Even as a Celtics fan I was shocked and disappointed with how the Lakers were swept out of the NBA playoffs yesterday in Phil Jackson’s final coaching performance (ostensibly) in the NBA. The 36-point wipeout by the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals game 4 was historic in its size. But it wasn’t simply the score. It was how the Lakers reacted.
First of all, they didn’t even show up for the game mentally. You don’t lose by 36 and say you tried. But beyond that, it was how Andrew Bynum stripped off his Lakers # 17 jersey after being thrown out of the game for his cheap-shot elbow to Dallas Mavericks guard Juan Barea. The incident was so ugly, so petulant, and stood in such stark relief to the character and tradition of the Lakers franchise that I had to remind myself this wasn’t the 1989-`90 Detroit Pistons I was watching.
At least with the `89-90 Pistons you had Bash Brothers Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman manufacturing an identity and championships via thuggery and physical intimidation. This was the Los Angeles Lakers, a team rooted in class and style coming apart at the seams on international television.
There are not that many franchises in professional sports where simply putting on the uniform gives you chills. The Lakers are one such franchise. And throughout their long history, style and class has always attended them, in both victory and loss. Can’t say the same for the Celtics. But that’s okay. A certain east coast swagger identified them during the Red Auerbach years of the 1950s and `60s. And Larry Bird gave off a dismissive air to his opponents, too. But going back to the Jerry West and Elgin Baylor Lakers, then through the Gail Goodrich and Norm Nixon years and onto the glory of the Showtime era with Magic and Worthy and Kareem, the Lakers represented a certain class of character that Kobe Bryant eventually came to as he matured, as well – especially with the arrival of the Zen master Phil Jackson at the turn of the century.
But yesterday’s embarrassment was of a different order altogether. It was one thing when Ron Artest cheap-shotted Barea in Game two earning his own one game suspension. Ron is on meds, and realizes he has impulse control issues. But with Bynum there was no such excuse. It was plain poor sportsmanship and immaturity, and unfortunately, the sign of a coach who had lost control of his team. Say what else you want about the Lakers, being a bunch of poor losers is not a trait they had ever displayed before.
When did all this happen? Was it the burden of going of yet another three-peat? Was it the 17-1 hot streak after the All-Star break? Did they just peak too soon? Is it simply the modern game which has become a league of players with individual stats rather than a league of teams? What don’t we know now that we will eventually? People all have the same head-scratching reaction, because with both Artest and Bynum the muggings of Barea were perpetrated by pissed off people. Pissed off at what? Something more than the score alone it would seem.
And what happened to Pau Gasol? Here he is steady as a rock for three years, then all of a sudden he falls off the cliff? He wasn’t in the series emotionally at all. Again, what don’t we know that we will soon? Anything Kardashian involved?
All in all, a most dissatisfying end to this version of the Lakers dynasty, and to the career of arguably the greatest basketball coach to ever hold a clipboard.