x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How the mighty have fallen

Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are no longer the team of the past two years who knew how to win.

The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Tony Gutierrez / AP Photo
The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Tony Gutierrez / AP Photo

Sometimes it can seem humorous that an industry has sprung up around the breathless analysis of something so fickle and fate-dependent as sport.

Sometimes it is possible to drive down wide boulevards, listen to the radio and marvel as people pick apart the sudden and glaring weaknesses of Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, who just last week seemed reasonable contenders for a third straight NBA championship.

Sometimes it is possible to laugh aloud at the steering wheel when one of the callers to a radio talk show says something along the lines of, "Now, you remember I said last week …" as if people keep charts in their homes of what Bill from Las Vegas said about the Lakers last week.

People are strange, and when a team goes south, it goes from faultless to hopeless in a zip, the bygone week bringing an excellent test case.

Even after a regular season sort of murky, the glamorous Lakers seemed pretty fine. Even after opening the play-offs with defeat at home to New Orleans Hornets, the Lakers seemed just swell as they rebounded to win the series by four games to two.

Even after opening the ensuing series with a defeat at home to the allegedly soft Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers still had the strong, savvy line-up that had hogged the 2009 and 2010 championships.

They still had Bryant, still a marvel at 32. They still had the big everyman Pau Gasol and the big he-man Andrew Bynum, the league's best sixth man Lamar Odom, et al.

Well, after losing the second game to the Mavericks this past Wednesday night, also at home, the Lakers clearly possessed very little quality. They could not play perimeter defence, leaving them so blatantly susceptible to dribble penetrations. They looked tired from three straight long springs of achievement.

They could not shoot anymore. Bryant looked weary and strangely benign. Bynum said the club had "trust issues", unleashing a mild national discussion over trust issues. Gasol said the club did not have trust issues but needed to rely on each other more, which might be construed as trust issues.

Most people get old over decades. The Lakers got old in one April. This kind of chatter, while extremist, does have its contribution. It does help stave off tedium in the world.

Then, on Friday night, with the series shifting to Dallas and its mouth-foaming fans, the Lakers grasped a seven-point lead with five minutes to play. Order had prevailed. Know-how had surged. The normally laconic coach Phil Jackson had poked Gasol in the chest in the first quarter, and shape had gelled.

Then everything started to look wrong. The Mavericks, long associated with play-off softness and disorientation, looked clear-headed while the Lakers, long associated with play-off acumen and keen interdependency, looked disoriented.

The Mavericks won the last five minutes by 20-7 and the game by 98-92.

The Lakers toppled into a 3-0 series chasm from which no NBA team has ever recovered.

Suddenly, they flailed at one of their trademarks: finishing. Shock abounded. Boy, that all went fast.

And the Mavericks? They supposedly attained fresh hardness through the first-year presence of Tyson Chandler, who apparently spoke to his new teammates about people saying they were soft.

To think: all they needed all along was to acquire one hard player who could speak to them about their image as soft, given they had never heard it before despite it being uttered enough to become a hardened theme.

In truth, the Lakers stood one closing possession in Game 1 and one abhorrent stretch in Game 3 from a 2-1 lead in the series, at which point everyone would have said they look off but will sort it out because they know how.

Instead, the closing season in the 11-title career of Jackson might stall two series before its daydreamed end and with his first-ever brunt of a 4-0 sweep. Weird.

Analyse all of that? OK, a try: so much talent is gushing into the league from everywhere that the difference between victory and defeat remains forever slim.

Reputations build off the outcome but not the narrowness of the outcome.

People, being busy and all, forget that the Lakers won a fleeting and atrocious eyesore of a Game 7 against Boston for the title last year. People remember just that they won. Minor fixes tilt favour.

Could a whole thing in sport hinge on something like one guy cajoling his teammates? Probably not, but at very least, the prospect could bring a laugh.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

Kobe Bryant: We're still going to win the series, s12