crunch time, he demands that the coach, in this case, Mike Brown, run plays to free him in those critical moments. When the coach hears that, he does what Bryant wants. Then, when it fails, the coach looks elsewhere to assign blame, because they did what they could to acquiesce to the wishes of the king of crunch time.
Consider what happened in the final five seconds of the game. Down one point, the Lakers faced a sideline out-of-bounds play after Thabo Sefolosha fouled Bryant with the Thunder possessing a foul to give. In the timeout, the Lakers came together and decided the ball needed to go to Bryant. Brown and assistant coach John Kuester designed a play in which Bryant would counter the Thunder's likely pressure on him by fading to the opposite corner off a flare screen and catching a crosscourt pass for the shot.
The play was executed by all. There's only one problem: Metta World Peace saw something better.
World Peace saw Russell Westbrook turn his head, which left Steve Blake wide open. Blake hadn't shot the ball well in the game, but he's a career 39 percent three-point shooter. This was a great look for a good three-point shooter. Blake just missed it.
Blaming World Peace for this decision would have been crazy. Basketball is a game of improvisation and quick decision-making, and in seeing Westbrook turn his head, World Peace improvised brilliantly. Most coaches everywhere hope that they work with players enough that they possess the on-court aptitude to read the situation.
Most coaches, apparently, are not Mike Brown. Here's what he said about the play.
"We set a flare, and Kobe was open on the backside."
He's wrong. Bryant wasn't open. Bryant may have been open if Pau Gasol nailed his flare screen, Serge Ibaka didn't switch to cut off Bryant and Andrew Bynum successfully back-screened Kendrick Perkins from helping. All these things were possible, but they weren't a certainty.
More importantly, suppose Bryant really is open in the deep corner. For one, how is World Peace supposed to get him the ball? Let's not take the 35-foot cross-court pass for granted. That's not an easy pass for even the very best passers to complete. For another, what kind of shot is Bryant really going to end up taking? A fadeaway 18-20 foot jumper? That's the kind of shot he had been missing all night, having scored zero points in the final six and a half minutes.
To his credit, Bryant didn't throw World Peace under the bus publicly, saying in his post-game press conference that he didn't "know what Metta saw." But Bryant's actions after the game speak louder than his words. He scolded Blake for taking the shot, then was so mad he didn't get the ball that he wasted two seconds when he could have fouled a Thunder player complaining. This was in the heat of the moment, sure, and players have tirades, but that doesn't exactly endear him well to me.
Thus begins the vicious cycle all over again. Now, granted, Kobe is going to be Kobe. As a competitor, he has to be mad like that. He will always get a pass from fans who won't give LeBron James the same opportunity, but there's very little we can change about that.
The real issue is that Brown was more concerned about protecting the crunch time myth than praising a player who improvised off his play to set up a teammate for a much better shot. World Peace gave his team the best chance to win by abandoning the initial play and finding Blake. He didn't deserve his coach throwing him under the bus.
(Quotes via NBA.com's live press conference video from last night.)