Have the league’s two most important players also been the most despised? Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980’s; Michahttp://www.bayareasportsguy.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10544&action=edit&message=1el Jordan and Olajuwon/Barkley/Malone in the ’90’s — the vitriol reserved for these players were found within pockets of the respective supporters of each player’s chief rival. And that was it. No nationwide mocking for poorly-conceived ESPN specials. Or for carefully constructed odes to one’s own work ethic. Or for snitching on teammates, trying to hand-select teammates or complaining about teammates.
Last night, a great (well, entertaining) basketball game was played between the Heat and the Lakers. It was quite satisfying for a regular season tilt, one in which Kobe Bryant acted out as only he can. In a game where no perimeter player had a game to remember, Kobe did what he does about five times per season: go into mad-gunner mode.
His cycle is so predictable, and at times as destructive and unstoppable as a tsunami. (Sorry if that comes across as glib — last night, watching those live tsunami images in Japan was absolutely morbid, especially when the camera would pan back during obvious motorist deaths. Can’t get it out of my mind.) Bryant plays efficiently for a few games, then challenges himself by shooting 32-footers with a man in his face and a hand on his elbow. Repeatedly. Then he braces for the inevitable reaction, and counters with a game or three where he goes into playmaker mode, where he treats the act of shooting like an older sibling dismisses a younger brother or sister when it’s deemed that a “silent treatment” is the only way to assert dominance.
So look for lots of assists for Bryant against the Mavericks on Saturday night, and fewer than 7 shots attempted in the first half. It’s a pattern that works itself out every year, one that only leads to short term pain for the purple and gold — unless it occurs during the playoffs, like against the Suns in Game 7 of the first round in 2006, or Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals. Part of what has led to the Lakers repeat has been Kobe’s ability to sew his selfish oats during the season and allow his teammates to be more important than parsley at a steakhouse.
That doesn’t mean Kobe’s nightmarish fourth quarter and subsequent post-game hill running (in Jerry Rice parlance) left him content and ready to bond with the other guys on the roster.
“I’d like to see us keep (Wade) out of the paint, though. I’d like to see us make him take some jumpers,” Bryant said. Angry at the big men. Again. Granted, Pau Gasol spent more time than usual complaining about no-calls and Lamar Odom played one of his worst games of the season, but Andrew Bynum was the best player on the floor for a goodly portion of the contest. Dumping the ball inside might have been a good idea against the “God, I wish my career were over” stylings of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier, especially since Wade has shown the ability to affect Bryant’s perimeter jumper like nobody else.
Bryant comes off at times as a guy who believed the nonsensical rumors early in his career that he would continue to grow. As an 18-year-old rookie, his raw athleticism and outsized swagger were paired with the idea that his status as a 6’7″ player (even though he never went to Duke, his listed height back then seemed like the product of an overly enthusiastic sports information director) would change. Perhaps he would grow to be 6’9″ or taller, and his battle with KG for “best high-school-to-NBA player since Moses” would be on equal footing. And after growing up watching a shooting guard win with afterthought centers, to be told he was too young, too petulant, not good enough to keep Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando.
Still, this was a regular season game. In this same year, the Miami Heat have looked like a disaster, a dynasty and a joke. The Lakers have looked unstoppable, bored, old and then dominant again. In this age of statistics, it’s all about regressing to the mean. Each game you watch, shot you see, defensive rotation missed — it all evens out in the end. With our increased ventures into the world of nerdery, it’s tempting to forget what got us to the mean. Bryant is getting himself ready under the guise of motivating his teammates, something he’s always done.
Man, the playoffs are going to be fun this year.