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Tuesday, May 2, 2006
The winner gets the city

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Now THIS is a doubleheader ...

On Sunday afternoon, I headed down to the Staples Center to watch Kobe make consecutive buzzer beaters and unleash a full-fledged Stomach Punch Game on the Suns. One night later -- in the same building, no less -- I watched the Clippers demolish the Nuggets to capture their first playoff series in 30 years. Has there ever been a more bizarre sequence in NBA history? Where else can you attend NBA playoff games on consecutive nights 20 minutes from your house? I don't know whether to save my ticket stubs or mail them to the "Wait A Second, What the Hell Just Happened?" Hall of Fame. What could be weirder than that?

Kobe Bryant
Can you hear it? Kobe's Lakers are one win away from beating the Suns.

Wait, I know! A Clippers-Lakers playoff series!

That's right, ALL SEVEN GAMES could be taking place 20 minutes from my house. Not only has this never happened in NBA history, it hasn't happened in any sport since the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns played the 1944 World Series at Sportsman's Park. But if the Lakers can beat Phoenix one more time, the Hallway Series is on. It's like the DeNiro-Pacino scene in "Heat": No matter how much you read or hear about it, you can't believe it's happening until you're sitting there watching it.

Of course, the Lakers still have to come through. And for four games, their series with the Suns has defied all logic. There are so many incredible subplots, so much going on, such a perfect contrast of styles ... honestly, I don't know what to do with myself. It's like watching a bench-clearing brawl in baseball: What do you concentrate on when 50 things are happening at once? For the past few days, I have had more than a few friends and readers contact me just to say that they find themselves strangely captivated by this series, and they're not even really sure why.

Well, I know why. It's a fantastic series, that's why. Consider the following subplots ...

Subplot No. 1: Nash vs. Kobe
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We just spent three weeks arguing about the 2006 MVP Award, which was the perfect vehicle to separate two groups of people: Those Who Understand Basketball, and Those Who Need To Pull Their Heads Out Of Their Butts. See, LeBron and Kobe were the only two acceptable candidates; they meant more to their teams than anyone else and submitted two otherworldly statistical seasons. If you wanted to penalize them because LeBron played in an inferior conference, or because Kobe was a self-centered ballhog who was once accused (and then had the charges dropped) of rape, then Nowitzki was the only possible fallback option (the only All-Star on a 62-win team). There were five other players who were worthy of being discussed (Billups, Anthony, Wade, Paul and Nash), but none of them had the credentials of the top three guys.

Unfortunately, Nash is white, and he has floppy hair, and he's a good guy and better teammate, and his style of play can be seductive to watch ... seductive enough to make everyone forget he can't guard anyone and struggles to take over close games. So he ended up winning the MVP for the same reason that short guys win the Dunk Contest and Julia Roberts won Best Actress for "Erin Brockovich" -- namely, it was more fun to pick him than anyone else, and we were rewarding him for the fact that he wasn't as gifted as some of the other candidates. He's the perpetual underdog, The Little White Guy Who Could. When Rodman and Isiah downed Bird with the "If he were black, he would be just another good guy" comments, it turned out that they were just 19 years too early. So be it.

Steve Nash
The Nash vs. Kobe MVP subplot has spiced up this series.

Back to the Suns-Lakers series: I have been rooting for the Lakers because they were my upset pick on ESPN.com, as well as my sleeper to make the Western Conference finals. I like being right. But part of me was hoping that Kobe would settle the MVP debate the old-fashioned way -- by obliterating Nash and the Suns, the same way Hakeem swallowed up David Robinson in 1995. The weird thing is that Nash personifies everything I like about basketball (unselfishness, team play, good character) and Kobe personifies everything I don't like (selfishness, individual play, dubious character, contrived phoniness). It's just that multiple modern point guards (Kidd, Payton, Stockton, Isiah, even Mark Price) played the position as well or better than Nash did this season, and none of them ever won an MVP Award. Why should Nash get rewarded? It's completely illogical.

When it was leaked before Game 2 that Nash had won the MVP, I suddenly found myself rooting for Kobe to shove it in his face. After Kobe dunked over Nash, even though it was a charge, I nearly jumped out of my chair in delight. I refuse to believe that Kobe has ever jumped higher, or dunked a basketball more violently, in his entire life. Now that was a moment. And this series has been full of them.

Subplot No. 2: Bizarro Kobe
Well, I broke new ground here on ESPN.com: Back in January, I wrote that he was playing too selfishly. Now? I think he's playing too unselfishly -- in fact, he passed up so many scoring chances to set up teammates in Game 4, it nearly cost the Lakers a winnable game.

More importantly ... WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??

WHERE THE HELL DID THIS COME FROM?!!?!?!?!?!?

This was like watching Jimmy Fallon make it through an entire month of SNL episodes without laughing at one of his jokes. This was like watching Chris Berman make it through an entire NFL draft without tipping a team's pick as Paul Tagliabue approached the podium. This was like watching me write an entire month of columns without mentioning my friends or my father. It was simply incomprehensible. You could even call him Bizarro Kobe.

Out of anything, I thought this e-mail summed it up, courtesy of JR in Pittsburgh:

"How eerie do you find it that the Lakers' season continues to play out like the movie 'Teen Wolf?' Kobe plays like the Wolf all season only to show up for the playoffs in human form. You can just imagine him telling everyone before the series, 'I think we can take these guys. We don't NEED the Wolf.' Now everyone is making shots and playing so much good team ball that Mark Safan is probably calling Jerry Buss every day trying to talk him into scheduling a performance of 'Win in the End' at the Staples Center. You even have the coach who looks disinterested most of the time and is very philosophical (I remember reading that the original title of Phil's book was, 'Never Play Cards With a Guy Who Has the Same First Name as a City'). Has there ever been a movie more synchronized to [a] real sports story line?"

Actually, no. There hasn't. If Kobe starts dribbling down the court on fast breaks with his head down like Michael J. Fox, I'm going to be officially freaked out. Do we praise him (for grasping the team concept, playing the most cerebral basketball of his career and finally understanding that his teammates will always play harder/better/more passionately when they have a greater stake in the proceedings) or skewer him (for not playing like this all along when it was clearly lurking inside of him). It's a tossup. If anything, his newfound unselfishness has hindered his offensive game; he played poorly for most of Game 4. But it's been mind-boggling to watch Bizarro Kobe pass up bad jumpers and openly try to get his teammates involved. It's simply implausible, like watching the Colts come out for a playoff game running the wishbone with Manning, and even stranger, Manning running amok and breaking tackles 20 yards down the field.

Donald Sterling
It's good to see that Donald Sterling's 25-year plan to win a playoff series worked perfectly.

As for the "What would prompt Kobe to switch gears so dramatically?" question, the answer lies in J.A. Adande's blog, in which the Los Angeles Times columnist runs an eye-opening Kobe-related quote from Phil Jackson.

"Sometimes his needs to overwhelm the rest of the ballclub's necessity ... as we get into the playoffs, that'll dissipate, because he knows that he's got to put his ego aside and conform to what we have to do if we're going to go anywhere in the playoffs. Any player that takes it on himself to do that [play for himself] knows that he's going against the basic principles of basketball. That's a selfish approach to the game. You know when you're breaking down the team or you're breaking down and doing things individualistic, you're going to have, you know, some unhappy teammates ... and he knows these things ... intuitively, I have to trust the fact that he's going to come back to that spot and know that the timing's right. The season's over, things have been accomplished, records have been stuck in the books, statistics are all jelled in, now let's go ahead and play basketball as we're supposed to play it."

One interesting wrinkle about that quote: Jackson made it two years ago, right before the 2004 playoffs. And he was responding to Howard Beck's question in which Beck wondered if Kobe used the regular season as his personal laboratory experiment, then gets with the team concept for the postseason.

My take: I think Kobe came into the league too soon, had too much success too soon, won too many titles too soon, and eventually, he decided that his own numbers were more appealing than anything else. So he went on his own for a couple of years, even peaking as a scorer this season, only the team suffered as a result. And then something clicked over the last 5-6 weeks of the season, when Walton and Odom started playing so unselfishly and so productively, followed by Kobe coming around, and then the team came together and that was that. Now he has almost swung too far in the other direction, like an uncaring boyfriend who suddenly starts calling his lady four times a day and getting her gifts all the time.

Yes, there's a happy medium. And here's the scary thing for the rest of the league: Over the next six weeks, Kobe Bryant might actually find it.

Subplot No. 3: The legend of Phil Jackson
We already knew he was great: No other coach could have convinced someone as singularly talented as Jordan to trust his teammates and coaches, or two alpha dogs like Kobe and Shaq to coexist for three straight titles. And his ability to handle dangerous crises -- Pippen's meltdown in the '94 playoffs; the Pippen/Jordan contract problems during the '98 season; the first Kobe-Shaq feud in 2002; the near-mutiny in 2004 -- is almost unparalleled. If you made a list of qualities for the perfect NBA coach (patience, thoughtfulness, restraint, diligence, professionalism), Jackson would have almost everything on the list except for "ability to stay away from the boss's daughter."

But this has been his finest season, capped off by a truly inspired game plan. Heading into the Phoenix series, Jackson knew four things. First, he couldn't run with the Suns. Second, the Suns weren't nearly as effective when you slowed them down (especially Marion and Diaw). Third, they couldn't beat the Suns with Kobe scoring 40-50 a night. And fourth, he could pound the ball down low with Brown and Odom.

So what happened? He convinced Kobe to share the ball. How? We'll have to wait for his next book ("Taming the Mamba") to find out. But by slowing everything down -- almost like a football team pounding the ball with its running game to keep the other team's explosive offense off the field -- not only did he limit the possessions in the game, he killed any chance of the Suns running a consistent fast break, and only because that style relies on momentum more than anything else (the more you run, the more comfortable you get, almost like a QB getting into a rhythm in the passing game).

Kobe Bryant
The Shot Heard 'Round L.A.: Bryant hits the winning shot in Game 4.

What wasn't amazing was the game plan itself as much as the Lakers valiantly sticking to it through four games, resisting the temptation to run with the Suns again and again, even though Nash was practically daring them to join him. But they wouldn't fold. They just wouldn't. There was one moment in Game 2 when Jimmy Jackson missed a jumper in transition, quickly followed by a Suns fast-break basket, and then Phil Jackson calling timeout and glaring at Jimmy as he walked off the floor. Almost like, "You moron, what did I tell you guys?"

Take it from someone who just sat through 171 games of Doc Rivers over the past two seasons ... it's an absolute pleasure to watch someone coach a basketball team who knows what he's doing. If and when the 3-to-1 underdog Lakers win the series, I won't consider it an upset -- after all, they have the best player in the series and comparable talent -- as much as a reaffirmation that Jackson was the best basketball coach of my lifetime. The argument has been tabled.

Subplot No. 4: The Odom Redemption
Maybe he wasn't the captain of the All-Potential team, but you could pencil him in for the starting five every season. As recently as three months ago, he looked like the most likely candidate in the league to either (A) punch a teammate -- namely, Kobe -- in the face, or (B) become so frustrated during a game that he started shedding clothes in front of the fans like Ned Braden. He certainly wasn't playing that hard, although it was hard to blame him under the circumstances.

Now? His stock has jumped more dramatically than anyone else in the playoffs. Not only has he outplayed Shawn Marion, but he's filled the Pippen/McHale/Worthy role about as well as it can be filled, even making key free throws and shots down the stretch (with the Clippers, the rap was always that he disappeared when it mattered). I'm enjoying this one for two reasons. First, we need as many good players in the league as possible. And second, there isn't another forward like him -- he can play three positions, shoot 3's, post people up, create shots for other players, run fast breaks and protect the rim, and he's left-handed to boot. I like watching him.

But not as much as ...

Subplot No. 5: Luke Walton
I'm biased on this one ... after all, I devoted an entire magazine column to Walton's virtues (and the inanity of the professional scouting process) before the 2004 draft. But since the NFL draft just featured three doozies equivalent to Walton dropping to Round 2 in his draft -- Mario Williams over Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart dropping to No. 10, and LenDale White dropping to No. 45 -- it's worth rehashing again: Over everything else, game tapes should matter. It's the only tangible evidence we have that somebody can produce consistently in a game situation. And you would think that game tapes would be more important than workouts, interviews, IQ tests and combine drills combined. But they aren't.

Just remember, four teams (the Jets, Raiders, Bills and Lions) desperately needed a good quarterback and passed on Leinart last weekend, just like 10 to 12 teams passed on Walton two years ago. Leinart allegedly was slow and had a mediocre arm; Walton allegedly was slow and couldn't guard anyone. Of course, both guys were winners, both guys made their teammates better, and both guys had a knack for raising their games when it mattered. But since they didn't fit any conventional scouting profile -- they weren't long, they weren't athletic, they didn't have a big wingspan, they didn't have a cannon arm -- both guys ended up dropping further than they should have. And this happens ALL THE TIME.

Sam Cassell
The Clippers haven't celebrated a series win since the franchise was in Buffalo.

So here's my plea: Just once, I want to see an owner of a professional team fire his GM and tell the media, "You know what? I've had five GMs since I bought the team. All of them sucked. I was smarter than all of them -- they all out-thought themselves. So that got me thinking, why don't I just run the team? I follow sports, I'm smart, and there's no danger of me out-thinking myself, because I won't allow it to happen. I may not have the traditional résumé to run a team, but I have common sense, which gives me a leg up on just about everyone else in the league. You're in good hands."

Subplot No. 6: The Suns
Win or lose, you have to hand it to them: Will we ever see another playoff team threaten to crack the Final Eight with one rebounder, no bench and no inside presence whatsoever? They're like one of those hodgepodge pickup teams that keeps winning games and remaining on the floor, and everyone else is watching from the sidelines thinking, "Wait, how the hell do these guys keep winning?" Entertaining style, likable group of guys, genuine chemistry that you can see from afar ... and I am absolutely positive that no team can ever win the NBA title playing this way.

Subplot No. 7: Some genuine feistiness
And not the typical NBA feistiness, in which somebody gets knocked down, then there's some glaring and posturing while the referees call T's on everyone involved. Game 2 had the superb Nash-Vujacic catfight, followed by Kobe racing over like Sasha's big brother to yell at Nash. Game 3 had the Walton-Thomas takedown and the Kwame-Diaw shove, leading to another Kobe-Nash shouting match. And every game has had the riveting Raja Bell-Kobe battle, in which Bell has done enough flopping, clawing and elbowing to advance to the second round of that "WWE Tough Enough" show; even better, it's working for him. Because of the Nash-Kobe dynamic (what else could it be?), there's been an edge to this series that the others just don't have.

The bigger issue: The NBA has gotten too soft over the years -- too many flagrants, too many suspensions (capped off by Artest's preposterous one-gamer last week), too much babying -- and the competitive nature of the playoffs has been compromised to some degree. Basketball, by nature, is a physical game. Bodies are going to collide, hard fouls are going to happen, players will always get frustrated. Sure, you don't want Rodman clotheslining Pippen into the basket support, or the Mailman deliberately opening a 40-stitch cut over Isiah's eye, or even Maurice Lucas and Darryl Dawkins trading haymakers at center court like two prizefighters from the 1920s. But you don't want to remove the competitiveness from these playoff games, either. And this particular Lakers-Suns series had a perfect balance: Just feisty enough to make you think something could happen, only nothing ever does.

Subplot No. 8: Game 4, Lakers-Suns
I took my father to this one. And just about everything has been said, but you need to know these four things:

1. Only four franchises (the Celtics, Lakers, Sixers and Knicks) have the historical chops to drop a four-sided white sheet from the scoreboard before a big playoff game, then show a laser montage of the greatest players in franchise history with inspiring music, followed by another montage of the current players, capped off by the graphic: DO YOU BELIEVE? Hands down, the coolest thing I have ever seen before a basketball game.

2. It's always a big game when Nicholson is in the house. Always.

Don't Love Your Enemy
One recent e-mail from a Clippers fan/reader sums everything up. I'm omitting his name for reasons that will become obvious as you're reading:

"You absolutely hit it right on the head when you described Clippers fans' feelings toward Lakers fans (two weeks ago). I've been a Clippers season-ticket holder for three years (sec. 209) and have been a huge fan since I was in middle school and Michael Cage, Mike Woodson and Larry Drew were our 'stars.' Lemme tell ya, I used to be one of those super-obnoxious sports fans (you're from Boston, you know the type) who would go to my team's games, be as loud and belligerent as possible, heckle the players and argue/fight with the opposing teams' fans. Well, since I've been married -- and especially now since I have a 2-year-old daughter -- I'm a shell of my former rabid self. Now I rarely yell and only cheer or clap in-between giving my daughter her 'Finding Nemo' snacks or her sippee cup. Arguing and fighting? Out of the question.

"But last year, at a Clippers/Lakers game (Clip home game), I nearly lost it in front of my wife and then 1-year-old daughter. First, I had to hear the nearby Laker fans' snide comments for the entire game. Then, with the Lakers getting blown out with about eight minutes to go in regulation, several of their idiot fans, in typical Laker fan fashion, decided to leave. Rather than exit in quiet shame like they should have, they decided to try [to] razz the home crowd and point to the Lakers' championship banners as they left. Well, in a moment of temporary insanity where I forgot that I was a father, husband and non-criminal, I practically leapt over several seats and a couple rows to try [to] murder those smug a-holes. If my wife and the sight of my baby girl didn't snap me out of it, I would've been in jail -- and, worse, had my season tix revoked!

"In a nutshell, these are the type of emotions Laker fans bring out of me. Honestly, I can get along with most everybody, but obnoxious Laker fans? Forget it! It's to the point where we sell or give away every Clipper/Laker game in our season package because I don't want to risk getting too worked up. I used to be a Dodger fan (long story) and hated Giants fans, too ... but they've NEVER had the same effect on me as Laker fans. I don't know if I've been a Clipper fan for too long and have heard way too many comments, or if it's true that 99 percent of all Laker fans are frontrunning, spoiled jackasses who actually think Sasha Vujacic is a legitimate NBA player. What can you expect from fans who orchestrated the first sports championship-related riot in L.A. history (after the Lakers title win in '00) or dress their toddlers in the jersey of an accused rapist/infidel?"

3. This is hard to admit (harder than you think), but there's a unique energy in the building for big Lakers games: Their fans care about the team, cheer at the right times and get loud when it matters, and there IS a sense of history for these games (especially with Magic and Kareem watching from the stands). Seeing an ESPN Classic-caliber game in an atmosphere like that ... I couldn't have been more delighted. Even my father was blown away. On the way home, he casually mentioned, "I remember when the [Boston] Garden used to be like that." And then we took turns punching each other in the face.

4. Kobe's game-winning shot was 10 times more amazing in person. Everyone in the building knew Walton was winning the tip, and everyone knew Kobe was getting the ball and making the final shot. Which is exactly what happened. So it's hard for me to properly explain this, but the place was exploding even before he took the shot -- everything had worked out perfectly, he had the ball in his hands, so people were reacting even as things were still unfolding. And then, when the shot went in ... pure bedlam.

(Out of all the great Celtics game I attended over the years, I never saw a buzzer-beater in a playoff game by the home team. You know in a sports movie, when someone makes the game-winner, and then we see the wide shot of the teammates happily charging the court or the field, and that's always the best part of the movie? That's what it's like.)

Subplot No. 9: Clippers-Lakers
When I arrived here in November 2002, the Clippers were a punch line, an afterthought, the black sheep of the local sports scene. That same winter, I was shopping at a grocery store and noticed Clippers scratch cards in one of those lottery machines; I brought one into Jimmy Kimmel's show and we used it for a bit the next night, with the joke being, "Now here's a scratch card where you have a 0 percent chance to win!"

Everything was justified, of course. The Clips have been the lowliest franchise in sports for a solid 25 years. Since they moved to California in 1978, the Lakers have won eight championships ... the Clippers haven't even won eight playoff games. They now share the same building, with the Lakers charging twice as much and taking all the best dates; the Clippers get stuck with Valentine's Day, Easter Sunday, New Year's Eve, the day before Thanksgiving and every other crappy date you can imagine. There are little Clipper-related slights everywhere you turn, from the stadium's Pro Shop (which carries about five times as much Lakers gear) to its pasta and sushi stops in the concourse (which only open for Laker games). Make no mistake -- they are the second-class citizens on the NBA scene in Los Angeles.

And because that's the case, Clippers fans loathe Lakers fans, whereas Lakers fans wouldn't even waste the energy to hate them back. As I wrote two weeks ago, the relationship resembles the dynamic between preppy college kids and the townies with chips on their shoulder from the same town. During every Clippers game, too many Lakers fans show up, and there are almost always arguments and fights (see the accompanying sidebar). Those games always sound like a World Cup soccer match, with fans loudly cheering for both sides, just a constant din of noise, unquestionably the best subplot for the upcoming Round 2 series (assuming it happens).

There are some other juicier-than-normal plots. Odom was considered the most talented Clipper ever -- the fans loved him and made excuses for him time and time again -- until his sleazy departure to Miami three summers ago (ensuring his status as "Most Hated Visiting Player" until he retires). Kobe strung the Clips along as a free agent in 2004, leading them on to the point that the Clips even cleared cap space for him before he abruptly re-signed with the Lakers. (Clippers fans hate him, too.) Clippers GM Elgin Baylor spent his entire career with the Lakers, retiring during the '72 season, just months before they won their first title in California. Mike Dunleavy coached the Lakers in the 1991 Finals. There's even a built-in feud: For whatever reason, Cuttino Mobley and Kobe absolutely despise one another. (Count on them being separated at least three times in Round 2.) And did I mention that both teams share the same building?

Lamar Odom
If the Lakers advance, you'll find out how much Clippers fans loathe Lamar Odom.

Even after Monday night's defeat of the Nuggets, certainly the greatest moment in Clippers history, the Lakers loomed over everything. Clippers-Lakers Clippers-Lakers Clippers-Lakers. That's all anyone was talking about. Everyone agrees that the Clips have a superior team -- it's not even close, really -- but the Lakers have Kobe and history on their side, while the Clippers have three decades of baggage weighing them down. Either this could end up being the greatest sports experience of their lifetimes ... or the most catastrophic defeat. With no in-between. Clippers fans don't know whether to be excited or scared. Rightfully, they're a little of both.

But if those Sunday-Monday games were any indication, we could be headed for something special over these next two weeks. After a euphoric fourth quarter and postgame celebration Monday night, when we were filing out of the stadium someone started a "Lakers suck!" chant in the crowded throng. Just as some fans started joining in, someone else started a "Kobe sucks!" chant, and the two chants collided for a little while, with everyone gradually settling on the "Lakers suck!" chant. That one grew louder and louder, and it was a goofy moment, watching all these happy Clippers fans chanting "Lakers suck!" at the top of their lungs after such a happy game.

In the old days, it would have been a pathetic display, just the bitter sound of hopeless fans lashing out for no real reason. Not anymore. The Clippers fans were preparing for battle. They were getting ready to play the Lakers. First team to four wins takes the city.

And no, the Lakers don't actually suck. But neither do the Clippers. For once.

Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.