LOST in the NBA Finals: Boston vs. Los Angeles
Boston vs. Los Angeles: NBA Finals Preview
…wanna bring the ’80s back
That’s okay with me, that’s where they made me at
–Jay-Z, “Blue Magic”
ABC is about to become an educator in the same sense that TVLand is an educator. I was born in 1983, and my memories of the sitcom Cheers are more like the rings of water left behind by the condensation running off cold beer glasses. When I reach out for specific lines to quote or plot references, all I get is a slick of water in the palm of my hand, and the same thing happens when I try to remember first hand what it meant to be alive during the 1980′s Celtics-Lakers battles–my memories of Larry and Magic are just smudges on finished oak, a Thursday night sea of sweat for Michael Jordan to evolve from as if he were Jerry Seinfeld. Celtics-Lakers does not mean that much to me. The memories are not mine. The characters are more myth than human and have been loaned out to different cultures–Pat Riley is much more a part of the Knicks and Heat for me than he is a Laker–so the fact that LA and Boston are meeting in the Finals for the second time in three years should be an opportunity to learn by syndication, except that as Bethlehem Shoals and others have pointed out–this is not the same old song and dance. These teams have changed, and they are different from what they were even two years ago, which means this Finals is about redefining the rivalry for a new decade and a new century. Magic and Bird are now as much a part of the past as Russell and Wilt, or Cousy and Jerry West.
While the ’80s versions of these two franchises lined up in as much contrast to one another as pieces on a chess board, the 2010 versions feel more like the cover of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. They are the good and evil, the light and dark, that resides in all of us, twisted and honed into one single entity. It’s almost as if when we say Lakers-Celtics that we’re speaking of one team now, not two. If this were Lost, they would be the island, not its inhabitants; in other words, defining these teams into foils of one another has become such a burdensome task that it threatens to strangle the connections between the characters, that are actually more central to understanding what all this, the series and the moment, mean.
We will try and nail this Finals down to something familiar, but it’s moved beyond that. When have two all-time greats clashed so late in their careers, still struggling to such an extent with the weight of their legacies (other than 2008)? Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have both lived and played multiple careers. Kobe Bryant was the direct understudy of Shaq. He blew that hatch open, and then he became the direct understudy of Michael Jordan, watching Duncan and others win titles, while he scored and scored and lost, just as Jordan did in the ’80s. Now, Kobe’s won a title without Shaq, and he still doesn’t have the fruit of his desires, as if we can’t bestow the title of greatest ever on a man who wants it, that we would rather have Kobe let go of his ambition before we grant him his ultimate redemption, that he is more than his fathers ever were. On the other hand, there is Kevin Garnett, crippled and broken by Minnesota’s winter, given new legs by Boston, only to be reminded by injuries that as easily as he was healed he can just as easily be maimed. This postseason Garnett has played like a man desperate to arrive, once again, at the place that makes him special, and one has to believe he’s even willing to die for it. Kobe and Garnett are not just playing for a title, or a place in a pantheon, they are battling for the right to an archetype.
But the Kobe and Garnett quests are as much about their supporting casts as they are about them as individuals. Each hero is supported by crooks and murderers who have conned and stolen the hearts of their respective cities. Ron Artest has walked through this League since 2004 with a letter close to his chest that threatens the man who made him into a monster. This journey to deliver a letter to the man who mutilated Artest into the basketball embodiment of insanity has led him from Sacramento to Houston to Los Angeles–yelling Queensbridge! all the way–and, at some point, he must realize that this demon is in himself, just as it is in Rasheed Wallace, a man whose moral flexibility has made him a turncoat, a torturer, and a defier of stereotypes. There have been moments this postseason when ‘Sheed appeared willing to take a bullet in the chest or to hop on a live explosive in order to bring about a Celtics victory. These two men have done so much good and so much bad in their careers that the labels appear trite, even silly, and definitely a waste of time.
Like statues of the Lady Madonna, Kendrick Perkins and Andrew Bynum appear to be holy relics, big bodies in the tradition of Mikan and Moses, but the constant injuries and the technicals taint their would be miracles, as if they were holy fetishes filled with heroin, or drug runners in priests’ clothing.
Pau Gasol’s game unfolds like a man whose brain experiences the past and future out of sequence, flashing back to the days of McHale and forward to a day when men run like gazelles. He appears blessed, and we want him to be dynamic; but he has a tendency to drift whichever way the wind fills his sails, leaving many to doubt how essential to the story he really is. Plus, his beard rivals any Scotchman’s, but the terms “special” and “game changer” get batted around quite often. Rajon Rondo is “special.” He’s been marked as such since 2008, when he became one of the most inexperienced point guards to ever lead a team to a championship. There are times on the court when he appears to will the ball to its target like a knife into the center of a knot on a tree. Last postseason and this postseason have been building toward something great for Rondo, it would be a shame for it to all unravel now. Does this Finals not test which of these players is a true catalyst for change and which is merely the projection of the hopes we hold for ourselves?
Sacrifice is a stepping stone to heaven’s good will. On any other teams, Lamar Odom and Ray Allen might be so much more and, at the same time, so much less. There are times when they appear as if they do not speak the same language as their teammates–that on a beach, after a crash, surrounded by other passengers–they are sole survivors. Will they not weep at the sight of the trophy in their arms again as if it were a child they were destined not to have?
Survival is achieved by those who adapt, persist, and make clutch shots. Paul Pierce survived multiple stab wounds to the chest in order to spend a decade driving towards the basket as if on horseback, desperately seeking the greatness he believed to be his, but never reaching it. If he wore any other colors than green and white, his lack of a championship for the majority of his career would appear less like banishment and more like the natural state of things, and even now that he’s back on the island, with all his perceived importance, there’s still something missing–some final piece to the puzzle that keeps us from being able to define him, just like the man who delivers all those daggers for the Lakers is an enigma. Derek Fisher went from never going to be good to he’s a savvy veteran to he’s washed up to sitting outside of a chapel deciding if he deserves his own forgiveness. These are men looking to punctuate their definitions and give meaning to their egotistical power struggles; although in the end, their connection to each other appears far less important than the connections they share with everyone else, like two synonyms learning that they are actually nothing alike. One is a role player, and the other is a player who will never get the story arc he deserves.
The story lines leading into the 2010 NBA Finals zig and they zag and, finally, collapse. After this series, free agency will reshape the League. This is the end of an era, and that in and of itself makes this an epic event. The case to make these men into heroes is just as easy to forge as the case to make them villains; in fact, the removal a single name from the story will stop it cold as a clock missing a gear. Every player is needed to reach the end. One of these teams will show itself to be an arrow and the other a dove, but no matter which does what the one will have needed the other. The dove needed the arrow to die, and the arrow needed the dove to kill. And so it goes. What’s at stake is everything. Let us hope this series earns its ending; otherwise, it’s back to syndicated classics and chasing rings of beer sweat for most of us to learn what exactly a battle between green and gold entails.
(For the record, my gut’s saying Boston wins in 7, with Rondo as the MVP.)
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