Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This Is Going To Be Fun

Flashback to 2001.

The Lakers were the defending NBA champions, and they were opening up their 2001-02 campaign at home against the Trailblazers. After receiving their championship rings in a pregame ceremony, Los Angeles beat Porland with relative ease, recording a "Ho-hum, we went 15-and-1 in the postseason last year and are just much, much, much better than everyone else" 98-87 win. For that night (and really the first month or so of the season, as they would start 16-1), the Lakers looked and felt unbeatable, a championship seemed forgone, and being a fan of the team never felt more relaxing, peaceful, or fun.

Seven years later, the Lakers once again opened their season against Oregon's finest. They didn't collect any rings this time; that honor went to the Celtics, who began their season with a 90-85 victory over the Cavaliers in Boston. Still, the Lakers looked like the best team in the league. They jumped out to a 19-8 lead and were up by as many as 22 before a closing Blazer flurry cut the margin to 15 at the break. The likable Portland upstarts, everyone's favorite young team, were listless, no doubt, but Los Angeles looked flawless. Their defense was brilliant, a step ahead of Portland in holding them to 31 percent shooting over the first two quarters, and two steps ahead of what we saw from them on that end last year.

They displayed an absolutely endless stream of talent: As Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley pointed out during TNT's halftime show, the Lakers have every position covered - twice. There's Fisher and Farmar, and Radmanovic and Ariza, with Odom, Gasol, and Bynum rotating at the big spots. Then there's Sasha and some guy named Mamba, who made a mockery out of the difficulty basketball at the highest level is supposed to present.

I have never seen anyone play the game of basketball so well, and yet so effortlessly as Kobe Bryant did last night. In the first 24 minutes of action, he seemed to be literally going through the motions, scoring only six points on 3-of-8 shooting. But he had an impact over the flow of the action - eight rebounds, five assists - and he was getting to any spot on the floor that he wanted and making it look easier than ever, while holding Brandon Roy to two points on 0-of-6 from the field.

Then, after a little extra-curricular bump from Joel Pryzbilla early in the third, Kobe, coincidentally or not, bumped his effort level up from 50 percent to maybe about 75, scoring thirteen points in the final nine minutes of the period. He would finish with 23 in all, on 9-of-17, in a 96-76 L.A. win. And I have to say that in all of the years I've been watching him play, I don't know if the man has ever seemed more arrogant for a single game than he did last night: it was just too easy, and he knew it. Thanks to this stacked Lakers roster and his own startling talent, Bryant now has the lightest workload of any superstar, and so on many nights this season the challenge for him may not be the game itself, but how embarrassingly simple he can make it appear to be as he further illuminates his ever-increasing accomplishments in athletic brilliance. I know, I know, I'm in love with the guy; I have a man-crush on him and I want to marry him. Whatever. On some nights, nights like the last one, Kobe Bryant is so good, his command and mastery of the concepts of basketball so thorough, his natural ability so pronounced (and even more impressive now that he's 30, with all that mileage), he deserves such praise.

Anyways, I feel the same way as a Lakers fan that Kobe came off last night: arrogant, cocky, privileged. I don't think I have ever seen a team as talented as these Lakers: their first ten players range from "solid" to "transcendent," with supremely talented bench players that offer contrasting qualities to the starters, everyone bringing something different to the table. Every style appears to be covered, an offense fast and quick-hitting and efficient and Kobe. Hell, even the defense looked great for once.

For at least one night, it was perfect in Lakerdom, and it didn't look like anything could possibly go wrong. Reminded me of 2001.

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