Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Behind Kobe, Lakers are ready to be champions
Wow. That was even easier than I thought it'd be.
Coming into their best-of-seven series, I figured the Lakers were 80% better than the Nuggets, and thus would dispatch of them in five games. Of course, this is the same Lakers team that lost consecutive home games to Charlotte and Memphis without Pau Gasol, which maybe would've been okay if they hadn't defeated Dallas and Utah in consecutive road games just a week prior.
I believe the term I'm searching for is flaky.
So instead I picked the Lakers in six, assuming they'd win the first two games at home, get a split in Denver, and then, with a chance put A.I. & Co. out of their misery in Game 5 at the House That Shaq Built...blow it and prolong the series for no good reason. Then they'd close it out in Denver in an unnecessary Game 6.
Shows what I know.
Sure, Denver was a challenger to the 2001 Blazers for title of "Most Screwed Up 50-Win Team in NBA History." No, they weren't the truest test. Yes, it will be much more difficult next month.
But these Lakers are serious. These Lakers are ready.
Last night's win was efficient and clutch. Like the great Lakers teams of the beginning of this century, who at one point won twelve straight closeout games over the course of four postseasons, these Lakers showed they know how to execute down the stretch of tight playoff games.
A familiar face led them, in a familiar performance.
Say what you want about Kobe Bean Bryant - and what hasn't been said? - but on a 94-foot piece of hardwood, the man is pretty much beyond reproach. It's unfortunate Kobe involves himself in so much controversy; we don't spend enough time talking about his game. Just the little subtle things, like the little pivot move he put on Najera before setting up DJ Mbenga for an easy dunk last night, a display of shockingly good footwork. Kobe's game is so polished and refined that it's ridiculous; he's taken every single basketball skill that can be taught and learned (and probably a few more that he concocted) be made and put it in his repotoire, ready to be used as an action or a reaction, a move or a countermove, at a moment's notice. Mixed with his creativity and supreme natural ability, he has an answer for every possible scenario, every instance of defense.
Kobe is the most spectacular shotmaker ever; he can get to the basket whenever he chooses; he's a great midrange shooter and a very good three-point shooter; he makes more shots under duress than anyone ever; he's probably twice as good as anyone else when it comes to using pump fakes to draw fouls, and he's an 85% foul shooter; he doesn't get many touches on the low-block, but when he does there isn't a better low-post scoring guard in basketball; he's probably most dangerous in the mid-block/foul-line area; he has the tightest handle of any non-point guard to ever play; and he's a terrific passer, which is probably the most underrated thing about his game.
On top of that, he's good for 5-6 rebounds a game and stellar defense (both team and individual, especially when winning or losing depends on his ability to stop the other team's best perimeter guy and he becomes the best lockdown artist since a ticked-off MJ in his prime).
Was Michael Jordan a better player than Kobe Bryant? Yes.
Was Michael Jordan a more skilled player than Kobe Bryant? No, and I say that with confidence.
But as Kobe might say, I shouldn't shake that tree, because a leopard might fall out, in the form of angry Jordan loyalists (I swear by MJ, too, but I'm also objective). Then again, it might already be too late for that. Oh, well. Fill up the comment box with
Anyways, I can also say with confidence that Kobe has never been a more complete basketball player than he is right now. He's 29 and at that point in an athlete's career when his combination of athleticism, skills, and intelligence meet to form the most effective version of him. It also helps that he's playing on a great team, with a perfect No. 2 to his Dr. Evil in Gasol, a perfect No. 3 star in Odom, and the deepest collection of role players in the league: Fisher, Radmanovic, Walton, Farmar, Vujacic, Turiaf, and even Mbenga.
(And no, I haven't forgotten about you, Andrew and Trevor, I just haven't seen you in awhile. Hope to see you soon.)
Kobe is most impressive when he doesn't have to carry the team everynight, and to me was more impressive this season than he was two years ago when he averaged 35 a game on a mediocre Lakers team. He's able to do more because he has to do less.
He's in his ideal situation, it would seem: He's The Man on a championship contender and he doesn't have to win every game by himself. He won Game 2 with a spectacular performance and scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of the win Monday nght. Gasol was the star of Game 1 and it was a complete team effort in the blowout that was Game 3.
He lifts his team up, and they do the same to him. A month-and-a-half from now, they may lift up the trophy together.