Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Weird Scenes Inside the Purple and Gold Mine

Kobe Scores 61, Lakers Beat Knicks

Milling about in Penn Station beneath the Garden about an hour before tip-off it was clear that there were going to a lot of Lakers fans at the Garden. Folks garbed in purple and gold mixed in almost one-quarter measure with those who were grey-flannel suited and heading home after another day in the widget factory.

Not surprisingly, Lakers fans had bought up a lot of the tickets several months ago since this was one of just two chances to see their team in the New York metropolitan area (the other being, the Lakers trip to the Meadowlands) whereas Knicks fans were less inclined to have these tickets sitting in their desk drawer since they were never made available at a discount. In fact, I hadn't been planning on attending this game. Yet there I was. Loitering beneath the board listing track numbers for LIRR trains and drinking the cheapest beer in midtown. The "oh-I'm-just-another-guy-waiting-for-my-train-drinking-out-a-brown-paper-bag" beer that you buy alongside the bags of popcorn for consumption on the train. A 24. oz can runs you nearly half as much as a pint served at a bar on street level.

But, I digress. I got a ticket from a Lakers fan who had a last-minute spare because his dad couldn't make it. In exchange for one small bottle of whiskey the ticket could be mine. And it was. Ensconced in the 400 level at midcourt, I was reminded again there is no bad seat in the Garden. The game was afoot. And the Bynum-less Lakers had the early edge on the scoreboard and in the stands. The Lakers fans were on time and in full voice whereas the Knicks fans were still getting settled. Kobe and Pau were putting up points while the Knicks players were still getting up to game speed. The Knicks closed within a possession on multiple occassions put never pulled astride Los Angeles in the first frame. Bryant had 18 at the end of one quarter but it seemed mostly unspectacular in a still very spectacular sort of way. It surely didn't seem like he was going to get off for 60. I mean, Pau had 12 (meaning the pair combined for 30 of 31 Lakers points) in the quarter and was arguably more impressive running up and down the floor. The Spaniard's combination of speed, agility and height makes him impervious the ways in which David Lee is normally able to get around or past bigger centers.

Through most of the second quarter it didn't seem like Kobe had a shot at 50+. Not at all. He rested early and we more or less forgot about him. Perhaps we were distracted by Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson. Or, maybe it was the fact that the pair, along with Al Harrington, actually pulled the Knicks within a point just about less than 8 to play. Pau had stayed in with the second unit for the Lakers (and played a team-high 41 minutes), further imprinting his scraggly visage on the game. Until we got within sight of halftime. Then it all changed.

Kobe checked back in. Harrington was at the line. He hit his second of two shots. The score was 39-40. The Lakers had a one-point lead when Kobe first touched the ball. The next seven and a half minutes decided the game and etched Kobe's name in Garden lore alongside Bernard King. Kobe scored 16 points in the second half of the second quarter. His spurt stretched the Lakers lead from 1 point to 11 points by the time the buzzer ended the first half. That was the game. That was the difference between a pedestrian 40 point night and a I-Was-There 61-point night. Seven and a half minutes. Kobe took 10 of the 15 Lakers field goal attempts during that span (and made 7) and totally dominated the ball and the game. This was really the only stretch were he was attacking the rim and that he looked indomitable in a Michael Jordan sort of way. The game was on the line and Bryant was proving the difference. Each of these points mattered.

In the second half, things weren't the same. Kobe still scored. A ton. But he made jump shots without ever going at the rim. And he got to the line a ton (making 20 of 20 in the game, for just about 1/3 of his points). But a lot of those fouls were on jumpers or while he was handling the ball. They were superstar calls and not because he was forcing defenders to foul him or let him pass. All in all, this was more like watching Allan Houston get 60 than watching MJ or Lebron or Bernard King do the same. And, I don't mean to belittle the accomplishment (at least not too much) but I think it needs some qualifying after the hyperbolic applause it received on ESPN and such from folks who didn't actually watch the game.

Even for the Lakers fan sitting next to me it seemed strange that Kobe was being serenaded with MVP chants (and hearty retaliatory boos) whenever he was at the foul line. Forgetting the season, we were unsure that Kobe was even the Most Valuable Laker in the game. Pau scored 31 points on 17 shots (to Kobe's 31 shots), pulled in 14 rebounds (to Kobe's zero), handed out five assists (to 24's 3), blocked two shots (to Kobe's 1) while playing 41 minutes (to Kobe's 37). He was the glue for the Lakers' first and second units whereas Kobe was only on the floor for shooting the ball. He wasn't defending. He wasn't rebounding. He certainly wasn't passing, especially in the second half. The point differential for Kobe in the contest was +19 while he was on the floor. It was +20 for Pau.

The Knicks actually outscored the Lakers in the second half by a few points as LA's raison d'etre became Kobe's point total. This wasn't like Lebron's 50 when the game was tight down the stretch and the points were meaningful. To watch the second half you marveled at Kobe's shotmaking ability and his vanity in equal measures. Fans jokingly screamed for him to pass the ball or yelled "shoot it" whenever he touched it later in the game. He obliged the latter request and ignored the former to the delight of all. But, it was weird. While being amazing. It was anticlimactic, mildly awkward. Especially since the Lakers lost the second half but never really were in danger of losing the game. The most exciting thing late was the Kobe rebound watch, which I got all of Section 405 talking about. As the minutes ticked down we were worried a long rebound might find him and ruin his 60/0 game. It didn't. And, I'll never forget that.

BallHype: hype it up!