Kobe Bryant has always represented the enemy. There were times I can honestly say I hated Kobe. The rape trial in Colorado in 2003 and Kobe’s casual dismissal of the trial as if it were a mosquito buzzing in his ear made me disdain him. I’m not claiming to know what happened in that Denver hotel room, but I trust Shaquille O’Neal’s word over Kobe’s on what went sour during their time together in LA. Among other things, Shaq recalls Kobe telling Jim Gray that Shaq didn’t play through the foot pain (the pain that eventually ended Shaq’s career). Kobe’s persona has always been egotistical, arrogant, selfish and maniacally competitive. As if he never needed anyone’s help, even when he was getting his teammates involved in the offense, even when he was making the right pass. It was as if he was passing to himself. Still, any fan has to admire what he has done on the court. All of the clutch shots. The hounding, Jordan-like defense that was never fully appreciated. His ability to feel out each game, knowing precisely when a scoring run was needed.
Whenever Kobe’s Lakers have excelled, Kobe has been their clutch hero, showing a will to win that few NBA players have ever displayed. When the Celtics beat the Lakers in June of 2008, the title meant that not only had the Celtics restored the franchise’s legacy of winning, it brought back the rivalry of my early childhood, the Celtics and the Lakers. Kevin Garnett’s rookie season came in 1995. Kobe’s was 1996. Paul Pierce was drafted in June of 1998. Kobe’s been a Laker since I was a sophomore in high school. Seeing him limp so delicately off of the court on Friday night at the Staples Center, with 3 minutes remaining in yet another must-win game for the Lakers in their push to finish with the 8th seed in the Western Conference, it was obvious he wouldn’t be coming back this season, if he comes back at all. My gut says he retires after the season ends. After two awkward moments earlier in the game where his knees bore the brunt of the impact, Kobe’s left Achilles tendon ruptured on a drive to the basket.
After acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, my inner Celtics fan has delighted in the struggles of my team’s sworn enemy this season. The constant chatter in the offseason was nauseating. And it all backfired as soon as the year started, and Nash was sidelined. Howard’s back was clearly nagging him throughout the first half of the season. Mike Brown was fired. Phil Jackson was not hired. Mike D’Antoni arrived, himself limping after knee replacement surgery. The Lakers create ratings and have the soap operas and the irritable superstars and they become the dominant narrative in the Western Conference, if not the league, throughout the season.
Meanwhile, the Warriors have the most fascinating shooter in the NBA, Steph Curry, who is within six three-pointers (261) of Dennis Scott’s single-season record (267), while making 45.3%, compared with Scott’s 42.5%. Curry was blistering once again last night, scoring 32 first-half points, en route to 47 points on 17 of 31 from the field and 9 of 15 from distance. On top of the scoring, Curry handed out 9 assists to one turnover, and kept the Warriors in position to win the game from the opening tip.
The refs handed the Lakers a whopping 50 free-throw attempts, about 14 of which were highly questionable, most given to Kobe in the third and fourth quarters as the Warriors were building a 9-point lead. These calls were so blatant that it would not have been shocking to see David Stern sitting court-side next to Jack Nicholson, wearing a bright red suit and a Devil’s mask. Despite Curry’s sweet cooking, the Lakers were supposed to win this game. Which makes the tragic sight of Kobe limping off the court that much more poignant. The NBA will not get what it wants this year. It is possible the Lakers survive their final two games on the strength of Howard and Gasol, and beat the Spurs and Rockets, eliminating the pesky Jazz from contention. But the Lakers team that meets Oklahoma City in Round One will be without their heart, their soul, their will to win. They will have no clutch scorer, instilling fear in their opponents, causing their opponents’ fans to clench their knuckles in desperation as the clock winds down in a tie game. Instead, they will have to find a new identity, and rebuild their team around the former Superman, now known as Dwight Howard.
The Warriors, meanwhile, are in danger of falling into a tie with Houston for the 7th seed. Houston’s final three games involve two of the worst in the West (Sacramento and Phoenix) and their final contest is against those Lakers. Golden State meets San Antonio on Monday and Portland on Wednesday. The Warriors would lose a potential tie-breaker with Houston, forcing them into the 7th seed and a much tougher match-up with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Golden State and Houston would probably both prefer to play a newly depleted Nuggets team, who recently lost a scorer (Gallinari) and will be hoping their leader (Ty Lawson) can play effectively on a damaged foot.
Watching the wounded Kobe, the ever-willing warrior who displayed the mind-over-matter mentality that helped propel his Lakers to so many critical victories in the last 17 years, I couldn’t help but think of Steph, whose ankle injuries have been numerous in his young career; whose range has always been unparalleled, but whose play since the All-Star Break has reached new heights: 26 ppg, 7.6 apg, on 47.7% from the field and a remarkable 46% from distance (4.0-8.7). Steph is too good not to have a chance to showcase himself on the bigger stage. The Warriors will need Andrew Bogut if they are going to have a legitimate shot to advance. They will need the Lakers to beat those Rockets in Game 82.
The final shot of the 118-116 thriller on Friday night? With 1.6 seconds left and the Warriors down by one, with no timeouts, Dwight Howard accidentally makes his second free-throw, allowing an in-bounds pass. Curry gets the pass, takes one dribble and heaves the ball from 75 feet away. The ball hangs in the air for what seems like minutes, and then caroms of the rim, a few inches off to the right.
They can’t all go in for Steph Curry. Kobe can’t play forever, and may never play again. KG and Pierce are running out of time. The playoffs are coming in 7 days.
Fingers crossed that:
1) Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can stay healthy as long as the Boston Celtics are still playing.
2) Avery Bradley and Jeff Green show Celtics fans the future will be bright even without their Hall-of-Fame duo.
3) Steph Curry wins at least one playoff game with his brilliance.
4) Andrew Bogut’s ankle heals quickly.
5) Paul George and the Pacers make a deep run if the Celtics can’t.
6) San Antonio gets one last chance at a title in the Ducan-Pop era.
7) Anyone but Miami wins the championship.
There will be new stories, memorable performances and at least one upset in the first round. Kobe’s Lakers, now Dwight’s Lakers, will not be upsetting anyone. That chapter has come to a close.
Jonah Hall writes the Darko Index because of Steph Curry’s ability to get his shot off, Kobe Bryant’s competitiveness, Paul Pierce’s clutch elbow jumper, Kevin Garnett’s devastating defense, and, in general, to make sense of what he’s just seen.
Click below for Bill Plaschke’s (who is my least favorite member of Around the Horn) somber account of Kobe’s injury and the outlook of the Los Angeles Lakers: