He just wouldn't miss. I was in high school, and my team's defensive stopper (name of Katz) dogged our opponent's top player every step of the way, but the top player -- we'll call him Matt for the purposes of this post -- just wouldn't miss. Matt scored 30-something points, and he scored them in every way imaginable. Pull-up three-pointers, and-ones after drives to the hoop, tear drop floaters that scraped heaven before falling into the bucket.
Katz, meanwhile, didn't score a single point. But after the game, which we won by 12 points, our coach offered Katz -- who'd been outscored by more than 30 points -- the game ball. And I thought to myself: "Yup, well deserved." You see, Katz didn't have a prayer of stopping Matt, not if Matt was on his game. Katz's job was just to make Matt work for his points, and to play enough defense so the rest of our team could keep Matt's teammates from going off. Mission accomplished, game won. Never before had getting lit up been so admirable.
Which brings me to Ray Allen, whose accomplishments against Kobe Bryant often go unnoticed. Actually, unnoticed isn't the right word. Under-appreciated is more fitting. I would argue that what Allen manages to accomplish against Bryant, every time the Celtics play the Lakers, is as impressive a display of stamina and endurance as any you'll ever see in the NBA.
It's not just that Allen defends Bryant for the game's majority. A lot of players defend Bryant. Perhaps Shane Battier defends Bryant most famously, putting a hand in Kobe's eyesight time after time just to see Bryant continue hitting shots with his vision impeded. Guarding Bryant is a tiresome, and often fruitless, practice, and one person -- or, often, a host of persons -- must draw the assignment every night. Some players, like Battier, defend Bryant better than most. Others, like Morris Peterson (who took the brunt of Bryant's 81-point explosion), not so much. The key is to make Bryant work for his shots, and to force low-percentage shots. Some days, like Sunday against Boston, Bryant will sink a high percentage of the low-percentage looks. Other days, forcing Bryant into tough shots will prove more successful. Every day, drawing the Kobe Bryant assignment could potentially result in disaster. Every day, shadowing Bryant takes the mental preparation of Buddha and the physical preparation of Rocky in Rocky IV.
What differentiates Allen's job against LA from Battier's is their role in their respective offenses. Battier contributes little more than spot-up shooting to Houston's offense. He's good at what he does, and there's certainly value in having a stand-still shooter who drains 38.5% of his career three-pointers. But Battier can conserve energy on the offensive end of the court, so that he has more left in the tank when Bryant beckons. Allen isn't afforded the same energy conservation. His role in Boston's offense is to run around screens, run around some more screens, and then, when all those screens fail, run around even more screens.
Sebastian Pruiti, from NBA Playbook, recently wrote a post describing why Allen's one of the league's toughest covers. He discussed Allen's intelligence at length, noting that Allen knows the right play to make in the right situations. When a defender tightly trails Allen around a screen, he curls the screen. When a defender shoots a screen's gap rather than fighting over it, Allen fades into an open jump shot. There are many different ways to defend players running off screens, and Allen knows how to counteract each defense.
What Pruiti failed to mention, and I imagine he didn't mention because it goes without saying, is that Allen stays in constant motion offensively. He sprints in transition. He sprints around screens. He sprints, and his defender stays with him, and then he sprints some more until his defender finally falls a step behind and Allen has enough space to release his Kodak-moment jumper, or make a play for his teammates. Rarely will you ever find Allen stationary on offense, as he draws attention and creates opportunities for everyone on his team using a simple tactic -- unending activity.
Which makes his efforts against Bryant all the more impressive. Defending Bryant, even if you're Shane Battier and can spend certain offensive sets chilling in the corner, takes the energy of an ADD-riddled 12-year old yet the focus of a world-renowned brain surgeon. The same way Allen never stops moving, Bryant never stops attacking. If a defender lets his guard down, Bryant's got all he needs to score. If a defender physically or mentally slips for a split-second, Bryant's stepping into a jumper that, for him, at least, is an easy two points. Yet Allen, who spends the entirety of his offensive day running endlessly and could probably use a rest on the other end, defends Bryant -- I would argue -- as well as anyone in the NBA.
Bryant's struggles against Boston have been well-documented, if you can call scoring 28.6 ppg in the 2010 NBA Finals "struggles." But in his 13 NBA Finals games against the Celtics, Bryant has shot 50% from the field only one time. In that same sample, he has shot less than 40% six separate times. Even Sunday, when Bryant scored 41 points, Allen did the best job on him. According to ESPN, Bryant shot 6-16 against Allen and 10-13 against the other Celtics who tried their hand. Allen spent 33 possessions defending Bryant, and his teammates guarded Bryant for 32 possessions. Yet Allen gave up only 13 points to Bryant, while his teammates combined to surrender 28. And, oh yeah, Allen also poured in 21 points on 8-12 shooting himself, including two fourth-quarter three-pointers to help put the Lakers away.
Certain games, defending Bryant seems to catch up to Allen. Take The Game That Must Not Be Named, for example. Allen defended his rear end off, forcing Bryant into 6-24 shooting. But Allen also seemed to lose his legs while chasing Bryant everywhere. He shot 3-14, missing a slew of open shots he normally makes in his sleep. But those games when Allen struggles to multi-task only highlight when he manages to hound Bryant and still score efficiently himself.
Allen's 35 years old. He's played 1,069 regular season games, and 39,601 regular season minutes. If Allen's career registered frequent-flier miles, let's just say he'd be traveling anywhere he wanted for free. By almost every historical standard, Allen's career should be fading to black. His play should be slipping. Yet there he is, sprinting around the court on one end in search of an open jump shot, and dogging Kobe Bryant on the other. There he is, 35 years old and still in perfect shape, piecing together perhaps the most complete season of his career.
Remember, Bryant still scored 41 points on Sunday. But as my teammate Katz demonstrated years ago, getting lit up can actually be quite admirable.