Monday, May 9, 2011

The Lakers' classless exit

We expected so much more, didn't we? Everything good comes to an end sometime, and when it became quite clear the expiration date had come and gone on the Los Angeles Lakers' latest dynasty, we surely thought a team and force led by the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, and his prized pupil, Kobe Bryant, would be dignified and humble when the buzzer finally sounded, in this case, on Jackson's Hall of Fame coaching career.

It was bad enough the Lakers were stomped on and swept away by the Dallas Mavericks, who finally have their chance to squint in the sunshine in a rare moment away from L.A.'s shadow. Consider that in Jackson's 20 seasons as an NBA coach, strewn with 11 championship rings through 63 postseason series, his teams had never been swept ... until now.

And as for the proud franchise itself, the Lakers had only been on the short end of a four-game sweep six times since moving to Los Angeles in 1961, and hadn't experienced this sort of defeat in 12 years, when they were zipped by the Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference semifinals.

The juxtaposition of a tight-smiling Jackson walking laboriously off the court for the final time, followed by the cameras and shaking hands with seemingly everyone within his huge wingspan seemed somewhat strange in the wake of ejections very much earned by Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum within 45 seconds of each other in the closing moments of the Lakers' 122-86 embarrassment; Odom with a hard foul to an unsuspecting Dirk Nowitzki, and Bynum with a senseless, deliberate, dangerous elbow to the ribs of an airborne J.J. Barea, who was driving down the lane at the time.

Bynum's foul, in particular, should translate to a heavy fine and a sizable suspension when next season begins. There is now a question what uniform Bynum will be wearing when that time comes.

"I don't know where we lost it, that certain drive, that bond that we've had in the past," said Bynum, who said he "was feeling salty" when he committed his unforgivable foul on Barea. "There was something missing for us."

How about class? The Lakers acted more like petulant children being told to go to bed than an accomplished group of athletes used to being at the top of their profession. And maybe that was the problem -- we often hear about also-ran teams needing to "learn how to win." These Lakers never learned how to lose.

At least Jackson and Bryant took the opportunity to stand up for sensibility.

"I wasn't happy with the way our players exited the game on Lamar and Andrew's part," Jackson said. "It was unnecessary, but I know they were frustrated and Barea was one of the guys that really frustrated us today."

Bryant took his feeling a step further.

"You don't want to see that happen," he said solemnly in the postgame interview room. "You don't want any of their players getting hurt. They played better than we did, so to make the game ugly like that ... it's not something that you want to see happen in the game of basketball, ever."

Perhaps the strangest scene was Ron Artest, of all people, playing peacemaker and helping pull Bynum off the court and toward the general vicinity of the Lakers' lockerroom. Maybe it was simply that Artest is so familiar with such exits, he could easily show his teammate the way.

Now there's some playoff experience for you.

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