Monday, June 14, 2010

Kobe, Schmobe

There's no rhyme or reason why as to why some sports teams seem to, historically, have the upper hand over others.

Perhaps some of it is history. When the Red Sox play the Yankees, they're not just playing the 25 guys on the field. They're playing ghosts. They're playing all those Yankee teams that were just a bit better, and just a bit luckier, than their teams were in the years when they were both competitive with each other.

Sooner or later, that history takes on a life of its own. And that's why the Red Sox victory in 2004 meant so much. They stuck a knife into the belly of the beast.

But if there's a team out there that has more of a reason to fear the ghosts of past futility, it's the Los Angeles Lakers when they play the Boston Celtics.

Yes, the Lakers successful slayed that dragon back in 1985 when they beat the Celtics -- at the Boston Garden, no less -- to win the NBA championship. By then the Lakers were certainly players. They'd won several championships. They had a team for the ages.

But even with that team for the ages, they'd choked away the championship a year earlier ... to the Celtics.

But, you know, history repeats itself. The old tapes don't stop playing, even if, once in a while, the victims take a big bite out of the tormentors' asses. The Yankees will always be the Red Sox Grapes of Tantalus. And even though L.A. has defeated the Celtics, twice, now, in the NBA finals, Boston still manages to get inside the heads of the Lakers.

And the Celtics are doing it again. No way should the Celtics be up, 3-2, in games to this team. Yet here we are. The Celtics can win their 18th NBA title -- and certainly their second-most unlikely one (1969 will always be No. 1 in that regard) ever -- with a win Tuesday at the Staples Center.

They'd better. A loss would force a seventh game, and I don't think they'd have much of a chance if that happens. But you know what? I didn't think they'd get out of the first round either. So what do I know?

At the beginning of the series, someone asked the Lakers' Kobe Bryant about the Celtics' legacy and he dismissed it with haughty scorn. As someone who has seen the other side of this phenomenon with the Red Sox, I could have told Kobe that was the wrong approach. You don't pretend the dragon is a figment of everyone's imagination. You go up there and spit in his eye.

That's what the Red Sox did in 2004. They embraced it. They wanted it. I swear, they'd have somehow felt it wasn't a legitimate title if they'd gone through anyone else but the Yankees. I understand what Pedro Martinez said a few years earlier about the "Curse of the Bambino." He didn't believe in them.

"Wake up the Bambino and I'll drill him in the ass," he said.

Kobe put up 38 Sunday night and the Lakers still lost. Why? Because Kobe's teammates got too wrapped up in watching Kobe play while four Celtics were scoring in double figures (Paul Pierce leading the way with 27).

The Celtics generally win games when the superstar goes off on a tear and everyone else stands around and watches. I say "generally" because, once in a while, the superstar is so good it doesn't matter what the rest of the team does. Dwayne Wade scored over 40 in the one game the Miami Heat won in their five-game first-round series. And LeBron James went absolutely nuts in Game 3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers series -- and that was too much for the Celtics to overcome and they got blown out.

Most of the time, though, the Celtics take a pragmatic view of superstars being super. They do their best with them, but make double-damn sure that no one else heats up. In fact, I'm going to say the Celtics wanted Kobe to go off on a tear. They'll take him scoring 38 points while pests like Derek Fisher stand around and watch.

The only reason the Celtics haven't won this series already is Fisher, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3, ruining a tingling Celtics comeback in the process. A line score last night -- where Kobe puts up 38 and only one other Laker (Pau Gasol) hits double figures ... that would have been Red Auerbach's wildest dream. That was basically his blueprint for success every time the Celtics played (and beat) the Lakers in his long and distinguished tenure with the team. Let Wilt Chamberlain score his 60 points. As long as nobody else did anything comparable, it takes more than 60 points to win a basketball game.

Only once, in my memory, did that not quite work out. That was in 1974. The Celtics were playing the Milwaukee Bucks for the NBA title, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was absolutely tearing it up.

The Celtics caught a break in that series because Lucius Allen, Milwaukee's all-star guard, was injured and Oscar Robertson (who is one of the greatest players ever), who was definitely on the downside of his career, had to bring the ball up.

The Celtics pressed Robertson, who, by then, just wasn't up to it. And that's how they figured they'd win the series. Press The Big O, let Kareem have his points, and shut down the other no-names that comprised the rest of the Bucks roster.

The only problem? Abdul-Jabbar won three games all by himself. Literally. One of those wins game in overtime of Game 6, when he hit one of those sky-hooks with three seconds left, and Milwaukee pulled even and brought the series back to its court for Game 7.

This defined conventional Celtic wisdom, which stated that you force the superstar to achieve greatness on a nightly basis. It doesn't happen all the time. Even Larry Bird wasn't great every night.

But for three games, Abdul-Jabbar was great and then some. Between that Friday and the following Sunday, coach Tom Heinsohn changed things up. He had Dave Cowensn and Paul Silas double down on Kareem, with Silas fronting him (and mugging him worse than some back alley hood). The risk was leaving one of the other Bucks open for jumpers all game long. In this case, it was Cornell Warner.

It worked out well. The Celtics won Game 7 going away, and came back to Boston with title No. 12.

The series proved two things. First, sometimes it's just as good to be lucky as it is to be, well good. If Lucius Allen isn't hurt, the Celtics probably don't win that series.

Similarly, the Celtics seem to catch a break every time they play the Lakers in the finals these days. Two years ago, when they -- once again -- danced all over the Lakers (including a comeback from a 24-point third-quarter deficit in Game 4), center Andrew Bynum missed the series with a knee injury. This year, Bynum, once again, is hors de combat for large stretches of time with another balky knee.

Without Bynum in the paint keeping everyone honest, Glenn "Big Baby" Davis could do what he did in Game 4 ... and thus, Shrek and Donkey, basketball style, were born.

The second thing it proved is that conventional wisdom may win out in most cases, when when it's defied, someone has to be there to see it ... and adjust to it.

The Celtics can afford to use their conventional template for success as long as Kobe's putting up 38 and nobody else on the Lakers can match it. But if Kobe puts up another 38 in Game 6 Tuesday, and Gasol follows it up with 21, and Fisher chips in with, say, 13, the Celtics have a real problem. They've been fortunate these last two games because Bynum hasn't been himself, Lamar Odom is has disappeared, and Ron Artest can't put the ball in the ocean. If any of that changes, it'll be time for Plan B.

And I'd love to know what Plan B is. Because right now, the Celtics may be playing well, but their lead in this series has more to do with what L.A. is not doing.

Which brings us full circle. The ghosts are winning ... again. Old habits die hard. The Lakers are hard-wired to shrink in horror whenever they see Celtic green the same way the Red Sox break out in a rash when they see Yankee pinstripes and the Bruins still get sweaty palms when they see the Rouge, blanc et bleu of the Montreal Canadiens.

We just have to hope that between now and Tuesday, Kobe and the rest of the crew doesn't change their views that history is irrelevant. Of course it's relevant. The Celtics and the Lakers are proving that once again.

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