Saturday, June 14, 2008

NBA Finals - Green is Good

Had to interrupt my sabbatical for a shout out to my favorite current NBA player and his new crew, who are at the moment on the verge of winning an NBA title. Over, I might add, the heavily hyped and pre-series favorites Los Angeles Lakers.

Y'all know by now what I think of Kobe Bryant, possibly the most overhyped superstar in the history of the NBA. Bryant is a frighteningly talented offensive force, a self-made one-man band who is known for his focus and determination, but as I've said here before, his leadership qualities are severely lacking. Kobe wants us all to think he's changed his spots, he's become a leader, a team player, that he's been more involved with off-court team activities. And when he was awarded the league MVP this year, he invited his teammates to stand on the floor with him in a move that sports commentators positively gushed about. Around these parts, there was a lot of gagging.

Kobe, you might remember, was the guy who bitched about his team, his team's management and owner over the summer and begged them to trade him -- or at least trade their young players for someone who could help him. To be fair, Paul Pierce of the Celtics bitched about his team too, asking to be traded in the off season, but Pierce didn't chase away the best center in the NBA, when he apparently still had another title in his large hands.

Kobe knows how to yell at his teammates but he has no idea how to be a true on-the-court leader. Pierce, certainly less of a talent than Kobe, is proving to be the best leader of this series.

Nobody was even sure if Kobe would show up for the season, but he did arrive and wouldn't you know it, those kids weren't half bad and then boom! the NBA gods dropped Pau Gasol into the Lakers lap in exchange for a piece of paper with a date on it. Suddenly, the Lakers are the team to beat. They earned the top spot in the West and then pretty much sailed through the playoffs right into the NBA finals, where they were considered heavy favorites -- 9 out of 10 of's experts picked the Lakers to win the series, even though they didn't have home court advantage and the Celtics had beaten the Lakers in both meetings during the regular season.


The C's held court in Boston, winning the first two games fairly easily -- though not without drama. It was clear the plan was to stop Kobe from beating them, to put the ball in the hands of his young supporting cast, which hasn't really been up to the big-stage pressure. But then neither has Kobe, really. Four games into the series and he still looks confused.

Except early in Game 4 when the Lakers were building a 24-point lead, have the Lakers looked to be as good a "team" as the Celtics. And even that went all to hell when the C's climbed back by crushing L.A. in the third quarter and then completing the historic comeback in the fourth and putting them on the brink of an NBA title.

If you were watching the entire series, you would see that the Lakers have only been able to solve the Celtics' defense during short bursts, the most important at the end of the game two (that furious comeback that fell short) and then at the end of game three, which they won. Game 4 seemed like a sea change in the series. Whoa, not so fast.

Even as they were building that big lead, I thought the Celtics weren't giving the same defensive effort and they were missing a lot of easy shots, shots they would normally make and have been making. The Lakers won the first quarter 35-14 but the C's took the third 31-15 -- the fourth time in the four games where they've won the third quarter, a quarter the Zen Master has always stressed as being all-important to winning NBA games.

The Lakers only have two true superstars (Kobe + 1/2 Gasol and 1/2 Lamar Odom). While both are excellent players, they are not in the same league as Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Even more impressive to me is how KG, the heart of all those Minnesota teams he played on, has easily slid into the second/third banana role in Boston. They are superstars playing like role players. I mean Allen played the whole game and had nine boards. Every time they get a defensive start, they fist pump in the way other teams do when they get a three or a dunk.

Defense has been the difference. The C's have cut the Lakers' scoring by 10, 20 points a game off their average (of course, scoring often drops off in the half-court nature of the playoffs but you get my point) and they've neutralized Kobe who hasn't had a decent shooting night against them all season -- he must have nightmares about getting suffocated by green jerseys. I think Doc seems to have taken a page out of Larry Brown’s playbook from the 2004 playoffs, when the Pistons basically keyed on Kobe, hoping to make him have to make more decisions with the ball and therefore, use more of the shot clock.

Kobe has been forced to give up his beloved rock, and he may indeed be bitching to and about his teammates about why they haven't been taking advantage, but Kobe isn't a playmaker in the strict sense of the word. He's a shooting guard who looks to score first, only giving up the ball if he doesn't have a look or a near-look or a sort-of look. Most of the time, when a player like that passes to an open man, it's in the flurry of competition and not often in the best place or way or situation for said role player to get off his best shot. That's asking a lot of your teammates, especially on the sport's biggest stage.

The rap on Gasol all those years in Memphis was that he was soft. I think y'all can see that now, not to mention his defense is pretty ordinary for a 7-footer with a wingspan like that. Odom is a guy who fills up the stat sheet but his impact on the game is not as great as it could be (or is perceived to be). He loses focus, is easily confused and after that tremendous start, disappeared in the second half. Seriously, one minute he was driving to the hoop, making big play after big play, digging the flow and the next, POOF! he was gone, gone, gone.

I think Doc Rivers is out-coaching the Zen Master in this series. Going with the smaller lineup may have been obvious with the C's down by 20 points, but putting in Eddie House was a brave move. Even the ABC commentators were saying Rondo wasn't taking advantage of his open looks -- which was Philip's strategy, to have Kobe roam off of Rondo, to give him those short jumpers, figuring he wouldn't make enough of them to make a difference. Even though his scrappy defense was helping his team, they needed a guy who would take what the Lakers were giving them -- or in civilian terms, to shoot the damn ball. And when House came in, he hit two huge freaking shots, making Doc look like a genius.

Seriously though, I'm beginning to think Phil Jackson is overrated. How is it that he has Sasha grab-and-bitch Vujacic on Allen in the fourth quarter with the entire series in the balance? Anyone can tell by watching Vujacic play that he's a jerk of mammoth proportions and his penchant for playing dirty is hardly good defense.

Goes to show all that extra-curricular nonsense doesn't substitute for moving your feet and staying in front of your man. Remember Vujacic was the guy who earlier in the game, fell to the floor while holding onto Allen and when he didn't get the call, used his legs to hold Allen down directly in front of referee Steve Javie. It's the most obvious foul call of the series (which is saying a lot) and Vujacic looked at Javie like he just asked him on a date.

I'm thinking this game, this series, ought to put to rest now and forever, the comparisons between Kobe and MJ. It's unfair to Kobe anyway -- they aren't the same kind of players and never were. But then nobody will ever be like Jordan, so maybe it's doing him a favor. Still, I don't see MJ blowing a 24-point lead in a crucial game 4 at home.

I think it also puts into sharper focus the idea that Kobe is some bigger-than-life factor at the end of close games. All of these games have been within the Lakers' grasp in the fourth quarter and Kobe, who one of the ABC announcers called the NBA's best closer, has only been a factor in one of them. If it's true, then when is Kobe going to get it done. I mean if he's not doing it (and didn't in his last NBA Finals appearance) when it really counts? If all Kobe needs is teammates who can keep his team close into the waning moments of the game so he can take over and lead them to victory, then the only person Kobe should be bitching at is the guy looking back at him in the mirror each morning.

Because to be fair, the Lakers have been in all of these games and the Closer has been out closed out.

Sure, the Lakers could still make history and win, but I think everyone can see by now, including the participants, who the better team is in this series. I'll give you a hint: they wear green.

See ya soon, sports fans....