You can hold off on blowing up the Lakers. (For now, that is)

Oh, how close they came.

In the history of Laker collapses, this would have ranked right up there. One minute, Denver had a fork in ’em and the next thing you knew, the series had turned into a 7 game death match, simply because the Lakers don’t know any other way to get things done but the hard way. And trust me on this one, the list of potential scapegoats for LA would have been a mile long had they found a way to lose game 7, at home no less, to a team with no conceivable advantages other than effort and desire.

On paper, the Lakers still have enough talent in the right places to be playing for all the marbles. In reality, they were one more half-assed effort away from a summer of shame and what would likely have been major, sweeping changes to the roster and possibly the front office. Shit, they were about 10 minutes away after watching a 16 point third quarter lead disappear in a cloud of bad shots and Denver leak-outs.

Of course they prevailed in the end, thanks in part to a gargantuan effort on the offensive glass and some desperate defense, but don’t get it twisted: the most crucial element of their 4th quarter performance was Kobe Bryant’s decision-making in the high post. After six games of doing everything he could to make his team want it as much he did, after 156 shots and 187 points through those six games, it was Kobe who submitted to the concept of trusting his teammates to make plays despite having no reason to have any faith that they would.

Steve Blake, to the rescue.

 Finally, when it had to happen, Kobe took what the Nuggets gave him, and instead of trying to be the selfish, glory-hogging player so many perceive him to be, he took what he considered the most logical path to victory because really, that’s all that matters to him anymore. Now don’t get me wrong here, his desire to win is the same as it’s ever been. The difference now is the personal accomplishments are at last secondary to the primary goal. At the ripe old age of 33 (34 in august), being the hero just doesn’t hold the same appeal that it used to. For a guy with a championship-or-bust mentality, I doubt he cares much about how he gets it, so long that he does. As hard as Pau and Bynum fought in this game, they were still a combined 13-34 from the field, and the only guy who was really shooting well was Steve Blake, of all people. Fact is, Kobe’s decision to trust his teammates was an act of hoping more than believing and for that,  all Laker fans should be grateful.

Hey, he took a grand total of two shots in the 4th quarter of a game 7, one of which was the cold-blooded three that basically ended the thing. All the damage was done by Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake, and because those guys stepped up at the 11th hour, the Lakers will live to fight another day. Because Kobe let them be heroes, the party ain’t over just yet.

 I won’t lie, part of me was almost rooting for a total meltdown, complete with one of Andrew Bynum’s patented maulings. That way, I figured the clamor for his ouster would be loud enough to make it so, and if Mike Brown should follow him out the door, well then all the merrier. If you spend enough time talking to Laker fans (and I do), you’d know that the sentiment toward Bynum these days is about as negative as it could be considering he’s a budding superstar and likely the second best center in the league. As gifted as he may be, he is also equal parts bully, baby and outright coward, and the thought of him being the franchise player when Kobe’s contract is just depressing. The chances of Bynum growing up are diminishing by the day, especially since his arrival as one of the league’s biggest divas coincides with not only his arrival as a true star player, but also with the departure of Phil Jackson. The kid behaves like a guy who doesn’t respect his coach and more importantly, seems to know that he is the franchises’ new golden child and can essentially do whatever he wants. History tells us that it’s one think to grow out of being selfish and immature, but quite another to suddenly stop being a self-centered pouter who is prone to violence and despicable acts when things don’t go his way.

 I mean, find me a player under the age of 24 with a cheap shots mixtape?

Look, this is the Laker fan in me saying this, not the objective writer guy. Dude can play, but are the Lakers going anywhere with him as the leader? Playoff games are won by the guys who will shit to happen. By the guys who need to win. Guys who push on when most would call it a day. For all the hate directed toward Kobe, even from people who root for the Lakers, this is the single trait that most will miss when he is gone. Does Andrew Bynum have that kind of desire? Will he do whatever it takes, no matter what?

Sorry, I don’t see it.

In the meanwhile, the Lakers’ reward for surviving those pesky Nuggets is a date with the Thunder, the scariest offensive team left in the playoffs and a very serious title contender. For this team, it’s either going to be a glorious victory over the upstart or a sobering reminder of their imperfections and really, it has the potential to end just as badly as the Denver series almost did.

As far as predictions, don’t ask me. I have no better understanding of how this Laker team will play from game to game than man does of the female gender. Maybe it’s better that way. Sure, they can win if Bynum and Gasol play with Mettaesque intensity for 7 games and the Thunder struggle in crunch time, but who says that’s a lock to happen? Besides, the feeling of not knowing what the hell is going to happen is the best part about sports.

Hey, the fun is in the finding out, right?

-John Hathwell

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