- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES — This is not the end of the Lakers, only the beginning.

This is not to minimize their 3-1 deficit to the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

The 3-1 hole is historically the last rites of a team, and no exception is expected this time after the Lakers fell down on the job and left their famous plastic-surgery victims in a funk in Game 4.

That was Sylvester Stallone in the expensive seats, in case you were wondering who the vaguely familiar, Asian-looking fellow was. Perhaps it was undercover Rambo preparing to move among the Viet Cong.

Yet even a heavily armed Rambo cannot help the Lakers now.

The Lakers are down to cliches, zillion-to-one hopes and the NBA Draft later this month.

The Lakers could have used Andrew Bynum, the 20-year-old center who is sidelined after undergoing surgery on his left knee. He is what Pau Gasol is not, Gasol being a European and labeled soft out of habit on this side of the pond.

It is an American thing; Europeans are not expected to understand.

Some Americans do not understand either.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we were fortunate enough to get him in the trade,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before Game 4. “Perhaps he was not a center. He was more of a forward type of player. He wasn’t tough enough or powerful enough to be a center. But he’s constantly risen to the occasion in every series we’ve gone through this spring.”

The script before the Lakers was turned into a movie long ago. Gasol as the Cowardly Lion, Lamar Odom the Tin Man and Sasha Vujacic the Scarecrow, the first lacking courage, the second heart and the last brains.

The film reference is obligatory in the land of struggling actors and actresses who ask if you would like one cream or two with your coffee.

Their immediate prospects are in the company of the Lakers, sentenced to next season and a Game 5 about pride and bookkeeping.

Game 6, if necessary, seems like a waste of good jet fuel, all the more so with the global warming zealots preaching the gospel of rising oceans and the end before Malibu, Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach.

If it is about next season with the Lakers - and that is assuming there is a next season in earthquake-prone, wild-fire-cursed California - the Zen Men are adequately equipped. They will be buoyed by this journey, the return of Bynum and a restructuring that allows Gasol to play power forward and Odom to be less essential to the scoring column.

Age is on the side of the Lakers, with Kobe Bryant posing as the grizzled veteran who turns all of 30 in August. Odom and Luke Walton are 28, Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic 27, Vujacic 24 and Jordan Farmar 21. Derek Fisher, at 33, is the old man of the bunch, and useful still.

One human year is three or four NBA years, a better rate than dog years, but a reality that suggests the Celtics are a one-and-done operation, still competent but slipping by next season.

Even now, the Lakers are superior to the Celtics on paper, although paper is a far more flimsy product than the grit of a team that refused to blink before a 24-point deficit.

Paul Pierce embodies the pedestrian but effective nature of the Celtics, not the most talented bunch but committed to defense. That has been their driving force in the playoffs, and not to forget they needed seven games to eliminate both the Hawks and the Cavaliers.

To hear Celtics coach Doc Rivers tell it, defense was an easy sell.

“Right after that big press conference, we sat in the back and had a long talk, and the only thing I bought up was defense,” Rivers said. “It was great because Kevin Garnett was the guy standing up, saying he’s right. When you hear Paul say that Kevin has changed the culture of our team, that’s what he’s saying.”

The Celtics now need only one game to call the season a grand success, plus the time and place to celebrate their championship.

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