PHILADELPHIA -- Something memorable and important always seems to happen to Kobe Bryant on the annual visit to his hometown. There are the boos, of course, but those are a given. Usually there's something more, a time stamp on the journey to what he hopes will be the satisfaction of his voracious appetite for another championship.
Last season, Bryant happened to pass through on a night when the 76ers honored Julius Erving, the aerial artist Kobe should bow to every night before he puts his head on the pillow and every morning when he lifts it off. Wednesday night, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe stopped by to watch Kobe play. The current and future Hall of Famers shared a warm embrace in the locker room, marking the first time Bryant had met Phil Jackson's old teammate with the Knicks.
|'Some games we have it. Some games we don't,' said Andrew Bynum, who didn't have it on defense on Wednesday. (Getty Images)|
"We need to win another championship," Bryant said after his 32 points helped the Lakers defeat the Sixers 114-102 and overcome another night when they were too bored to play defense. "We have the talent to do it, we came close last year, and we want to be able to finish the job off."
Six months after the Finals, and four months after Bryant led Team USA to gold in Beijing, we have reached the quarter-pole of the NBA season. Guess who has the two best records?
The Celtics (18-2) obviously did not get fat and lazy after their championship. No, they decided to match Red Auerbach's 1959-60 championship team for the best start in franchise history instead. Hunger and motivation are not issues up the I-95 corridor in Boston. What about for the Lakers (15-2)?
"We feel that this time," Derek Fisher said, "with the experience of last season and hopefully a healthy team for the entire season or as much as possible, we can close that gap.
"It's a big commitment to go through a 100-plus game season one year, make it to the Finals -- one team wins, one team loses -- and then carry that hunger back to do it again and be the best two teams in basketball the following year," Fisher said. "... But it's early. It's still football season, so nobody is really watching that closely."
The Lakers and Celtics are watching each other, and everyone else will take a look on Christmas Day, when they meet for the first time since Boston closed out L.A. in six games in June.
Clearly, the Celtics are still the same single-minded, supremely motivated, defensively suffocating team that raised Boston's 17th championship banner to the rafters at the Lakers' expense. Are the Lakers still the physically soft, mentally fragile, finesse-oriented team that had no answer for the Celtics' bullying? Or have they learned their lesson?
Bryant, the ultimate grudge-holder of modern-day basketball, is carrying the sting of that Finals loss with every step he takes through his 13th NBA season. I have no doubts about him. Collectively, though, the Lakers must constantly remind themselves -- every game, every possession -- that finesse and nuance do not win titles. Toughness and defense do.
"Some games we have it," center Andrew Bynum said. "Some games we don't."
The Lakers allowed 91.3 points per game in their first 11, seemingly morphing into the Celtics or Cavs. Then they remembered who they are: "A good offensive team," Jackson said. They've allowed 100 or more in four of the past six, an average of 104.5. That's good enough to beat the Sixers in December, but not the Celtics in June.
"You have to be piqued for every game," Jackson said. "You can't take a night off and just go through the motions."
The difference between the Lakers who lost in the Finals and this version should be Bynum, the 7-foot phenom who was out from January on last season with a knee injury. But he was uninterested on the defensive end Wednesday night, and for the past three games, when he has recorded only one block. Eventually, Jackson got tired of watching the Sixers run layup drills and yanked Bynum for the final 5:34 -- after his fifth turnover.
"Offensively, we have all the talent in the world," Bryant said. "The key for us is defense, to be able to hold teams down when the time comes."
It's easy to forget that Bynum only recently became old enough to legally consume alcohol. The intensity and concentration fade in and out, a condition that isn't likely to persist when subjected to Jackson's expert needling. It can't persist if the Lakers are going to win more than the regular season.
Frowning at the box score Wednesday night, the Zen Master made sure he pointed out that Vladimir Radmanovic and Fisher each had outrebounded Bynum.
"Hey, I might have gotten some in the last six minutes," Bynum shot back. "You never know until the fat lady sings, and he sings for me a lot."
Defensive passivity will work fine from November to April -- maybe even into May, because the Lakers are so overwhelmingly gifted offensively that they can get away with it. But if they were really paying attention to the Celtics last season, the Lakers would know that you can't flip the defensive switch come playoff time. It has to be a full-time job, for eight months, with no days off.
"They have the spotlight on them, and they know that," Jackson said. "They know they have to perform and they know there's a dedication to it that they have to make that's very important."
We know who the Celtics and Cavs are -- two teams built around a transcendent player with a defensive backbone built out of habit, not words. We will find out if the Lakers can talk themselves into the same commitment and belief. The mind wanders in Hollywood, and it's easy to get distracted from mundane-but-essential tasks: boxing out, rebounding, stopping penetration and defending the basket as though it were the Holy Grail.
The Celtics and Cavs do those things. For now, the Lakers are still just talking about them.