The Undaunted Task of Mickael Pietrus

by Patrick ‘Rey’ Reynell

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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.

9 Responses to "The Undaunted Task of Mickael Pietrus"

  1. Wally   June 7, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Great post, Rey! And I hope the Puma stops Kobe enough to add some drama to this series. I’d at least like to see it go 6 or 7 games, but right now I have my doubts.

  2. Rey   June 7, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks Wally. It’s actually wrong for me to blame Pietrus for all of Kobe’s points. Courtney Lee certainly got worked for the times he guarded him. They’re going to have to figure something out because Kobe has learned to trust his teammates now more than ever it seems.

  3. Casey   June 7, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Kobe is good.

    There I said it. After slagging him for years, these past games have made me realize how truly good he is.

    Rey – you nailed it when you said: “Kobe has learned to trust his teammates now.” He has spent so much energy deliberately trying to etch his place in the history of the NBA. The last couple of games he has become a facilitator on the floor. And he is unfrigginstoppable.

    I’m glad you brought up Courtney Lee. I was thinking of dialing 911 at one point the other night – Kobe was abusing him so badly. I am worried that kid will never emotionally recover from that.

    Rey – your dissection of playing one-on-one defense is a triumph and should find its way into a coaching manual.

    We’ll see how the rest of the series goes, but after game ,1 I have even more respect for Rick Adelman, Shane Battier, and the Rockets. Adelman employed a defensive scheme that would not allow a guy like Courtney Lee to get caught up in a switch. And Battier did more than just contain Kobe at times.

    Beyond all that is the importance of a guy like Pietrus and Battier. A team needs a player like them to win a championship. The Lakers have it in Lamar Odom. The difference is that Odom lacks consistency…except for the last couple of weeks. Odom’s efforts on out-of-bounds plays destroyed the Nuggets’ confidence in those endeavors.

  4. Rey   June 7, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for the praise, Casey.

    At what point do teams stop trying to get the “superstars” and think to themselves, “let me get a legitimate inside presence and perimeter player, then spend the big bucks on a defensive player.” Orlando kind of did this when they signed Pietrus but they didn’t sign him to that much. They’ve quietly pieced together a stunning basketball team with key role players. The trick will be when Howard demands the amount that Kobe, LeBron, and DWade demand.

    Kobe is excellent. I hate the guy, but I’m sorry – he’s the closest thing to a competitive firestorm we have. LeBron had too much fun in the regular season and Dwight Howard is just plain goofy sometimes. Peple crtiticze Kobe because of his demeanor on the court. How many times did MJ smile and “snap pictures” of his teammates? How many times did the Pistons laugh and shrug after a bad foul call? How often did Bird and McHale pander to the audience in pre-game warmups?

    I’m sorry, but Kobe is old school and people don’t like that. They want this fun loving player who also wins. Won’t happen. Look at the past champions. Those teams meant business. So does Kobe. Sorry, folks. He gets it. As much as I hate the guy. He gets it and I don’t think this will be his last championship (Knowingly saying that gives the Magic the edge since I’m great with predictions).

    The whole thing with him being a jerk. Yeah – I know why. It makes your team better. Sports should be social darwinism and Kobe is Charles Darwin himself. He’s created natural selection with his fierce competitiveness. Why do you think a guy like Ariza is so darn good at such a young age and after only an average collegiate career? He practices with Kobe Bryant every day and Kobe probably gets in his stuff non-stop to make him a player.

    I think I’m done now. Just for the record – I really do hate Kobe Bryant and his smug-a** attitude in interviews. But I respect the heck out of the man.

  5. Casey   June 7, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    “Some players only see the world through a prism of their own statistics and accomplishments. Others have no choice but to be a part of team—to be a spokesman for something larger than themselves.” John Howell – Bleacher Report

  6. Casey   June 7, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    30 years ago, we all would have had a different view of Kobe. 30 years ago, all we had was a player’s performance to judge. We did not have the endless stream of in-depth interviews and sideline reports and yada, yada, yada. We would have looked at Kobe in his Lakers uniform and made our call based on his play.

  7. Rey   June 7, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    True. The off-court allegations don’t help various players either now-a-days.

  8. Casey   June 7, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    JJ Redick is covering Kobe and the Lakers, for some unknown reason, don’t get the ball in the hands of #24? Is it safe to say the Lakers are out of sync?

  9. Casey   June 7, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    And yet Kobe has only taken 5 shots in the first half, and the Lakers are still up. Yikes!!!! Thank goodness for Rashard Lewis. This could get very ugly.

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