Mystique Without Miracles: The Lakers Lose on Christmas
PHOTO BY JEFF COWANThe Lakers game on Christmas Day is a treat for the 1 percent -- but with Kobe gone, expectations of actual victory remained low.
On Christmas Day, you could calculate the price of mystique. Lip-smacking scalpers ringed the perimeter of Staples Center, quoting $200 for the cheapest seats. But if you wanted the chance to closely scrutinize the topography of Jack Nicholson and LeBron James' hairlines, well, that would cost you.
The price of the average second-hand ticket for the nationally televised, Christmas Day, Lakers vs. Heat matchup was $624. Average. Wrangling seats in the arena's lower bowl to watch the Lakers lose, 101-95, required serious hook-ups, a willingness to forfeit your child's college tuition, or the yearly salary of a mid-level narcotics kingpin. Courtside seats were reserved for those capable of empathizing with what it feels like to get a new Bugatti for Christmas.
Even though we're squarely in the Kobe-in-Winter era, the marquee value of watching the Lakers play on Christmas Day has yet to dim. Sure, a broken bone in Bryant's left leg has sidelined the franchise until Valentine's Day. But the last two decades of nearly unbroken success have turned the Lakers into an Xmas ritual on par with Home Alone.
Their Christmas won-loss record during that span is 6-10, including yesterday's defeat. Their record is currently 13-16. But attendance remains as much a 1 percent status symbol as a house in the hills with a 360-view, just south of Mulholland. The evidence was indisputable in the $1,000 seats, which briefly became the selfie capital of North America in the half hour leading up to tip-off.
62-year old men wearing v-necks and dangling Neolithic-chic stone necklaces were reduced to tweens at a One Direction concert. Holding their iPhones aloft, they craned their necks, raised their eyebrows and showed every one of their clients how "rad" their seats were. The celebrity quotient included Jack Nicholson, George Lopez, Kevin Hart, will.i.a.m., Benicio Del Toro, and The Game -- all subjected to catcalls from fans ravenous for Instagram material.
Kobe may be on the disabled list, but judging from the number of acolytes wearing his jersey, you expected the half-time show to feature him in a manger, swaddled in white robes, shrouded in incense, and visited by Nick "Swaggy P" Young (playing an adoring Bethlehem shepherd). After all, Lakers fandom is predicated on the blind faith that miracles will befall the organization: from winning the coin flip to select Magic Johnson, to swapping Vlade Divac and several cartons of Turkish Golds for the rights to Kobe Bryant, to procuring Pau Gasol for what seemed like next to nothing.
Sometime during the last three seasons, the benedictions lost their potency. The Chris Paul trade was vetoed. Dwight Howard bounced after one injury-riddled Skittles overdose of a season. Kobe Bryant's aging tendons and bones opted to take their cues from vulnerable Trojan War heroes. And the Lakers point guard position is more hexed than most pet cemeteries.
Needless to say, this ran counter-clockwise to the hopes of fans and NBA schedule-makers. The prevailing wish was that Christmas Day would tie perfectly into Kobe's age-defying comeback. Bolstered by the recent addition of their fully rehabilitated superstar, the Lakers were supposed to blend athletic minimum-contract talent with veteran ingenuity to become the dark horse that nobody wanted to face in the playoffs. Christmas Day was supposed to be the test: one of the last clashes between the dynasties uniting the last two decades.
Even LeBron told reporters that the victory wasn't "as special without Kobe around." Of course, Kobe was around. He spoke to the press before the game wearing a sepulchral ensemble of a coolish old-bro-in-the-club sport coat and black Givenchy tee. Judging from his look and press wariness, he appeared one step short of telling the room that none of us have the answers. Instead, he refrained from "being a smart-ass because it's Christmas."
This was his first time commenting publically since the news of his latest injury. As usual, he spoke with "We're on a mission from God" confidence. Subjects covered included his work out regime (exercise bike, strict dieting) and how it feels (very little pain). He described being unable to play on Christmas as a "foreign feeling....I was looking forward to this game as a way to measure where I was physically."
Bryant also claimed that his six games back on the court proved to him that "I can still do anything I did before...I can still get to a spot and shoot and get into the paint." In regards to those who doubt his ability to return, he claims, "I'm more locked-in than ever before." No one doubts his mental discipline or physical toughness. But to quote Warren Zevon: his shit's fucked up. The rich folks suffer like the rest of us.
With an unmatched record of success over the last 40 years, fans have been conditioned to treat moral victories as a nice way of calling someone a loser. Pat Riley once refused to let the team celebrate a Western Conference championship, just because it wasn't the whole enchilada. And yet, a moral victory is the only way to describe the Christmas Day game.
Despite being pelted by boos at pre-game introductions, Mike D' Antoni has done a commendable job. While wearing Xmas Day uniforms that looked like they'd been made by Under Armour for an Argentine rec league futbol squad, the Lakers stayed with the best team in the league for all four quarters. Unlike last year's team, who came out listless and unfocused on Christmas, the Lakers got off to an early lead and kept it for most of the first half. They also nearly surmounted a 9-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
This Lakers team might lack the interior defense required to make it to the Western Conference playoffs, but they flash tenacious energy, cool nerves, and crisp ball movement. They have fun playing and the joy becomes infectious to watch. Nick Young might not be vintage Kobe Bryant, but he's a walking Gif with raw uncut entertainment value. He does chicken dances, tells the crowd to "turn up," advocates for the scrumptiousness of spaghetti cake, and hits clutch 3's. If the Lakers are the real-life version of Major League, he's Willie "Mays" Hayes, getting taught fundamentals by the lovingly gruff mustachio'd coach.
As D' Antoni pointed out after the game, the Lakers have a razor-thin margin of error. They missed a crucial 11 free throws out of 26. If there was a turning point, it came when D' Antoni opted to keep Jordan Hill out of the game, as the Heat stormed back, largely off the inside-out destruction of Chris Bosh, who again proved that he's the greatest brontosaurus to ever play professional basketball.
It seems almost redundant to write about the greatness of Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. What the former has lost in athleticism, he's gained in an almost telepathic communication with James. The Heat had 21 fast break points yesterday and might be the most exciting team to watch since the old Magic Johnson Lakers. I mean, just watch these dunks. It's like he's just fucking around trying to make a reel to awe kids at basketball camps for the next half-decade.
So yes, the Lakers lost again, but at least it was a good show. There were no Christmas miracles, and for once, none were expected.
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