It feels odd seeing two NBA juggernauts collapse in the span of a week, but that’s what’s happening. Last week it was the Spurs who were not unable to adapt. They did everything possible (swapped out values, souped up the system, cozied up with the three point line) to keep title hope floating, but the legs can’t always do what the mind demands of them. Now it’s the Lakers turn to take the painful escalator down, but what’s waiting for them at the lower levels is foggy and I assume it’s hot like a cool hell would be.
Expectations absolutely matter, but at the same time, predictions and prognostications don’t. We didn’t expect the Lakers to be down three games to none after Friday, yet here we sit. We could see the Spurs slide coming and we had time to digest it, play with the thoughts, accept it and move along to a Lakers vs. Celtics III or Lakers vs. Heat or something along those lines. This Lakers devastation (for them and their fans at least, devastation seems wholly appropriate) has been sudden even though it’s been in the making for over 1,300 games. This is a team that has been remarkably consistent over this most recent four-year span. They’ve lived in the Finals for the past three years and in three of the past four years, they’ve landed on the same 57-25 mark for the regular season. Statistically speaking, they’ve been a better team in 2010-11 than they were in 09-10.
Then Andrew Bynum was born. After his annual stint on the Lakers sideline with the standard issue Bynum-knee-injury, Andy resumed basketball activities with anger. He’s played better for longer in the past. We’re all familiar with the promise of this deer-legged 23-year-old who the younger Buss preferred to build the team around back in that tornado-ish start to the 2007 season when Kobe-to-Chicago was story du jour. While Bynum over Bryant was laughable in 2007, the hints of greatness are revealing themselves every time Bynum scowls, calls out his teammates or dunks without jumping. Whether Bynum’s tapping into some of that compulsive dark matter that fuels Kobe or just doing what many 23-year-olds do: Becoming Himself, we don’t know. Whatever the case, Bynum is developing which should be a great thing for the Lakers.
Here they sit in a 0-3 shithole, surrounded by their own foul odors in Dallas, Texas of all places. Who shot JR? Who the fuck stole the Lakers’ basketball brains is the more confounding mystery. A better, meaner, nastier Bynum, an improved bench, another year in the triangle for Artest—the Lakers aren’t favorites just because they still hold the crown. Beyond the stats, the players and the stories tell us the Lakers should beat the Mavs. This series hasn’t even been close though. The Mavs have been the better team every game and have deserved each of their three wins.
From Madrid to LA, everyone expected Pau Gasol to be his usual, steady, all-star-ish self. Over the past four seasons, he’s probably been the Lakers most consistent player and shown us that he’s capable of true, honest growth. For Pau, it was never a question of technical expertise. Perhaps it was too easy to slap a Euro label on him and call him soft. When Pau was bullied physically and mentally in the 2008 finals it reinforced the stereotype, but Gasol reinvented himself as a bearded Spaniard who screams, awkwardly initiates confrontation and is willing to do so while still maintaining the grace of technical mastery of game that has made him an all-star. Prior to this playoff matchup, the Lakers were 8-2 against the Mavs since Gasol joined the team in 2008. It’s never been about Pau vs. Dirk (who’s battled his own Euro stereotypes over the years) or Spain vs. Germany or anything even remotely along those lines. But in 2011, these graceful seven footers can be defined by their contrasting performances in this second round series. Dirk is acting as a conduit for greatness for this Mavs team. He’s the center of everything they’re doing whether he’s scoring the ball or attracting double teams that lead to hockey assists and it’s led to renewed appreciation of his game. Meanwhile, Gasol has been a case study in fatigue—likely mental and physical. Something indescribable and indefinable has finally caught up with Pau Gasol. Maybe it was stalking him all these years or maybe he contracted it like a sad disease striking when the Lakers required any and everything in his vast arsenal. You can’t read or listen to anything about the Lakers in this series without hearing “What’s wrong with Pau Gasol?” At the moment, that’s the unanswerable riddle.
By comparison, Kobe’s performance is easy to grasp. We’ve become accustomed to him living on the edge with acrobatic jump shots, triple pivots and old man shot fakes. He’s walked that line and teetered between success and failure, and mostly landed on the positive side. Only now it’s harder. It’s nothing but jump shots for 48 minutes, but that makes perfect sense. The guy has logged over 1,300 games and 48,000 minutes of basketball, consistently at the most meaningful levels of the sport—Christmas day games, games on national TV, playoff games, finals. Like his post peer Tim Duncan, it’s been inevitable. Kobe didn’t take two years off to refresh himself like MJ. Instead, he won titles and played 201 games (not counting USA basketball) over the previous two seasons. He’s still breathing fire and instilling fear in fans and hyperbolic commentators, but he’s not carrying the Lakers like he has. That the team is folding into the playoffs as Kobe’s game becomes less dynamic confirms the obvious (but still taken for granted) value of his on-the-court performances to this Lakers team. For all Kobe’s dramatic shots and game winners, the losses have been equally magnificent beginning with the Pistons demolition in 2004, the blown 3-1 lead against the Suns in 2006, the Celtics record-setting comeback in 2008 and finally the Mavs shock and awe campaign in 2011. When Kobe’s Lakers lose, it’s typically so definitive that it precludes a drastic change.
This isn’t a time for tears or eulogies though. If the end is near, there are a couple of obvious choices you can make: The first is to adapt. Adjust your lifestyle or habits to survive for as long as you possibly can. The other is to get settled into a recliner with a pack of cigarettes and a six-pack and stay committed to your values. For the Spurs, the decline was protracted enough that Pop could make survival-based adjustments. Phil hasn’t had that same luxury, but for all his Zen methods, you get the feeling he’s loyally married to his system. The old, rusty triangle worked long enough and well enough to leave Red Auerbach in the rear view of Phil’s gaudy accomplishments for all of eternity. And with Phil forcing the sun to set on his own watch, there won’t be any re-tooling or Pop-like adjustments. It’s sudden and confusing (mainly the Gasol piece of the puzzle), but Phil’s Lakers are finally on the precipice good-bye.
(Altnerate considerations: Kobe as player-coach, aside from Phil; what drastic changes will defeat bring?)
“You don’t smoke peyote.”
Everyone’s talking about how “sad” it was to see Phil go out like that. That concept is senseless to me. This guy’s got more rings than fingers and he seemed borderline relieved to be done with it all during the press conference.