The Los Angeles Lakers had the audacity to drop a game to the Dallas Mavericks, and we need a scapegoat. The Kobe Bryant debate rages on, as it will whenever the Loose Triggered One fires off 29 shots -- almost three times as many as Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. But Kobe scored efficiently (36 points on 31 total shot attempts, including free throw possessions) and though he didn't register an assist, he can't make his big men shoot. As is usually the case, nothing Gasol or Andrew Bynum did absolved themselves of some share of blame. We know that, yes, Kobe is a gunner by birthright, but also that he'll pass when a teammate is open. He's averaged almost five assists per game in the playoffs over his career.
In fact, one of Kobe's biggest mistakes in Game 1 was passing the ball. The Lakers led by one point with 40 seconds left. With Bryant in isolation and the shot clock winding down, Kobe drove on Jason Kidd, a guy against whom the Lakers' star can get a shot off at any time. Bryant seemed to be in position to extend L.A.'s lead, but he instead kicked it out to Derek Fisher. Jason Terry got the steal.
Kobe is a scorer, among the best in history, and he's not too far removed from his prime. He's the Lakers' clear-cut most dependable scorer, and L.A. has won two straight NBA championships with Kobe as the primary gunner. This is not new, and it is not a pox on the Lakers. When you're working toward a three-peat, the status quo is pretty sweet.
Then we turn to Pau.
Gasol put up a good line -- 15 points on 5-10 shooting, 11 rebounds, a team-high seven assists. In fact, those seven assists prove wrong the criticism of Kobe's shooting -- Pau was clearly touching the ball at some point. The problem with Pau was his relative invisibility late (scoreless in the fourth) and a few costly mistakes. After Terry's steal gave Dallas a chance to go ahead, Gasol, in trying to deny the post entry pass to Dirk Nowitzki, got whistled for a foul. Newsflash: Pau can't really guard Dirk, so he ginned up a bit too much contact ahead of time. Nowitzki sunk two free throws to give the Mavericks a dead-ball lead. That's not a good result from that defensive possession.
The next offensive possession for the Lakers was worse. With 8.8 seconds left and L.A. needing a bucket to regain the lead, Pau attempted to hand the ball off to a well-covered Kobe out at the elbow extended. Jason Kidd was all over Bryant, and the Laker fell, and the ball came loose. Kidd recovered, hit one free throw to extend the lead to two, and the Lakers were down to one possession (an eventual missed three by Kobe). Those two Gasol mistakes -- conceding free throws to someone as automatic as Nowitzki, coughing up the ball on the Lakers' penultimate possession -- cost L.A. the game.
But mistakes happen, and that's why they play seven. Part of what has made Gasol a great player is his skill level -- seven assists aren't an accident. If you want Pau to have a greater role in the offense, to take away some of Kobe's responsibility, then you've got to concede that sometimes, like any other star, Gasol is going to screw up. Kobe screws up. Dirk screws up. Pau will screw up. Only two teams in the current NBA seem to have every loss pinned to an overarching narrative of struggle and failure, the Lakers and the Miami Heat. If the Heat struggle, it's because LeBron James sold his soul for two Buffalo nickels and a pack of Wrigley. If the Lakers struggle, it's because Kobe is Satan or Pau is tissue paper.
If any other team loses, we seem to understand the nuanced, random or obvious reasons it could happen. Do we expect perfection from our heroes, from these wondrous teams? Do we expect our greatest champions to be without fault ever?
Pau Gasol has two rings. He's not perfect, but he's pretty good. He'll make mistakes, but he's pretty good. If there's some eternal struggle between he and Kobe, they've done an awesome job setting it aside during one of the great four-year runs in NBA history.
Kudos to the Mavericks for a hard-fought, hard-earned win. But let's give the Lakers a bit of leeway heading into Game 2.