And so here it is. The championship that Kobe, his supporters, and detractors have all been in search of. It's enough to make me lose all restraint and drop a J.R.R. Tolkien reference. But sweet celery, does this momentous occasion ever feel anti-climactic.
That's different than inevitable. Inevitable was that sense that this team was too good to not push through at some point. It might not even be that sense, from the beginning of the season, that something had changed since the Finals. What fed the Kobe/LeBron hype wasn't just that the two were MVP candidates but that, that fast start by the Celtics notwithstanding, the Lakers and Cavs were on mission this season. One of them was going to win a championship because they could.
Maybe it didn't seem so pre-destined for the Lakers through the first three rounds of the playoffs. Although I tried my darnedest to remind the world that the 2007-08 Celtics had taken their sweet time finishing off opponents, LA -- like Boston last year -- just didn't seem particularly convincing. Their subs weren't producing, Andrew Bynum wasn't right, supporting players floated in and out of the scene. Odom did the same, ranging from dominant to ghostly. Gasol griped about his touches, and Kobe wasn't (or couldn't) take over games, and bail out the team, seemingly on whim. Thank you Lord for Trevor Ariza, who by some weird, yet-to-be-invented metric could be the Lakers postseason MVP.
You know who can take over games like no other? LeBron James. And as the Lakers were getting taken seven games by a Yao-less, T-Mac-less Rockets, James and his Cavs were getting so much rest that, just maybe, they ended up with the basketball equivalent of oversleeping. Which is part of why they fell to the Magic -- who, incidentally, provided a shot in the arm exactly because, if not improbable, they were at least unlikely contenders in almost every way possible.
Meanwhile, the Lakers waited until Game 6 of their series with Denver to spring to life, just in time to face an Orlando team that, against Cleveland, had been about as on and on gets. Maybe this wasn't Kobe/LeBron, but it could still be an epic struggle, one that, even if the favored Lakers won, would make the process part of a championship something truly inseparable from that glory waiting at the end. Instead, the Lakers started things off by flattening the Magic. No one likes a blowout, except when it's a statement of strength, worth and power. Those are things we associated with the Lakers (or the Cavs) for much of the season, and qualities we like to see in an NBA champion (or President, or blind date).
Except after that initial thunderclap, the series just trailed off. I know it was close at times. I know the Fisher made important threes. But if "destined to win" sounds robust, these Finals were more like a conspiracy theory headed up by Mother Nature, the tides just carrying the Lakers off to the promised land. Last night, the Magic started big and then vanished. Kobe was at his best, and appropriately enough, the final buzzer was a mere formality.
Totally anti-climactic. But you know what? None of that matters now. Kobe has his Shaq-less ring and Phil has broken Red Auerbach's record for titles. Maybe history will go back and find a way to make their journey seem more arresting, if not credible; I certainly hope they do, for the sake of the commemorative DVD. At least the Celtics had that impressive performance in the Finals. Primal scream or no primal scream, the world just wanted to see Kevin Garnett get his damn title, so it is with this one. It's on the books, and now things will never be the same.
For reasons I don't entirely understand, the whole Jordan/Kobe comparison seems even less valid now than it did before. Maybe it's because LeBron's waiting in the wings, or Bryant's greatness before was, to some degree, academic. Once he's stacking real chips against Jordan, the proposition becomes laughable.
More importantly, though, there is now a sizable number of basketball fans out there who need a new means of discrediting their least favorite basketball player. Kobe Bryant has won a title without Shaquille O'Neal. Pau Gasol is an All-Star, but there's no question whose team this was, or who carried it from last fall to now. I suppose, since many of these good people may read this column, one could go back and place an informal asterisk next to this championship for the reasons discussed above. Or the injuries that kept Garnett and Manu out of the playoffs. But then you'd also have to do the same for both of Hakeem's titles, and several of Duncan's. To quote some person from eight years ago, you don't want to go there.
Gasol came to LA via a total fleece job. But then again, that Celtics team was built on willing theft, and do we really want to start chipping away at that monument to good guys sometimes winning?
I know, it's complicated. A lot of things in sports could be qualified or second-guessed. That's why, except for when steroids are involved, we don't bother to make these distinctions. We look at the line in the "NBA Champions" list and, unless we need to, ignore the context. So despite all I've just said, there's no denying it: Kobe Bryant has proven himself, is beyond reproach, and no question is of the game's all-time greats.
I'm sorry, but from now on, you just might have to keep calling Kobe names, or saying you don't think he's a very nice person. All valid basketball arguments have left the station.
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