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Monday, June 14, 2010
Lakers' legacies hang in the balance

By Andy Kamenetzky

BOSTON -- With all those trailers run during the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics series, it's hard to keep "The Karate Kid" out of your head these days.

Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant
For all of Phil Jackson's and Kobe Bryant's accomplishments, a loss to Boston could be a particularly painful thorn.

One of my favorite scenes in the original movie comes during the climactic tournament. Daniel LaRusso is in the trainer's room suffering from an illegal kick to his knee. Despite the injury, he wants to keep fighting. Mr. Miyagi tells him it's not necessary; his performance made it clear he could have won. He has nothing left to prove.

Daniel explains why he needs to fight. Without beating these guys unquestionably and on their terms, he'll never achieve balance in his life. It doesn't matter whether he could have beaten them. Without actually doing it, he can't be whole. Moved by this heartfelt grit, Mr. Miyagi patches up Daniel's knee, and the kid wins the day with a wicked crane kick.

If only closure were so easy to come by in real life.

The Lakers stand on the verge of NBA Finals elimination at the hands of the Celtics for the second time in three seasons. Throughout these Finals, we've heard talk about what a title would mean for the legacies of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant.

A Finals win would give Jackson title No. 11, put him into position for a fourth three-peat and further cement his standing as the coaching gold standard.

For Bryant, it would be a second title without Shaquille O'Neal and a fifth in all, placing him just one behind Michael Jordan. It also would put a feather in the cap of anyone aiming for the title of greatest Laker of all time: beating the Celtics to win a championship.

Should the Lakers fall short of the title, it would be Bryant's third failure in the Finals (as opposed to Jordan, who went 6-for-6) and the second time he comes up short as a team's unquestioned alpha dog. Fuel also could be added to the most common criticism of Jackson, that his fortune came as the result of his players rather than his coaching acumen.

But for all the talk about places in history, I suspect there's a bigger piece of the puzzle for both: If the Lakers lose in the Finals, the Celtics become the one team neither could beat.

Boston always would able to brag about taking down two of the all-time greats at the top of their games. None of these Celtics will ever individually match Bryant's or Jackson's careers, but under the brightest lights on the biggest stage, each will have beaten the dynamic duo when it mattered most. Twice.

And you can't count on a third crack at evening the score. It was hardly a given that this year's rematch would present itself. Each year, we make plans (and puppets) for "Kobe versus LeBron," a showdown that might never see the light of day. Who knows what will happen for either team down the road? This may very well be the last shot to topple this incarnation of Celtics.

For two guys as competitive as Bryant and Jackson, who've spent the majority of their lives steeped in so much coveted winning, the scenario must nag them silly.

There's honestly only so much one could worry about. Even if Jackson falls, he'll still have 10 titles, a mark unlikely to be passed, and a slew of records. His credentials for "best ever" will remain beyond reproach. They'll simply lose a chapter. Either way, he'll be fine.

Bryant's situation is more complicated. In talking about the greatest Laker, there are those who don't believe that he can inspire the emotional ties of Magic Johnson or the awe of Jerry West's value to the franchise. In talking about the greatest ever, there are those who believe that he'll never be Jordan with six rings, much less a fifth. Kobe might not like this ceiling, but I guarantee he's aware of it and perhaps even accepts it.

Either way, Kobe will go down as an elite among elites, and no opinion of some pencil-necked basketball scribe or fan in a No. 23 jersey can ever change that.

For all the barroom, barbershop and talk-show energy spent arguing "greatest ever" titles, we often lose sight of how no actual trophy is awarded.

There is nothing esoteric, however, about the four losses to the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. They're real, they're indisputable and they're in danger of creating an unscratchable itch in 2010.

Only two games left to guarantee balance.

Andy Kamenetzky covers the Lakers for and is co-author of the Land O' Lakers blog.