Friday, May 23, 2008

Kobe's got the game beat

Mastery of anything is rare.

One day maybe I'll master this writing thing. Or drawing. The chances of either happening are both so highly improbable that it borders on the impossible. I did once master NBA 2K3 (for the PS2). I realized that there was one move that worked everytime on offense (a pump fake followed by a strong drive and dunk) and just did it again and again. On defense I never controlled the player who was guarding the guy with the ball. That was it. After awhile, I no longer had to think about it. It became second nature, and I became UNSTOPPABLE. Anyone who's ever played video games knows what I'm talking about.

Mozart mastered music. Picasso mastered art. Ken Jennings mastered Jeopardy. James Gandolfini mastered how to play Tony Soprano. Michael K. Williams did the same with Omar Little. Bob Barker mastered how to host "The Price Is Right" (which is to say he mastered how to be Bob Barker). And I think Ryan Seacrest has reached a similar level on "American Idol."

But as far as athletes go? I don't know enough about hockey to say whether or not Gretzky ever perfected it. I don't know if Tiger has mastered golf, either, even though he's the best ever at it. Same with MJ.

But in Kobe Bryant we have found, definitively, an athlete who has become a true expert of his craft. He is a basketball maestro. If you play a video game long enough it gets to the point that you outsmart the game. You become more intelligent than the artificial intelligence. That is what Koe has done with basketball. There is no challenge that the game can present him that he isn't prepared for. He knows all the answers to the test, as corny as that sounds. Kobe's spent his entire life trying to get to this point. He has studied the game of basketball incessantly. He got the bank shot from Duncan and this ridiculously fluid spin move - really, he does it all in one motion - from Gary Payton (you may remember it from the 2003 40-point streak). There is no defense that he hasn't seen or isn't able to counter, either by shot or by pass, and all he needs is a split second to decide. In Game 1 of the Spurs series, there was a play where he pump faked Ginobili into the popcorn machine, went up and under, and glassed it in. He's able to find Gasol under the basket with absolute precision. Phil Jackson once said (or maybe wrote, in the tell-all, I don't remember for sure) that Kobe knows the triangle better than he does. He's now played in 143 playoff games, and his ability to score in crunch time is Jordanesque: Wednesday night, with the score tied at 85 and less than 30 seconds left, one-on-one against Bruce Bowen, Kobe drove into the lane, right above the foul line, gave Bowen a little bump to create space, and hit a short jumper for what would turn out to be the game-winner. Bowen tried to sell a foul and Kobe got a wide-open look; no matter what, Kobe was getting a very good shot at the basket.

Kobe has been coldly efficient and well-rounded this postseason (31.8 points on 50.4 percent shooting to go along with 6.8 assists through 12 games, of which the Lakers have won 10). Aside from Game 4 of the Utah series he hasn't really forced anything. He's just picking his spots brilliantly. More than ever, he knows when to take over and when to take a step back. He's got the game beat. And that's why the Spurs were done even before they blew a 20-point lead in Game 1 and lost by 30 in Game 2. That's why the Pistons and Celtics are already done. Kobe Bryant has become the new Bobby Fischer, only with a basketball instead of a pawn, and there's nothing and no one that can stop him.

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