L.A. fans shouldn't panic
The Lakers have been so good for so long, L.A. fans are rarely satisfied
Supposedly, the City of Angels can breathe easy now. Your team, the Lakers -- the reigning two-time world champions, who've been to the NBA Finals the past three years, mind you -- finally woke up and showed the world they could actually beat an upper-echelon team in this league again, upending the Celtics on Thursday night in Boston.
On its surface, any question about what the Lakers could do, against whomever, should be nothing short of insulting right now. Beneath the surface, the same applies, considering all that this team has accomplished in recent memory. Such questions amount to disrespect, which explains why Kobe Bryant so eloquently dismissed rhetoric from critics with a few choice expletives.
"I don't give a s--- what any of you say," Bryant deadpanned. "I really, really don't." None of that included Bryant shaking his head or what he was mumbling under his breath. Nor does it accurately illuminate the disgust that one can imagine a five-time champion must feel by having his and his team's status questioned in February when they're en route to sitting 21 games above .500.
But to be clear, Bryant's terse, dismissive response was apropos. Because Bryant, after all, is the reason Hollywood was pushing the panic button in the first place.
Let's be honest: All this talk about Carmelo Anthony coming to L.A., as ridiculous as it now appears (in light of how good these Lakers look whenever Andrew Bynum is in the lineup and healthy), is because of Bryant himself. Which should explain his disgust.
Bryant averages 26 points per game; cynics care that he used to average 28 points. His jumper is as sweet as ever to those who appreciate basketball; he's absent of an aerial arsenal to those who don't.
Folks in L.A. see the dust on Bryant's basketball birth certificate more than his maturation. They notice the lost step, the ice packs after games, the presumed wear and tear on his body. Most of all, they see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade coming from Miami, Derrick Rose ascending in Chicago and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook evolving in Oklahoma City, and they're asking themselves: Where does that leave us?
If not this season, then the next? And beyond?
Hollywood was hoping to add Anthony to its red carpet because, by averaging 32 points in February despite all the trade-talk distractions, he is proving to be a bona fide star. Anthony was supposed to be the piece to extend the Bryant era, taking a load off the shoulders of L.A.'s pre-eminent star so Bryant could have enough mileage left to stick around just a little bit longer.
"We always remain a pretty confident bunch," Bryant said after the Lakers beat the Celtics. "I think it's good to see the hard work we've been putting in pay off."
But when asked about how he's remained so calm beneath the storm, refraining from shouting out that folks need to calm down and chill out, Bryant simply responded by using one word: "Zen."
Phil Jackson. Patience. Meditation. Focus. All of the above are things that Bryant has at his disposal in pursuit of a sixth world title. The same can be said for his teammates. After L.A. held the Celtics to 30 percent shooting in the second half of their win on Thursday, it appears as if the only thing that can beat a focused Lakers squad is the Lakers themselves.
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Especially when they're in L.A. And that may be the biggest problem of all.
"Obviously, there's always distractions," team co-captain Derek Fisher told me recently. "You always want to make sure you weed out whatever you need to, anyway. And when you're playing in L.A., it's more important to do so because it's more difficult to do here than in most places."
And, of course, L.A. The Town.
The city is used to winning. It can sniff a decline before it actually arrives. And the thought of Blake Griffin as the city's marquee, so long as he's wearing a Clippers uniform, is so nauseating to some in Lakersville that it provokes the kind of panic comparable to what you feel when you are relying on the notoriously cheap Donald Sterling to pay your bills.
"Man, life's just different when you're a champion," Lakers great Magic Johnson once told me. "You've got to be special, different, to shove all of that aside and focus on the task at hand. It's more difficult for some than others, but you have to do it. Especially here. Because there is no showtime without winning. If you're losing in the end, what is there to show?"
Kobe Bryant knew that answer before his three-peat title run with Shaquille O'Neal, and he knew it later, after Shaq was traded to Miami and Bryant had to carry the Lakers on his back. Stepping aside to make room on the throne for someone else is not in Bryant's nature.
That folks seem to forget this is a case of selective amnesia that does nothing but tick off Bryant. That he can do little to nothing about it only exacerbates matters.
So long as he continues to take it out on contenders like the Celtics, most fans will live with that.
Stephen A. Smith is host of the "Stephen A. Smith Show" on 710 ESPN Radio and a columnist for ESPNLA.com.