by Patrick ‘Rey’ Reynell
Somebody has to do it. If you plan on winning an NBA title in this era, you’re going to have to go through two of the most prolific scorers of all time. Of course I’m talking about former league MVP Kobe Bryant and reigning MVP LeBron James.
Kobe Bryant: the youngest player to reach 20,000 points.
LeBron James: the youngest player to reach 10,000 points and the quickest ever to 12,000.
As is always the case with great players, nobody expects you to stop them. You just need to somehow contain them. The “you” in this season’s case is the Orlando Magic’s Mickael Pietrus. The 6’6” wing player from France guarded James in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now with his team in the 2009 NBA Finals, he is the “Magic Man” who must try to contain the scoring machine that is Kobe Bryant.
Don’t believe for a second that Pietrus doesn’t welcome the challenge. It’s written on his face every game as he assuredly chews his gum and keeps the poise of a wildcat stealthily hunting its prey. Maybe that’s how he got his nickname, “Puma.” If Pietrus plans to live up to that nickname in the Finals, he’ll have to be as sneaky as a wildcat, too.
Orlando General Manager Otis Smith knew what he was getting when he signed Pietrus from Golden State. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy knew it, too. After signing him in the summer of 2008, Van Gundy said Pietrus would “Go to Cleveland and he’ll probably guard LeBron James . . . and guys like that at the two.”
Pietrus has been labeled a “versatile player” and most importantly a “lockdown defender.” The Magic knew that a defensive player like Pietrus would be an imperative part in competing for the NBA Title. With the rest of the pieces in place, Orlando took only one season to conquer the East and now vie for the title against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Though Bryant and James are great scorers, the defensive assignment changes drastically from one to the next.
Against James, Pietrus guarded a barreling locomotive. James benefited from an extra two inches and could easily shoot over Pietrus. More times than not, however, James looked to create by attacking the lane. Pietrus was able to keep James in front of him most of the time and challenge shots and passes with either hand.
Pietrus also benefited with Dwight Howard playing the middle and knew that even though James might be able to turn Pietrus’ hips and gain the advantage, the defense would rotate. Many times though Pietrus remained square with James, forced him to the block and baseline, and didn’t get his hips turned and succumbed to a clean look at the basket. James was forced to rely heavily on his teammates to knock down outside shots.
The Eastern Finals turned out to be more about the strength of Pietrus than anything else. Based on game one of the Finals, he will have to match wits in guarding the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
Pietrus challenged every jump shot Bryant took off the dribble. Because he and Bryant are the same height, Pietrus kept him relatively contained and went literally hand-to-hand with him on shot attempts. Bryant may have realized that he wouldn’t shake the equally quick and tall Pietrus every time.
Bryant attacked the middle of the floor and only attempted one three-pointer for the game. A majority of his shots came between 10-17 feet, mostly near the elbows. This is where Bryant outsmarted Pietrus.
By attacking the elbows, Bryant used Pietrus’ momentum against him. Bryant would either make his way to the rim or jump-stop. If he jump-stopped, Pietrus’ momentum often didn’t allow him to stop with him thus creating a little space. Bryant could take the shot or kick it out.
If Pietrus was able to anticipate the jump-stop, Bryant would utilize his pivot foot. Pietrus would overcompensate and close out on Bryant as he pivoted away from Pietrus as if to attempt a fade away jumper. When Pietrus recovered and closed down, Bryant would either up-fake and try to draw the foul or completely step across Pietrus and shoot a leaner.
Bryant ended up shooting 9-19 from that range, but also made all 8 of his free throw attempts. (Some of these attempts came off a Laker pick-and-roll).
Looking at the stat sheet, Mickael Pietrus looks like the worst defender of all time. The Magic allowed James to average over 35 points per game. In game one of the Finals, Kobe Bryant took Pietrus and Courtney Lee for 40 points and 8 assists. But to say Pietrus isn’t getting the job done is missing the point.
Pietrus is so versatile that he can physically match the two diverse styles of Bryant and James. Undoubtedly, he will give up a massive amount of points. But watch closely – he is making things a little more difficult for each player than it appears. Only Pietrus can remain so confident after giving up so many points.
The harder of the two challenges will in fact be Kobe Bryant. His understanding of the game and how to score reach beyond that of the youthful LeBron James. Bryant had his way in game one and showed everyone that basketball is as much mental as it is physical. For all his athletic prowess on the court, Kobe Bryant is also one of the smartest players to ever play the game.
We’ve seen that Pietrus can get it done physically on the defensive end, but these Finals will show if the “Puma” will prove his stealth if he can match wits with wits with Bryant.