Who imagined it could end this way, with two teammates ejected and the most dynamic and polarizing star of his era sitting passively on the bench?
Who figured that Kobe Bryant would hit fewer three-pointers in the clincher than J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stephenson, or Brian Cardinal?
Who thought that Phil Jackson’s coaching career could end with a reverse image of its first big triumph? His two-time defending champs showed as little class in defeat as Isiah Thomas’s Pistons had shown at the end of a different sweep twenty years earlier.
It isn’t just that the Dallas Mavericks ousted the Los Angeles Lakers in four second-round games. That’s embarrassing enough, particularly when the final game is decided by a thirty-six point margin.
No, what was remarkable was how the Lakers went down to defeat. They were outplayed, outshot, outhustled, outrebounded, outdefended and outcoached. They had no heart, no fire, no passion, no prayer.
Over the last eleven years, with Hall of Fame teammates and with supporting players, Kobe Bean Bryant proved himself a player of unique ferocity, able to take over a game or a series through the force of his withering will. He overcame all resistance, whether from opponents, teammates, or his own coach. He was the most dangerous man on the floor at all times, worthy of the “Black Mamba” nickname he gave himself.
Those days are gone.
He’ll be thirty-three in August. He’s been playing basketball at its most intense level since he was eighteen. He’s got more than 1300 league games on his ankles, knees, and back, with additional wear and tear added when he’s played internationally in the summers.
He passed Michael Jordan’s career games-played total in December, a number that includes MJ’s regrettable two-year stint with the Washington Wizards.
He topped thirty points three times in ten playoff games, a far cry from his thirty-point average over the last four playoff seasons.
The loss to Dallas was not Kobe’s fault, but he proved powerless to prevent it.
So did his coach.
In sixty-four previous playoff series, Phil Jackson’s teams had never lost the first three games, never mind the first four.
Dallas came at the Lakers on Sunday with a Groundhog Day offense: work the ball into the middle with a pass or penetration, kick the ball out to the wing, shoot a wide-open three-pointer. Jason Terry hit 6 of 7 from behind the arc in the first half, most of them without a Laker hand in his area code. Peja Stojakovic was 3 for 3 on three-pointers in the half, as Dallas rode its bench players to a 24-point halftime lead. The substitute threesome of Berea, Terry, and Stojakovic had outscored the entire Laker team, 40-39.
The L.A. rotation on defense was nonexistent. Whoever was occupying Pau Gasol’s body bore little resemblance to the big-game player who emerged in last year’s Finals. And the Zen Master on the sidelines had no answer.
The Mavs came out cold in the third quarter, and the Lakers had a chance to trim the lead to 17 when Ron Artest broke away for a dunk or layup and wound up somewhere in between. His finger-roll was rejected by the front rim, and he compounded matters by fouling Tyson Chandler on the rebound. A minute later the lead was 25, and the game and series were all but over.
Jackson tried to light a fire under Lamar Odom, who responded with a hard foul on Dirk Novitzki that got him a Flagrant 2 and a well-earned ejection with nine minutes left. Less than a minute later, J.J. Barea barreled down the lane for an easy basket, and Andrew Bynum smacked him in his exposed side with a solid elbow. Another Flagrant 2, this one called in a split-second, and Bynum was done for the day. Artest walked him off the court and down to the runway to the locker room.
When Ron Artest is your voice of reason, you know you’re in a meltdown.
There will be time to take the measure of this Mavericks team, to see if they have finally assembled the complimentary talents around Novitzki’s unstoppable step-back move and shooting touch, if Jason Kidd can continue to play like it’s 1999, if Jason Terry is the new Vinny Johnson, if David Stern will have the pleasure of presenting the championship trophy to Mark Cuban.
The Mavs move on. The Lakers, for the first time since 2007, do not. They lost their tempers, their composure, their mojo, their coach, and a piece of their reputation.
Dallas won a big series. Los Angeles may have lost a whole lot more.