Imagine coming face-to-face with a tornado—and we're talking a fast-moving, maximum intensity, mean-ass twister that's sucking up livestock—and then being asked to "stop" it. You'd run for cover, right? Well, the brave souls assigned to guard Kobe Bryant don't have that option, even though, just as there is no stopping a twister, there's no "stopping" a player like Bryant, especially over the course of a seven-game playoff series. You don't know in which direction he might spin, when he's going to pick up speed or stop altogether, or how much metaphoric destruction he will wreak. No matter how effectively the defender does his job, he's going to get scored upon, and often in ways that are quite embarrassing: on slippery drives, crazy step-back jumpers, maybe a vicious dunk or two.
Look at the impressive effort being put forth by Shane Battier in the matchup at the heart of the contentious second-round series between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. Over the first four games, Battier has been tasked with shadowing Bryant on nearly every dribble, twice forcing him into subpar games, including the Rockets' stunning Game 4 victory (accomplished without All-Star center Yao Ming, who is done for the year with a hairline fracture in his left foot) that tied the series at week's end.
For Battier, the Rockets forward who has twice been named to the NBA All-Defensive team, this was not a fluke. Cerebral and obsessive in his approach to defense, he is among that rare breed of NBA player who makes his living trying to contain such elite scorers. These are the guys who play 40 minutes and finish with maybe four points, three rebounds and two assists, yet they're invaluable, especially come the postseason. To watch Battier in action against Kobe is to see defense treated like a science, if not a religion.
In Game 1, Battier executed the Rockets' defensive plan to perfection: He pushed Bryant left (where double-team help would be), kept him off the free throw line (so there were no easy points), contested every shot (with "that hand-in-the-face activity" as Lakers coach Phil Jackson put it) and forced him to shoot deep, off-balance two-point jumpers. The result: Bryant shot 8 for 22 from the field while being guarded by Battier, and finished the game with an inefficient 32 points that required 31 shots. Problem solved, right? Well, in Game 2, Battier made no adjustments—"my game plan was pretty much the same," he said—and again, Bryant took deep, off-balance two-pointers, drove left and took relatively few free throws. Only this time Bryant shot a scorching 16 for 27 from the field and scored 40 points. Outside the Houston locker room after the game, Rockets vice president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie stared at the box score like a man attempting to make sense of a complicated calculus problem. "This is almost embarrassing to say since Kobe scored 40," said Hinkie, a stat head with a Stanford M.B.A. who works closely with Battier in preparing for opponents, "but Shane played really good defense tonight."
And so it went, each game swinging unpredictably: 33 points for Bryant in Game 3, followed by a Game 4 in which Battier shockingly outscored him 23 to 15. Regardless, the toll from defending Kobe is steep and both mental and physical: In the first four games Battier ran face-first through more than 50 screens, was knocked over a half-dozen times, suffered a gash over his left eye that left a spiderweb of blood on his face and absorbed a Bryant elbow to the back of the head that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Muay Thai bout. Not to mention the taunting—"You can't guard me!" Bryant roared at Battier more than once—made worse because Battier can't really respond. After all, as he points out, "What can I say that's going to erase the fact that he's scoring 40 points on me?"
The answer, of course, is nothing. No, the only reward for a specialist like Battier comes on the scoreboard: Did his team win? Otherwise, it is a thankless, inglorious task, one Michael Cooper, the former Lakers stopper, once compared to being a "garbage collector" because "you don't notice them unless they don't do their job. [They] handle the messes and the stinky stuff."
Bryant poses a particularly vexing—or would that be malodorous?—problem for such men. Whereas some players rely on favorite moves or possess obvious strengths and weaknesses (for example, LeBron James, despite his improved jumper, remains far more effective in the paint than on the perimeter), Bryant is remarkably well-rounded. According to Synergy Sports Technology, which logs every play of every NBA game, Bryant drove right 49.01% of the time this season and left 50.99% of the time. In Synergy's finely parsed statistical analysis, he ranked in the top 20% of the league in (deep breath): shots off cuts, shots off screens, spot-up attempts, shots against single coverage in the post and off one-on-one isolation moves (and he's only slightly less effective in pick and rolls and transition). Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw used to guard Bryant every day in practice when the two were teammates and is all too familiar with the challenge. "He really has no weaknesses," says Shaw. "And he has the knowledge and the ability to say, I'm going to send you to this spot on the floor where only I know I'm going to take you, and I'm going to raise up and take my shot before you can contest it."
What's more, because Bryant is so accurate with his jumper, very few shots that he takes would qualify as bad ones. Just ask Chip Engelland, the respected shooting coach and Spurs assistant who has worked with Grant Hill and Steve Kerr, among others (and whom Battier called for defensive advice on the day of Game 1). Asked what he would do if Kobe came to him for help on his jumper, Engelland laughs, then says, "I would rebound." No really, Chip, what would you do? He thinks for a moment. "Maybe I'd work on shooting while fatigued, but that's about it. His technical form is amazing. He's one of the great jump shooters of our time."
Faced with such an opponent, Battier tries to focus on tiny weaknesses. For example, Bryant shot a surprisingly low percentage (25.5%) on top-of-the-key three-pointers this year, often because he had to hoist them off the dribble. The Rockets' data—which is plentiful, thanks to the number-crunching emphasis that G.M. Daryl Morey has brought to the Houston front office—also tells Battier to send Bryant to his left, where he's less efficient. But even if this works, sometimes Bryant is merely baiting his defender, waiting for the moment to reverse field. "Sometimes Kobe will let a guy think that he's making [Kobe] do what he wants, and then, at the critical point in the game, Kobe will do what he wants to do," says Shaw. "He'll save things until he really needs them."
Once this happens and Bryant creates space for a jumper, Battier's last resort is the aforementioned "hand-in-the-face activity." We've seen it time and again in the series. Bryant rises up, and as he does, Battier launches at him. For an instant, it appears inevitable that the two men will collide, and if you were watching Battier for the first time, you might think that he was reckless. But Battier invariably turns sideways in midair, his right leg leading the way, and he skims just past Bryant, while simultaneously extending his right hand so that it is inches from Bryant's face, the fingers spread to obscure his vision.