Where did it go wrong? Or, how did it go so wrong, so quickly? It seemed to happen within the course of a game – an extended, senseless slide, like a nightmare car accident, or a real accident – the ones that seem to last an eternity. It wasn’t any one game, of course. They say you can’t go home again. It has been interpreted in many ways, a space in time, a memory, or the idea that you cannot return home without being deemed a failure. The Lakers return home tonight for a game seven that never should have happened.
Or so we think. That’s the easiest narrative. That it never should have happened. But sometimes history repeats itself in ways that we would rather not admit, in ways that make us uncomfortable. In ways that rob us of our pleasure in the moment, or our goals in life. As Lakers fans, we’re not so used to that, at least not in recent history. There have been tough losses and bad years, but numbers and patterns don’t lie – we have enjoyed championships and finals and deep playoff runs. We don’t really know the pain of teams that have never climbed the mountain. We don’t know the pain of long suffering fans.
The signs for disaster were there from the end of last season, all the way to the beginning of this new, truncated one. Our longtime coach left once again, this time for good. The entire support structure was gutted, from assistant coaches to scouts to an equipment manager who had been with the organization since the Showtime era. All wiped off the board with an impatient, careless swipe.
Fortunately, we still had Kobe, and we had Andrew and Pau and Lamar and Metta and Derek Fisher, an old guard whose game had lessened, but who was still a captain, and still held his teammates’ respect. And one by one, they too dropped away. Lamar was traded at the beginning of the season and Derek was traded midway through. And there were bumps in the road under Coach Mike Brown as he learned it on the fly. Yet the team regrouped, it adopted its newcomers, it began to find its way, and it won the Pacific division title.
Metta was suspended for seven games, beginning with the final outing of the regular season. And still, the team won game one of the first round Denver series by 15 points. They were deemed a sure thing. They won game two by only four points. They lost game three by 15. Do you sense a downward trend here? They managed to rebound, winning game four by four points. And lost games five and six.
Thursday night was not an aberration for Pau in this series. He’s been fading since the start. He had a solid regular season, despite the threat of being traded, averaging 17 points and 10 boards per game. In game one against the Nuggets, he had 13 points, four off his season average. By the time he ghost-walked through game six, he’d hit rock bottom with three points and three rebounds. That is not a typo. He actually put up better numbers during last year’s Dallas sweep, generally regarded as the nadir of his career.
We’ve reached the classic game seven scenario, with implications that go far beyond. The Kobe narrative has long been about hero ball, about the need to share and to trust. This year’s model was the humblest Kobe Bryant that you will ever see. He supported his new coach and he talked about Andrew Bynum’s growth and hunger. And when Pau was besieged by daily trade rumors, Kobe addressed the media and the message sailed straight into management’s inner sanctum. “It’s important for him to know we support him. I support him especially. I just want him to go out there and play hard and do what he does best for us.”
For those who talk about the winds of change, know this – Kobe Bryant is still the franchise. He puts celebrity face time into pricey courtside seats. He drives ad revenue in the Los Angeles mega-market, and nationally, and around the world. And as Jim Buss recently noted, his shelf life goes well beyond his remaining years on the court. In other words, Kobe is a brand, and he is here to stay. And he wants to win.
Gasol and Bynum were our dominant front court presence this year. As one went, so did the other. And so it has been in the playoffs. They have regressed together, the sympathy pain of giants. This is where we found ourselves in Denver, just two nights ago. For all intent and purposes, down to one lone hope – Kobe Bryant, suffering from stomach flu. He took a couple IV bags before the game and a couple more at halftime. He looked ashen and miserable, and he led his team in scoring. But if he couldn’t rescue them in game five, he certainly wouldn’t be rescuing them in Denver without the last remaining vestiges of a championship roster – there, but not really there.
What ails the most feared front court in the NBA? They aren’t saying and if they did, it wouldn’t matter. They’ve played a pedestrian series at best, and Denver doesn’t fear them. George Karl’s Nuggets are coming back to Staples for all the marbles. They’re going to let it fly, one more time. The Lakers are essentially trying to draw to an inside straight. They have one card, and it’s a true wild card. Metta World Peace, the player once known as Tru Warier, coming off a seven game suspension for elbowing James Harden in the head. He may play well or not play well, but make no mistake, he will want this. And for the first time in this series, Kobe Bryant will have a partner.
– Dave Murphy