BOSTON – These NBA Finals had been framed as a coronation for Kobe Bryant, his time to climb onto a basketball Rushmore with Michael Jordan. This has been his MVP season, his chance to make his parting with Shaq, Eagle, Colo., and his summer temper tantrum fade out of focus. These Celtics were discussed as merely props as Bryant starred in his June mini-series: The Story of Me.
On the way to Phil Jackson passing Red Auerbach, on the way to Bryant’s false proclamations that his obsession isn’t chasing Jordan’s genius, the oddest thing has happened: So far, these Finals belong to Paul Pierce and the Celtics. So far, the Lakers have balanced arrogance and atrophy, sarcasm and softness. The Lakers lost 108-102 to the Celtics in Game 2, and a final, furious run to make the score respectable did little to disguise Jackson and Bryant’s dereliction of duties.
Bryant calls him a friend, but Pierce has been something the Lakers star never imagined in these Finals: A peer. Pierce has played smarter, sharper and with far more composure. Bryant found himself suckered into foolish fouls and forced shots. He stopped running the triangle offense in the third quarter, degenerating into the old Kobe desperate to answer opponent’s baskets with something spectacular of his own.
Bryant was too busy obliterating the Lakers’ offensive system, too busy bitching over calls, to run these Lakers. When he’s losing his mind on the floor, he’s useless as a leader. These Lakers are still too young, too impressionable. He cursed out teammates in the huddles (“Eddie Murphy ‘Raw’ times 10,” he said) and officials (“We just had to make a stand. …Guys were getting hit going to the basket and not always getting called.”)
Bryant couldn’t run back on defense without barking at officials Dan Crawford and Bob Delaney. Once, he was so vociferous with Crawford late in the third quarter, Allen beat him down the floor for a corner three-pointer on the way to trailing by an unthinkable 22 points to start the fourth quarter.
There was little economical about Bryant’s 30 points on 23 shots, little to counter the fact that, so far, these Finals belong to Paul Pierce. He has shown so much game, so much toughness. When the Celtics struggled to close out the game, it was still him getting to the rim, getting fouled and making the two free throws with 22.8 seconds that never let the Lakers get the ball back with a chance to get even in Game 2. It was a hollow run, too little, too late.
For the Celtics, this was a monumental victory. In the 2-3-2 format, Game 2 has the implications of the traditional Game 5. This was the victory that almost assures that Boston will return for Game 6 with a 3-2 series advantage, with two chances in the Garden to hang a 17th championship banner. Privately, the Celtics refuse to believe they could lose three times at the Staples Center, insisting that they just defend too well to let that happen.
For now, the Lakers are a flustered franchise. For a week, they listened to the world ask them not if they would beat the Celtics, but how many games would it take them. Phil Jackson can groan over the fact that 26 of the 30 free throws taken three quarters into the game had been by the Celtics, but so much of that was the doggedness of Boston usurping his passive players.
Four years ago, Jackson had an old, broken-down team in the Finals against Detroit. This time, he has no excuses. The Celtics have played harder and tougher and far, far more together. Everyone has talked about the closeness of these Lakers, but that’s something of an illusion that Kobe creates when he’s winning. He’s his own self-contained entity and that’ll never change.
Of course, Bryant will likely be his dominant self in Game 3 on Tuesday, with a lot of trips to the free-throw line, with a lot of curtain calls at Staples Center. Odom will likely be reborn at home, and the Lakers’ young players, dreadful in Boston, will almost assuredly be transformed. Game 3 promises to be a most difficult proposition for the Celtics.
This is going to be a six-, perhaps seven-game, series, but so much of the reason Boston has gained control is born out of Lakers’ arrogance. How much more do they want to make fun of Pierce’s Game 1 injury, tease him, and then watch how he emasculates them come game time?
Jackson hasn’t stopped laughing at Pierce, cracking wise on a wheelchair that a trainer thrust upon the Celtics star after hurting his knee in Game 1. Pierce had 28 points and eight assists. He has done a fabulous job defending Bryant, and made every clutch shot these Celtics have asked of him. Even so, Jackson was still going on and on about that wheelchair on Sunday, insisting that it had been a source of comedy in his coach’s meetings.
“I really don’t know what they said,” Pierce insisted.
Of course, he knows. They all do. Only, these Celtics are so much more mature, so much fiercer on the defensive end, that most of us misjudged their ability to take the Lakers, to make Kobe uncomfortable in these Finals. From the moment Boston brought Garnett and Allen to town, they’ve been overwhelming favorites. They won 66 games and earned home-court advantage, but a sluggish run through the Eastern Conference playoffs turned them into overwhelming underdogs in these Finals.
In some ways, it liberated the Celtics to stop thinking so much, and just let loose in this series. Just play.
As Jackson should be discovering, his playful pokes are always funnier when he’s winning. Right now, the Lakers are losing, and losing badly. They’re 0-4 on the season to the Celtics. Kobe Bryant isn’t returning to Los Angeles for the red-carpet treatment on the way to his fourth title, but an acid test.
Long before Bryant ever descended on Los Angeles, Pierce called its mean streets of Inglewood, in the shadow of the Fabulous Forum, his home. “This means everything,” Pierce said. “It’s a dream for me to go home and play in a place where I grew up, against a team I grew up with, with an opportunity to win an NBA championship.
“Couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
These Finals had started out to be Kobe Bryant’s L.A. Story, but no more. All the laughs, all the jokes and still these NBA Finals belong to Paul Pierce. Kobe Bryant is the greatest player on the planet. He just hasn’t been the best player in this series. He can feel free to go after the officials, go after his teammates, but it doesn’t change the truth that these Finals don’t belong to him yet, that something strange has happened on the way to his coronation.