One way or another, this season's coming to an end soon. By this time tomorrow, we'll know whether the Lakers survived to play a Game Seven. By this time Friday, if not far sooner, we'll know whether their NBA title was successfully defended. I'd love to tell everyone that win or lose, they should enjoy these final moments. Basketball will be out of our lives shortly, and we're lucky to be fans of a team that has played into mid-June. For all the angst and frustration these Finals have visited on Lakerdom, there isn't a team in this or any other sport I'd rather follow or root for.
But let's not kid ourselves. How we remember this season depends hugely on what goes down tonight and, if things break our way, Thursday. This Lakers team was built to win a championship now. It has the highest payroll in the league. It features Kobe Bryant, a hoops immortal, at the height of his powers. Pau Gasol has the talent of an All-World baller and the lavish salary to match. Andrew Bynum is a skilled and burly seven-footer that any team would love to have. So loaded is the roster that Lamar Odom and Ron Artest, who would be featured offensive options on any number of squads, are role players. When you step back and take it all in, it really is an astonishing pile of talent. And that's before you even get to the coach, he of the 10 rings and 12 milly in annual compensayshe.
Why is why anything short of a repeat championship will be difficult to stomach.
If the Lakers lose tonight, you'll have a right to be disappointed. Angry, even. You and I, as longtime fans of the team, are invested in the franchise, emotionally and financially. Consider: in discussions of player salaries, someone occasionally will chime in with a facilely dismissive "Oh well, it's not like it's our money" remark. The thing is, it actually is our money. Jerry Buss doesn't have a special dispensation from the U.S. Treasury Department to print his own currency. The players' salaries, Phil's salary, the leftover cashishe that underwrites Dr. Buss's trips to Italy... it's all extracted from the pockets of TV networks, advertisers and the paying fan, the lot of us included. You paid for this team, with cash monies and your willingness to sit through crap commercials on Fox Sports West in the middle of January. This gives you the right to demand a championship-caliber performance tonight.
You don't need me to tell you that it won't be easy. This will be the 104th game played by the Lakers this season. Any way you slice it, that's a Long March to warm the cockles of Mao's undead heart. Fatigue will tax muscles and minds. Defenders will clutch when otherwise, with a bit more gas in the tank, feet might have slid. Jump shots will line-drive their way to the front of the rim.
Beyond that, there are few certainties. Each game in this series has been radically different from the one before. Momentum is an illusion. If the Celtics play to their ceiling, they're good enough to end the Lakers' season tonight. If the Lakers play to their ceiling, nothing the Celtics do will matter.
Kobe, for one, will be focused and pugnacious. That much is known. If his campaign for a fifth ring goes up in a column of smoke, it won't be because Kobe overdeferred to his teammates. Not with the atrocious way they acquitted themselves in Boston. With a season teetering on a knife's edge, Kobe's supporting cast has forfeit its right demand touches other than at the Mamba's discretion. He might choose to begin the game in distribution mode, but the moment the offense starts to sputter, he'll find his own shot or die trying. And if the game is close at the end, and the Lakers need a score on one possession? What are the odds Kobe doesn't take the shot? My sources in the math world tell me there's a 10% chance he passes off to Fish and a negative 800% chance he passes to anyone else.
His teammates, for the most part, simply need to decide whether they're equal to this moment. Not one of them deserves to feel satisfied with how he's played so far. Gasol was humbled in Boston. Bynum, though owed massive credit for soldiering on through injury, knows he can do better than his unproductive Game Five. Odom and Artest are simultaneously bewildered and bewildering. Derek Fisher's heroics haven't come often enough.
Will some two or three of them make a stand with Kobe tonight? Iunno. It seems a fool's errand even to hazard a guess. If they no-show like they did in Game Five, the 2010 offseason will begin in a matter of hours.
What would showing up look like for the supporting cast? How about Fish chasing Ray Allen through screens and selling the occasional moving-pick violation. How about Gasol refusing to get pushed around and aside by Kevin Garnett. How about Lamar securing a dozen or more rebounds. How about Jordan Farmar not letting Nate Robinson embarrass him when the two are on the floor in the second quarter. How about Drew taking sole ownership of the rim and its immediate environs.
And then there's the Staples Center crowd. It's been a disaster at times in these playoffs, although it was decent in the first two games of the Finals. Tonight it needs to be better than decent. Home-court advantage has to mean something again. In my book, anyone who attends tonight's game but doesn't make their voices heard loudly and often shares culpability if the Lakers lose.
If you're reading this, you know what you need to know about tonight's game. You know the cast of characters and how they match up with each other. You know the plays the two teams run. You know who they want to have shooting and who not. You know the next few days could be some of the best ever in your lifetime of sports fandom, or some of the worst. You know everything.
And yet, you know nothing. All of us combined know nothing. Because we don't yet know what any of this means, what the payoff will be from the months we've put in following this team. We haven't yet been told the return on our investment. It's irksome that so much turns on events we have no control over, but for better and worse, that's what each of us signed up for when we decided to be Laker fans.
I'm ready. Let's go.
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