Guarding Kobe (cont.)
With most players, this is distraction enough -- he's going to stick his finger in my eye! --but great shooters like Bryant are so locked in that it's often as if the defender doesn't exist. So then Battier has to introduce an element of uncertainty. Occasionally he might tap a hot shooter on the head, even if it leads to a whistle. "Every now and then I'll just take a foul," Battier says. "I'll hit the guy on the wrist or the elbow or even the face just to put that thought in the offensive player's mind. Because offensive players, they don't like contact. They're shooters. They do not like to be touched. And anything I can do to keep a guy off guard and keep him guessing, I'm going to do."
Even if Battier can succeed in getting Bryant out of sync, however, all it takes is one careless moment to lose the edge. That's why for a defensive specialist like Battier, the greatest fear is heading to the bench while Bryant remains in the game and gets his mojo going. Spurs forward Bruce Bowen in particular is known to fume about this. "I've never seen a guy get mad like that when he's on the bench," says Malik Rose, the Oklahoma City forward who played with Bowen for many years on the Spurs. "When we'd play Kobe, Bruce would do a great job on him. Then when Bruce would get subbed out, he'd be yelling at his backup to 'Get up on him' and 'Do this' and 'Do that,' because he didn't want Kobe to get hot. Because nothing is worse than coming in against a hot player."
This can happen even if you're not on the bench. In Game 1, for example, Battier was guarding Bryant and sticking to his principles: no risks, only jump shots, nothing at the rim. And through the first two quarters, Bryant had settled for tough jumpers and missed most of them, shooting 4 for 12. Then, with 9:40 left in the third quarter, Rockets forward Ron Artest switched onto Bryant in transition and picked him up at the top of the key. From across the court, Battier watched in horror as Artest gambled for a steal, lunging for the ball as Bryant dribbled. With Artest off balance, Bryant finally had a lane to attack and headed straight to the rim, where he finished and drew the foul on Luis Scola. That's all it took; as Battier says, "Kobe had his bounce after that." He went on to hit 6 of 9 shots in the quarter.
This, as you can imagine, can be quite frustrating. As such, part of the challenge of guarding Kobe over a series is staying positive. Take the case of Utah guard Ronnie Brewer, who is a respectable defender, though not in Battier's league. During the first round of the playoffs, Brewer had to stick Bryant. And for three games he did a decent job. Then, in Game 4, Kobe went off, scoring 38 points on 16-for-24 shooting as the Lakers went up 3--1 in that series. Afterward, Brewer was disconsolate, sure he'd let down his team. "I got down on myself because I felt like, Man, if I could have slowed him down a bit, the series could have turned around," says Brewer. "But when he got hot, it was like there was nothing I could do." Engelland has seen this reaction before, having witnessed many a Bryant detonation as a Spurs coach. "I think the hardest thing when you're playing against Kobe is not getting deflated," he says. "You have to stay positive on him every play."
If anyone can commiserate, it is Craig Ehlo, who was Shane Battier before there was Shane Battier. A 6'7" forward, Ehlo played 14 NBA seasons, 10 with the Hawks and the Cavs, and ended up as something of Michael Jordan's personal defender. Perhaps you remember Ehlo from the deciding game of the 1989 Eastern Conference first-round playoffs between the Bulls and the Cavs. With three seconds left, Jordan took an inbounds pass, dribbled to the free throw line, hung in the air as a guy flew by, then sank the series-winning jumper. As Jordan leaped in the air, pumping his fist, the guy who sank to the floor as if he'd been teargassed was Ehlo.
It was not an isolated incident. Year after year, Ehlo tried to guard Jordan, and year after year he came away flummoxed (though not for lack of talent; Ehlo was athletic, long and persistent, one of the better cover guys in the league). One time late in his career, Ehlo remembers Jordan coming off a down screen in the triangle offense. Reading the play, Ehlo stepped out into the passing lane, only Jordan instinctively countered him and stepped back, where he caught the ball, changed direction and hit a jump shot.
"How did you do that?" Ehlo asked as they ran back down the court. "I totally had you covered on that one."
Jordan shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, Craig, it just happened."
Of course, nobody ever figured out how to stop Michael Jordan when he was just happening. Many were the nights when Ehlo would spend 40 minutes shadowing M.J. only to surrender four dozen points and secure goat status in the eyes of the Cavs' fans. Still, Cavs trainer Gary Briggs knew better. Says Ehlo, "After the game, he would look me dead square in the eye and say, 'He may have scored 45 points, but you were dead in his s -- all night.'" Ehlo pauses. "And that was all I needed to hear."
Similarly, Kobe's victims take pains to keep perspective. Battier says he thinks of himself as a factory worker approaching his task -- he punches the clock and puts in the time, and "that way I don't get too high or too low." Brewer says his friends tried to buck him up but that it can be especially tough because "sometimes you're the villain either way": If Bryant scores a lot, you've failed, and if he doesn't score a lot, well, a lot of people come to the arena to see Bryant score, so now you've let them down.
But that's not Brewer's worry anymore, it's Battier's. If the Lakers prevail and advance, the job of containing Bryant will probably fall to Dahntay Jones, whose Denver Nuggets held a 3-0 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks through Sunday. Then it will be Jones who will have to run face-first into screens and take elbows to the head. And beyond that, in a month or so, perhaps it will be a certain MVP forward from Cleveland, one who also bears a striking resemblance to a force of nature. In which case we'd get to see something rare and precious: two unstoppable players trying to stop each other.
Of course, just maybe, if Battier does his dirty, stinky job well enough, he could save everyone else the trouble.
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