(Defense doesn’t get much better than that.)
This is how rivalries age, begrudging respect ultimately breaking through to the surface, all the years of elbows and floor burns and trash talk culminating in a pool of praise. This is how sporting enemies pay homage, by noting that it’s never been anything personal, just a matter of hating the team that always seems to get in the way for 48 minutes at a time. This is how each chapter in Celtics-Lakers is supposed to end — think Larry and Magic, and the friendship they forged once they stopped meeting in the NBA Finals — with foes admitting what observers have known for years, that what motivated them during the offseason wears different colored jerseys on game day and won’t hesitate to protect the paint with a forearm shiver if it needs to.
Yesterday brought the latest edition of Celtics-Lakers, one that wasn’t pretty but nonetheless featured two teams knotted in a slug fest. Afterward, a reminiscent Kobe Bryant did not bemoan the 114 shots the two teams combined to miss. Instead, he genuflected at the altar of the one team he has had the most trouble defeating. (Green Street, WEEI)
“We know each other so well. The unit we had on the floor, and they’re unit — we’ve played against each other so many darn times. We know what’s coming before it happens.”
“It’s always a brawl in every fight. It’s ugly. It’s physical. I’ve enjoyed competing against them. I like all of them personally. On the court, that personal stuff goes out the window. It’s been fun.”
“It’s a throwback in the sense that we’re old school. Ray [Allen] is old school. Paul [Pierce] is old school. Kevin [Garnett] is old school. And so is Rajon [Rondo]. How we prepare for the game, how much the game means to us, you can see the emotion that they pour into it, how much they put into the game, you don’t really see that too much from the young guys nowadays.”
“[Restoring the rivalry] been great. It’s been a dream come true growing up and watching it. Here I am part of it. It’s great. The only difference between us and the ‘80s is that guys over there in the other locker room I actually know and like. That’s the big difference between this time around and the ‘80s.”
There’s a mutual respect in the latest edition of Celtics-Lakers born from years of steel-cage matches, when 48 minutes often came down to one Ray Allen three or one Pau Gasol offensive rebound. It’s not just that Boston wins each year that Bryant respects, it’s the way the Celtics win. He knows what longevity comes from, the hard work it takes to remain near the NBA’s mountaintop for more than a dozen seasons, and he sees his own work ethic in the men wearing green. In a strange way, during the 2008 Finals, the Celtics even taught the Lakers how to win a championship. They taught the Lakers the level of physicality necessary to win four out of seven games in the NBA’s final playoff series. They preyed on LA’s perceived softness, which was real at that time, and the Lakers, Gasol especially, returned the following season with a glint of steel in their eyes.
Boston returns Bryant’s feeling, of course, and that feeling goes for the entire Lakers team. I don’t recall any of the Celtics ever speaking as openly about it as Bryant did last night, but watch the way Allen fights to contest every Bryant jump shot. Watch Jermaine O’Neal leaning on Andrew Bynum in the post with every muscle clenched. Watch Paul Pierce and Metta World Peace fighting for an inch, the way Garnett always seems a little more aggressive against Gasol, the pep in Rondo’s step and the sagging defense the Lakers use to slow him down.
Even Boston’s fans show Bryant an amount of strange love, knowing that somewhere underneath the “Beat L.A.” chants their own team’s greatest accomplishment, the 2008 NBA championship, would not mean quite so much if it hadn’t come against such a ruthless killer.
“The fans hate your guts when you’re playing here, but very appreciative of the talent,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “When you see them out on the streets, it’s always a warm reception. ‘Man, I hate you, but … I love watching you. How do you think the Celtics are going to do?’ It’s a running conversation.”
Even Larry Bird glows when asked about Bryant, calling him his favorite player during a recent interview with Bill Simmons and saying that if he wanted to win, Bryant would be his first choice for a teammate. Before you start to drive to French Lick to drop a piece of your mind, notice that what keeps Bryant ticking so fluidly are the same tactics Boston’s Big Three uses to stay at a high level each season. Then honor the years Bryant spent honing the perfect footwork, maintaining his body in top shape so that in this, his 16th season, he can average 29-5-5 and retain his status as a menace to defend. Hate the man if you want, but admire him. This is the stage to which rivalries eventually evolve.
Old age makes people a lot of things — slower, fatter, more susceptible to injury, more likely to have obtrusive nose hairs growing inches out of their nostrils. Age also acts like a truth serum; when rookies bite their tongue or say the right thing, veterans suddenly feel the urge to make a stand. Ask Kobe what he felt about the Lamar Odom trade, he’ll tell you he hated it. Ask him whether he shoots too much, he’ll go on a diatribe about his five championships, say he tries to make the right play, and ask you why people still talk about this “stupid-ass shit.” Ask him about Mike Brown right after the hire, he’ll originally have no comment until learning to trust Brown’s preparation and work ethic.
Ask him about the Celtics, and he’ll wander off into a reminiscent state, pointing out the purity of the games they play, their worthy approaches to battle. Old men speak in brazen tones, and Bryant surely does not want his deep admiration to go untold.
This is what rivalries eventually beget, two sides who know their accomplishments would be cheapened without such worthy competition, opponents who look back in fondness at the bruises and cheap shots and years of loathsome elbows. We wish the rivalry would never end, the hatred would never crest, that Gasol and Garnett would jostle for inside position year after year and never grow older. But this is the NBA. Life moves on, youth emerges, teams either rebuild or get left in the wake.
And so we have Kobe Bryant, obsessed with winning a sixth title but knowing it might never come, fighting like hell to take his team back to the victory podium, yet taking the time to reflect upon his team’s biggest rivalry and understand what it means to him, what it means to the NBA. They don’t make them like us anymore, he seems to be saying. And the sad thing is, he might be right.