The Los Angeles Lakers once again find themselves in an unexpected dogfight as they take on the New Orleans Hornets tonight in Game 5 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs tonight. It seems like half the world expected this series to be put to sleep already, and the other half expected tonight's game to be the proverbial bedtime story before light's out. With the series tied at two games a piece, we remain caught in that limbo period after dinner, in which the child and parent are in a battle of wills over the timing of that final good night.
If that sounds condescending towards the New Orleans Hornets and their chances in this series, that's because it is intended to. I don't enjoy dismissing a team as feisty as New Orleans, or overlooking a player as profound as Chris Paul, but there is a saying: Madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By that definition, expecting the Lakers to end up victorious in this playoff series is the very definition of sanity. Four times in the past two years, the Lakers have lost home court advantage in a playoff series with a loss in games one or two. Four times, they have regained said advantage at the earliest possible opportunity with a Game 3 win. Four times, they have lost the next game. And four times, they have gone on to win the series. This will also be the sixth time the Lakers will have been tied 2-2 in a series. The five times Game 5 has taken place in Staples Center, the Lakers are 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 15 points.
This particular version of the story has taken on two wild cards. One is the rebirth of the version of Chris Paul that does things the NBA landscape has never seen before. Chris Paul is to the basketball mind what LeBron James is to the body, capable of feats not so much believed to be impossible before him, but instead not properly conceived before his arrival. Without his sidekick in David West, Paul has put his team on his back and carried them to two wins in four games against the defending champs, and his play alone makes it possible for his team to be victorious twice more.
But it is the other wild card that is the main subject of this preview, because his contribution to the intrigue of this series will, one way or another, brand him in legend previously thought to be fiction. Kobe Bryant seems committed to proving that there is a thin line between greatness and madness, and we have no idea which side of the line he's on.
Near the end of game 4, Kobe Bryant rolled his left ankle rather badly. Said ankle was already weakened by previous incidents, but in this particular incident, he rolled the ankle not to the side, as is the norm, but forward, over his toes. I have personal experience with that particular type of sprain, and it sidelined me for six months. I am not Kobe Bryant; I don't have his training staff or his dedication, but the concept of playing on that injury mere days after incurring it seems foreign to me. And yet, that Kobe remains poised to play on the injury is not a surprise. Even in the regular season, Bryant plays through injuries that would sideline anyone else in the league. Envisioning an injury that would keep him out of a playoff game is as inventive as it is sadistic.
But Kobe has added a new weapon in his arsenal of tricks used to ignore the cries of his body. Last night, Lakers Nation waited patiently for news of diagnostic tests regarding the severity of Kobe's ligament damage (Quick Non-Sequitur: How telling is it that we all waited on pins and needles for the results of Andrew Bynum's MRI, and yet Kobe Bryant's injury was handled by Lakers Nation with far more resolve and control?). Finally the word came down the Twitter pipeline. Were the results of the test positive for some kind of stress fracture, as was spreading around the internets? Were the results negative, showing no indication of any damage worse than the sprain we already knew of? Neither. The results of Kobe's diagnostic test were non-existent. He refused to take any.
I've been around the game of basketball for a long time, long enough to know that X-rays and MRIs rarely come back positive unless a positive result is expected. If something's broke, which is what these tests can determine, a team's medical staff will know it before the tests tell them 90% of the time. Same goes for if something isn't broke. It is likely that Kobe's test was nothing more than a precaution. Still, who in the hell just says "No, Thanks" when faced with the choice of being certain about one's health or not. As a professional athlete, Kobe Bryant is entering uncharted waters here, especially when that knowledge will go a long way towards determining how well he will be able to play, and how much risk he undertakes by ignoring the pain.
How should we respond to Kobe's wanton disregard for cautionary medicine? On the one hand, what he is doing is incredibly bad-ass. Kobe's opinion on the matter is likely something along the lines of "It doesn't matter what it is, I'm still going to play, so what's the point." His willingness to play through pain is already legendary, so perhaps this is just the next evolutionary step. He is going to ignore the injury no matter what, so how important is actually knowing what it is that he is ignoring? It also makes Kobe Bryant the closest thing possible to a real-life Jedi. He's pulling the old Jedi mind trick, except instead of tricking oblivious stormtroopers, he's attempting to pull it off on his own nervous system. With a wave of his hand and the air of authority, he's telling his ankle "These aren't the limitations you're looking for".
On the other hand, this could just as easily be seen as delusion instead of machismo. Who cares what relatively little risk is involved? Why risk it at all? What if Kobe actually has some major injury, and risks doing permanent and severe damage to himself by playing with it? Even if Kobe is willing to play with that risk, shouldn't he at least be knowledgeable about it so that he doesn't take unnecessary chances? Willingness to play through pain is one thing, but this is downright Quixotic. He's treating his injury like it's some kind of enchantment that must be defeated, instead of the normal behavior of ligaments which were made to do something they can't normally do.
Aside from the question of whether Chris Paul can really win a playoff series on his own, and whether Kobe really can pull off a mind over matter stunt that normal human beings wouldn't even attempt, the balance of tonight's game rests solely in the short history of this current Lakers team. They've been in this situation so many times before, and every time the response has been consistent and thorough. If the entire team comes out with the type of focus and resolve that we've seen so many times before, it probably doesn't matter what Chris Paul can put together. The Los Angeles Lakers are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the more talented and able team in this playoff series. Even if Kobe Bryant is limited, even if Kobe missed the game entirely, the Lakers have more than enough power under the hood to get the job done. But, in order to ensure success, they do need to utilize that power in a way we haven't seen from them in quite some time. The risk, as it always has been, is that it only takes one piece of the engine not working properly to bring the whole thing to a screeching halt. One of the Lakers' finest qualities over the past few seasons has been the confidence and ability to make that engine fire when they need it. One of their biggest weaknesses has been their dependence on it. Will they finally be made to pay for this dangerous and unnecessary cycle of theirs? Anything's possible ... but no, probably not.
Which leaves us to enjoy the mysteries of Chris Paul and the spectacle of Kobe Bryant. CP3's performances in this series have landed him a place in the record books. Now Kobe seems intent on forcing his way into a different kind of written word altogether. Will Kobe's mind triumph over his limbs, or will his hubris be proven as madness? Kobe Bryant is either a real life Obi Wan Kenobi or a modern day Don Quixote. The difference between the two is smaller than you think.