With their lockdown defense on Kobe Bryant during the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics made a few things particularly clear.
Bryant is not Michael Jordan. This generation of Lakers isn't close to being Showtime ready. And the Wild, Wild West was just a bit overrated this season.
Sure, Bryant is reminiscent of Jordan. No one in the league has come closer to replicating Jordan's moves, and Bryant even has some talents Jordan never had. But is he the long-awaited second coming? Not even close. There likely won't be a second coming. So stop looking.
Bryant entered the finals averaging 31.9 points a game in the playoffs and heads into the offseason having scored 25.7 points on 40.5 percent shooting against Boston.
The Celtics dictated to Bryant how he would play, scaring him away from drives to the basket and forcing him into rushed or off-balance perimeter shots. And with the lane crowded to keep him at bay, one man guarding him and the next closest opponent floating in his direction, the league MVP got rattled and suffered an identity crisis.
Instead of accepting the challenge and forcing the issue, going right at the Celtics to create trips to the foul line, Bryant settled for being a facilitator. Instead of putting his team on his back, he tossed the ball to Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom in clutch situations.
But the problem was Gasol, Odom and the rest of the Lakers provided about as much support as a 10-year-old nursing bra. They lacked the physicality and mental toughness to match the Celtics, so the Lakers at times looked like they played a game of hot potato.
You take it.
No, you take it.
No, no, no. YOU take it.
Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson: "I think one of the things they did is they really focused on him and made sure that he wasn't going to be the guy that hurt them, and we didn't have guys step up in this instance tonight."
During the finals, Bryant said he was at an "unfair advantage" because Boston assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, whom Bryant said had tutored him in basketball since age 14, devised the Celtics' defensive schemes.
He also said racking up points was no longer his job.
"The important thing for me is to push the buttons at the right time," Bryant said following Sunday's Game 5. "The key is setting the tone if we're going through a drought ... to make the correct play and generate energy for our ballclub. That's really become my role now more so than in the past where it was 35, 40 points."
Would Jordan have backed off and turned into a facilitator or made excuses? No way. He would have attacked, attacked and attacked some more until he got his way.
And it's not like Kobe's crew comes even close to rivaling Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman and the rest of the Jordanaires.
But based on how they had played in the first three rounds of the postseason, Kobe believed that's what he had.
The Lakers' soft path to the finals gave Bryant a false sense of security and trust.
The Denver Nuggets, who fell 4-0 in the opening round, barely made it into the playoffs. The Utah Jazz? Still young and missing a piece or two. The San Antonio Spurs? Aging and too banged up to maintain a steady offensive output.
Denver, Utah and San Antonio didn't play with the physicality of the Celtics. And so when bumped, shoved, elbowed and swarmed by the Celtics, the Lakers cowered.
Bryant said he doesn't think the Lakers need to make any drastic changes this offseason. Perhaps, but the Lakers - including Bryant - need an attitude adjustment. Toughness and aggression are missing.
If Kobe is indeed a tone-setter, he needs to develop more of a killer instinct - like Jordan - on both ends of the floor and teach his running mates to adopt the same.
By Mark Mix
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