I feel a tremendous joy today. It is not the joy of an unexpected miracle; it is the joy of agony averted, a hinting shadow of what a prisoner must feel when the governor calls as they’re strapping him to the chair.
Game 7 was both ugly and beautiful. I have never seen such effort expended, and yet it was in all the worst ways: smothering defense, game plans permanently disrupted, everything that is beautiful and graceful about the sport tossed aside as the largest and most physically-capable athletes in the world fought with every ounce of their being for one more inch than the other guys.
It was exactly the kind of game the C*****s wanted; the ugly, physical mockery of “sport” is what they’ve built their foundation upon, with the understanding that they can’t compete with the best in a battle of skill vs. skill, so they make sure everyone has to suffer through the worst night of their lives, expecting to be able to endure the pain longer than their foes.
And last night, the Lakers endured. When option A didn’t work, and option B didn’t work, and option C wasn’t even possible, they got ugly too. In the end, enduring ugliness and pain is also a skill, and a question of will, and the Lakers had more of both.
It felt like two fighters, beating each other senseless, both falling to the mat, and the winner isn’t the one who’s left standing, it’s the one who can somehow manage to regain their feet before the bell rings.
Some other thoughts, walking through it by position:
- Kobe has, in the past, led the league in scoring. Kobe, if he wanted to, could lead the league in rebounds. Or assists. Or steals. Or, probably, blocked shots. He has the will, the skill, and the unsurpassed understanding of the game to do whatever he wants to. He knows in his heart he’s a scorer, and what he wants to do is win rings, so he finds ways to do what he can, and has proven over the last few years that–instead of gathering those stats for himself–he can create the space for his teammates to contribute. So they’re built up, and in that one, critical moment when Kobe can’t do what he knows needs to be done–the shot takes a weird bounce off the rim and he’s on the wrong side of the court to get the rebound, or the player he passes to slips, going from “wide open and ready to hit the shot” to “potential turnover”, or his own shot is having one of those horrific nights when the ball is clearly bigger than the hoop–his teammates have the confidence and experience to get it done to help him.
Last night, Kobe’s shot was toast. I’ve said for years, just like on some nights you can’t miss, no matter your form or where you’re shooting from, some nights the iron is unkind, and there’s no way outside of calling a timeout and playing 1 on zero that the ball is going in. And so not only did he eventually trust that his teammates would be able to make the shots he couldn’t–note his pass to Artest with 1 minute left that led to a three to push the Lakers’ lead back to two possessions–he found other ways to contribute. He hit the boards, set screens, orchestrated the defense. More than anything, he didn’t panic, never allowed his teammates to see a look in his eyes that suggested he didn’t think they would win.
There’s an old saying (paraphrased here, not sure if there’s an actual quote to be strayed from) that it’s easy to be a friend when things are going well, but you know who your true friends are when things are going awfully. And the corollary from last night is: it’s easy to win when everything’s going well, but only the greatest can find a way to win when everything’s going wrong.
And I have to comment on this: I have never seen him so un-guarded than he was in the post-game interviews. He is always stoic, most often the most intelligent person in the room and willing to say and do whatever he wants to shape the mood and moment. And last night, he let it all hang out. When asked what this one means for him personally, he replied, ““Just one more than Shaq. You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don’t forget anything.” We all know that’s the truth, he didn’t need to say it, and never does, because it gets in the way of what he’s trying to do. But damn, he said it. When asked about the meaning of the victory over the Celtics, after denying that there was anything special about it for weeks, just another game, who it is doesn’t mean anything, he said, “I was just lying to you… You guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series that the Lakers have played in. I mean, I was just a Laker nut, and I know every Celtics series, every statistic. It meant the world to me.” Again, we knew that, he didn’t have to say it, we knew why he wasn’t saying it…but damn, it was amazing to see the walls come down, just a little, and actually hear it.
- Is there anyone you’d want more in a foxhole next to you than D-Fish? The guy is limited, and aside from his rainbow jumpers (when they go in), his game is anything but aesthetically pleasing. But he is relentless. Sometimes it gets him into trouble; I can recall well more than a few times when it’s looked like he’s in a complete fog, just putting his head down and charging forward, hoping that his head is stronger than the brick wall he’s charging at. But there’s no one you want by your side more when everything’s on the line. He gives everything he has to his teammates, and in doing so silently demand that they give the same back.
I remember a game two years ago, mid-January, nothing of great import, early second quarter. Ariza got tangled up with someone under the basket–I think it was Gerald Wallace–and they were yelling at each other, in each other’s faces. Wallace got the best of it, stepping to the line and making his free throws, and it looked like Ariza was completely out of his game; it was the kind of sequence that leads to the other team going on an emotional run while you come unraveled. But D-Fish spoke quickly to Ariza, and then, on the next defensive possession, used some veteran trickery to get in Wallace’s blind spot and take a charge, Wallace’s 3rd foul, forcing him to the bench for the rest of the half, ending the run and getting the Lakers back on track. That’s revenge. That’s how you stick up for your friend. That’s both Judo and chess, in one brief sequence.
- I love Artest. Love, like I want to hug him, then lean back and howl at the moon with him, then give him another bearhug. The guy is insane. I don’t know the diagnosis, but when I say he’s crazy, I don’t mean “wow, that dude’s crazy!” I mean “I hope he is under a doctor’s care so he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else.” There’s clearly some ADHD, maybe mild Autism or Asperger’s…it’s like he has no Ego, and is just pure Id–impulsive desires–and super-ego–loftier thoughts about the right thing to do–with absolutely no moderator to guide his actions through that minefield. The kind of guy that, if he was 5’10” and working next to you at your job, you’d get excited about going out drinking with him on Friday, but only if you wanted a seriously wild night that might lead to trouble (intentional or not), and you know that within six months at the most he’s either going to screw something up or piss his boss off enough to get fired. Again.
And here’s why I love him: he knows all of this himself. He knows that he’s not fully right in the head, and has sought out help. And he’s gotten a little better. He said multiple times in his press conference last night that he owes a lot of his success–and his life–to his psychiatrist, because she’s helped him. He knows he’s not good at things–being poised under pressure, trusting himself and those around him, doing what he knows he’s supposed to do instead of just going with whatever wild thought pops into his head–and he asked for help, and trusted that help, and got better.
For all that a person like Artest can be sad, and even a little scary, with all that potential mixed with a blind self-destructive impulse, the joy is all the greater when they manage to fight through it and improve their own lives and those around him.
And so, I love Artest, because of the joy he has found and brings.
- Gasol was just pure last night. The game was ugly, he couldn’t hit a shot, and looked more often than not like the hero of a kung-fu movie during the fight scene where he’s attacked by a dozen enemies at once, flailing and striving just to keep them at bay. But he was pure, the effort he gave, the passion he brought…if you see that shot of him in the 4th quarter, after he’s put back another missed shot, with multiple bodies slamming into him (again), and he’s heading back up court, screaming with emotions too big to name…it should be the goal of every person alive to have even just a single moment in their entire life where they feel that passionate about something, anything. And last night, there was no censor, he opened himself up, bared every bit of his being in the moment when it mattered most. Pure.
- Not sure I’ve ever been as proud of an athlete on a team I follow than I am of Bynum right now. The guy’s got torn cartilage in his knee. I’ve had the same injury, to a much lesser extent than he does, and I had difficulty walking across the living room. That boy–sorry, correction, that man strapped it on and went to fucking work. He was a beast. The box score doesn’t show too much, but he was like the body blows a fighter throws early in a fight to wear their opponent down. Even if they don’t connect, and don’t knock the other guy down, and don’t even get counted by the scorers of the fight, the impact sends shivers through the other guy, and you can’t take too many of those before things start to break down. And that was Drew, all playoffs long. Strapping it on and punishing the other guy over and over again. No credit for a rebound, but his man so thoroughly boxed out that they’re already half-way down the court by the time Pau get the board for himself. Credit for a missed shot, but you could power a small town for a week with the energy his defender had to put out to force the miss. Why were the C*****s so out of gas last night, that they couldn’t hold on at the end? It started with Drew knocking them silly at the start.
- Not too many thoughts on the bench, really. Odom finally showed up, playing focused and present. Farmar and Shannon didn’t contribute too much, but neither did they screw anything up. I did want to note one thing, though, and it’s a comment both on Sasha and PJ.
- Late 4th quarter, 12 seconds left. Lakers up by three, with possession, taking the ball out of bounds at the sideline, Boston sure to intentionally foul in the hopes that the Lakers will miss one or more free throws (which they’d been missing all damn night) and give them another chance. And all year, Sasha has been in the doghouse. Not sure why, but his minutes almost entirely went to Shannon Brown. The guy who was the first off the bench in 2008, who’s dropped 30+ against a Spurs-caliber defense, had more DNP-CD’s than meaningful contributions over the course of the year. But he kept working, kept fighting, and in this exact situation, PJ not only puts him into the game, but calls the damn play for him. 12 seconds left, the game and entire season on the line, and you pull a guy from deep off the bench and call his number? Serious, serious testicles. And the best part of it is: Sasha takes the inbound pass, gets fouled, and then machine-like hits both free throws. Like both he and PJ knew he would. There are subtle levels of trust and history there that are beyond me. All I know is that it doesn’t surprise me that PJ would make that call, nor that Sasha would step up and hit them both, icing the game.
And so that’s the season. We have months of drafts, deals, free-agent summits, three-way trades, and all that other nonsense. Like the Gods on Olympus, peering down through the clouds at the petty, endless machinations of the mortals below, the 2010 Lakers are above all that, drinking of ambrosia, waiting for the next contender to challenge them. Because there’s only one team that can accept challenges to their throne: the champions.