Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Marquee Matchup: Black Mamba vs. Agent Zero

One of the more interesting sub-plots of the NBA season so far has been the inspired play of Washington Wizards virtuoso Gilbert Arenas. A do-it-all combo guard, Arenas currently ranks third in the league in scoring by averaging 30.1 points per game. To be fair, Arenas has never strugged to score -- he averaged 29.3 last season and 25.5 the season before. The suprising aspect of Arenas' awakening has been the fashion in which he's torched the competition, dropping 45 against Cleveland, 54 versus Phoenix and 60 on the Lakers. This type of scoring output would come a suprise, except that Arenas vowed to seek revenge against Team USA for being cut from the team last summer. Presumably this means its open season on everyone.

After succumbing to Arenas' 60-point barrage in overtime, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant told reporters, "He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they're just terrible shots. Awful. You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. He made some big ones, but I'll be ready next time."

First of all, the notion of Bryant not understanding the mentality of taking shots in bulk is ridiculous; he's the poster boy for bad shots -- he just makes them often enough that they're "okay" shots for him.
Second, Arenas made an excellent point in rebuttal, stating that Kobe wouldn't have stooped to make negative comments unless it had really gotten under his skin.

Everyone knows that Bryant is a fierce competitor blessed with elite athleticism and killer instinct. He can single-handedly take over games. Opponents fear him; last season he issed a challenge to Seattle's Ray Allen in the preseason -- incidentally, Allen missed the game. Bryant is one of the few among the NBA's elite who is a true two-way threat, potent on offense but talented enough to impact the game defensively as well. The game against Washington was no exception; after having the ball stolen by Arenas from the weak side, Bryant chased him down the court and blocked his layup attempt. He was taking the challenge personally, as all great players should. In watching Lakers games of late, it is obvious that Bryant is trying to trust his teammates more in an effort to help the team grow. However, without Lamar Odom, who is injured, the Lakers' triangle offense is stagnant, and Bryant's deference to his teammates often results in hurried possessions or turnovers. The result has been that Bryant, who is the focal point of defenses anyway, has been forced to take long jumpers or other low percentage shots.

Arenas, on the other hand, is unpredictable. He's known for giving himself nicknames like "The Black President," or "The Stealth," and yelling out "Hibachi!" when he shoots (although this has been changed to "quality shots" since Kobe's diatribe). He owns a professional video game team named Final Boss. Arenas is the guy who, after scoring 50 against Team USA Assistant Coach Mike D'Antoni's Suns, stared into the camera with a crazy look in his eye and declared "one down, one to go" -- referring to an upcoming game against the Seattle Supersonics and Nate McMillan, another Team USA assistant coach. He's basically impersonating Babe Ruth and telling you where he's going to hit the home run. Arenas is gaining a reputation for being the guy you don't want to tick off. In the Wizards free-flowing offensive attack, he has perpetual green light, and it is not uncommon for him to pull up from just inside halfcourt and launch 35-to-40-foot jumpshots. They're not necessarily bad shots either, as the Wizards uptempo style allows plenty of possessions for Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, who combine with Arenas to form the NBA's highest-scoring trio.

The NBA currently offers more marquee matchups than at any time in league history. There are a variety of players with the multitude of skills or indomitable presence necessary to take over a game. In some cases, as with Houston's Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, or Denver's Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, a team has more than one such player. More often than not, individual rivalries overshadow the team matchup, as has become the Christmas tradition with ABC's Lakers-Heat game, obviously parlaying the Shaq-Kobe hissing match. This year however, with Shaquille O'Neal recoving from knee surgery, a new rivalry was initiated between Bryant and Miami's Dwyane Wade. In the head-to-head matchup, Wade absolutely dominated the Lakers to the tune of 40 points and 11 assists, while Bryant managed a sincere 16 in a loss.

Now, it is important to keep things in perspective. With Shaq out, Miami's offense flows almost exclusively through Wade. He is the primary ball handler and, in fact, they have few other scoring options. The Lakers, on the other hand, run the technically structured triangle offense, which requires Bryant to sacrifice shots that he could probably make. Also, Wade is the type of explosive player who can score 40 on any given night, so this was by no means a singular performance for him. Finally, Bryant, by all accounts, was suffering from the flu.

Still, perception is everything, and from a certain perspective, the Christmas Day game against Miami was a key point in Bryant's season, if not his career. It is no secret that Bryant's professional persona is an emulation of Michael Jordan. Jordan was one of his childhood idols, and Bryant received criticism for his Jordan-esque mannerisms early in his career. It is fair to say that Bryant is motivated, in a sense, to be better than Jordan, to establish his own legend outside of the imposing shadow that Jordan casts on the current generation of basketball players. Bryant wants to be the best. Now.

And he may be. This is the player who scored 81 points in a single game last season. A player who thrives in those moments in which others choke. A player who sets the league's current standard for greatness. You can be sure that, while Arenas' 60-point battery of the Lakers was nothing personal, it was motivated by Bryant's marquee status -- if you have something to prove, you must prove it against the best. But Bryant is also a player who's explosiveness has been limited by off-season knee surgery. He has seen his production decline due to Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson's emphasis on sharing the ball. With the arrival of Wade, Anthony and LeBron James and the new spokesmen of the NBA (Wade was recently named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year), Bryant has heard his name fall out of discussion.

After Arenas' offensive outburst, Kobe's remarks were the clue that revealed his frustration. The one-sided defeat against Wade -- with the entire NBA fan base watching -- might be the last straw. While Bryant and Wade were not playing one-on-one, the media's focus on marquee matchups creates a constant comparison between players that are often as similar as apples and oranges

How long will Bryant be able to squelch his ego and tolerate the short end of the stick? Jackson has stated that Jordan reached his greatest apex once he was able to trust his teammates. In chasing the game's greatest player, can Bryant adjust to playing within a system that limits his production and detracts from his personal legacy?

Perhaps the more intriguing question is, how will Bryant respond to the unspoken challenges issued by the NBA's new generation of superstars? One thing is certain, when the Lakers play the Wizards again on February 3, all eyes will be on the marquee matchup.

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