Monday, May 9, 2011

The end of an era

I haven't felt this bad about a Lakers exit in 7 years. For those counting, that goes past the 2008 NBA Finals and towards 2004. What I saw and heard yesterday was the last gasps of air being stomped out repeatedly while the victim just laid there praying for the end to come.

Seeing Phil Jackson at his last press conference and his kids wearing the X and XI hats reminded me of the 2004 when Phil brought them on stage as he "retired" from coaching after the Pistons dismantled us. Watching Andrew Bynum throw that cheap shot and walk off shirtless said it all - we were dethroned and kicked out the kingdom without a whimper.

As I watched Phil's last speech, I thought about how my entire hooping life was centered around him. I hated him as much as I hated the Chicago Bulls and came to love him coaching the Lakers. It reminded me how much this series made everything come full circle.

I've got no shame saying this - it's the end of the Lakers as we know it. Death by firing squad and the guilty parties? Jason Terry (13 3's, two shy of Derek Fisher's record for a 4-game sweep), JJ Barea (who's still running around like a headless chicken), and Dirk Nasty, who resoundingly restored and rebuilt his reputation as arguably the greatest international player to ever play in the NBA*.

*After watching "Once Brothers", I still believe Drazen Petrovic is the greatest international player ever besides the 80's version of Arvydas Sabonis. But unfortunately he passed before being the best NBA international player ever.*

Terry impressed almost as much as Dirk did. I said that the key to the series would be Terry vs. Odom and it was clear who the more impactful 6th Man was. Terry's been breaking my heart since I watched him at Arizona destroy UCLA 10 years ago and he deserves co-MVP of the series with Dirk Nasty and his variety of unstoppable shots. Oh yeah, Mark Cuban is now 4 wins away from the Finals.

I already played the Blame Game with the Lakers over at Bleacher Report so now I'm looking at the bigger picture. Something happened with this team after 17-1 stretch and it's more than just Kobe got old, Gasol got scared, the Lakers bench disappearing, Artest looking old and Andrew Bynum becoming part beast, part No More Mr. Nice Guy. This team's identity was stripped and nobody found a way to keep everyone refocused.

No love for Bynum's cheap shot on JJ Barea either. Like I said on Twitter, I've given my share of hard fouls but you always go for the ball to make it legal. Whatever suspension he gets (as long as it's 5 games max), it's deserved.

You always knew that the Lakers would find a way to respond in April-June with focus and intensity but this year, that just didn't happen. It's no surprise that in Kobe's two 30+ point games this postseason, the Lakers lost. He didn't have enough consistent support and he couldn't bring those type of performances against Dallas in the 4

Suddenly, I have flashbacks of 2004. My lowest moment as a Lakers fan. The team got battered in 5 games by Detroit and you knew that team would never be the same. Phil Jax left, Shaq was traded, Derek Fisher left and all you had was Kobe and whoever the team could keep or find around. I was left missing Shaq and hating Kobe for shooting us out of that series.

That's why this is worse than 2008. When the Lakers lost Game 4 after a 22-point lead, that was rock bottom. The 39-point soul stomping finale in Game 6 was a mere formality but as bad as that was, you knew the Lakers would be back. That team wasn't ready to win a title yet and they showed why in 2009 and 2010.

In 2004, you didn't know what was going to happen or if the Lakers would ever return to being a contender. It was a beating that tore apart your insides and left you lost about the present and future. That's how this feels. The Mavericks - the MAVERICKS of all teams! - got tough, stole the heart and soul of my Lakers and ended not just a season, but an era. 

Game 4 yesterday will forever be one of the worst losses of the Lakers era. Game 6 in  08 was bad but Game 4 that year to me was worse because an epic choke job is worse than a beatdown when you're already reeling. This game was also the latter but it still hurts because it means more than an exit.

I've never seen so many Laker legends embarrassed like I saw Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Michael Cooper and James Worthy come out and criticize this team. Last year, they all celebrated us beating the Celtics. A lot can change in a year.

Next year, the Lakers will be still be a Top 4 team in the West but they won't be a contender for the NBA crown unless they make some drastic longterm moves. That means getting players who will be effective for longer than 2-3 years and building up Trey Johnson and Devin Ebanks to be guards of the future. After 2011-12, it's gonna be the 90's all over again with a new direction and back to contending in the West but not a championship contender.

I saw Kobe decline like I feared he would in 2009. Those knee/ankle injuries are adding up and he can't carry the Lakers on his back anymore. He's still a top-10 player in the league but in 09, I said that he has 2-3 years before he drops. This is when it happens. And now Dr. Jerry Buss has some tough decisions to make after we've spent the last couple years mortgaging the future for the present.

I won't be surprised if half the roster is gone by next training camp. I just know that I'm seeing the Kobe era end before my eyes and next year will be the next stop on the decline. Can't even bear to read most of the columns describing the game because it's like a numbing whirlwind of dirt being thrown. This is my eulogy and final word. It was a great run and it's a shame it ended like this.

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