I went to STAPLES Center last night for one reason: to see Kevin Durant in person. As a lifetime Lakers fan who normally watches Lakers games for the competition, and uses Clipper games to watch visiting superstars and contenders, I had mixed feelings.
If you asked me on my way to Staples, I would have said that my ideal scenario would have been that the game was close, that the Lakers lost, and that Kevin Durant had 40+. I DO NOT want the Lakers to tank. However, I DO want a good draft pick.
More than anything else last night, I wanted to see Kevin Durant have a big game. This terrified me, because I never celebrated opponents having big games at Staples.
Before last night, I never understood how Knicks fans could speak fondly of MJ’s double nickel, and Kobe’s 61 at the Garden. I always felt I would be embarrassed if an opponent held the scoring record in OUR building.
As I walked to the arena, I understood. It was not a good feeling. I became a Laker fan because I loved the pursuit of championships. I have a deep seeded desire to see great teams and great players play great basketball.
I was scared because I felt like a Knicks fan. A fan who cherishes good basketball but is tortured by a dysfunctional organization and a bad team, and thus must enjoy basketball vicariously through great opponents that visit.
Like a Knicks fan, I wanted to see great basketball, but knew my team could not provide it. Kobe was not even in the building, nursing injuries and age, and Mike D’Antoni is leading the charge to the lottery, just as he did in New York.
The game started out fun. The Thunder looked sluggish, and the Lakers were winning. Durant had 10 points and six rebounds in the first quarter. Each time he put the ball in the basket, there were as many cheers as groans in the crowd. Clearly I wasn’t the only one starving to appreciate greatness.
The energy in the building was loose. My fellow spectators applauded great plays, regardless of which team made them. Serge Ibaka’s 5 blocks drew just as many claps as Kendall Marshall’s 17 assists. The score didn’t matter. The outcome of the game didn’t matter. Only the plays and the players did.
The second and third quarters were uneventful. The Lakers held their lead, even extending it to double digits, and Durant was quiet. He was scoring, but it was not a great KD game.
The Thunder began to close the gap in the fourth, and, as I have been for much of this season, I was fine with it. Kevin Durant came alive, and was thrilling. Derek Fisher hit a big 3 to tie the game at 87, which made me smile, reminding me of his many big shots in this building back when the Lakers were the reason I came to Staples.
The Thunder took the lead, and it seemed inevitable that another home loss was coming for the Lakers (the seventh straight, a franchise record).
Then the energy changed. The Lakers fought back.
Kendall Marshall drove to the basket and scored to tie the game, drawing a foul. He let out a scream afterward, and the crowd roared.
I roared with them. Suddenly, for the first time since early in the season, I was emotionally invested in the game. So were the rest of the fans at Staples. We WANTED that win.
Steve Blake hit a circus shot (And 1!), and I rose to my feet, along with 18,000 of the Laker faithful. It was a reflex, one developed from countless close meaningful games, against top tier opponents. We were on our feet, and we were loud. In that moment, I remembered what it felt like to cheer for my team.
After a season of apathy, it was wonderful. It felt good to root for the Lakers. Just for one moment being a Laker fan felt like it used to. When rooting for the Lakers meant wanting them to win night in and night out, instead of looking at the standings and thinking about draft position.
In that moment, I didn’t want the Lakers to get a high draft pick. I wanted them to WIN. I didn’t want Durant to score any more. I wanted Wes to lock him up. I wanted the Lakers to be the LAKERS, the dominant team with the great player, not the lottery team that the contender plays down to.
I realized in that moment how much I miss the Lakers.
I miss obsessing over the Lakers’ execution late in a close game in February, and I miss telling myself, “it’s only February, they’ll get it together in May and June.”
For just a moment during last night’s game, the Lakers seemed like the Lakers again, and Staples Center felt like Staples.
Then Kevin Durant buried a huge 3, and took his team out with a W, and reality sunk in. I’m sure Thunder fans will obsess over the Thunder’s crunch time execution, and feel relief that they escaped with a win, maintaining a slim lead for the 1st overall seed.
Kevin Durant had 43, but it was an off night for him. He missed 10 3’s and had 6 turnovers. If he was in rhythm, he would have had 60. The Thunder won, but they didn’t play well. If they played to their potential, they would have won by 20.
There was a championship contender in the building last night. It just wasn’t the Lakers. That presence was enough to remind me for a minute what a championship contender looked like, and made it feel twice as awful when it was over.
I miss the games the Lakers played poorly and won. The games Kobe had an off night, but still somehow ended up with 35 and 8 rebounds and a win.
By the end of the night, my fandom was reaffirmed. Instead of letting the loss go with a sigh, I had a pit in my stomach.
I am not content to sit back and watch the Lakers play poor basketball.
Last night rid me of my perverse desire to see a great player have a big game against the Purple and Gold.
I will not speak fondly of Kevin Durant scoring 43 against the Lakers.
I hope the Lakers get back to their winning ways so that the perversion doesn’t return. I don’t want Laker Nation to end up like the Knicks faithful, so starved for good basketball that we celebrate moments that are scars to a franchise, as if they were badges of honor.
The next time I visit Staples Center to see the Lakers play a top tier opponent, I want to go with the intention to see the Lakers. I want the visiting all-star to have his worst game of the season, because of the Lakers’ defense. I want the Lakers to win, and I want it to matter that they won.
Anything less is not worthy of the Lakers.