Yesterday’s Game 4 of the NBA’s Finals was one for the ages. The Celtics were down by 24 points, but rallied back for a 97-91 victory. The Lakers went into the game down 2 games to 1 in a series where Boston held the home court advantage. It was a game they needed to win. With a laughable half time lead, it was a game they should have won.
As odd and unbelievable as Game 4 was, this whole series has had an odd feel to it. The Celtics, who were 9 games better than their opponents, came into the series as an underdog. And on a whole they’ve gotten little to no respect from the media. After Los Angeles’ Game 3 win, both PTI hosts said the series had shifted in their favor. Come again? The team that was worse in the regular season and that doesn’t have home court advantage is down 2-1 and they have the advantage?
But what stuck in my mind the most was Stephen A. Smith’s gushing over Kobe Bryant prior to Game 1, comparing Kobe favorably to Jordan. Although I tend to ignore everything that Smith says (yells? screams? – he really doesn’t talk as much as he just shouts his opinion), this one got to me because recently I watched an interview where Kobe scoffed at the question. It seems he can’t avoid being compared to Michael. Back in 2003 Rick Reilly wrote an article comparing Kobe to Jordan titled: “Like Mike, or Even Better”. Last year Jamele Hill wrote: “Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan. Not more successful… But he’s a better player. Kobe can do everything Michael did, and even a few things Michael couldn’t do.”
In that Reilly interview, a younger Kobe Bryant was quoted as saying: “People want to compare me with Michael in his prime, and that’s unfair. I don’t think I’m in my prime yet. I think a player’s prime is, like, 26 to 30. I’m only 24.” In another month Bryant turns 30, so I guess it’s now fair to compare the two. By the age of 30 Jordan had 3 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, a Defensive Player of the Year, and retired to play some minor league baseball. Kobe has only 1 MVP and 3 rings. But Kobe’s rings were earned being second fiddle, not first violin.
By the age of 30 Jordan was unquestionably the league’s best player. He led the league in PER from 1987 to 1993. And upon returning from his baseball experiment Jordan would add 3 more Finals MVP awards and 2 more MVPs. All arguments during Jordan’s prime was who was the second best. You couldn’t argue with a straight face that any of Barkley, Robinson, Malone, Stockton, Ewing, Robinson, or Olajuwon were better than Jordan. But the same can’t be said of Kobe. Today you could debate whether Duncan, Nash, LeBron or Wade are better than Kobe.
But Jordan has one more feather in his cap when doing player comparisons. Jordan’s career has a mystique to it due to his accomplishments during the playoffs. During his prime, Jordan failed to lead his team to the championship once, and he gets a pass because he was returning from a year and a half hiatus. You could argue that at his peak, Jordan was unbeatable. So last night’s Game 4 was another example of Kobe coming up short of Jordan. In a pivotal playoff game, Kobe Bryant shot 6-19 and let a 24 point lead evaporate. It was the kind of performance you’d see in a Jordan playoff game, but usually by one of the Bulls’ defeated opponents.
Combining Jordan’s dominance over the league with his seemingly perfect playoff record makes him an indomitable legend to overcome. Michael Jordan may not have become so mythical if he had missed one of those game winning shots, was called for an offensive foul against Byron Russell, didn’t have Pippen or Jackson or Rodman, etc. To top Jordan, a player would not only have to be above his peers in terms of athleticism, skill, and determination, but also the luck to have an unblemished playoff record.
Let’s assume that Jordan’s team were so dominant that each year they had a 90% chance of winning the title in his 6 championship seasons. The chance of Jordan winning 6 championships without losing once is only 53% (0.9^6). So even if a player would come along as dominant as Jordan, they would need a little luck to match Jordan’s career playoff record of 6 “perfect” championships.
For years Kobe Bryant has been asking to not be compared to Jordan. Unfortunately last night’s game may give him what he’s been asking for. For Kobe Bryant to achieve the status of Michael Jordan’s equal, he’d have to pull his team out from this 3-1 deficit and lead them to victory. In other words, he would need a Jordanesque performance.