The sad, meaningless race for the West No. 8
The playoff race in the West is so very, very sad as Tom Ziller lays out. I think it’s Utah’s to lose, FWIW.
BOSTON — There is nothing this city likes as much as history, especially when it’s their own reflected back on them like the glowing lights from the old Hancock Tower guiding them home from the Garden on an icy, foggy December evening. So it’s no real surprise that they would appreciate Kobe Bryant, being that he is one of the great students of history this game has ever known.
No one ever had to sell Kobe on the importance of the Laker-Celtic thing. It was ingrained in him and burrowed deep in his memory banks from all those VHS tapes he wore down in Italy. Does he remember when they chanted MVP ...
"2007!" Kobe said, before the question could even be finished. "Felt amazing. It was a little deceptive because there were so many Laker fans here at the time. 2008 on though, that wasn’t going to happen."
There had been worse seasons, but 2007 was the absolute nadir of Celtic history. It had been over two decades since they had won a title and almost as long since they mattered much at all in the national imagination. The next season though, well, that’s when everything changed and that’s when everything changed about Kobe, too. Up until that point he had been fighting for his place among the gods. It was a solo trip, a singular validation of his talent and drive. Suddenly he was absorbed into the very fabric of history and that’s when he found his true calling, which was beating the Celtics.
Kobe said he was excited when they landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but not really because he knew he’d have to deal with them on a whole new level. But really really, he was excited because he also knew there was a chance he’d have the opportunity to craft his own role in the NBA’s most enduring drama. The loss was what did it, punctuated by a humiliating beatdown in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals.
"The loss. The loss led to the win. I say that in the most beautiful way possible," Kobe said in the most Kobe way possible. "I don’t remember the loss as like, a painful experience. I remember it as a beautiful moment because it helped me find the best version of myself and my teammates. I always remember the beauty of it. At the time, not so much."
Then he laughed and added, "You know what I mean?"
And we all nodded and laughed along with him because even though none of us will ever know what something like that means we couldn’t help but be pulled into his orbit. And besides, who talks like this?
This has become a staple of Kobe’s Farewell Tour. For 15-20 minutes he meets with the local press, answers their questions like they’re endlessly fascinating and gives them what they need. Then he goes out and tries to relive the past like an oldies act playing his greatest hits for an audience that knows every riff and every note by heart. Sometimes it clicks, most nights it doesn’t, but none of that matters as much as the experience of being there and seeing the legend one more time before he goes away.
There’s a lightness to Kobe that’s been missing all these years now that the pressure has been alleviated by the realities of his body, and the situation his team is in at the bottom of the standings. In the absence of real pressure, the kind that drove him to not be remembered as the Laker who lost twice (TWICE!) to the Boston Celtics, Kobe is soaking it all in and letting us into his weird world. It’s a concession on his part, one last parting gift to his legion of fans.
"I think I’ve matured quite a bit as a person," Bryant said. "I think at the same time, I’ve lost a lot of the edge because with maturity comes a more docile approach to the game. Whereas back in the day there’s no compromise. There is no understanding. It’s this or nothing. As you get older you start to get more perspective. It’s a great thing as a person, but as a player not so much."
The crowd cheered his entrance: a suitable, subtle introduction devoid of histrionics or cheap gimmicks because true history needs none of those things. They booed him when he touched the ball because that’s what history also demands.
There were a good number of Laker fans in the Garden as there usually are, and they cheered when he made his first shot after six straight misses. The Laker fans grew louder and more adventurous as their team played inspired ball. Their chants were drowned out by boos at first, but the home crowd’s defiance lessened as the Celtics slopped their way through one of their worst defensive outings of the season.
And then it happened. It developed in slow motion like a highlight reel in real time. A man behind us, loud and agitated throughout the evening about what was happening to his Celtics had time to mutter, "Oh shit." He knew, like we all knew, what would happen next. The ball found Kobe and Kobe rose up and delivered one final eff-you dagger right through the heart of a spirited, albeit futile Boston comeback. That’s when the chants truly began.
Ko-Be. Ko-Be. Ko-Be.
Many were puzzled by this show of appreciation but they shouldn’t have been. They wouldn’t have done this for Wilt and they sure as hell wouldn’t have done this for Kareem. Magic, maybe. Maybe. They did it for Kobe because times have changed, but they also did it because he gave them what they wanted more than anything. He made the Celtics and Lakers matter again.
"You know, honestly if I could chant for them, I would," Bryant said later. "I don’t think the fans here really understand how much they drove me. From the singing of the songs, the shaking of the bus going back to the hotel, you know, that stuff really stuck with me. I mean it drove me to maniacal proportions. So, I don’t think they really understand what they meant to my career."
Oh, but they do.
A few weeks earlier they had chanted for one of their own. Kevin Garnett wasn’t a Celtic the way Kobe was a Laker, but he was a Celtic the way so many others from the past have been. Like Paul Silas and Dennis Johnson before him, KG became one with the mystique. It’s not enough to simply play here and produce. You have to believe you were brought here by some divine right to carry on the legacy of those who created it. Only then are you a Celtic according to local custom.
Garnett understood that. He embodied it. He lived it. He preached it whenever he’d get into one of those unhinged moods unleashing a torrent of curse words and wacko analogies. Damn, they loved him for that. They loved what he brought back to the Garden, that full-throated lusty roar that wouldn’t have been out of place in the old Garden. That unholy din emanating from the balcony without prompting or goading from the massive Jumbotron telling you to get out of your seats and make noise. KG brought that all back here.
Garnett didn’t play that night because he doesn’t play in back-to-backs. For reasons known only to the Timberwolves, he suited up the day before in Brooklyn, of all places. Brooklyn! A city that was a temporary stop and an unfortunate footnote in his career that doesn’t get less strange with the passage of time. What possible resonance could that have had? He wore his uniform and took his place on the bench, but there would be no Garnett on his night. Still, the Garden chanted.
KG. KG. KG. KG.
They chanted during timeouts and between lulls in the action. They chanted long after it was obvious that they wouldn’t see their man on the court again. They chanted like it was 2008 and he had just slammed home a rebound over the Laker frontline or like any of the other unlikely odysseys that followed.
"I really wanted them to stop that because I didn’t know if Sam (Mitchell) was actually going to put me in there," Garnett said. "But it was cool, like I said the unconditional appreciation is overwhelming."
It was hard not to feel the juxtaposition of their respective positions at this moment. Kobe, still desperately trying to replicate past glories with each stop on this increasingly surreal farewell tour and KG, acting as a veteran mentor and spirit guide in a reduced role with no definitive end date. The glimpses of the old Garnett are rare these days and his contributions have become more subtle, a screen here and a proper rotation there. It’s a role that’s more age appropriate than Kobe’s, but each one’s path is true to their respective visions. In that, they are both going out on their own terms.
"You guys know KG so you all know what he’s all about," Mitchell said. "This is about the team first. He loves the players in the locker room and he treats them with the utmost respect. The first day we got him last year he came in at 8:30 and as the players came in he walked up to each one of them and made himself available to all the young guys. He’s just a great teammate. He cares more about the guys in the locker room then he cares about himself. He’s just a unique person. He’s been a godsend to our team."
The young Wolves rave about KG. "He’s been awesome," Karl-Anthony Towns said and Garnett himself seems to be enjoying the final act of a two-decade run.
"It’s keeping me young at times," Garnett said. "The overall experience is a great one, to be honest. We got some good young guys that are going to be very promising in the future. I’m having some fun here, but there’s never a dull moment around here."
Someone asked if this was it, his final appearance at the Garden and KG exited stage right, mysterious as always. "On that note, I’ll see you guys later. Thank you all, Boston."
Garnett turned and walked the long walk down the hallway and around the concourse to the waiting bus. He stopped to talk to old friends, laughing as he did so. There was a sweetness to Garnett rarely seen during the heat of competition when his mania takes hold. He kept all of that hidden for the most part while he was here. Playing for the Celtics was serious business in those days and whatever fun they had, they kept that to themselves. What he gave to the people, he gave fully. That was enough. It will always be enough. Like Kobe, he made all of this matter again.
And now we’re faced with a question: Will it ever happen again? It was so much easier in the old days when there were less teams and more poorly run franchises. The maneuvers and machinations that led to this latest chapter could be a book in their own right. The NBA is a thriving billion-dollar business that can make a superstar out of anyone, no matter their location. It can make a franchise like Golden State, long the forgotten stepchild of the West Coast into the most visible entity in the sport. It doesn’t need the Celtics and Lakers to sustain itself anymore. But perhaps the lessons of Kobe and KG are that this rivalry can still transcend the sport in ways other matchups simply can not.
"I think one thing we can trust as sports fans is you can trust the sports gods are going to line these teams up again," Bryant said. "It’s going to happen. You go back to Russell, West, and Magic and Bird. It’s going to happen, that’s just how sports are. Whether it’s 20 years from now or 30 years from now, it’s going to happen and when it does we will all sit back and enjoy it."
Kobe believes in history, and like Garnett, their places are secure. We can argue about their true status as we always do, but no one can ever take that away from them. Their kind may never pass this way again and in return, Boston showed its appreciation as only it can.
The Shootaround is anti-resolution. If you’ve got something to do, just do it already. Now is the time to look forward and embrace all the good things that will come our way. Here’s what we want to see in 2016.
A Golden State-San Antonio playoff series. The Warriors and Spurs are the two best teams in the league. That’s not really in doubt. They are also stylistic opposites. While the Dubs’ took San Antonio’s pace-and-space revolution and literally ran wild with it, the Spurs have become almost old-school with their revamped twin towers look. We need this series. It took an amazing number of events to deprive us of this matchup last season and there could be a dozen other things that take place over the next few months to deny us again, but please, can we have this?
The Cavaliers to be fully operational this spring. The Cavs have played more than 100 regular season games and have four playoff series’ under their belt since LeBron James returned to the franchise, and we still don’t really know the full power of this team. Assuming health, which is always a risky proposition, we should have a better understanding of their potential by the time the postseason rolls around. They may even get tested by a deeper Eastern Conference pool of contenders, but it would be a shame if we don’t see a Bron/Kyrie/Love squad at full strength in the Finals.
A calm and peaceful resolution to Kevin Durant’s free agency. Things have been quiet on the KD front, which is just the way he likes things. That’s good news for Durant, as well as for the Thunder who have quietly made their way up the standings. They may not catch San Antonio or Golden State, but one or both of those teams will have to deal with OKC at some point. This is the optimal regular season scenario for a franchise that needed a dose of normalcy at this crucial juncture. The true test will happen during the playoffs when the spotlight will shine the brightest and all those questions about Durant’s future will be back on the table.
A compelling Eastern Conference playoffs. There are the Cavs and then there is everyone else in the East. What makes this interesting is there is virtually no separation among the everyone else. The playoffs have a way of sorting all this out and deciding who will be the true up and comers, and who will be relegated back from to the rest of the pack. Can any of them dent Cleveland’s chances? Maybe not, but the true value of the postseason will be in seeing which of them rise to the challenge.
Good health, good cheer and a reminder of why we do this. We’ve reached the point of the season tempers are short, the weather is worse and injuries are beginning to mount. Now is the time to push through with the knowledge that better days are ahead. There are dominant teams in the West pushing the game to new limits and better teams in the East playing meaningful basketball deep into the season. There is a fascinating MVP race just waiting to be discovered (Steph Curry’s dominance aside) and a long, extended goodbye to legends on their way out. This season is only beginning to take shape. Thanks to everyone who comes along on the journey.
The playoff race in the West is so very, very sad as Tom Ziller lays out. I think it’s Utah’s to lose, FWIW.
Ziller and I talk Phoenix, who started the season with so much promise and has turned into a complete disaster.
Orlando coach Scott Skiles has already built a solid defense in a short amount of time. Yaron Weitzman spent some time with the Magic and learned how they’re doing it.
That much hyped rookie class? It’s looking a little thin these days. Don’t blame Karl-Anthony Towns, who is already playing like a superstar as Jesus Gomez explains.
"For me, I’ve always been a guy who's took pride in knowledge of every situation that I've ever spoke on. And to be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone. But for me to comment on the situation, I don't have enough knowledge about it."— LeBron James when asked about his reaction to a Cleveland grand jury’s decision to not press charges against a police officer in the shooting death of Tamir Rice.
Reaction: LeBron’s explanation doesn’t fully track, considering he’s been outspoken on multiple issues, but to hold James responsible as the voice of authority on every societal issue is problematic. His long-winded no comment is disappointing insofar as James has made it a point to take stands throughout his career, but it’s more disappointing that others haven’t followed his example. Maybe we should be asking them the same questions that we reserve for Bron. Or maybe we should begin by looking inward as my friend Chris Haynes wrote in this poignant first-person account.
"It’s a joke. I played like horseshit the first month and a half but I still was averaging like 16 and eight. That's not bad numbers."— Wizards guard John Wall on early All-Star voting returns.
Reaction: Per usual, the voters get it right about 70 percent of the time. The Kobe thing is not worth getting worked up about. The All-Star Game is for the fans and if they want to send Kobe out one final time, then let ‘em have it. The two spots that are messed up are in the East backcourt where Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving are leading the pack. Wade’s … fine. He’s a big name and big names are going to win popularity contests even if Jimmy Butler is a better option. Irving, however, hadn’t even played a game when the first round of voting came out, which is a joke, as Wall said. But what are you going to do?
"I think we're both learning a lot about each other. He's probably learning how moody I am on a daily basis, to tell you the truth. And it's hard, but I think he lets me be who I am. He handles everything that I do very well. I'm not a big communicator, I'm not great at it, but he's always talking to me. He's always asking, 'How are you doing? What can we do?' He's always asking my opinion on a lot of things. Yeah, it helped a lot."— Bulls guard Jimmy Butler.
Reaction: This is one of the more fascinating subplots of the season. Butler is clearly Chicago’s best player and he’s starting to assert himself both on and off the court. New coach Fred Hoiberg is clearly trying to transition the Bulls from the Tom Thibodeau era into a new future. Perhaps it’s for the best if they get their clashes out of the way early in their relationship because both figure to be there for the duration.
"Sometimes it actually worries me. I think the crowd, they really get a kick out of him and all that, but he’s a basketball player. He’s not some sort of an odd thing."— Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on rookie Boban Marjanovic.
Reaction: Boban has barely played 100 minutes in his NBA career, but holy Serbia, look at those per-36 numbers: 25.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, a 32.2 PER. This is the smallest of sample sizes, but it’s also pretty clear that Boban is not only big and fun, he’s also pretty darn good.
"The hardest people to give gifts to are the ones who have access to anything they want. So, it’s really hard to shop for a guy like that. Maybe a fun week in Barcelona, put together a trip for his family, go to a winery, have some wine tasting, go to a nice restaurant and hang out. Something laid back."— Pau Gasol on what he would get Kobe Bryant as a retirement gift.
Reaction: If Kobe’s not interested, I would gladly go to Barcelona and drink wine with Pau Gasol.
Jimmy Butler? JIMMY BUTLER! The Bulls swingman and should-be All Star made one of the great plays of the season when he tipped home this lob to beat Indiana.