Monday, June 23, 2008

The Other Side of the Celtics' Victory

I'm a Celtic fan, but I live in Santa Barbara and have many friends who are Laker fans. I sympathize with them. They are uniformly disappointed, frustrated, even disgusted with the Lakers for the way they lost the finals. If I were a Laker fan, I'd feel the same, and I'd be particularly upset with the lack of team play.

Witness game four, the key to the series, in which the Lakers surrendered a 24 point lead, a "Collapse for the Ages" according to the LA Times headline. The Lakers dominated the Celtics in the first half, even though Kobe, the regular season MVP and by all accounts the most gifted player in the league, had missed all his shots save for three free throws. Some--Laker fans, members of the media, even Celtic fans--saw that scenario as a good thing for the Lakers: They were up big and Kobe hadn't even got going yet. But the Celtics had a different thought: Kobe would come out in the second half looking to get his.

The Lakers' predictability and Kobe's predictable selfishness keyed Boston's historic comeback. Knowing what was coming, Paul Pierce asked to guard Kobe, and he did a fantastic job of contesting Kobe's jump shots. In one particularly memorable play in the middle of the Celtics' big 21-3 run, Pierce blocked Kobe's shot, retrieved the carom, and ignited a Boston fast break.

Pierce's defense was just part of the overall team effort to stop Kobe. Pierce and Kobe both knew that, if Kobe drove past Pierce, the Celtics were all waiting to swarm Kobe, swallow him up, not allow a decent pass let alone a shot close to the basket. As it was the entire series, if Kobe were to get his, it would be through jump shots, which he kept jacking up over the taller Pierce. The rest of the Lakers stood around and watched as the Celtics took the third quarter, the game, and the Lakers' heart.

The next day, Jackson pointedly said that Bryant would be motivated by something Boston's Kevin Garnett said. When asked to elaborate, Jackson said, check the transcripts.

If you've paid attention to them (the Lakers) all year, usually the first half is team ball, second half is usually Kobe takes over the games. They weren't nearly as aggressive as they were the first half. It just looks like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and him sort of finish it off.... We were giving Kobe every look we've got in the book, from different matchups to trapping him, to a guy on the bottom. We were just making other guys make plays.

Garnett's words certainly struck a chord with the coach, and Kobe's play down the stretch in game five suggests that he also heard them and heeded them. He deferred to Gasol, even directing the ball away from himself to Gasol, since that is where the Celtics' defense was weakest.

The Lakers managed to win game five, but not convincingly. With Kobe out of the offense except to draw defenders away from the basket and give room for Gasol to operate, the Lakers looked and acted strange, out of character, desperate. Without a dynamic Kobe, the team was lost. Only the most die-hard Laker fans expected them to win even one game of the final two in Boston. A rout in game six was hardly surprising.

The problem isn't so much Kobe's need to be the star; the problem is that the Lakers are built around Kobe's need to be the star. It's one thing to make Kobe's unsurpassed talent the center of a team; it's another to make Kobe's narrative of greatness the center of the team. It's a Hollywood formula, eagerly embraced by the NBA and the media: Kobe's the hero on a quest to carry a team to a championship and everyone else is the supporting cast. This formula has informed the Lakers' organizational strategy for the last four or five years. Every organizational decision fits this overall formula.

In contrast to the Celtics' corny and profound but nonetheless appealing--and victorious--"ubuntu" ethos, "I am what I am because of who we all are," the Lakers are what they are because of who Kobe is. His scolding and scowling at his teammates and at his coach tell the tale of what "team" means to the Lakers. They don't have the opportunity to do things for the benefit of the team; they do things for the benefit of Kobe.

This depressing drama is, of course, not new to Lakers' fans, except that Kobe's selfishness was supposed to be a thing he'd outgrown in his transformation into a leader on and off the court, the heir to Michael Jordan's championship passion, demanding of his teammates only as much as he demanded of himself. The collapse in the second half of game four proved that to be all public relations, in the end a cruel fraud. The 2008 Lakers were about Kobe getting his. Or failing to get his.

The future holds some promise for Laker fans. Bynum will come back from injury to give the Lakers the toughness inside that they lacked in the finals. Bynum's presence also allows Gasol and Odom to play to their strengths, which are marvelous basketball skills (rather than vilified for their weakness, lack of physical strength). Vuyacic and Farmer will have more experience. Radmanovich will have more time on the bench. Kobe may even finally figure out how to lead a team.

If Kobe does mature, however, I still wouldn't root for him. Other petulant and selfish players who mature in the public eye are far more sympathetic. Paul Pierce's ghetto-to-Finals glory story, for example, includes overcoming genuine obstacles, like poverty and stab wounds and a career spent on the same bad team.

Kobe's story? On and off the court, he needs to overcome his sense of entitlement.

Rooting for Kobe is like rooting for the rich kid with all the tutors and advisers and insider legacy tracks, like rooting for corporate America, the Evil Empire, or George Steinbrenner.

I wouldn't want to be a Laker fan.


Queen Whackamole said...

Sad that it's come to that... I remember the old Lakers, where Magic was a star and had the most assists--all about the teamwork.

Adam said...

HAHAHA. Celtics are the best.

George said...

Hey, you started blogging again!

I'm not sure what this game basketball is, though.

Queen Whackamole said...

Should we look forward to special post for your 4 month non-bloggingversary?

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