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Finals matchup not great for Kobe
NBA FINALS: HEAT 4, SPURS 3
- LeBron leads Heat to repeat title
- Tomasson: James still NBA's king
- McCarthy: Role players come up big
- Tomasson: Pain and gain for Wade
- Video: What motivates LeBron
- Video: Wade on 'sweetest' title
- Video: Riley, Arison reflect on run
- Video: Spoelstra on toughest series
- Video: Loss will 'haunt' Duncan
- Video: Bosh praises teammates
- Video: Ginobili pained by defeat
- Video: Popovich on LeBron and Wade
- Photos: Best shots from the Finals
- Heat's top 10 moments of Finals
- Playoff Central: NBA Finals
Even if the Heat fail to win this series, LeBron has emerged as the player his talent always foreshadowed. And his team will have just competed in its third Finals in three years. He has a ring already, and he’s almost certain to get more as the years unfold. The Spurs, too, could lose and still have a handful of championships and one of the great dynasties we’ve ever seen.
But Kobe? It’s all bad news for the image-conscious and legacy-minded star. You don’t become Kobe Bryant — the five rings, the 30,000-and-counting career points, the quickly approaching designation as the guy who will miss more shots than any player in NBA history — without obsession. An obsessive need to win the game, an obsessive need to win the series, an obsessive need to win the season, even an obsessive need to win history.
That idea — the Legacy Principle — had helped push Kobe to greatness, even if he likes to pretend that’s not his focus. It is. It has been. It should be. Greats chase history as much as or more than they chase their present-day peers. But in this series, as he watches from home and diligently claims he wants free agent Dwight Howard to return to the Lakers next season, he must know that a win by either the Spurs or the Heat comes at his expense.
If LeBron wins, he’ll have two rings by age 28 and be on his way to having a real chance to match Kobe’s five. Either way, the greatest-of-all-time talk for LeBron will start to become as inevitable as that conversation including a certain former Chicago Bull but, without a doubt, not a certain current Laker.
And if the Spurs win, everything we think we know about the Lakers will need to be reevaluated. The strength of their dynasty since Kobe joined the team (it would be second to the Spurs), how we view coach Gregg Popovich relative to Phil Jackson (my colleague Jen Floyd Engel would argue Pop gets the nod), perhaps even Kobe’s all-time ranking versus Duncan’s.
Since Kobe entered the league, the Lakers have won five NBA titles and eight division titles. They’ve been in The Finals seven times. They are perceived as the NBA’s most-recent gold standard.
But the Spurs, if they beat the Heat, will have five titles as well — and a much more consistent record of excellence. They’ve won more than 70 percent of their games in that span and have never finished a season with a winning percentage below 61 percent. The Lakers have won 65 percent of their games over that span, but a three-year drought between Shaq’s departure (partly Kobe’s fault) and Pau Gasol’s arrival — to say nothing of this year’s hot mess — would separate the two franchises.
Championships are how we measure the best. But consistency, as the cliché goes, is true excellence. The Spurs under Duncan would have both; the Lakers, under Kobe, just one.
And if you are the leader of the better dynasty, if you have three (or perhaps by the end of the month four) Finals MVPs to your rival’s two, and if you also are a top-10 all-time player and supposedly the best ever at your position then, well, you might have the higher place in history.
It’s debatable, yes. It’s a great let’s-argue-about-basketball question. And that idea, that Duncan is the better All-Time Great than Kobe, could be here in about two weeks.
Sports are their most interesting in moments like these, when we see something beyond the game. The Red Sox honoring a city at its ballpark after a bombing. Olympians striving for gold making us all feel a little more connected as a country. A ballplayer chasing .400 or a Triple Crown or a home-run record giving us that feeling that something impossible can happen before our eyes. And LeBron, or Duncan, or Kobe, rekindling what it felt like to realize in real time when Jordan or Russell or some other sports hero once let us watch them carve their name in our history books.
That’s what this series is, either for LeBron or for Duncan, and that’s very, very cool for most of us. But not so much for Kobe Bryant. Because either way — the Spurs eclipsing the Lakers or LeBron closing the gap between himself and Kobe — is also a loss for the Lakers great.