That the Lakers are the NBA’s most colossal, most fascinating bummer has been well-documented. In the past, they were un-lovable but majestic. You could hate Kobe’s post-dagger jawfaces, you could hate Phil Jackson’s finely tailored beard and bullying spiritualism, but you could also marvel at their success and be awed by the sight of basketball beautifully played.
If a winning Lakers team evokes the smugness of a Magic of the Movies montage during an Oscars telecast, a losing one reflects a different and more forlorn LA—a million hideous publicist-planted upskirts and celebrity DUI mugshots and pill-powered Daniel Baldwin car chases, all narrated in the sneer-scream of a TMZ correspondent.
Not deliciously infuriating, then, just lonely and depressing. If the Lakers’ signature failing has been their caustic team culture, then a close second has been the awful, awful defense. Consider: their starting point guard is 38 years old and was, during his prime, among the league’s worst defenders; their two other veteran stars are playing the worst defense of their careers; their bench is populated by the Antawn Jamisons and Steve Blakes and Jodie Meekses of the world. Its easy to understand, then, just how badly the Lakers miss even a much-diminished Dwight Howard anchoring the middle.
We can’t all be Kobe Bryant. In fact, these are the nights we wonder how Kobe Bryant is Kobe Bryant. He should’ve been in bed like the rest of us; wallowing in self pity and reaching for that second pint of ice cream. Instead, there he was, pirouetting into those patented fadeaways, jumping passing lanes, and whipping assists to teammates. If dislocations, torn ligaments, aching knees, a broken nose and a concussion won’t slow him down, then Kobe has simply run out of ways to amaze us. We applaud his excellence with a yawn and shake of the head.
Kevin Love, on the other hand, didn’t play tonight; presumably bed ridden with reported flu-like symptoms. This doesn’t make him weak, or any less of a competitor, it just makes the Wolves a befuddled mess. They’d gotten by without him before–including much of the previous night–however those are the exceptions, not the rule.
Or did you expect the bench to outscore our starters for the second straight contest? Well, they did (49-36), but Kobe (31) almost did too. There simply weren’t enough shooters to keep the defense honest, there weren’t enough post threats on either side of the ball to negate the Lakers size advantage, and there never has been a slasher to keep things moving, much less compete with a Hall of Famer.
Pau Gasol is tall. Not the gangly, awkward gaited ‘tall’ that defines so many of the league’s big men, but an unreachably high, arching fluidity that confounds even the best defenders. Kevin Love isn’t tall. So our friend Kevin was in for a long night.
Gasol began by pump faking from the perimeter and driving across the lane with a hook shot. Then he caught at the elbow, immediately fading back and firing. When Love pressured him the following possession, Pau spun him through a series of pivots before simply rising and sinking a seven footer. It was a torturous display that continued throughout the quarter. You see, Love’s been labeled a bad defender, but he’s not bad at everything. Though not the quickest of cats, he moves his feet well and shows good instincts. Kevin just isn’t tall, which puts him at a disadvantage in the post and especially when closing out on seven foot Spaniards with stunning accuracy.
Since there will be no basketball for the foreseeable future and I’d kind of forgotten how terrible and nervy I used to feel when the Wolves were in the playoffs, I thought it might be “fun” to reach back into Youtube’s dark ether and extract some of our past lives. Lets talk 2003. I’m living in New York, with little money to speak of and no cable, watching the Wolves in dark bars, drinking what many might consider to be “too much,” feeling sad a lot.
The Wolves are the fourth seed in the playoffs but as foul luck and the ridiculously stacked Western Conference would have it, the Lakers are the five. After getting shelled at home in game 1, the Wolves come back to blow out the Lakers in game 2. Then, improbably, after blowing a five point lead with seconds to play and conceding an absurd four-point play to Kobe (David Stern actually apologized for that one) the Wolves manage to salvage game 3 in overtime (in LA no less!). And so game 4 was shaping up to be the decisive game of the series; either the Wolves would go up 3-1 with two more games to play in Minneapolis or the series would be tied 2-2. So I watched game four. And it was almost as nauseating as I remember it.
The All-Star Game was made for Kobe Bryant. Playoff and regular-season NBA play brings with it certain constraints: defenses of post-millennial complexity; structured, ball-movement oriented offenses; the good taste and common sense prohibitions against shooting every time one touches the ball. But in the All-Star context, Kobe’s miraculous skills can run wild and free, can exist in their purest form. Nobody, not even Michael Jordan, KB’s stylistic forefather, has ever manipulated the high post so gracefully; nobody could ever make a missed fadeaway three look quite so beautiful. And in the All-Star Game, if it looks awesome, it is awesome. Without the regular season’s restrictive communitarian morality, Kobe is free to perform his sublime dance.
Kobe Bryant is miserable. When the Lakers lose, he barely pretends to cover his disgust and frustration–with the shortcomings of less gifted and prescient teammates and with his own imperfections. When they win, the relief seems mild and fleeting, allowing him the brief luxury of exhaustion rather than any kind of joy. When things go badly on the court, his face painfully contorts. When he hits a big shot, he juts out his jaw and narrows his eyes, just an icier version of the same angry contempt. Over at SLAM, our pal Myles recently gave what is, to me, the definitive capsule of the Kobe enigma: He is “a man who pretends not to give a [dang, or possibly whup] what you think while making it quite evident that he plays for your approval.” He is desperate to win and be vindicated, but that vindication brings him no happiness. He wants us to believe in his aura of magnanimous, carefree stylishness, but turns cold at any suggestion of his own vulnerability.
KG is a totally different animal. In recent years, as Zaza Pachulia, Big Baby Davis and Jose Calderon can attest, his well known respect for authority has verged on bullying. (We should never be surprised at the easy, slippery relationship between power and domination.) But as the playoffs have shown us, the other KG is still alive; the hyper ecstatic who bounds around the court like a child and bellows to the rafters, who seems close to exceeding the boundaries of his ridiculous body and becoming pure spirit. Who shares with Kobe a manic competitive fire but whose joys and pains are totally transparent.
Despite their vast differences, these two are conjoined in ways that go beyond even their four playoff meetings and their shared history as mid-’90’s teen prodigies. Both seem haunted by the Marlo Stanfield of the NBA, Rajon Rondo, the ruthless, unsmiling kid intent on usurping his elders. In so many ways, Rondo seems to represent all that these two are fast losing: the energized legs; the youthful arrogance; the brash forgetting of time and death.
Both Kobe and KG, in their different ways, also seem haunted by our absolutist culture of victory; I’m talking about the notion that a simple binary, winning and losing, is the only arbiter of a player’s, or a team’s, ultimate worth. That winning a title is the only measure of real success, that a player’s place in history can be deeply altered by the result of one insanely competitive series (for a typical example of this, check this Bill Simmons novella and note the way he manipulates his all-time player rankings based on this Finals’ possible outcomes).
To me, this account gets it wrong in two ways. First, it operates on the mistaken assumption–one that the Jordan era seems to have nurtured, if not created–that a team’s fortunes are entirely predicated on the ability of their star to “will them to victory”. We seem to believe that these great players operate in a vacuum. We seem to constantly forget how Jordan struggled until–aided by Phil Jackson–Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came into their own. We forget Kobe’s epic frustrations that lasted precisely until Pau Gasol arrived in LA. And we forget the tragedy of Garnett’s futile Wolves years (well, we don’t forget; we remember that really, really well). The irony here is that, in all of these cases, these great players only reached their greatest heights after ceding some power, that their greatness was actually magnified in a genuine team setting.
The other huge problem with this way of thinking is the notion that one playoff loss can somehow nullify everything a team has already accomplished. Especially this year, with so many teams doing so many magnificent things, I find this view is kind of shameful. Throughout these playoffs, the Lakers’ ability to flow in and out of the triangle and use its nuances of player and ball movement to inflect their more traditional half-court sets has been totally inspiring (not to mention providing yet another object lesson in just how far the Wolves have to go, how many levels of knowledge and experience and skill separate them from these Lakers). And, especially until the Finals, Kobe has shown an unprecedented comfort with his teammates and his own role in the offense. He moves the ball; he artfully finds open space on the floor; he allows his team’s passing and movement to create shots; its hard to imagine someone so good playing with such trust, confidence and presence.
As for Garnett and the Celtics, their miraculous playoff transfiguration has been well documented. In their victories over Miami, Cleveland and Orlando, Boston has operated at near-cosmic levels of group awareness and intensity. This originated in Rondo’s rise of course (and in the veteran’s ability to accept that rise), but also in Garnett’s defensive captaincy, his smothering of Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis, his ego-less offensive work, and his gritty reckoning with his own aging body. None of this–not the Lakers’ brilliance, nor Garnett and the Celtics’ fearsome run–could possibly be tainted by a Game-7 loss.
We paint with these broad, historical brushstrokes because its easier. Its less complicated to remember that Jordan is the greatest player ever because he won six titles than to remember that, for two games in 1996, the Sonics’ pressure defense totally flabbergasted the Bulls. Its easier to look back and imagine that the result of a series was predestined because of the star’s innate qualities than to remember the razor-thin moments, the minute tactical moves, the slight surges in energy and focus that turned the tide one way or the other.
What I’m saying is, lets not do that. Lets try to appreciate Kobe Bryant not because he has won this many titles but because his fading 20-footer is an awesome sight to behold. Lets try to imagine that Kevin Garnett is amazing not because a Game 7 victory would somehow magically alter his position among the greatest players ever, but because watching him play defense is beautiful. And lets try to enjoy this game not because the result will forever alter the balance of basketball history, but because it will likely be ridiculously competitive and psychotically intense, filled with tiny flows and shifts, myriad nuances of strategy and style. The game is played by human beings, imperfect despite their immense gifts. If we forget that, we miss the entire thing.