Stubbornness. Pride. Competitiveness. Maybe even a little stupidity. In the past two days, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant — two aging stars on teams that would be seventh seeds if the playoffs started today — have both conceded that championships remain the driving force.
Championships. Is it possible for the Big Three to win a second? For Kobe to win a sixth? For the NBA gods to continue putting a title just out of Lebron James’ reach? For Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose’s drive at their first ring to be stalled because the older dogs still have a little bite?
It would seem a lot of events would have to unfold perfectly for either the Celtics or Lakers to win a championship. Yet the fact that Kobe and Pierce can discuss with sincerity the possibility, no matter how slim that possibility seems to the unbiased observer, reveals the plainest truth within this conversation: A level of defiance and indefatigable confidence exists in Boston and Los Angeles, making both teams dangerous come playoff time, even against younger, more athletic, even better opponents.
“I’m obsessed about it,” Kobe Bryant said regarding his quest for a sixth title. “I’ve got to get it. It’s just one of those things. It’s what I play for. I can think of nothing else. As a kid growing up, that’s all I saw. I watched Bird. I watched Magic (Johnson). I watched them win multiple titles. I watched (Michael) Jordan win multiple titles. . . . After you win one, you become addicted to it. You win two and win three, and you just get greedy. So I want another one.”
Mickael Pietrus claims he considered signing nowhere but Boston once he became a free agent prior to the regular season. He wanted to play with Kevin Garnett. He wanted to play for Doc Rivers. He wanted to exist in an environment that counted wins as the only viable statistic. Even as the Celtics limped to a sub-.500 start, Pietrus’s smile remained. Perhaps that’s because smiles permanently paint his face, but there’s also an inkling that Pietrus’s gleeful disposition stayed intact during the tough stretch because losses could not deter the Celtics’ mindset. The environment he came for still surrounded him. The atmosphere was still different than Orlando or Golden St. or Phoenix. Banners were still the only goal, and not even a string of ugly losses could cause griping inside the Celtics locker room.
As the defeats piled up early this season, the Celtics were almost defiant. We will emerge from this slump, they seemed to chant in unison. We know better. We are better. We understand the formula. We’ll be okay. There were no tears shed in the locker room. No punches thrown. No team meetings where souls were bared or heads were skinned. Old age certainly contributed to the Celtics’ poor start. But pride got in the way of letting a losing skid become a virus.
The Celtics and Lakers aren’t favorites anymore. They won’t steamroll through the regular season or overwhelm opponents with gaseous fireballs of talent in 2012. There are more complete teams this season, more talented teams, younger teams, better teams. But both the Celtics and Lakers — cross-country rivals who respect each other like hell even if they won’t always say so — still believe they can win a title. Call them ignorant. Call them unable to read their own obituaries. Call them incapable of staring reality in the eye. Or just call them former champions who still clutch onto every morsel of their old attitudes, even as their skills continue to stroll into the ever-approaching sunset.