What if the Lakers lose?
LOS ANGELES -- It gets late early in the NBA playoffs, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. A Los Angeles Lakers team that seemed destined for the NBA Finals has already arrived at its day of reckoning here in the second round. Their date with destiny showed up ahead of schedule, while the Lakers were still upstairs deciding what to wear.
Their stature has suffered from their inability to put away the injury-depleted Houston Rockets, but that won't be an issue if they win Game 7. This isn't the Bowl Championship Series. Titles aren't awarded based on perception or rankings. Win and they're on to the Western Conference finals, and even if they won't be considered the same prohibitive favorites over the Denver Nuggets as they might have been a week ago, they'll still have the home-court advantage they earned over the course of the regular season. That hasn't gone away.
What could change is the way we think of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson if the Lakers lose. That's really what's at stake here. As much as Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have been questioned during these playoffs, ultimately they are not the ones being judged in historical terms, competing against the legacies of Michael Jordan and Red Auerbach.
If Kobe wants to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jordan he needs to move off his current total of three championships and get to Jordan's six. And in order to get closer to Jordan this season, he'll need to move away from his recent history of subpar performances when the Lakers are facing elimination. In his past five elimination games -- two against Boston in last year's NBA Finals, against Phoenix in the first round in 2007 and 2006 and against Detroit in the 2004 NBA Finals -- Bryant shot 38 percent (43-for-113) and averaged 25.8 points. He exceeded his career playoff average of 25 points only once in those five games, when he scored 34 points in Game 5 against Phoenix in 2007. But it took him 33 shots to get them. And after the game, he demanded changes. And a few days after that, he demanded a trade.
Could another early playoff exit lead to another tumultuous summer? Well, Bryant can opt out of his contract after the season. Even though he hasn't uttered a single word about wanting to explore his options, nor is there any rumbling in the always-gossipy NBA about him heading elsewhere, it's possible that this could be Kobe's last game in a Lakers uniform. Not that Game 7s need any more drama.
Kobe could not only stay behind Jordan, he could lose ground to LeBron James. They're already tied in their MVP trophy collection. If Kobe loses, he will be powerless to stop James in the championship race as well, with James pursuing ring No. 1. Oh, and all of those Kobe vs. LeBron commercials? They'd be as useless as Reebok's Dan and Dave ads.
Then there's Jackson. He always wears his most recent championship ring during the playoffs to remind his team what's at stake, only his most recent ring isn't so recent anymore. It's from 2002 and might be starting to oxidize. Jackson needs one more ring to break his tie with Auerbach and stand alone with 10 championships.
Jackson's recent trend has been toward the kind of history he doesn't want to make. His 2004 Lakers were his first (and still only) team to lose a playoff series in which it had home-court advantage. In 2006, his Lakers became only the eighth NBA team to lose a series after leading 3-1.
His stoic refusal to call timeouts and insistence on resting his stars drives fans crazy enough when he wins. If he loses he'll get roasted for his loyalty to Fisher and his quick hook with Bynum in these playoffs. And he might not have the desire to return. At 63, with an assortment of hip, back and foot injuries over the years, he might not want to travel around the country and sit in his special high, cushioned coach's seat anymore. He hasn't committed to coaching next season. And would it be worth it to the Lakers to keep paying him $12 million a year if he isn't delivering championships?
These are questions that don't have to be asked right now if the Lakers win Game 7. They're 48 minutes from more time, less big-picture concern. They do have home court, which favors the home team eight out of 10 times in Game 7. They beat the Rockets by 40 points the last time they played there.
If the Lakers' vulnerabilities have been exposed, Houston has shown its share of weaknesses as well.
When it comes to passing, the Rockets are more Joey Harrington than Peyton Manning. They were 22nd in the league in assists during the regular season. And they won't be getting any taller before tipoff, if the Lakers ever do decide to exploit their height advantage.
The Lakers can still win this series and still win a championship. Matchups matter more than momentum, and the Lakers went 7-1 against the Nuggets, Cavaliers and Celtics this season. They just have to get there first.
The two paths beyond are simple. Favorable matchups versus uncomfortable questions. The last time the Lakers played a Game 7 at Staples Center was the epic fourth-quarter comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000. And this is the most important single game for the franchise since then. In 2000, the mini-dynasty almost ended before it began. If the Lakers lost that year, the Shaq-Kobe tandem might never have lasted long enough to win a championship. The Lakers could put up with the inner tension as long they were winning; having the memory of playoff failure hanging over their heads could have turned the next inevitable spat into a roster shakeup.
This time it's not a matter of clashing egos. The team gets along well enough; there's a single leader established. It's time for him to show that he, in and of himself, is enough. He's done it before. Bryant led the Lakers in every major statistical category in that 2000 Game 7, but it was Shaq who wound up with the Finals MVP trophy, the one prize that has eluded Kobe.
In Game 7, we'll get a better idea if this solo championship dream will happen for Kobe, or, from the Lakers' perspective, if it will ever happen with him.