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Every Play Counts: Raja Bell v. Kobe Bryant

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 5/11/06


In "Every Play Counts," 82games.com's Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at FootballOutsiders.com.


"It would take something on the order of a plague of toads or locusts for Game 7 to avoid being anticlimactic."

Saturday morning, I read that line in Mind Game, the account of the 2004 Boston Red Sox by the Baseball Prospectus team of experts, as Joe Sheehan's description of the decisive game of the 2004 ALCS between the Red Sox and the New York Yankees. By Saturday evening, it proved more apt for another Game 7 -- that of the First Round Playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns.

After all the hype and buildup, it would have been impossible for Game 7 to match up, but what we got was anticlimactic in the truest sense of the word, with the Suns taking a 25-point lead after three quarters and cruising to a 121-90 victory.

However, the same could not necessarily be said of the highly-anticipated matchup between Suns defensive stopper Raja Bell and Lakers All-Star Kobe Bryant. Even before Bell was ejected and suspended for his takedown of Bryant late in Game 5, there was no love lost between the two players. After Bell missed Game 6, the tension was high leading up to Game 7. As a result, I decided to give the matchup between the two players the Every Play Counts treatment, highlighting key moments:

  • A little less than two minutes into the game, after Bryant made a fadeaway jumper, he and Bell bumped into each other a little bit going back downcourt. However, this appeared to be incidental, with both players watching the ball instead of each other.

  • At the 4:34 mark of the first quarter, Bell fouled Bryant on the drive, but there was nothing extraordinary about the level of contact; it was basically your garden-variety foul.

  • A notable exchange occurred with 5:47 left in the first half. Bryant, looking to post up in the right block with his right elbow resting on Bell's chest and Bell denying with his right arm, then tried to spin out of it and go to the top of the key. In the process, Bryant used his elbow, which caught Bell in the chin. Clearly, there was contact worthy of a foul. Bell is a world-class actor, however, so I can't be sure just how serious the contact really was.

  • In the final minute of the first half, on the play where Steve Nash would tweak his right ankle running into Shawn Marion, Bell and Bryant again got tangled in the offense-to-defense transition, this time a bit more seriously. Bryant, looking to go from the sideline to the middle of the court, got his left arm caught on Bell, who was forced to hold up and was taken out of the play.

  • With 4:44 left in the third quarter, Bell was called for an away-from-the-ball foul as Bryant cut from outside the 3-point line. Bell made a lot of contact with Bryant before he made the move, but did not seem to significantly impede Bryant's progress, so this foul was questionable.

  • During the fourth quarter, frustration apparently began to set in for Bryant. On the Lakers' first possession of the period, Bryant is fighting for inside position with Bell. He gives him a very slight elbow and a medium-size push, with Bell going down the second time. The more I watch the play, the more it looks like a flop to me, but Bryant nonetheless got away with at least one and possibly two offensive fouls (well, not really, since you can't get two fouls on one play, but you get my point). Give Bell credit for getting up to box Bryant out, though Brian Cook ultimately hit the shot.

  • On the following possession, Bell put his hands behind him to box out Bryant, who tried to shove them out of the way.

  • One possession later, Bell and Bryant greeted each other with forearms extended. After Bryant was unable to set a ballscreen, he attempted to roll to the basket through Bell, who obviously was not thrilled by this development. Bryant finished the play with an elbow to clear space. If the referees were trying to maintain control of the game, a double foul probably should have been called at first contact to clear things up. Later, Bryant was guilty of at least one, maybe two offensive fouls.

  • After a Steve Nash blocking foul (on a borderline block-charge call that could have gone either way) on the next Lakers possession, Bryant, trying to cut to the hoop, ran over Bell. The US Airways Center crowd naturally cheered the offensive foul called on Bryant lustily, but there was nothing dirty about the play, as Bryant made an effort to keep from stepping on Bell when he was on the ground. Unfortunately, TNT came out of a replay of the blocking foul late and inexplicably never showed a replay, so I can't say for certain what happened. But it appears to me that this was a bad call. It doesn't look like Bell was giving Bryant the requisite step he's allowed when both players are on the move, which would make any contact a blocking foul. Again, that's just my educated guess.

  • Still we're not done. Bryant brought the ball down on the Lakers' ensuing possession and went right at Bell, initiating contact as he sent the ball off the backboard (TNT analyst Doug Collins, who seems to call a disproportionate number of the games I break down, surmised Bryant did so intentionally, trying to get the rebound). Bryant used his right arm to clear Bell out of the way and was called for a loose-ball foul.

    Shortly thereafter, Bell was pulled from the game. He returned for an 18-second cameo to get a standing ovation, but Bryant was gone by that point, meaning the players did not match up head-to-head the rest of the game.

    What did I learn from watching the game in detail? Well, the first thing is that the matchup between Bell and Bryant in Game 7 was more physical than I thought. Watching the game live as a fan, I only made note of the two plays which ended in Bryant offensive fouls and actually thought the matchup was fairly mundane. There was much more going on away from the ball than was evident from the TNT broadcast.

    The other clear point was that most contact was initiated by Bell. This is a natural product of the two players' contrasting defensive roles. Bell rarely turned his attention from Bryant, frequently faceguarding him and ignoring the basketball. Bryant, meanwhile, had more of a read and react role on defense, rarely playing within five feet of Bell, who was typically spotting up in the corner.

    Particularly when Bryant tried to establish post position, Bell was very physical defensively. It's easy to see why playing against Bell is so frustrating for high scorers. While Clippers swingman Quinton Ross has earned the "Next Bruce Bowen" tag, Bell's defense is more akin to that of Bowen, who also is not shy about playing a physical style. One play particularly emphasized Bell initiating contact. On a jump ball, Bell quickly moved to put a forearm in the gut of Bryant, making sure he was able to track him at all times and also providing a physical reminder to Bryant of his presence.

    At times, I think Bell might have been guilty of fouling Bryant, though inevitably referees are slow to whistle these away-from-the-ball fouls. Still, that is no justification for Bryant physically retaliating during the fourth quarter of Game 7, just as Bryant's elbows were a weak explanation for Bell snapping during Game 5.

    Ultimately, we're forced to chalk this up as one of the NBA's gray areas. In the jungle of NBA life, high scorer and defensive stopper are natural adversaries, and virtually regardless of the players in question, the matchup will at some point turn physical.

    Mailing List

    Back in the old Hoopsworld days, I had a mailing list that notified readers when my columns were posted. Now that I'm writing several different places, it seems appropriate to bring it back. If you'd like to join, please e-mail me at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

    Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

    Also see Kevin's previous columns for 82games.com:
    The Year in Stats
    Why I'm an APBRmetrician
    Wanted: Open Minds
    Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
    The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
    Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
    Valuing the Preseason
    Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
    Comparing the 50 Greatest
    Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll
    Every Play Counts: Antonio Daniels
    Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio
    The Value of Kobe Bryant
    Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Suns D
    The Value of Steve Nash
    The Curious Case of Darko Milicic
    The 2005-06 Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams
    Playoff Predictions
    Playoff Thoughts


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