— He is tall and pale and lanky, with a shaggy beard and longish hair. His face is amiable, like that of a greeter at a five-star European hotel. His English is nearly impeccable. He can discuss politics or opera or soccer with equal aplomb. No, he is not The Most Interesting Man in the World, but he is the second most-important man in the Lakers’ lineup.
Kobe Bryant is The Black Mamba. When he nails an assassin bucket, he grits his teeth as if tearing through carrion on the open plains. He can end absurd debates about which player is the world’s best with one stroke of his shooting hand at a spine-tingling moment. He personified the term “top kill” before it became fashionable in another unfortunate context — only his version succeeds, sealing off opponents for good.
Bryant is clearly the superstar of the moment as the Lakers get ready to draw blood against the Boston Celtics with Game 1 of the NBA finals on Thursday night at Staples Center. But while most eyes will be on Kobe, it will be Pau Gasol and the rest of the Lakers who will likely make the difference between euphoria and anguish.
As most hoop addicts will remember, the Lakers had Gasol in the fold in 2008 and it didn’t do much good. The Celtics hammered the Lakers by 39 points in Game 6 of those NBA finals in Boston, and then their fans rocked the Lakers’ team bus and called them nasty names. That game joined the Boston Massacre of 1770, the Boston Strangler’s reign of terror in the 1960s, the Whitey Bulger crime spree of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the Bucky Dent home run in the 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox on the list of the most unfriendly acts in that town’s history.
But that Lakers team was not ready to win a championship. Gasol had just been acquired at midseason, and the Lakers were unexpected contestants in the finals against a Celtics team that had been assembled the previous summer by the acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and had time to coexist together.
Since that learning experience, Gasol is a different player. He has heard for two years how he was a soft European playing against green-clad ultimate fighting champions in that series, and he has grown stronger every day.
Today he is the best big man in the game. There are others who have more outward strength and athleticism, but who in the NBA has been more consistent and more reliable in the paint than Gasol this entire season? He has stood up to meaner-looking foes and slayed them, although he does so more with a deft shooting touch, fantastic footwork and a quiet determination than he does with chest-bumping bravado.
With Gasol as a world-class sidekick to Kobe, the Lakers have the best one-two punch in the game. Kobe can fire away from the perimeter. Gasol can snake his way in for baskets near the rim. And they combine talents with the occasional penetration from Kobe and nimble dish-off to Pau.
Gasol is only the most prominent member of Kobe’s supporting cast. If it were only those two taking on the Celtics, the city of Boston would be justified in making parade plans now.
The Lakers have Derek Fisher, and before you scoff at the 35-year-old veteran’s ability to be a difference-maker against younger bucks, keep in mind that this is his time. He has been outstanding in these playoffs both offensively and defensively, and when the finals arrive he is the second-most mentally tough player on his team.
In addition, there is Mr. Wild Card himself, Lamar Odom. Rather than bemoan the fact that Odom can sometimes be a complete nonentity, the better perspective would be to acknowledge the potency of the Kobe-Pau-Fish triumvirate, and then enjoy the icing if Odom happens to show up with one of his gems. He had double-doubles in the final two games against Phoenix, and when his confidence is high and he’s smelling pay dirt he tends to be more focused and effective.
Two other notable Kobe assistants could make a significant difference in the outcome. The first is Ron Artest, who was basically swapped out over the summer for Trevor Ariza. Artest is a lot like Odom — no surprise, since they are boyhood friends — in that their confidence is not a rock, but nor is it a piece of fine china. Rather it’s like a Rubik’s Cube. It can often be baffling.
But Artest made a huge leap when he scored that putback to win Game 5 at Staples Center against the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals. That was the type of heroic moment that said to Artest, “I’ve arrived.” He’s a veteran. He has hit big shots before. But never that big. When Artest is feeling it, he’s a danger to others, and I mean that only in a constructive basketball sense.
Andrew Bynum’s ailing knee has prevented him from moving in the paint like he can. On a good day, he makes the Lakers longer and more capable of fending off the Boston big men while swatting away or dissuading shots from Rajon Rondo. On a bad day, he’ll get into foul trouble almost immediately and spend most of the game on the pine. Kobe and the Lakers are obviously praying for more good days than bad.
There are bit players on the L.A. roster who could step into the spotlight and make their marks with a key shot, rebound, steal or hustle play. They include Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton. Each of those players has contributed at critical times, but whether they’ll do so against the hated Celtics in these high-profile finals is anyone’s guess.
What Kobe is looking at this time — which was not in view in 2008, when the Lakers lost to Boston, and not really even completely there last year when they defeated an upstart Orlando squad for the title — is a well-rounded group with talent and experience that is also harboring a grudge.
When you’re Kobe Bryant and you’re bent on revenge, it’s always good to have backup.