Kobe Bryant grunted, then pumped his fists in celebration.
He mouthed “yeah boi” in Grant Hill’s direction before running back on defense.
Somehow, even as he delivered another 40-point playoff outing, this night wasn’t about him.
The L.A. Lakers routed the Phoenix Suns 128-107 in Game One of the Western Conference Finals, and Bryant was merely the show boater masking the real story. The man most responsible for this reversal of fortune stays behind the scenes.
Cameras did not pan to him during the TNT telecast. Often cursed but rarely praised, this guy gets my MVP vote.
Not Lamar Odom. Not Phil Jackson. Not Derek Fisher. Not Ron Artest. Sorry, Jack, love your work, but you need to sit down.
Three years ago when the Suns ousted the Lakers in the first round, he was public enemy No. 1. Funny how things change, huh? The real architect of Monday night's merciless beat-down was GM Mitch Kupchak.
Less than a year after the five-game embarrassment that sent Bryant into a frothing rage and Laker fans to psychiatrist offices, Kupchak made the deal that no executive has been able to answer since.
No single transaction in the last five years has meant more than the one that shipped Pau Gasol from Memphis to L.A.
The Suns felt its impact again when a would-be nail biter became a laugher in the third quarter. Then, the Lakers mounted a 10-0 run from which the Suns never recovered. Steve Nash sat down moments earlier for a few-minute rest. L.A.’s end of quarter surge afforded him a fourth-quarter respite. He did not return to the court.
Gasol deserves credit for making Kupchak’s steal work the way it has. He scored 21 points and again anchored the middle alongside fellow frontcourt mates Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers won the paint and rebounding battles by 20 and eight, respectively.
The Suns had a small chance in the series opener, and the Lakers crushed them by playing BIG . Phoenix can still win the series…if several players grow as Tom Hanks’s character in the movie of the same name suddenly did, and if they develop the skills of a point guard and shooting guard in the next two days.
Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge executed two separate trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007. Those moves also belong on the shortlist of recent best transactions. If the Celtics fail to win another title with this core, at least that deal yielded one.
The payoff for the Lakers might be greater. With any other roster on any other night, 40 points from Bryant might be the only worthy talking point. Instead, Suns coach Alvin Gentry gets to stew over his opponent’s unmatchable size advantage.
The Lakers could have won this game without their star guard’s breathtaking 21-point third period.
They triumphed because Odom, the guy instead of the spaced-out goat, showed up early and often. The Suns know he likes to go left. Surely, Gentry screamed about this scouting report tidbit until his bigs’ ears were ringing.
Odom still went left whenever he wanted. He checked in midway through the first quarter and dropped five points in the span of two Laker possessions. He drove and banked-in a jumper. He swished a three-pointer.
Gasol was right there, too. His night was much quieter. He did not take over any stretches, nor did he record any spectacular highlight reel passes or finishes. Yet, it was clear watching the Lakers switch roles and dismantle the Suns that he makes this all work.
Behind the curtain of this successful Hollywood production sits Kupchak, left to rummage through the trash for any leftover praise available. Thanks Mitch, sort of.
He’s too proud, too humble to ever demand credit. You will also never see him throw a towel to distract an opposing player while he shoots free throws. He doesn’t prance around the sidelines, and he does not seek out interviews.
Three years ago, he took a lashing from his star. Bryant derided him, cried for his resignation, and begged for the return of Jerry West, the general manager he said he trusted. West, after all, saw in Bryant what few others did in the 1996 draft.
When Bryant demanded a trade to the Lakers, West eagerly sent Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick and the rights to the preps-to-pros phenom who carried such promise.
Kupchak almost succumbed to the pressure. He almost did the unthinkable. Had a phone call or two in 2007 ended differently, Bryant might be playing in Chicago. Many thought his days as a Laker were over, including hundreds of the faithful who pack Staples Center and Jerry Buss, the team’s owner.
Another general manager might have pulled the trigger. Kupchak, however, knew the franchise would stink for years if one of the greatest performers in NBA history jumped ship.
Even as some Lakers fans booed Bryant on opening night, Kupchak remained steadfast in his approach to rebuilding the fallen empire. That summer, he had re-signed Fisher, a fan favorite from the three-peat years. Fisher would bring his trademark toughness and postseason pedigree. He still had more than a few gigantic playoff shots in him.
Kupchak also refused to surrender Andrew Bynum in a deal for Jason Kidd. Bryant wanted the New Jersey Nets point guard in L.A. pronto. Kupchak said, “Not so fast.” Bynum entered the pros as a presumed reach, a raw high school kid with a lot to prove and few who believed he could become special.
Selected with the 10th pick in the 2005 draft, a teenage Bynum was not ready for the rigors of the NBA. After years of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s tutelage, he began to flash his potential. It was, however, just potential.
Odom, a former Clipper and the centerpiece of the Shaquille O’Neal exchange with the Miami Heat, arrived with high expectations. Had Bryant, now the unquestioned best player on the team, found his Pippen?
As it turned out, Phil Jackson’s resident spaceman was better at causing headaches than being a consistent second option. Odom peppered in the occasional 20-point, 10-rebound performance. He surrounded those star efforts with epic duds.
Six points and four rebounds sound about right.
Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, and Jordan Farmar—a trio of suspect reserves forced to play starter’s minutes with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker—also caught Bryant’s wrath.
Jackson still cannot count on consistency from any of these players, and that’s why Gasol’s presence means so much, why no one has been able to answer Kupchak’s master move.
Gasol relieves Odom of the pressure to become that next Pippen. It allows Bynum to shift between exhibitions of brilliance, in which he has the look of the NBA’s next dominant center, and foul-plagued outings, in which he looks like an injury-prone mouse among lions.
Gasol allows the infrequent production of Walton, Farmar, and Vujacic to be a plus instead of a fatal flaw. The superiority of the Suns bench shined in series against the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers bench, led by Odom and his 19 points and 19 rebounds, did the thrashing Monday night.
Farmar checked in for Fisher, and like Odom, exploded like a firecracker the first time he touched the ball. He rifled in a three-pointer then followed with a strong drive to the rim. On many nights, he opens with an airball or an errant pass.
If Jackson required constancy from Farmar, the Lakers wouldn’t win. The glaring holes in his game would be more apparent on another squad.
The fans cheered when Vujacic took the floor, a reaction not common in previous playoff matches with the Suns. Then, he was a liability, a streaky shooter with a brash cockiness that did not serve him or the Lakers.
Anything he gives the Lakers now is a bonus.
Gasol allows this team to often play volleyball and keep away. The bigs park themselves underneath and around the hoop to tip-in misses and create extra possessions. With Bryant as a common creator, Bynum, Odom, and Gasol can flash, dive, and cut to the rim for uncontested layups and dunks.
Together, they rendered Jared Dudley and Channing Frye impotent and useless. The Suns’ vaunted, sharp-shooting tall guys finished 2-of-13 from the field.
The Suns bricked 17 of 22 three-point attempts. They cannot win if the outside shots do not fall.
The evidence of Gasol’s value to the defending champions is indisputable. Since Kupchak acquired the Spaniard, the Lakers have not failed to reach the NBA Finals. The squad has also won 70 percent of its games, with one three-game losing streak in the span of two and a half seasons.
Anyone who still thinks the Suns can rally to win this mismatch should revisit a familiar statistic. Jackson-coached teams are undefeated (46-0) when they win Game One.
Gasol was the key Jackson needed to unlock his frontline’s potential.
Odom’s previous high in these playoffs was 12 points. He averaged 7.8 points through 10 games.
That was never enough for the post-Shaq Lakers. In that fateful 2007 series, Bryant scored 45 points in a game and the Lakers still lost.
That won’t happen again. No one can defend Bryant. That he torched Grant Hill says little about the Suns' chances. The names may change—Bruce Bowen and James Posey come to mind. Reality stays the same.
Beating the Lakers is not about corralling Bryant. Gentry’s Suns must contend with the NBA’s most talented frontline.
The only thing Phoenix stopped in scoring 107 points but losing by 21: the fans’ “we want tacos” chants.
L.A.’s trio of bigs can pass responsibility on a given night to the other guy. When that fails, this team still has Bryant. Sometimes, it has Farmar and the others.
The league awards the top hoops exec—as selected by voters—each year. Ainge deservedly won in 2008. Denver Nuggets GM Mark Warkentein did the same in 2009. Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond was honored for his patchwork a month ago.
The Nuggets imploded in spectacular fashion en route to a first-round exit a few weeks ago. The Bucks did what everyone expected and also crashed in the first round. An early exit, even if the team avoids elimination until a seventh game, is still an early exit.
Kupchak’s team has the hardware that matters and a chance to continue its gold rush. Forget a lousy award. LeBron James can happily cradle his second MVP trophy while watching on TV as Bryant competes for his fifth championship.
The Suns merit praise for a newfound focus on defense and details. All the effort and heart in the world will never beat the Lakers’ collection of talent.
With Gasol, the Lakers can show up when they want, play defense when they decide it’s important, and win anytime they choose.
Kupchak’s resume boasts several blemishes. No one would give Vujacic $5 million a year now. Bynum is grossly overpaid.
If the Lakers complete their march to 16 more postseason victories, do those mistakes matter?
A title defense is within reach. Gasol, Bynum, and Odom can grab it by just standing under the basket.
If that tactic does not work, the team still has Bryant.
Lakers fans can thank Kupchak for that, too. This time, you can ditch the "sort of."