"MVP? More Like MIA."—That was the headline on the front page of Wednesday morning’s Los Angeles Times. Not the first page of the sports section, mind you. Bill Plaschke's article was right there at the top of the page one of the newspaper with a photo of the MVP, his head hung down, dejectedly walking across a confetti-strewn floor in Boston.
Plaschke's teaser in the Times that morning read: "Kobe Bryant made just seven of 22 mostly wild shots. He had just one assist. He had four turnovers. The league MVP was unable to carry a team that needed carrying."
This team needed more than carrying. It needed an air lift.
In the end, it wasn't the Boston defense that broke Kobe Bryant's back. It was the Lakers. Yes, his very own teammates. Bryant had been carrying them all season long.
Sure, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol did some nice passing to one another along the way. They had their fair share of double-doubles, too.
Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic had some nights when one of them would go on a roll and just rattle off a string of consecutive three-pointers. Derek Fisher and Vladimir Radmanovic could get hot at times from beyond the arc, as well.
But all of them lacked two things: consistency and defense.
The only one on the team who had plenty of both throughout the season was Kobe Bryant.
To paraphrase another writer, William Shakespeare, and his famous line from Mark Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar: "I have not come to bury Kobe Bryant. I have come to praise him."
Sorry for getting intellectual on you and even overly dramatic. It won't happen again, and I can assure you because that was about the extent of my knowledge of English literature.
But I am going to praise Bryant and thank him for carrying the team as far as he did with a painful broken finger and torn ligaments, an ankle sprain, a twisted knee, and various other injuries too numerous to mention.
There wasn’t a game Bryant played in where someone wasn’t hacking him, elbowing him, double- and triple-teaming him. But it was Bryant's ability to draw out the defense that set up his teammates with open looks.
If you’re 6'10" or 7-foot tall, it isn’t that hard to take the ball to the rim with no one around. If you're a pro standing beyond the arc with a wide open shot, you stand an even chance of making it.
But, for the first time this season, when Bryant needed their help, they did not or could not respond.
Up against a stiff Boston defense, Bryant would toss the ball into Rony Turiaf to take it to the hoop. What did Turiaf do? He tossed it back to Bryant, who was blanketed.
Bryant would pass into Gasol. What did Gasol do? He dangled the ball out in front of him. If it wasn’t knocked out of his hand, he would pass it back to Bryant.
Bryant would pass the ball into Odom. What did Odom do? He looked around, saw Kevin Garnett standing there and tossed the ball back to Bryant.
Get the picture?
Not a pretty one, is it? When your three big men were too intimidated, too scared to turn and go to the rim forcefully, there was not much an MVP could do against the superior defenders that were guarding him.
Now, if Bryant had had Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, James Posey or Ray Allen to pass it to, he might have been walking away with a Finals MVP like Paul Pierce did.
Now, I’m not bashing Paul Pierce. He is an outstanding player, and he deserved to be named the Finals MVP. But in all his years in the NBA, Pierce has never been a First- or Second-Team All-NBA player at his position.
There are some better small forwards in the league. Kobe Bryant is certainly one of them. But Paul Pierce had help; Kobe Bryant didn't. That's a fact. Just look at the game tapes.
The only time Bryant passed off and didn't get the ball back was when he passed to Vujacic. No one ever gets the ball back when they pass to Vujacic.
And defense. After Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza went down with injuries, Bryant was the only Laker left who could play defense for the entire 40-plus minutes he was on the floor.
Occasionally, Fisher or Farmar would come up with a steal. But, more likely than not, some fast point guard like Chris Paul or Deron Williams was dribbling around them and taking it to the hoop, up and over a stunned Gasol and Odom.
Whatever their mistakes, whatever their shortcomings, Kobe Bryant was expected to make up for them. He was expected to will the Lakers to victory.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is a superstar, but he is not superhuman. And neither was Michael.
I am not comparing the two. I’m just saying, if Bryant had a couple of players around him who were the caliber of Dennis Rodman and Scotty Pippen, he might be walking away with another ring instead of Paul Pierce.
Yes, Bryant has had support from his teammates. But not consistent support and hardly any defensive support since early January, when the Lakers lost Bynum and Ariza.
Add to all of this the fact that Bryant had been playing with painful, nagging injuries as mentioned above and playing 40-plus minutes throughout the season. To me, it’s a wonder that he didn't break down from the load he was carrying long before the Finals.
And he's played hurt without a complaint. He never once used any of his injuries as an excuse. He's also been most gracious toward his teammates and coach. He hasn't once called any of them out, though all of them have deserved it at one time or another.
So, Kobe, you're still the MVP in my book. And Paul Pierce, congratulations! You played your heart out and deserved the victory and the MVP trophy. But I'll stick with No. 24 in the purple and gold.