Kobe Bryant Is Not A Unicorn, And The Lakers Are Not From Oz

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 08: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts late in the fourth quarter while taking on the Denver Nuggets in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 8, 2012 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant is not the mythical creature that the highlight reels make him out to be, and the Lakers are not above the immutable laws of basketball.

If you can get a theory into the conventional sporting wisdom, there is no stopping it. Convince enough fans that LeBron James is a choker, and no number of game-winners will flip the script. Assert that Dirk Nowitzki is soft, and only a title reverses the narrative. The conventional sporting wisdom is like a hard-to-navigate barge that sets a course and has trouble diverting. That's how we figure Carmelo Anthony is a top-10 player for years, until his team has a bad run and the massive shift in public opinion switches to calling him a scrub, when he was really at neither extreme.

The narrative of sport has been no more strong than with Kobe Bryant, a five-time champion, one-time MVP and all-time great. Consistently, analysts, players and fans place Kobe at the top of their lists of stars who should get the last shot. Without fail, Kobe is recognized as being the most reliable scorer in crunch time. When asked about the most cold-blooded man in all the land, a majority always picks Kobe.

And they are always, always wrong.

Henry Abbott has made this case for years: Kobe Bryant is not the best option in crunch time for the Lakers, let alone in the known universe. Bryant plies a trade called Hero Ball, in which one player -- usually the team's best player -- does it all by himself in endgame situations. That Hero Ball was on full display on Tuesday night as the L.A. Lakers rallied back from a 15-point deficit to get within one before eventually losing.

Oh, it was on display during the comeback ... but especially during Kobe's failed attempts to tie the game.


Full Nuggets vs. Lakers Coverage | PERRIN: Bynum vs. McGee


With 2-1/2 minutes left on Tuesday, the Nuggets led by four. Kobe had shot 11-29 -- that's 38 percent -- on the game, and 2-6 on three-pointers. The Lakers have effective options in the frontline; though Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were outplayed, stunningly, by JaVale McGee on Tuesday for the second time in the series, they are two of the more efficient big men in the NBA. Bynum had slid in for easy scores and drawn early double teams in the fourth quarter, and Gasol had recently stroked an open jumper as the Denver defenders keyed on Kobe and Bynum.

On three of the next four Lakers' possessions, Kobe would take a long three-pointer before the shot clock reached single digits. He hit all three. Because Andre Miller was schooling L.A. on the other end, that only got the Lakers within two. If you were from outer space and you watched only the 90 seconds of the game in which Kobe nailed those threes, I would forgive you for assessing the situation and naming Kobe Bryant a Special Breed of player who is definitely Clutch.

But we all watched the next 60 seconds of the game, right? That means we all watched Kobe miss his next three shots, each one with a rising degree of difficulty. Down two, Kobe drove to the rack for a highly contested runner with the entire Denver roster (bench and inactives included) focused solely on No. 24, who was sure to take the attempt. He bricked it. Al Harrington split free throws at the other end. Nuggets by three, 28 seconds.

Out of a timeout, L.A. ran a complex little set of screens to spring (guess who?) Kobe for (guess what?) a highly contested deep three that Denver was keyed in on. He bricked it. The Nuggets again split a pair, Ramon Sessions somehow wrestled away a shot from Kobe (he hit it) and after a pair of Andre Miller free throws, the Lakers trailed three with 12 seconds left and a full timeout to draw up something nice.

This was "something nice":

A long three-pointer with a hand in his face, no movement, no attempt at finding an open man, no attempt at creating something more likely to succeed, no creativity, no acceptance of mortality. This shot is Kobe Bryant thinking that he is really a special unicorn, that the immutable laws of basketball -- that isolation does not work as well as anything else, that telegraphing your play over a decade of observation is not smart -- do not apply to the Lakers.

Guess what? Kobe, you are not a unicorn, and the Lakers are not from Oz. The laws of basketball do apply to you, and that's why this series is going back to Denver. Because Kobe believes the conventional sporting wisdom, that he is some breed of special creature who can breathe under the weight of 32 shots, that magic shoots out of his finger tips, that he is above it all.

Kobe is a great player, one of the best ever. But he is considered the league's premier clutch player not because he is the league's premier clutch player, but because he has taken such an inordinate number of "clutch" shots over the years that he has hit a collection of impactful ones, and SportsCenter shows those on repeat, and SportsCenter does not show his misses -- even the TNT recap clip on Inside the NBA following the game only showed the final miss, not the two ugly shots that preceded it.

It's facile to contrast the reactions to Kobe missing three straight shots with a chance to tie the game, and the reactions to any clutch failing by LeBron James. The LeBron narrative is a-whole-nother bag of yarn. But compare the reaction to Kobe, which focuses on his successes and ignores the bigger picture, with that of a player who has truly shown himself to be ultra-effective in crunch time, but who does it with smart play and a distinct lack of contested 27-footers. Consider the narrative attached to Kobe in the clutch compared to that of Chris Paul, starring in the same building against a better opponent and handling his business without resorting to self-delusion and believing his own hype. There's a right way and a wrong way to play at the ends of games, and I sure hope that in the end more of us appreciate what CP3 does than worship at the altar of Kobe In The Clutch.

The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives .

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