CHARLOTTE — To use Gerald Henderson’s term, Kobe Bryant had been on “cruise control.”
Scoreless in the first half. Six points in the third quarter. This was no one’s MVP.
“Just trying to make the plays that were there,” Henderson said of Bryant. “But he became famous for making plays that weren’t there – two guys hanging on him, fade-away jumpers.”
That’s the Los Angeles Lakers superstar who scored 14 fourth-quarter points to beat the Charlotte Bobcats 100-93 Friday. Bryant and the 24-27 Lakers finally figured out the double-teaming that had allowed the Bobcats to survive in small-ball. Los Angeles outscored the Bobcats 31-15 in that final period.
The Bobcats led by 20 with 5 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, only to lose. In Los Angeles the Bobcats led the Lakers by 17, only to lose. When they run the way they did Friday, they get plenty of layups. But the small-ball it takes to score in the half-court undercut the 11-38 Bobcats’ defense late.
Coach Mike Dunlap tried to guard Bryant for several possessions with point guard Ramon Sessions. It got Bryant back in attacking rhythm the rest of the game.
“We played small ball because we knew we were in a drought,” offensively, Dunlap said. “We need small ball to score and I didn’t stay with (Sessions on Bryant) for long.”
Dunlap constantly sent double-teams at Bryant to force him from scoring mode to passing mode. It worked a long time, but not long enough.
“He does not like to play against doubles. It makes him into a facilitator,” Dunlap said, adding, “We were stubborn about that.”
Dunlap went with just nine players Friday. The only reserve big man who saw the floor was center Brendan Haywood and he lasted 2 ½ minutes. Dunlap believed the only way to survive the fourth-quarter “desert” was small-ball offense and those double-teams.
Then the Lakers caught on.
“In the third quarter I looked up and saw Kobe had four,” recalled power forward Byron Mullens, back as a starter with 20 points and 12 rebounds. “They’re a smart team. They figured out what we were doing and came up with it.”
Henderson (20 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and a spectacular block of the Lakers Jodie Meeks) understands small-ball gives the Bobcats their offense. He also understands how tough that can make it defensively.
“When you’ve got Kobe Bryant, you’ve got to guard him with some kind of size. Even I’m small going against him,” the 6-5 Henderson said. “Our offense runs best when we’re smaller. But it’s a give-and-take. You just hope you can guard playing smaller.”