The people who say November games in the NBA are meaningless, that the pros don't care this early in the season, need to see the last 12 seconds of Lakers-Wizards game last night. They should have seen the Lakers set up Robert Horry like it's June against Sacramento. They should have heard Doug Collins demand of his team in the subsequent timeout, "Guys, we're going to win." And they should have seen Jerry Stackhouse and Bryon Russell work a give-and-go off an in-bounds pass to the tune of a game-ending, buzzer-beating, walk-off dunk.
"This is the kind of game that can catapult you forward," Collins said. "[But] you lose this game it can put you in a tailspin."
How does Horry get that wide open for a go-ahead shot with 2.9 seconds left? Two Wizards, Stackhouse and Larry Hughes, went with Kobe Bryant, leaving Brian Shaw open at the top left of the arc. Knowing Shaw had just hit two three-pointers to get the Lakers back in the game, Russell ran out to contest Shaw, who shot a pass to a now-open Horry. "You know how many times broadcasting games for NBA I saw Robert Horry hit that shot?" Collins asked. "He never misses those shots."
And how does Stackhouse get to the rack for an uncontested dunk with 0.2 seconds left? Devean George lost his man on defense is one answer. Shaq was in street clothes is the other.
And why, inquiring minds wanted to know, was the play diagrammed for Stackhouse instead of the best closer in the history of the world, Jordan? "I've got two great players," Collins said.
It was a game that had everything. The stars played like stars (Jordan had 25 points, Kobe had 27 and Stackhouse 29). The champions, down as many as 17 at the end of a grueling eastern road swing, came all the way back. Horry, one of the most uncanny players in NBA history, hit a shot you think he can't continue to hit. Shaw scored 16 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter. There were two great game-ending plays. There were Mike Tyson, Ray Lewis and LaVar Arrington sitting in one row, for crying out loud on a night that had the kind of sizzle one associates with evenings in mid-May, not mid-November. And yes, something was at stake.
Sure, this meant more to the Wizards than it did to the Lakers. Okay, the three-time defending champs are 2-5. But they've yet to play with Shaq in the lineup. The cavalry is coming, though. Shaq is traveling with the team, working out every day. He's 340, "and 17 percent body fat," Shaq himself reported last night. When he comes back, Kobe won't have to kill himself carrying the whole load and the Lakers will once again be the best team in the league.
But the Wizards, having been caught from behind by Minnesota and having played poorly in the fourth quarter two other times, needed to find a way to win. The Wizards can't bide their time. "This would have been a downer for our team," Collins said. Even more expansive on the topic, Jordan said, "We've got to get above .500 and stay that way, and start making our way through the season."
Mostly, we got more than we bargained for. Let's face it, a whole lot of folks came to MCI last night hoping to leave with great memories.
There's surely a video game where Jordan and Bryant face off all the time, dozens of times, one isolated on the other as if nobody else is on the court. Problem is, the video games -- vivid as the images appear -- aren't reality. One ascends, the other descends. One dominates the stage while the other is giving us an encore, just as it was when Jordan arrived as Julius Erving departed. We will never be blessed with Jordan vs. Bryant, The Rivalry. Kobe is 24, Jordan is 39. Only a second Jordan comeback allows them to face each other at all.
But that's what made last night in Washington. That's why there was such a buzz around town for the 48 hours leading up to the game. Folks came to pay tribute to Jordan and Bryant, the best all-court player ever and the best all-court player now. It's too much to expect a prime vs. prime dual, but who wouldn't want a couple of moments to savor?
Late in the first half, with the Wizards nursing a small lead, Jordan pulled down a rebound and started up the right side of the court, first dribbling past his old coach Phil Jackson, then into the front court. And Kobe picked him up on defense. The essence of basketball is one-on-one confrontations between the best players and biggest stars, whether we're talking about Wilt vs. Russell or Magic vs. Bird. We could only hope Jordan wasn't going to pass it off, and he didn't. He backed Kobe down within range, about 17 feet, twisted left, twisted right, and somehow found enough space to get off his fadeaway jumper. Bryant soared, but Jordan had flicked the ball from his fingertips quickly, with perfect rotation. It fell good, and the house exploded.
But Kobe is as built for the long haul as any player in basketball right now. Just as the celebration started late in the fourth quarter, Kobe turned the game around with one defensive play. He blocked Jordan's shot, the sight of which is still enough to energize even a championship team. (I'm sick and tired of people picking at Kobe for what he allegedly doesn't do when in fact all he does every night is do exactly what a great player does and then some. The notion that he is a selfish player is absurd.) The Lakers scored 10 straight points in 1:44 to pull within two.
The only thing wrong with this sequence is that we may see it just once more ever, when the two teams play again March 28.
Jackson and Collins both knew something Jordan said he was unaware of, that Jordan's last game in last year's injury-shortened season came here against the Lakers. "He's going to put his imprint on this game," Jackson had said 90 minutes before tip-off.
In the other locker room, Collins was saying much the same thing. Jordan worked more frequently from the low post and played with more energy that he had so far this season. His season-high 25 points could have been more, but a few missed free throws down the stretch almost proved costly.
"Michael's a proud man," Collins said, "When he came over to the bench [after Horry's shot], I looked in his eyes and I know he was thinking, 'Those free throws.' "
But this year, Jordan has a posse to back him up, led by Stackhouse. He doesn't have to do it all by himself. On some possessions, he doesn't have to do it at all. Realizing that will only make Jordan more effective, and the Wizards better in the long run.