Champions are noted for kicking their game up a notch as the competition intensifies and titles beckon on the horizon.
All too often experts and fans jump to early erroneous conclusions. This is the case with the 2009-2010 edition of the L.A. Lakers.
The wily, smiling Phil Jackson was questioned by Craig Sager about why Kobe Bryant was not taking charge in the early stages of a first round playoff contest on the road against a talented young Oklahoma City team.
He explained that Bryant was supposed to be bringing the team more into the picture. Nonetheless, rather than listening to a coach with 10 NBA championship rings, the second guessers wondered after the Lakers lost that game if Kobe might be over the hill.
Since Kobe Bryant at 31 is hardly pushing Medicare status, here was the argument: Yes, he is not chronologically that old, but his body had worn down from all those energetically contested playoff games along with the Olympics and other international competitions.
Actually the counter to that argument is what is currently resonating. Kobe is energized by stiff competition. The challenge is the thing, and the greater the player the more applicable the axiom.
So Kobe led the charge as the Lakers took apart the young Thunder team at the Staples Center and then won a close one on the road to close out the series at 4-2.
Then there was the series against the Utah Jazz when the Lakers were booed by the home town fans. The reason was that a big lead had been blown when the Jazz second unit got hot and outscored the Laker reserves, making it a close game.
Despite the fact that Kobe came back, assumed leadership reins, and guided the Lakers to victory, which the team then extended to a 4-0 sweep with two closeout wins at Salt Lake City, the doubters were back. Some were almost assuredly among those who had earlier wondered if Kobe was over the hill.
There would be trouble up the road from the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Championship series. The Jazz did not have the height to compete with the bigger Lakers but had exposed a softness in the L.A. underbelly. The Lakers bench would be tested against the fast-paced Suns.
So what happened? Lamar Odom had a brilliant game with a matching double of 19 points and as many rebounds. That supposedly over-the-hill guy Bryant had 21 points in the third quarter and 40 for the game in a 128-107 blowout that could have been worse.
Had Bryant stayed in the game longer rather than wisely benched by Phil Jackson when the game was in hand, few doubt that he could have reached or surpassed a 50-point effort.
Impatient experts and jumpy Lakers fans who have been spoiled by excellence, in the way that John Wooden’s Bruins did to the Westwood faithful, fail to recognize that there are peaks and valleys even in the solidest dynasties.
No matter how great the star there will be moments and even entire games when the A-game is not there. Lakers fans, if there were no peaks and valleys to make the game more interesting, you would be falling asleep. Even Jack Nicholson would fall asleep.
The wily Phil Jackson knows that this is a team game. Players like Lamar Odom, sharpshooter Derek Fisher, and the strong while agile Pau Gasol are there to augment the magnificent talent of Kobe Bryant.
As Bryant said in a recent interview, he stands ready to take charge at the end of a game if need be. Guess who told him that? A hint: He is tall, wears glasses, has white hair, and sits on the Lakers bench.
Bryant’s comment echoed what commentator Mark Jackson said recently:
“At the end of the game you put the ball in the hands of your best player and live with the result.”