Yesterday, like many of you, I watched part of the Lakers-Nuggets game. From start to near-the-finish, Denver led. They led 5-0 after the opening tip, led by 13 points during the First Quarter, led by 11 at half time, led by 7 points with 7:01 left. But, as we all know, the term led during the game is nowhere near the same as led at the end of the game. Because in sports, the beginning and middle are essential—but what’s most imperative and paramount is The End.
Take swimming. Many a backstroke swimmer has led Michael Phelps at the start only for the Olympic gold medalist to overtake in the end. The same with cycling. A few overeager pedalists sprint to the front when the starting gun is fired—only to evaporate towards the finish line.
Which brings me to Kobe. Is there any ballplayer who’s a better closer? Who, when the seconds are ticking and the enemy is bloodying you, stands up front, lifts his sword like King Arthur and bludgeons his way to victory?
Mr. Bryant scored 40 points. That’s a fascinating number. But the even more stupendous figure is this: Fifteen. Kobe scored 15 of L.A.’s final 23 points. Here’s another digit: 6. Kobe made six free throws in as many attempts in the game’s final 30 seconds. Because, with Kobe Bean Bryant, when the game is on the line, he “puts it on the line.”
The Nuggets on the free-throw line? Ha-ha-ha-ha. Yes, laughable. Was Shaq on their roster? They missed 12 of their 35 free throw attempts. That’s 34 percent missed free-throws! Can you believe that? Granted they made six of those one dozen misses, guess what the score would have been? Guess who should have won?
Would have. Should have. Now, because of the catastrophe, the word “steal,” which Denver was hoping they’d shout at the end of Game 1, has changed, in Lakers parlance, to “The Great Escape” and “Whew, that was close.”
Now, with that defeat, it has left a statistic that is severe and titanic for the City of Denver: they’ve lost 11 of the last 11 playoff games to The City Where Freddie Roach Resides. And, unless they win Game 2 this Friday (RP time), it will be one dozen straight playoff losses and will signify that we’re nearing The Heavyweight Championship of the World: Kobe vs. LeBron.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
I love rivalries. Don’t we all? There’s Tiger vs. Phil. There was Pete and Andre. Remember Ali and Frazier? Chris Evert and Martina? MJ versus Charles Barkley? (Ha-ha, that was a no-contest.) Remember Larry & Magic? Allan Caidic and Samboy Lim? The Yankees against the Red Sox? Alain Prost vs. Ayrton Senna? And, of course, next year’s spectacle: Pacman vs. Floyd, Jr.?
Back to No. 24 vs. No. 23: This will be mammoth and monumental. The reason? Although basketball involves five men playing five men, the sole focus on everyone’s eyes will be one man against another. Like Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, only this time, instead of clay-court or Wimbledon grass, it will be on the floors of the Staples Center and the Quicken Loans Arena.
Let’s focus on LeBron. Did you hear what Jerry West, basketball’s “Mr. Clutch,” said about LBJ? Plenty. Here are a few:
“He has a chance to be arguably the greatest player ever to play the game.
“Michael Jordan was the best defensive player in the league but he was also the best offensive player. It wasn’t a one-year fluke, he proved it over time.
“LeBron James will do the same type of things because he’s getting better. He’s a much more effective shooter. When’s he’s making his shots from the outside, you can’t play him.
“He’s just too big, too strong, too quick. And he has incredible body control. But more than that, he’s a great teammate. You can see his teammates love him.”
True. Can you find anyone who dislikes LeBron? Hardly. The only ones are those who adore Kobe Bean. And so, I repeat what I’ve said before: Thanks to Denver’s free throw fiasco and Kobe’s saving his team named after (the state’s nickname) “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” I can’t wait for MVP to face MVP.