Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The View from the Tank: Lakers-Celtics - Game 3 in Los Angeles

The greatest Lakers team ever. My favorite basketball team of all time.

These current Lakers are a shadow of that former team. They're a bunch of preeners and posers wearing Laker jerseys -- but they're not Lakers of the same quality as Worthy, Kareem, Coop, Rambis, Magic, and Scott. These current Lakers are selfish, whining, and soft, and haven't shown that they deserve to win.

I have to admit to enjoying a healthy dose of Schadenfreude in watching all the Kobe-worshipping, Luke Walton-appreciating Laker fans and the purported Basketball Experts who were so confidently and unequivocally predicting a Laker rout in the Finals having to come to grips with two convincing victories by Boston so far. The whining and complaining of the Lakers and their fans has been less than stoic: they mocked Pierce's injury in Game 1 and called it a "WWE moment"; they whined about the referees in Game 2.

The Lakers and their fans need to accept that they have no one to blame but themselves. The Lakers, faced with the league's best defense, which has effectively closed down the lane, have turned into a team of jump-shooters. They're settling for the outside, and not working the ball into the paint. Doc Rivers is the more effective and smarter coach so far; he has out-thought much lauded subgenius Phil Jackson in this series (by the way, is Jackson really a great coach, or does he just happen to coach the greatest players to play the game?), figuring out how to limit and contain Kobe while taking the rest of the Lakers out of their revered system. They've outmuscled and outhustled Odom, Gasol, and Radmanovic. The Lakers big men look scared and confused. Where are the creaky Spurs? Where is the butter-soft interior of the Nuggets?

The Celtics' subs have been more effective and more intelligently deployed than the Lakers' celebrated subs (e.g., Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujacic). L.A.'s bench, which was so frequently touted as one of the key factors informing the consensus (read Groupthink) view that the Celtics were going to be hopelessly outclassed, has been a bust.

Phil Jackson doesn't appear to have complete control of his team. See, e.g., Vujacic's ill-advised and selfish decision to take a bad, tightly-contested (and ultimately blocked) shot as time ran out in Game 2. (As I was noting to a friend, you know that the constant soundtrack in Vujacic's head is rave music. When he shot that shot at the end of Game 2, he must have had his internal soundtrack (some kind of trance-house remix he was remembering from dancing with glo-sticks in Ibiza) up to 20.)

Kobe has reverted to his solipsistic ways of 2005 and 2006 at times during this series: when frustrated, Kobe turns inward into the black hole of himself; he holds onto the ball and tries to do everything himself. His disgust and dismay at his teammates -- whom he has always viewed as background scenery to his one-man show, rather than brothers-in-arms or equals -- was pretty transparent in Game 2. We'll see if he gets beyond that tonight.

The common wisdom, that the West is a better conference than the East, is simply wrong. The East is a tougher, grittier division. The West is a bunch of pretty boys scoring lots of paint without playing defense. And the East now has better, younger, and more explosive players. Shaq and Jason Kidd and Kobe are in the West. Arenas, James, Rondo, Stuckey, et al., are in the East.

Ultimately, the Lakers will live by Kobe or die by Kobe. They have chosen to place all their stock in the Greatest Player on the Planet. As any casual NBA fan knows, Jordan couldn't have won without Pippen (or Rodman, or Kerr, or the rest). Has Kobe found his Pippen yet? It doesn't look like it.

Meanwhile, Lakers fans found themselves in the position of rooting for Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic while rooting against Leon Powe. Ask yourselves, current Lakers fans: who is on the right side of history?

Only three teams have ever come back from 2-0 down. So far this year, L.A. is 0-4 against Boston. I predict the Lakers will win tonight, lose Game 4, win Game 5, and Boston will clinch the series in Game 6 in Boston.

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