LOS ANGELES — When Kobe plays as he did in Game 1 of the NBA Finals he may as well be in a vacant gym at midnight with the lights off throwing uncontrollable moves on operatic phantoms. Every other possession was so perversely pure he had the Magic wandering aimlessly around Bryant Park.
Cradling the Lakers in his impregnable cocoon, Kobe put on a puppet show only a fairy godmother could dream up.
While Orlando’s offense consisted of mixed-up jigsaw pieces from various puzzles (its starters shot 11-46, the frontline 6-27), The Predator practiced making perfect jumpers.
And when Kobe got bored shaking or freezing Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus, the Magic’s backcourt resistance fighters — here a stutter step, there a head fake, everywhere a change of pace and direction — he increased the degree of difficulty by jumping the divider into defenders rather than trying to avoid them.
This became plain midway into the second quarter. Instead of spinning left on Lee away from help, Kobe sought congestion in the middle just to test his maneuverability skills in gridlock (he can’t fool me) . . . scoring in spite of six outstretched, thrashing arms.
Kobe’s floater gave the Lakers a 34-33 edge, their first lead in seven minutes and they never trailed thereafter en route to a relaxing 25-point evening cruise.
At that point the rules seemingly changed to “winner’s out” because it became exclusively Kobe’s ball. If he wasn’t shooting it (16-34 FG, 8-8 FT; 40 points), deciding who touched it (eight assists), stealing it (twice) or blocking it (twice), he was rising above the cluttered and clutching rubble for eight macho rebounds.
Indefensible outside, Kobe had no urge to take his infinite inventory of swiveling shots and unearthly mid-air readjustments to the halo until the initial play of the third quarter when he posted up Rafer Alston for a layup. From then on, he trespassed at will.
Kobe’s unrivaled incursion was a night move Bob Seger never imagined; a drive down the left of the paint where he met opposition, pushed through Pietrus, left his feet, got bumped, rebooted, pumped, and on the way down banked it in off the glass.
The Lakers’ bench and Bryant Park genuflected.
“Kobe’s confident he can do whatever he pleases in this series,” declared an independent courtside observer. “Lee and Pietrus don’t pose much of a problem, not after what he went through last year in the finals — against James Posey, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. Not after having to deal with (Shane) Battier this year.”
With apologies to Pete Seeger, “Where have all the veteran referees gone . . . long time passing . . . gone to graveyards everyone.
Well, put out to pasture anyway.
Add Dick Bavetta to this gradually enlarging list. Under-utilized in the first three playoff rounds, the 69-year-old legendary official had his candle blown out for the finals, ending his streak at 23 straight.
In the suspect opinion of supervisor Bernie Fryer a dozen refs are more qualified to wield a whistle under duress on the NBA’s supreme court than Bavetta, who’s called more games (I lost track a couple years ago after 2,300 or so) than anyone else in league history.
Fryer’s handpicked 12 are Danny Crawford, Joe DeRosa, Ken Mauer, Joe Crawford, Mike Callahan, Scott Foster, Steve Javie, Bennett Salvatore, Derrick Stafford, Tom Washington, Mark Wunderlich and Monty McCutchen.
I don’t really want to harpoon the blubbery Wunderlich again, but his situation begs for elucidation by David Stern.
You mean to tell me, a guy whose egregious non-call on Antoine Wright’s attempt to foul Carmelo Anthony (a mortal mistake of such magnitude league president Joel Litvin quickly proclaimed it wrong) cost the Mavericks Game 3, gets ultimately rewarded?
You mean to tell me, McCutchen whose disorder on the court (Ray Allen’s 3-point shot was really a two and botched 24-second violation, etc.) the league constantly couldn’t explain, earns the bonus round?
You mean to tell me, Wunderlich and McCutchen and ‘Nitro Joe’ Crawford (to single out three of many who’ve offended thee) another merit a chance to embarrass the NBA at the highest level.
Yet, Michael Henderson missed a 24-second violation earlier this decade in a Nuggets-Laker regular season game, no less, and received outstanding demerits; got pulled off the road and lost three assignments.
For whatever reason, negative publicity, guilty conscience, justice came into play, Stern rescinded the suspension and Henderson got paid for not working. Still, the four-year veteran wound up getting dumped as a result of the incident and the fervor it caused . . .
Then again, as aforementioned, Bavetta is just the latest veteran ref evidently being encouraged to retire after 34 years of service by being discouraged.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.