8.20.2008

Evolution of a Laker Columnist

Mark Heisler, LA Times

Pre-Finals

Asked if that's how he sees himself -- unstoppable -- Bryant laughed, thought for a moment and said, "Yep."

Trust me, he wasn't thinking if he was unstoppable but how becoming it would look to announce he was, which is why he then feigned embarrassment. ("It's kind of weird to be honest with you . . . uncomfortable even.")

Bryant knows as he knows his own name is Kobe Bean Bryant that no one can stop him. This would be braggadocio if it weren't true, but it is.

The Lakers are 33-8 with Gasol in the lineup. This, too, sounds unstoppable.

After Game 1

Got Jinx?

It was only two visits ago for the Lakers when some fans in gold jerseys chanted "MVP!" for Kobe Bryant. But if things had changed, they just changed back.

The Celtics, coming into the Finals as underdogs after a torturous postseason, looked like their mid-season selves with their big three, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, combining to score 65 points.

Meanwhile, the Lakers struggled, from Bryant (nine for 26 from the field) on down in a 98-88 loss. And now the Lakers aren't as big a favorite as they used to be.

This was one of those nights Celtics fans will talk about forever, as Paul Pierce made a dramatic return after being carried off in the third quarter with a knee injury, coming back to make consecutive three-pointers en route to 22 points.

Now there's not only a question of whether Pierce will be OK for Game 2 but what number he'll wear, since they may retire his No. 34 by then.

Or not.

"Guys can break a shoelace and go out," said the Lakers' Phil Jackson, less than impressed by the dire nature of the situation.

"The pants break down. Drawstrings fall apart. You don't know what happens to guys. Pierce was back out in three minutes so he wasn't that long out of the game."

For the Lakers, the real problem is the Celtics looked like their old selves and they didn't.

The Lakers, 34-8 with Pau Gasol in the lineup, are a great offensive team when Gasol is a legitimate No. 2 option, as opposed to what he was in the Western Conference finals when Tim Duncan held him to 13 points a game.

Before the series started, all the questions were about the Celtics. If the Lakers lay another egg in game 2, it might be time for them to see if they have any anwers.

Before Game 2

Now for the game Kobe Bryant has waited his whole life to play. . . .

He's in the NBA Finals against the Celtics , no less with the Lakers trailing, 1-0, so losing Game 2 isn't recommended.

He's coming off a rough Game 1 in which he shot nine for 26 with everyone looking to him and Phil Jackson even making it official, calling him an "unstoppable force."

"He usually doesn't have two games in a row that are bad," said Jackson with his usual assurance Saturday. "He comes back and plays better, so we anticipate that's going to be a pattern."

Who could ask for more?

If you wonder whether Bryant is A) feeling the heat or B) having the time of his life, the answer is B.

After Game 2

Put that in your wheelchair.

So much for the Lakers' lighthearted approach that extended to the minutes before Game 2, when Coach Phil Jackson was still joking about Paul Pierce's wheelchair.

Pierce proceeded to score 28 points Sunday night as the Celtics won, 108-102, taking a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals in which the Lakers were once favored but are no longer.

"I kept telling the team, we played as poorly as we could possibly play for 2 1/2 quarters in the middle of the third quarter," said Jackson afterward. "We just can't play any worse than this." Unfortunately, his players may have taken that as a challenge since they played even worse than that into the middle of the fourth quarter.

The Lakers were in foul trouble from the time they hit town and their bench was overwhelmed by the little-known young players and senior citizens on the Celtics' bench whom Coach Doc Rivers had been juggling all postseason. Bryant looked like he did against Boston during the regular season, which is to say dreadful.

Aside from that, the trip out East was OK.

Before Game 3

Who's afraid of the Celtics curse, the Celtics curse, the Celtics curse? Oh, all of Lakerdom.

The Lakers tripped into Boston last week, serenely confident of getting one win, maybe even two.

Their mood failed to darken after losing Game 1; they amused themselves by puncturing the hype around Paul Pierce's comeback from a knee injury.

Kobe Bryant was like a kid in a candy store, even after shooting nine for 26 in Game 1, so thrilled to be there that Coach Phil Jackson called him "giddy."

"I think that that was really noticeable in the presentation of the Western Conference trophy," Jackson said before Game 2.

"I thought he was very, very fun-loving in that situation. I think you really see the true nature of Kobe Bryant with his teammates."

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the true nature of Bryant and his teammates hasn't been the same since they got that Western Conference trophy, at least on the court.

Meanwhile, the Celtics haven't cracked a smile or batted an eyelash at anything Jackson or Bryant have said or done. Nor have they given much thought to the writers and broadcasters picking the Lakers in seven, six, five or four.

It might be time for the Lakers to get down to business and learn a lesson from their hated nemesis.

After Game 3

Veteran NBA writers -- Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated and I -- ruled it the worst NBA Finals game in history. This was like a 100-yard dash between two caterpillars. In the middle of the third period, the Lakers' offense was officially broken. Neither Gasol nor Odom had made a shot, Kobe Bryant was trying to beat the Celtics single-handedly and Coach Phil Jackson, the great optimist, wasn't so optimistic. "I called two timeouts in that period," said Jackson, whose preference is never to call any. "If I had no timeouts to call, I would have called a timeout."

The Lakers team that hadn't figured out how to run its offense against the Celtics in four previous games this season, all of which the Lakers lost, still hasn't figured it out. Tuesday night Jackson put Bryant on point guard Rajon Rondo, which gave Bryant a chance to drop off and roam, as Garnett has been doing, dropping off Odom. The result was that neither team could run an offense. Given the fact that neither was exactly shooting the lights out, this made for a long, grinding night.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, they won Tuesday night only because someone had to, so they'd better keep working on it.

After Game 4

Hello, ignominy, their old friend.

It turned out the Lakers and Celtics weren't reliving any of their Finals in the 1980s, after all. This one is right out of the '60s, when it wasn't a matter of what would go wrong for the Lakers but when and how horrific it would be.

Thursday night's Game 4 just went up there with Frank Selvy's wide-open miss, Don Nelson's shot that bounced off the back rim and dropped back in and the balloons in the rafters for the Game 7 celebration the Lakers never got to hold.

After a torpid start in the first three games, the Lakers awoke as if from the dead, taking a 24-point lead, then died all over again, blowing it all and falling, 97-91.

Even the '60s Lakers, who lost six Finals to the Celtics, never had a game like that and no other NBA team may have either.

On the bright side, we just hatched an entire generation that now understands what it means to be a Lakers fan.

After the Lakers ' debacle in the 1984 Finals, which even Boston's Larry Bird said they should have won, the Lakers had started a star-studded new tradition with six titles and nine Finals appearances, not to mention all the sub-plots.

No young Lakers fan could understand the suffering that tradition was built on . . . the six Finals losses to the Celtics in the '60s that still haunt Jerry West . . . who inspired Pat Riley, the Lakers' Captain Ahab, whose world seemed to crumble in the 1984 Finals loss after leading in the last minutes of Games 1 through 4 . . . after which Magic Johnson went home and shut himself in for weeks.

At least, no young fan could understand it until Thursday when their younger, deeper Lakers blew a 24-point lead over the older but demonstrably tougher Celtics.

Quickly the 2008 Finals went from almost tied at 2-2 to almost over at 3-1.

Today every Lakers fan is Jerry West.

Before Game 5

One way or another, this was always going to be about Kobe Bryant, who would be hailed as the game's best player or dismissed as a tragically flawed, teammate-spurning figure who hasn't won one single title without Shaquille O'Neal. Guess which version the media is cueing up? "Sounds like everybody is getting their 'what happens when we lose' stories together, huh?" said Derek Fisher, laughing, after being asked the third question about Bryant's relationship with his teammates Saturday.

After Game 5

With Kobe Bryant playing off 22-year-old, non-shooting Boston point guard Rajon Rondo and jamming up the middle, the Celtics can barely run an offense with the first team. Rivers went the rest of the way with chunky Eddie House and 38-year-old Sam Cassell, just to keep someone out there the Lakers had to guard.

Laker Chances Go From Non-Existent to Minimal!

With the media employing the usual sophisticated analytical tools ... like numerology ... the Los Angeles Lakers, who had no chance going into Sunday night's Game 5 -- since no team has ever come from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals -- were heartened to find they're now up to 18 percent!

Yes, five of the 28 teams that have trailed 3-2 actually came back to win.

Of those five teams who came from 3-2 behind in the Finals, one of them even did it on the road.

Of course, it was 1955 when the Syracuse Nationals went into Fort Wayne, Ind., and beat the Pistons twice.

Rallying cry for the Lakers in Game 6:

Remember the Nats!

Before Game 6

Rarely has an opponent ever taken away Jackson's star -- as the Celtics are doing with Bryant.

Without double-teaming, the Celtics now bring so much help into Bryant's area, he rarely sees daylight to the basket.

Bryant joked about missing "bunnies" in Game 1 but got only one shot inside 10 feet in that one, and the selection hasn't improved since.

Bryant has been stuck on the perimeter . . . unless he forces the issue, trying to get inside . . . and winds up holding the ball as the offense grinds to a halt and his teammates die on the vine.

In Game 4, he took four shots in the first half, missing all, then tried to take over but couldn't.

Anything is possible. But right now I find myself asking whether this trip was necessary.

We'll find out tonight.

After Game 6

After a 21-year break to enjoy their 1987 Finals victory that followed their 1985 breakthrough -- after having lost the first eight -- the Lakers saw the Celtics turn the hands of time all the way back to the '60s when Boston ruled everyone, especially them.

In those days, Bill Russell dominated them. In this Finals, it was no single Celtic but a suffocating team defense, although the effect was the same.

By Game 6, the flashy, high-scoring and favored Lakers who had started the series were no more.

All that was left was a confused, overmatched, soft little band of Lakers, circling the perimeter of the Boston defense like ants who couldn't get out of the rain as 21 years of frustration fell on their heads in the Celtics' 131-92 rout.

Alert! Alert! Alert!

For fans who aren't old enough to remember the era when the Lakers' hearts were always being questioned, you're about to get a refresher course.

Everyone in Lakerdom was shocked -- shocked! -- in the Utah series to learn Gasol had problems against physical teams.Here's a scoop: It didn't just start against Utah.For all Gasol's skills, he has never been physical. Whether it was because European players are stereotyped, his toughness has been questioned -- or sneered at -- as when Reggie Evans, then in Denver, called him "that girl."

In the 2008 NBA Finals, Gasol wasn't alone.

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