Bryant in a must-win situation
LOS ANGELES — It’s all about Kobe.
We’ve had a lot of fun reliving the glory days of Wilt and Russell, Elgin and Hondo, Larry and Magic, and even KG and Pau Gasol from two years ago. We’ve hammered the themes of the uber-rivalry, LA’s redemption, and Ubuntu Redux.
In succession, we’ve seen the Celtics expose and demolish Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Now it’s all about Kobe Bryant. Do not forget this.
The Celtics and Lakers tap off in Game 1 tonight, and it’s impossible to understate the Kobe factor. Bryant won’t admit it, but he is on a mission to solidify his legacy by winning a championship against the hated Celtics. He has won with Shaq and without Shaq. He has beaten the Indiana Pacers, the Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey Nets, and the Orlando Magic in the Finals. But he’s never beaten Boston.
You can’t be the best player in the world if you lose two championship series to the Celtics. You can’t be the greatest Laker of all time if Magic can say he beat the Celtics twice in the Finals and you never beat them.
Kobe has had one shot at beating Boston, and he remains haunted by 2008, when he shot only 40 percent in the six-game loss to the Green. He made only 7 of 22 shots in the humiliating clincher and walked off the court in silent fury after the 39-point drubbing. Now he is back and he is a man on a mission.
Bryant scored 37 points when Los Angeles won the Western Conference finals at Phoenix in Game 6 Saturday night. In the fourth quarter, he made several shots while wearing a couple of defenders.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is one of the great playoff performances,’’ said Zen Master Phil Jackson, who witnessed a few great individual playoff performances when he coached Michael Jordan. Bryant is playing with the eyes of Dexter.
In the seconds after he destroyed the Suns Saturday, Bryant was asked what he was going to do about teammate Sasha Vujacic’s foolish flagrant foul, which almost put the Suns back in the game.
“I was going to kill him,’’ Bryant said, not cracking a smile.
No, really, asked TNT’s Craig Sager, what are you guys going to do about it?
“I’m still going to kill him,’’ Bryant said again, adding, “I’m just kidding, of course.’’
When reporters revisited the topic Sunday, Bryant said, “He’s still breathing.’’
Kobe has been short with his answers since it became clear the Lakers were going to play Boston. He won’t give anyone the satisfaction of hearing that he’s still smarting from ’08.
“They challenged us in the Finals a couple of years ago,’’ he said. “Now this is a test to see how much we’ve grown.’’
Challenged? That’s an interesting characterization. The Celtics embarrassed the Lakers in ’08. They embarrassed Bryant. Paul Pierce was named MVP of the series, then went around telling everyone that he, not Kobe Bryant, was the best player in the world.
“I didn’t give a damn who we played, didn’t matter to me,’’ Bryant insisted Saturday night.
Baloney. This is Bryant’s Bill Belichick imitation — pretend that beating the Jets is no different than beating the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Kobe wore his obtuse face again yesterday. He was asked about the history of the matchup with the Celtics and said, “I only think about this one matchup. The happy times of Magic winning against Boston or the sad times of Jerry West losing to them has no impact on me whatsoever. I have a series to play. I have a series to win. I’ll just focus on that.’’
The reporter tried again with, “Is this a special matchup in your mind, though?’’
Just another Finals, in other words. No different than playing the Nets or Magic.
Not true. Kobe Bryant has won four NBA championships. He has logged 44,000 NBA minutes and played more than 1,200 games. He is the son of Joe “Jellybean’’ Bryant, who played eight years in the NBA. He is a smart man with a sense of his place in hardwood history. He measures himself against the ghost of Jordan and the emergence of LeBron.
It can’t be any fun to see LeBron win back-to-back MVPs when you think you are still the best player in basketball. And it can’t be any fun going into retirement hearing, “He could never beat the Celtics in the Finals.’’
Take the rest of the story lines and put them in your back pocket. Starting tonight, it’s all about Kobe.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.