A champion shows who he is by what he does when he's tested. When a person gets up and says 'I can still do it', he's a champion.- Evander Holyfield
If the NBA season were a boxing match, right now, the Lakers would be sitting on a stool in their corner, sniffing smelling salts, sipping water, and angrily ignoring the semi-coherent trainer (Phil Jackson) yelling in their face. They'd be bruised, bloodied, and breathing heavily, one eye swelling slowly shut.
On the surface, it would appear that the Lakers will lose their championship belt. Yes, the Lakers are still 26-11, good enough for third in the Western Conference, but they've looked old and tired for a while now. After starting off the season 13-2, the Lakers are just 13-9 since, including both a three-game and a four-game losing streak, punctuated by a blowout home loss to the middling Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday.
Kobe Bryant rarely practices anymore because he's worn down the cartilage in his right knee so far that his knee is "almost bone to bone." Matt Barnes will miss eight weeks with a torn meniscus. Andrew Bynum is healthy for now, but, c'mon, he's Andrew Bynum.
Ron Artest, Steve Blake, and Derek Fisher are all shooting under 40%. Point guards Blake and Fisher average a combined 4.8 assists per game.. Despite the knee injury, Bryant is reverting back to old Kobe, hero Kobe who tried to shoot his team out of trouble like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not only does Bryant have the highest usage rate (percentage of team's possessions a player uses when on the court) in the NBA, he also has the highest usage rate of his career.
Bryant's gunslinging has angered some teammates and upset the camaraderie of the team. Ron Artest and Phil Jackson recently got into a shouting match at practice and everybody seems to be pointing fingers at everybody else. Most Celtics fans are probably reveling in the Lakers misfortune, but not me. Winning it all doesn't mean quite as much if the Lakers aren't there with us at the end.
I'm not worried by the Lakers month-long siesta, however, or, for that matter, by the Celtics annual Christmas hangover. The Lakers are the two-time defending champions and, as Holyfield said, champions show who they are when they are tested. Players like Bryant feed on adversity, drink deeply from the cup of challenge.
Before any of you guys start branding me a Kobe-lover in the comments section, let me tell you, I hate Kobe as much as anybody. If Bryant was Ron Burgandy, I'd be Wes Mantooth. From deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate Kobe. But gosh darn-it, do I respect him.
My favorite quote ever is from Muhammad Ali. I posted this quote next to my bed, memorized it, said it every morning before high school. Ali said:
Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.
I wholeheartedly believe in what Ali said. Kevin Garnett, though extremely skilled, is a champion because of his unrelenting will to win. Bryant is the same way. These guys have both the skill and the will, but the will is stronger than the skill.
I am willing to wager that the Bryant's will to win is contagious and that his teammates will be (or have been) infected with his desire for a three-peat. The Lakers are going to be in the Finals again this season, and the Celtics will be waiting for them. The potential match up reminds me exactly of the Thrilla in Manilla between Ali and Joe Frazier.
Ali and Frazier were fighting for the third time with the heavyweight championship on the line. Ali was aging and Frazier was said to be washed up, over the hill. The heat was oppressive in the arena. Yet, these two old heavyweights put on perhaps the best display of boxing ever. Ali peppered Frazier relentlessly in the first four rounds, but Frazier kept coming forward.
In the sixth round, Frazier staggered Ali with a vicious left hook. After the fight, Frazier said he landed punches that would have brought cities down, but Ali stayed upright. In the clinch, Ali said to Frazier, "They told me you was washed up, Joe." Frazier replied, "They told you wrong, pretty boy."
The will, pride, and heart of a champion was on full display for 14 rounds, until Frazier's trainer stopped the fight because his eye was swollen completely shut. Frazier pleaded to continue, but the trainer said, "It's all over. No one will forget what you did here today." After the fight, Ali said it was the closest to dying he'd ever been and praised Frazier, saying, "Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him.He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me."
Just like Ali and Frazier, the Celtics and Lakers bring out the best in each other. Just like Ali and Frazier, the Celtics and Lakers are aging-- some think they are washed up--but the heart of a champion cannot be overestimated.
The only difference is, this heavyweight fight is going the distance.
Tommy's Trifecta and Pick-and-Roll:
Scrapping it from today's playbook, but a special edition coming soon
Love 'Em Like Larry
- Contraction- Since LeBron James endorsed contraction, it's been one of the NBA's hot topics. Most people, it seems to me, are against contraction, but I'm with James on this one. This season, the NBA might have the deepest talent pool it's ever had, yet there are still too many fringe guys who log minutes and little else. Guys like Stephen Graham, Solomon Jones, and Derrick Brown. Let's say we rid the league of the Nets, Bobcats, Bucks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, and Clippers. Outside of their fans, is anyone going to miss these teams? That leaves 24 teams, 12 in each conference, four in each division. Top six teams in each conference make the playoffs, top two get first round byes. In essence contracting six teams would take away the 72 worst players in the NBA, while also distributing talent to the remaining teams. Every team would instantly become exponentially more fun to watch. No more watching Tuesday night lullabys between the T'Wolves and the Pacers. What's wrong with that?
- Tony Allen punching OJ Mayo- I have to admit I got a good chuckle out of news that Allen punched Mayo on a plane over an unpaid gambling debt. I mean, if I had to put money on which NBA players would get into a fight on the team plane, Allen would have to be near the top of the list. The only shocking part of the story was that Mayo owed Allen the money. For some reason, I can't envision Allen being a good card player. Actually, I envision Allen misreading his hand, acting out of turn, and knocking over his opponent's chips with out-of-control dealing. I'm also secretly happy Allen gave Mayo a black eye. By all accounts, Mayo continuously provoked Allen and all but asked Allen to hit him. Also, Mayo has always seemed like a bit of a loudmouth jerk.
- Dunk Contest- The NBA announced that Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, JaVale McGee, and Brandon Jennings will participate in this year's dunk contest. I've talked to a lot of people who are disappointed in the contestants. If Griffin isn't enough to make you watch, I'm here to tell you the other guys are going to put on a show, too. I'm sure you've heard somebody say big guys can't do well in the dunk contest, but I remember Larry Nance, Jerome Kersey, Julius Erving, and Shawn Kemp all throwing down some impressive dunks. I've seen McGee practicing his dunking on Youtube. Ibaka is powerful and springs like he just got double-bounced on a trampoline. Sure, Jennings only has two dunks this season and is returning from a broken bone in his foot, but...wait, why the heck is Jennings in the contest? What I'm trying to say is, this dunk contest is going to be surprisingly entertaining. And my boy Serge Ibaka is going to shock Griffin and the win the thing.
Trade 'Em Like Tony (Allen)
- Donald Sterling- Sterling recently made headlines for heckling his own players, most notably Baron Davis, though Chris Kaman said he'd had similar treatment. Now, JA Adande reports that, in his wrongful termination suit, former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor accuses Sterling of overt racism, among other issues. Baylor claims that Sterling used to bring friends, usually females, into the Clipper locker room to look at the "beautiful black bodies." Enough is enough with this guy. He's long been known as the worst owner in the NBA, indifferent to fielding a winning team. After all this nonsense, I have no qualms saying Sterling is a cancer patient,...I mean cancer to this league and should be banned for life.
- "Bone on Bone"- Brandon Roy is sidelined indefinitely because his knees are bone to bone and Kobe Bryant just announced that his right knee has very little cartilage left and is essentially bone to bone. The worst part about the injury is that there is little that can be done for it. I hate Kobe, but I want him playing so the Celtics can beat him again.
- Spurs Defense- The overall numbers aren't that bad. The Spurs allow just over 97 ppg or 100.7 points/100 possessions, good enough for seventh in the league. Taking into account their league-leading offense--by the numbers--the Spurs defense should be good enough for them to contend for a title. Except, it isn't. Last Tuesday, the Spurs surrendered 128 points to the New York Knicks. Then, on Wednesday, they let the Boston Celtics shoot 61% for the game. I watched both games and I came away feeling that, unless the Spurs drastically improve their defense, they have no shot at the NBA Finals. The Spurs of old were always the best at forcing the offensive player into the spots on the floor that THEY had chosen. Popovich drilled his players to force guards baseline and defend the three-pointer (especially the corner three), whether that meant running shooters off the line, or contesting the long-range shot. This season, however, the Spurs seem to be reacting to the offense, instead of forcing the action. I was unable to find any site that cumulatively charts opponents shots, but I do know that the Spurs are third-worst in opponent's three-point field goal percentage (39.74%) and, from what I've seen, have been unsuccessful funneling guards to the baseline. Both Raymond Felton of the Knicks and Rajon Rondo controlled the middle of the floor, forcing the Spurs to over-help and leaving perimeter shooters open. Popovich must re-teach his team those defensive fundamentals they seem to have forgotten, or else all those wins will go for naught.