A year ago Kobe Bryant had a very special Christmas Day realization that his team was perhaps a real championship contender. A lot has happened since that day, namely the Gasol trade and a trip to the NBA Finals. But despite the lofty heights achieved by the Lakers in the last 365 days, Christmas in 2009 still planted a very happy thought in the mind of one Kobe Bryant – we can beat these Celtics… and I don’t have to do it alone.
Since that embarrassing game 6 loss in the Finals, the Lakers have desperately waited for a rematch to somewhat ease the pain. Don’t get me wrong, the pain cannot be wiped completely – that will only happen if the Lakers win a championship this season. But today’s streak-ending win was a huge statement, and the psychological blow to the Boston Celtics was worth far more than the one “W” added to the Lakers win column.
I watched the second half of this game on JustinTV and witnessed both the reasons the Lakers lost last years Finals and the reason they might win this years. It started with the Lakers complete inability to guard Paul Pierce who breezed his way to 12 third quarter points and looked to be warming up for a hostile takeover in the fourth. But then in the fourth quarter the Lakers did something they struggled to do in last year’s Finals – play defense. Bynum was kept on the floor during crunch time (no doubt easing his recent concerns about not getting enough PT late in games) and rewarded Coach Jackson with two key blocks, one on the super-in-form Rajon Rondo. Pierce and Ray were hounded by Ariza, Vujacic and Kobe and didn’t get a decent look in the last five minutes. And in perhaps the game winning play, Gasol (more on him later) blocked a Ray Allen three-point attempt (how often do you see that? I have never before seen Ray denied from three-point range) ending in an emphatic Ariza slam that sent the crowd bananas. How symbolic, that it was a defensive play that sealed the game for this Lakers team.
The one thing that really struck me in this game though, was Kobe’s play throughout the last quarter. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but for the first 5-6 minutes of the quarter Kobe spent a lot of time drifting on the perimeter off the ball while Odom and Fisher directed play and rarely got Kobe involved. Doesn’t it seem odd that Kobe took only one shot over the first nine minutes of the last quarter? In the final minutes the game got tight and predictably Kobe had the ball in his hands a lot more, but unpredictably it was his passing, not his shooting, that put the game away. On three straight possessions Kobe found Gasol who finished perfectly every time – seven points in a one and a half minute stretch that was made even more impressive by the fact he did it against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Kevin Garnett.
But back to Kobe. When was the last time you remember the Lakers winning a close game like this thanks to Kobe distributing to his team mates rather than taking the big shots himself? I felt like I was witnessing a bit of a turning point, maybe a maturation point in Kobe’s career. Sure, over the last year he has shown a lot more trust in his team mates and that all culminated in an MVP award last season. We know Kobe is a different guy to the one that was scoring 35 every game a couple of seasons ago. But despite that, what I observed time and time again during last season (and early this season) was that when it comes down to the crunch, Kobe ultimately thinks he has to do it all. This isn’t always such a dumb thing because let’s face it, Kobe is the best clutch scorer we’ve seen since MJ and you will win more games than lose with the ball in his hands down the stretch (Sidenote: I always take interest in the annual NBA GM survey and the one question I’m always fascinated in is “Which player in the NBA would you want taking a shot with the game on the line?” Since they started asking that question in 2005 Kobe has been the overwhelming choice: 61.5% of the vote in 2005, 74.1% of the vote in 2006, 88.5% of the vote in 2007, and 88.9% in 2008). The point I’m trying to make here, is that trusting your team mates and getting them involved is one thing, but having faith they can make the game winning shots is another.
I’ll never forget the 1991 NBA Finals and watching John Paxson nail bucket after bucket in the final minutes of game 5. The Chicago Bulls were playing the biggest game of their lives, the series-clinching game that would win them a championship, and down the stretch of a close game it was John Paxson making the shots. JOHN PAXSON. Not Michael Jordan. I believe that game was just as important as any at establishing the faith MJ had in his team mates that would win them another five titles. On what bigger stage could your faith be rewarded than a championship-clinching game? I’m not suggesting we compare Paxon’s efforts in that game to what Pau did today against Boston. But I think the effects for Kobe would be similar, and there won’t be a bigger stage in the regular season than Christmas Day against the Celtics. The Lakers won probably the biggest game of the season because Kobe passed it up in crunch time. If that sentence doesn’t seem right to you, you’re not alone.
And then there was Pau. In a matchup against KG, with KG playing really well, Pau still found a way to dominate and get the upper hand. There was a brief cut scene that was shown during the telecast when the Lakers were running back down the floor to set up on offense. Pau wasn’t looking and smacked directly into KG who no doubt was trying to rough him up. Pau’s arms flailed and he gave that usual “WTF is this shit I’m Pau Gasol!” face where it looks like he’s halfway to tears. But then realizing he would get no love from the refs he instantly re-focused, shoved his body back into KGs and gave us the “Fuck this I’m Pau Gasol!” face where it looks like he’s halfway to murdering you. Kobe went to Paul on that possession and he scored over KG to seal the game. It was a massive FUCK YOU to KG and a classic example of what I like to call “mentally dominating” someone. It’s hard to mentally dominate KG because, well.. he’s completely mental. But Pau did it over the final minutes of this game, scoring inside at ease, limiting KG to long LONG jump shots at the other end (that he was still making), and blocking shots and playing solid D.
Kobe has often said “toughness” was the one crucial lacking ingredient for the Lakers in last year’s Finals. He would have then been very happy today to get a whole stocking-load of toughness along with a card that read “Hey Kobe, don’t worry I got your back. Merry Christmas… your buddy Pau”.