Seasons begin with themes in Phil Jackson’s world and sometimes they play out as planned and sometimes they don’t. The final triumphant Bulls run was the "Last Dance" while the Lakers’ ripped-apart "Last Season" was immortalized as a team in search of its soul. That 2003/4 edition became no more - a gut-wrenching clearing of the decks that paved the way for the most improbable rise from the ashes - the return of provocateur Jackson and the rebuilding of a dynasty. This current season was tagged in advance as the "Last Stand" and Phil hoped it would be a grand one. And it started that way, sans Bynum but still a team with size, depth, experience and versatility, jumping out with the kind of run that had many predicting a three-peat, even with the Decision rearing a misshapen head and sucking ESPN into its gaping maw.
The Laker’s glorious start didn’t last, losses tiptoed in and became streaks, the year ended with a couple of wins and a 23 and 10 record - good enough for 3rd place in the west and on par with the east’s leaders. Still, it can hardly be termed "grand" and the team’s play especially pales alongside that of the Spurs, humble owners of a 29 and 4 record. Our loss against them on the 28th was demoralizing, the third panel in a triptych tailspin, addressed in a team meeting and supposedly remedied with Bynum’s return to the starting lineup, a convincing beat-down of New Orleans followed by a not so convincing win against the lowly 76'ers, a comfortable lead frittered away in the 4th quarter, barely managing to hang on. I don’t even want to imagine Doug Collins winning at the Staples Center.
Last night, mulling notes from posts aborted (blogging’s lurked around the fringes lately), searching for clues to a wobbly drive train and watching in morbid fascination as the Spurs demolished the Thunder. We wouldn't beat this team in a seven-game series right now. I hate to say it but numbers don’t lie. And it got late and the temperature dropped and clouds rolled in again and hours were resolutely working against me but it finally appeared, buried in a stats line from yet another loss by one of the league’s worst teams. For your consideration, 22 points in 35 minutes from one Sasha Vujacic. Remember him? The Machine’s been gone less than a month but it feels longer to me.
I didn’t like the salary dump trade when it happened and I don’t like it any better now. As ludicrous as it sounds, Vujacic’s having a career season since his banishment to the land of the eternal Melo hopes. Rubbish you say, he was an annoying under-achiever, grating on teammates nerves, confounding his coaches, prone to the vainest of eyebrow-grooming gestures at the one place where he knew he was gold, the aptly-named charity stripe. Fine, but I’m eccentric and I can play these foolish games. He’s shooting with impunity, he’s defending, even rebounding and Avery Johnson is letting him roll. Jackson always kept the kid on a short leash and you knew that wasn’t going to pay dividends. Read the local Jersey press and blogs, they’re lovin’ them some Vujacic and I’ve got to think we lost a little bit of an "X" factor, letting fly from his favorite corner then yammering at the opposition as he scurried back up the court, baiting them into the stupidest of retaliatory fouls. Meanwhile, Joe Smith has yet to touch the ball for the Lakers.
What’s this got to do with the remainder of our season? Nothing, I guess. Sasha’s not coming back and Jackson wouldn’t play him, even if he did. Nope, the Lakers will have to figure this out on their own and they will at some point though not tonight. It’s 24 hours since I first decided that a lack of Sasha equals a rudderless ship. Tonight’s esteemed adversary was the .441 Grizzlies with the Lakers playing their usual Sunday guessing game. Final outcome, another listless loss, fits and starts continuing as the team tries to decide whether to return to a dominant inside-out game or continue letting Kobe try to rescue them with two or three working fingers. I’m hoping Andrew demands the game at some point, they could be giants still.
If any of you Spurs devotees are still following this drawn out mess, here comes the finale. Your excellent season will continue, the perfect storm will gather strength. The media may even take notice at some point and you’ll probably blow into the playoffs with home court advantage, maybe even the 72 and 10 season that everyone’s coveted since the Bulls did it fifteen years ago. And then you’ll face the Lakers in the western finals and at some point, we will have flipped that cursed switch. Bynum will swat away Blair’s teardrops, Pau will cancel out Duncan, Artest will start a couple fights, Odom will high-step coast-to-coast, Fish might nail a rainbow and Kobe will simply destroy and when all is said and done, you will have had your hearts torn out. Again. Howl in protest though you may, this is your greatest fear because you know there’s a couple things the Lakers are real good at - aggravating their fanbase and winning championships. We’ll steam off to the finals, Phil Jackson will get that 12th ring and finally head home to Montana to write another book about the unceasing circle of zen and how he actually planned it this way. And long-suffering Gregg Popovich will uncork some wine and wonder if there’s still one more curtain call up His Smugness’s sleeve. After a lockout shortened season of course. And perhaps an asterisk?