— An X-ray won’t reveal it. Neither will an MRI. You could get the faculty at Johns Hopkins, the staff at the Mayo Clinic and the cast of “Scrubs” together in one examination room and they’d come up with bupkis.
Of course, I’m talking about the mysterious “chip on the shoulder.” One minute it’s there, the next it’s gone. It’s nice to have, as long as you use it. If you have it and don’t use it, you might as well have it removed. Sometimes it appears to have been removed, but then it grows back.
It’s happened to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The chip not only seems to have returned, but it looks larger and more robust. And the timing couldn’t be better, because they can use it to help gain revenge on the Phoenix Suns, and perhaps even the Boston Celtics.
The Lakers host the Suns in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals Monday night. They have been haunted by the last two playoff meetings against Phoenix. In 2006, the Lakers blew a 3-1 first-round series lead and lost in seven to the Suns. In 2007, the Lakers again went out in the opening round against the Suns, this time in five games.
But here they are, back again, this time with the chip.
And this may seem premature, but like I always say, the man who is late to the prognostication party has to take out the garbage, or something like that. The Celtics were supposed to be serious underdogs against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals — until Sunday, when they reminded everybody that they know how to win games at this time of year and the Magic only sort of/kind of know how. Celtics 1, Magic 0.
That means it’s possible the Lakers could take vengeance against the Suns, and then do the same against the Celtics, thus accomplishing the rare revenge daily double feat reserved for only the truly vindictive.
But before we move forward with any such Corleone-esque plans, it’s important to look back and examine why the chip is there at all when just days or weeks ago it was completely undetectable.
Frankly, it’s still a riddle. The most likely explanation is the old saw about championship teams that know how to “flip the switch,” but I hesitate to use that and “chip on the shoulder” in the same column for fear that I will be dragged into metaphor court as a repeat offender.
Suffice to say something woke up the Lakers. It wasn’t the regular-season stretch run, because they went 4-7 over their final 11. That’s not waking up. That’s getting ready for bed.
It could have been the young turks from Oklahoma City giving the Lakers an unexpected tussle. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook & Co. may have forced them to become competitive earlier than the Lakers had planned. After all, a first-round series should be a saunter. The Lakers swept the Nuggets two years ago in the opening round, and beat Utah in five games last year.
Maybe the Lakers encountered something they weren’t expecting to see: a chip on Oklahoma City’s shoulder.
Or perhaps the Lakers look as if they have some swagger because they were healthy enough to display it. They have injuries too numerous to mention. In fact, Kobe Bryant alone has injuries too numerous to mention. Yet the Jazz was an undermanned second-round foe, without Mehmet Okur (ruptured Achilles’) and with a pale imitation of Andrei Kirilenko (strained calf). That is the ideal remedy for any team struggling with confidence or motivational problems: beat up on somebody weaker than you.
In that Utah sweep, the Lakers saw Kobe return to form. He averaged 32 points and shot 52 percent from the field. His effort, along with trusty sidekick Pau Gasol and the rest, enabled the Lakers to earn a full week of rest before tangling with the Suns.
And now comes the vengeance part.
Kobe didn’t like being humiliated by the Suns in 2006 and ’07. After the ’07 ouster, he established “Radio Free Kobe,” in which he took to the airwaves in a campaign designed to earn his release from his oppressive captors, namely Lakers’ management. Long story short, he quieted down, the team eventually acquired Gasol, Andrew Bynum improved, they went on to make the Finals but lose in ’08, then they won it all last year.
So many things have changed since then. You would think Kobe would let it go. But he has an old-school Sicilian streak. He settles scores, even when he’s happy. He wants to make the Suns pay. If all goes well, he’ll want to do the same to the Celtics. Think Charles Bronson in “Death Wish,” only without all the touchy-feely stuff.
Theoretically, all defending champions should have a chip on their shoulder. It comes with the territory. Arrogance comes to the victors like playoff shares.
But not everybody uses it. With the Lakers, it was unclear until recently. They should have been channeling Kobe as the Clan of the Black Mamba, an organization dedicated to liquidating the enemy. Instead, they often reflected the many moods of Lamar Odom — enigmatic, unsure, listless. Injuries were a factor. The burden of trying to repeat figured in. Still, they kept us guessing.
Yet now, as the Suns challenge their supremacy in the West, the chip is back. Is it real, or just a prosthetic? The former seems likelier, but with this team, you just never know.