Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday's Starting Five

1. Paul Pierce. The gasps were audible even in a room full of people either ardently or tepidly rooting for the Lakers. When Pierce went to the ground clutching his right knee there wasn't a single person who wasn't disappointed. "F#%k!" was the thought-du-jour. If he was as hurt as he looked the Finals were over. And us hoops fans had nothing to look forward to watching on television for the next two weeks. So, really we gasped for ourselves. We gasped because we felt we were being robbed of the Finals. So when Pierce emerged from the tunnel even the impartial fan had to get goose-bumps. The Finals were back. And, yes, seeing him bouncing on the sideline and outdueling Kobe after returning in the second half of the third quarter the whole spectacle of the carry-off, the wheelchair and this fellow pushing away cameras like he's Randy Johnson seems patently ridiculous. However, I'm giving Pierce the benefit of the doubt here.
I'm going to put all of this on the caution of the medical staff (and their perverse subconscious desire to be involved with something serious rather than just putting on band-aids) and the fear of the player. They found Pierce writhing around the floor (understandable in the moments after twisting a knee) and they had zero idea how serious the injury was. They didn't know what, if anything, was torn. They didn't know what, if anything, was broken. All they knew was the Pierce looked hurt. So, they froze up and then called in the wheelchair cavalry. And, from Pierce's perspective, he was like the little kid who stumbles in a crowd of older relatives. The kid hits the ground, hands jet to skinned knee and then, before he starts crying, he looks to the grown-ups to gage their reaction. If they look concerned then the waterworks are going to start. If they are smiling then he knows everything is going to be just fine. Well, the grown folks surrounding Pierce clearly weren't smiling. They were freaking out and telling him not to move or do anything.

2. P.J. Brown. The stat line isn't impressive. 2 points on 1-4 shooting, 6 boards, 2 assists and 1 block in 21 minutes. But the impact was. First of all, I really, really don't like this guy because he derailed the '97 Knicks title run by tossing Charlie Ward into the stands, setting off a fracas, in the waning moments of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I don't like this dude. But, he did everything he was brought aboard to do in that game.

3. Kevin Garnett. Although Pierce's miraculous/hilarious comeback and Kobe's ineffectiveness will garner the headlines, it was The Big Ticket who set the tone in the biggest game of his career thus far. Matched up against Pau Gasol he was aggressive coming out the gate. He wanted the ball and he wanted to score it. For someone who has always been reputed to shrink from the big moments it was nice to seem him ebmrace this one. That being said, he embraced the first half a hell of lot more than he embraced the second half...

4. Tampa Bay Rays. Look at these guys! They're throwing punches and fighting the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. I guess the new uniforms and team name really did give this club a whole new self-image. They are fiesty and are throwing inside at Crisp after not letting him bully them the previous night with a dirty slide. Good for them.

5. The Los Angeles Lakers. Although they did lose Game 1 they've still got to feel good about this Series. If the odds dropped enough (ed note: they haven't) I think it is still worth dropping a bet on the Lakers. You see the game was still their's to be had in the fourth quarter (it was a five point game with less than two minutes to play) in spite of the fact that Kobe was not on his game and all three Celtics stars were. Garnett scored 24 (higher than his playoff average), Allen scored 19 (higher than his playoff average) and Pierce dropped an emotional 22 (higher than his playoff average) while PJ Brown, Sam Cassell and Rajon Rondo all came up about as big as they can reasonably be asked to. Meanwhile, all the Lakers starts except for Derek Fisher scored below their playoff average. In other words, the Celtics got as many points as they could likely expect on a given night (because you have to figure that when Pierce inevitably goes for 30 or 40 at some point that those shots will come at the expense of his teammates) and still didn't run off and hide with the game or even break 100 points. Each member of the Big Three played well and they didn't break 100! That's the key. If the Lakers can get Kobe going early (which is why his passive first half just killed them) and his teammates can then get good looks as the defense cheats towards a hot Bryant then Boston is going to be hard pressed to keep pace. Now, the Lakers do really need to try to take Game 2 before they head back to LA. I think that they'll have to feel encouraged after Game 1. Even though they did lose.

He's Guilty This Time

How Kobe Lost Game 1 for the Lakers

You got to think he knows it. In fact, you might think that he even planned it. But, either way, the Lakers lost tonight because of Kobe Bryant. He was the least valuable MVP-caliber player on the floor tonight, by a greater margin than he was acquitted for sexually assaulting that disreputable woman in Colorado a few years ago.

Kobe, at some point today, made a conscious decision to be the passive distributor (see yesterday's note about having him be the team leader in assists) throughout the first half. And, it cost the team. If any team hopes to win a game in the League Finals then you really can't have your best player go 1-10 in the first half (with 2 made free throws), especially when 9 of the 10 shots were taken from ten feet or more. And, to make matters worse, the solitary layup attempt was missed. As evidenced by the fact that he attempted just one field goal from in the paint, Kobe wasn't looking for his offense. He shot when compelled to by the circumstances (shot clock running) or his teammates (forcing the ball to him on broken plays) and, therefore these were mostly bad shots.

You see, Kobe is a man consumed by things. Right now he seems to be consumed by being well-liked. And the facade of making his teammates better. And, the way he tries to accomplish these things is by spending long stretches of the first halves of games by subtracting himself from the offense so that his teammates can shoot in his stead. During these stretches he doesn't become a playmaker as you might think. Rather, he withdraws from the offense. He shirks from the ball like me on the freshman hoops team at my high school. And then in the second half he generally dominates the ball and pulls the game out.

He did this in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs when he scored 25 of his 27 points in the second half. Although the Lakers did win that game, they did only by coming back from a HUGE third quarter deficit. That's not realistic every night. Especially in the Finals.

Furthermore, this is NOT generosity. This is not selflessness. This is not trust. It is a masque of such things. Kobe doesn't trust his teammates. He patronizes them. And, it cost his team the game tonight. By the time he tried to lead his offense, like any good leader would, it was too late and he couldn't get hot quick enough. Even someone as talented as he is (and, make no mistake, he is as talented as they come) cannot always rely on the last twenty minutes to pull out a game.

Kevin Garnett came out gunning tonight. He came hard early, scoring 16 points in the first half. He expended his energy to get his team quick out the gate, knowing that he might not have it in him to keep that up. He did that knowing that his teammates, Paul Pierce most notable amongst them, could pick him up in the late going. Now, THAT is trusting your teammates. That is being part of team and recognizing what you can bring to the table as well as what they can bring.

And, lo and behold, Paul Pierce (after coming back from a potentially painful but over-treated fall) picked up where KG left off. He brought the game home in the late third and fourth quarters along with Ray Allen and the corpse of P.J. Brown. Each team member did their part by the time the final whistle blew on the Celtics 98-88 win over the Lakers. And they pulled away at the end because Kobe couldn't play the game the way he thought he could. He couldn't patronize one half and dominate the next. At least, not tonight.
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