For six months the Lakers tried to weave a fairy tale: chemistry wins games. Or marginally talented players win games. Or desire wins games. But what was clear on a Friday night in Los Angeles, against the Lakers nemesis-the despised Celtics- and whom the Lakers beat for a title on this same floor four years earlier, was that talent wins games. Athleticism wins games. Confidence wins games. In his post games remarks, with a wry, lopsided half smile, Mike D’antoni said, “It’s nice to have guys who want to compete.” In a way, his remarks were unfair to the players who Kupchak assembled in the offseason, average as far as their skill level, efficiency and basketball intelligence are concerned but no less dedicated. They are the NBA journeymen who travel from team to team, who find their way onto the bench and pretty much stay there for their entire careers. This year was their one shining moment to disprove a negative, that their careers actually mattered. But you are what you are. Or you get what you pay for.
In the span of forty eight hours it all turned on a dime. The confidence that says I am the best player on the floor, the energy from finally getting a chance to show your ability and on ESPN no less, the skill to blow by defenders and finish in traffic, the calmness to run an offense you don’t even know, all of this was on display. Kent Bazemore played more minutes that D’antoni probably expected but from the very first moment he was out on the floor he was as much a combo guard as he was a defender. Marshon Brooks was tentative in the first half but in the fourth quarter he did what no Lakers player had done all year long, dribble past his man, get into the lane, and with an array of tough shots, score under pressure. Very Kobe-like. For Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks this was their moment.
If they had their choice the Warriors would have kept Bazemore in the fold. They loved him but he was a victim of too many guards and not enough playing time. But even he had his moments. Against the Spurs in the playoffs, he came into the game cold and hit a clutch shot that seemed to be the game winning shot and would have been had it not been for Manu Ginobili’s heroics. Regardless, it demonstrated Mark Jackson’s faith in him and Bazemore’s confidence in big game situations. Bazemore was not drafted and ever since that disappointment he has had a zealous need to exhibit to the basketball world his athleticism, mental toughness and most importantly heart as a competitor. He is a difference maker. Bazemore is a big guard and the Warriors and the rest of the league considered him a willing young defender, he has expert footwork. He was scouted as someone who can stop the ball and his man but what he showed last night was that you cannot put him in a one dimensional box. Yes, he defends but he also hits threes, he can blow by his man and get to the rim, he has a confident aggression to call off his teammates, he has the toughness to come into a situation like he did with the Spurs in the playoffs, he came into this Lakers game cold, without practice, and he left a huge imprint. He was responsible for the victory.
MarShon Brooks was also part of the NBA rookie squeeze. He was a first round draft pick out of Providence, a dynamic college scorer who put up 40+ points his senior year. He has a scorer’s mind set: you can’t stop me. You can’t beat me. I am just better. He was drafted by the Celtics, traded on draft day and then returned for a second tour of duty. In between he played for the Nets and had his most success when Avery Johnson was fired and P.J. Carlismo took over the head coaching duties. MarShon got minutes then and showed his skill as a scorer although his defense is still is a work in progress. He has quick hands and can get steals but he still needs a little more size to be able to fight through screens. But he has that Kobe sense of the moment. In the fourth quarter he was going to score. He wanted the ball and his teammates deferred to him as he made one impossible shot after another to bring the Lakers back from an eleven point hole.
So what does it all mean, it was just one game. Well, the hangover from the Steve Blake trade has disappeared. As much as Blake’s toughness was heralded and exalted and a bright spot, it did not transfer into victories. All it did was keep the journeymen Lakers players from quitting on each other. But the Lakers did not win more games because of Steve Blake even though he had influence. This is what is true. Marshon Brooks is a better player than Jodie Meeks. Kent Bazemore is a better player than Steve Blake. Together they organized and orchestrated a victory that would have gone down as another Lakers loss had they not been on the team. Simply, there is no one on this current Lakers team with their combination of skills, that can dominate a game both inside and out and has their confidence to take games over. Nick Young often hangs his head. Wes Johnson disappears. Jordan Farmar has been injured. Chris Kaman struggles against athleticism. It is not anyone’s fault they are not what we want them to be.
Twenty seven games are left. Kent Bazemore played starter’s minutes, he showed he is capable and more importantly he vanquished the Celtics. He slayed the enemy. MarShon Brooks made his mark when it mattered most, when the game was on the line, in the 4th quarter. He did what scorers are supposed to do, he created in the lane, he finished, he changed the story. Neither Bazemore nor Brooks are bashful and we don’t want them to be, we’ve seen where that leads. Neither one is scared of the opportunity or the moment; they know these last six weeks could change everything about their career. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But in the interim there will be something about the Lakers they have not had all year long, players with buzz you want to watch. Bazemore and Brooks are not what we have had to endure all year. They do not punish you with how they play. They do not have to squeeze out every ounce of talent they have. It is there. On display. At their fingertips. Talent. Athleticism. Competitiveness. And of course, their greatest accomplishment last night was the most beautiful thing of all. They beat the Celtics.