Being a Boston Celtics fan living in the land of the purple and gold has its ups and downs. Beating the Lakers in the finals in 2008 with a series-clinching 40-point win was definitely an “up.” As a card-carrying member of the Kobe Haters Club, Mr. Bryant earning my respect by winning a championship last year without Shaquille O’Neal was an obvious “down.”
The turmoil around the Lakers after what coach Phil Jackson called their “meltdown” against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four on Saturday night has very much been the highlight of the season for me so far.
I would have loved seeing 20,000 of the best basketball fans in the world chanting “Beat L.A.” as the C’s win our 18th title this season, but that won’t be possible this year or any year in the near future. The Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers won’t make it back to the finals, might not even make it out of the first round, and an off-season of questions about the future of the organization and whether or not to re-sign the best coach in NBA history (not named Red Auerbach) could start as soon as Friday night. It’s like 2004 all over again — and I’m loving it.
I don’t know how last night’s game five ended because this column went to print before tip-off. However, I do know that there is only one acceptable outcome for a Lakers team that dominated the Western Conference during the regular season (because it was focused on having home court advantage throughout the playoffs) and for a player who is supposed to be among the top five all-time Lakers and the best closer in the NBA. If you’re the No.1 seed playing the No. 8 seed — a defending champion led by seasoned veterans going against a team with no real playoff experience — and you’ve been outplayed for the better part of all four games, you should have come out and made a statement of dominance.
That probably didn’t happen and even if it did, for Lakers fans it’s too little, too late. Through the first four games of the series, the Thunder gained the confidence that they can win; and in three games at OKC this season, the Lakers basically haven’t shown up. Kobe’s team has played down to their competition all season and now faces its second and third consecutive must-win games against the lowest-seeded team in the west. Last night’s game was a must-win because the Lakers don’t want to go back to OKC facing elimination and Friday’s game is a must-win because whichever team won last night will want to close the series out and avoid a game seven.
Even if they do manage to find an answer for UCLA’s Russell Westbrook and advance to the next round, these Lakers lack the chemistry, toughness, and heart it will take to get to the finals. So as this off-season starts, Dr. Jerry Buss will have Bryant under contract along with centers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and forwards Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. What he won’t have are reliable guards, a serviceable bench, or a coach. And without Phil Jackson, no free agents will want to come and play with Kobe, the petulant diva who Dr. Buss decided was the future of the (second) most storied franchise in the NBA.
Why would they? Any free agent who could help this team will look and see that when Shaq was so frustrated with Kobe that he wanted to “pound the chump,” Dr. Buss chose Kobe over the most dominant player of the decade. Then, when Phil was so frustrated that he’d “had it with this kid” and wouldn’t return to the team if Bryant was on the roster, Dr. Buss chose Kobe over the (second) greatest professional basketball coach of all time. And if two first-ballot Hall of Famers couldn’t break through Jerry Buss’ “Kobe Derangement Syndrome,” nobody can.
The Los Angeles Lakers are going to sink or swim with Bryant, so get used to Kobe going into the locker room for treatment with four minutes left to go in a blowout loss, leaving his teammates to suffer the public humiliation without him (cry me a river about his knee — ice up and sit there with the guys). Look for him to skip practices like he did after that same blowout loss, despite the fact that his team obviously has adjustments to make. And look for him to make squeaky, outlandish statements like, “Who said our backs are against the wall? It’s a 2-2 series. What the hell is going on around here?”
I’ll tell you what’s going on, Kobe. When you were criticized for shooting too much and you decided to send a message by deliberately choosing not to shoot the ball for the entire first quarter of game four, you cost your team that game and a chance to take control of this series — all because somebody hurt your little feelings. What’s going on is your legacy in the game is more important to you than your teammates; and until Dr. Buss makes you go sit facing the corner wearing a pointy hat, the Los Angeles Lakers will never win another title.
KENNY MACK is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who is looking forward to the Celtics beating Tim Duncan (aka The One That Got Away) and the Spurs in this year’s finals. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.