Is this NBA season The Best Season Ever? I tend to think so. With seeds 1-9 in the West separated by 5 games, the entire second half of the season feels like the playoffs. Every game actually matters. Add to that old powers trying to hang on like the Spurs, Mavs, and Suns, new rising powers like the Lakers, Jazz, and Hornets, and even one intriguing question in the East (just how good is LeBron?), and almost every game holds intrigue. Of course, even in a season that's almost impossible to screw up, TNT and ABC show us a Miami Heat game every other night.
The other thing that makes this the Best Season Ever is the midseason addition of Pau Gasol to the Lakers and how that's changed the way the Lakers play. Besides for the fantastic ball movement in the triangle, for the first time in his career Kobe is showing that he understands the concept of a pick-and-roll. With Bynum this season, Kobe reverted back to the Kobe-Shaq model of pick and roll: get a pick, dribble into a corner to invite the double team, then lob it for a dunk. Nothing had ever shown me that Kobe could execute a real pick-and-roll, a la Stockton and Malone (or, today, Nash and Amare).
But add Gasol, and voila - Kobe apparently is quite proficient at a screen-roll when the big knows when to slip the screen! Beautiful to watch, and gives the triangle an extra dimension that has been missing as long as I can remember.
But one thing about adding Pau that I don't think has been discussed enough is the championship swagger. It's back, baby. It's back. It shows in a reporter asking Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic after the Portland game whether it's good to play from behind once in a while, to remember what it's like to trail in a game. It shows in the casual arrogance of Phil Jackson smirking on the bench as he reinserts Kobe at the 6-minute mark of the fourth quarter with a 20 point lead. (Or, maybe that's just stupidity.) It shows in the energy of Kobe night in, night out, destroying this league with 4 fingers on his shooting hand.
Kobe's energy has not been this high since he was a young gun jumping on Shaq's back for piggyback rides. The other night, he felt he was hit on a play in Seattle and began riding the poor young official, Joe Forte's son. Kobe jawed at him all the way downcourt. Then, he got the ball back, stood at the 10-second line with the ball on his hip, and yelled some more. Noticing the 24 second clock, Kobe drove, pulled up, and hit a tough jumper, then stared down the referee as if he had just scored on the ref. At the first stoppage in play, Kobe made a beeline for Forte and eventually got thrown out of the game. Of course, this intensity was with a 25 point lead late in the third quarter! Two years ago, I don't think Kobe cares as much about that game. Now, his competitive fire is burning. He wants to win, and he wants it now.
But more than anything else, this team is having fun. It doesn't matter if they are at home or on the road. They are playing loose - even Luke Walton, worst player in the league, tries between the legs bounce passes and shoots airballs that only miss by 2 feet - and the bench brings a ton of energy. Sasha believes in himself. Rony takes 15 foot fadeaways with no hesitation. Lamar looks rejuvenated, without the pressure of being the second option, and has smiled more in the past two weeks than I've seen in the past year.
Not even the fact that I'll be watching Luke Walton in a Laker uniform when I am 30 years old can dampen the thrill of the Lakers forcing another timeout from the opposing coach, and the team grinning and slapping each other on the backs as they stroll back towards the bench. Maybe it's Kobe, doing his airplane move after shredding a defense. Maybe it's Pau, still a little wide-eyed that he's in LA and winning games for the first time in years. Maybe it's Sasha tucking his ridiculous hair behind his ears, proud of edging out Brian Cook for the title of "most shots per minute in a Laker uniform" and dreaming of toppling Slava Medvedenko's dominance in the category someday. Whatever it is, life is good.
Then again, Luke Walton...when I'm 30...I guess that does dampen it a little bit. But just a little.