With all due respect to every metric ever invented, and Pau Gasol -- who does make a slight bit of difference -- these Finals will be the great reckoning we've all waited for.
Don't get me wrong, Celtics-Lakers will be a fantastic series, one team and one star hitting their stride like never before at just the right time. Typing that sentence almost left me breathless, though maybe in a melodramatic kind of way. Regardless, even if this is the match-up everyone with fat wallets wants to see (so they'll get fatter), it also happens to be the best of all possible battles. Los Suns were the sentimental favorites and the Magic, some vague symbol of truth and justice.
When the smoke cleared, though, Boston and Los Angeles were the two teams carrying themselves like prospective champions. What's more, it's a rematch of the 2008 Finals that left the Lakers humiliated and Kobe Bryant licking his wounds, to such a degree that pride seemed irrelevant. Bryant has four rings; if the last one was the most important, as it proved he could stand without Shaquille O'Neal, a 2010 championship would show he could topple adversity and cast off another set of demons.
Pardon me, I got sidetracked. Next week, we'll find out who the NBA's best player is: Kobe or LeBron James. It's abstruse to put it this way, since we're not getting the head-to-head meeting that all of last season anticipated. Generally, it's bunk to talk "who's better, who's best" with regard to individual players unless they have kicked each other in the face and one has walked out the victor.
But the narrative is just right. LeBron was flummoxed, maybe even given the emperor's new clothes treatment, by a resurgent Celtics team. Now, Kobe, who has history here, has a chance to show what he can do against Boston.
Bryant's own game is flowing like never before, the old master ready for a third act. LeBron brokers world peace with the possibility of a ring for himself and others. Kobe's playing ball at such a high level it's ridiculous.
There wasn't anyone debating LeBron-Kobe during the regular season. Bryant was hampered by injuries and tried to brashly subdue them (and his own body); Gasol was more of a factor than ever. Meanwhile, over in the East, James racked up his second consecutive MVP and the Cavaliers won more games than any other team.
Speaking of the MVP, Dwight Howard -- a defensive tyrant whose offense is like cuneiform compared to Kobe's weird science -- was the only player to even get a glimpse of first place. Last season, LeBron-Kobe was the talk of the NBA. This year, it felt like the torch had been passed.
Except here we are. It's impossible to overstate how good Kobe is now, or what a disappointment LeBron's last two games were. Bryant is making plays, enjoying the company of others, and yes, hitting absurd shots with calculated bravura, and making it all look easy because it's the path of least resistance. Kobe has spoken for some time now of "chasing perfection," and one can guiltlessly classify him as a perfectionist.
Yet this means he is always evolving and adjusting as a player. His perfection exists from play to play, situation to situation. It's contextual, which is to say, it's never enough.
That's how Kobe Bryant can sneak up on us like this. He can look down, even on the way out, for months, only to come roaring back when he solves the right set of equations. It's no accident that one of his advertising campaigns compared him to uber-rationalists Leonardo and Galileo. For him, dominance is getting it right, even if it takes time.
And why would he? If Bryant delights in the human side of rationalism, that very human project of chasing down the truth, and watching it bend and break as new advances are made or new challenges are made, LeBron is the great, immutable beast he's trailing. That's a simple fact. Kobe sees basketball as a series of problems to be solved, in search of an ever-shifting set of laws and rules.
All hype aside, James is gravity, magnetism ... face it, dude has just about every attribute you could ask of a basketball player. The secret is there, waiting to be unlocked. Then, game over. We keep on thinking it's happened, but somehow, the truth remains elusive. Not from him, but from us.
That's the paradox of LeBron, and why blaming him for anything seems so ridiculous. It's a blessing and a curse, as the cliché goes, but most of all, it's a complete shift from the kind of athletic excellence that Kobe Bryant embodies. James is a natural disaster waiting to happen; he's almost inhuman.
Okay, that's unfair. James has made great strides in his play, especially from the perimeter. He has even begun to show a willingness to post up, the missing ingredient that would make him into basketball's ultimate weapon. Then again, Howard has gradually learned that speedy, streamlined moves around the basket are his most effective tool. James improves, but he doesn't quite risk himself from possession to possession like Kobe does.
This rubs many fans the wrong way, more than Bryant's posturing ever could. Does LeBron have to try? Is that even the right way to frame the question? Or are we waiting for the moons to align?
History offers up a clear parallel here, one all the more relevant now that Kobe Bryant is almost all intelligence on the court. Wilt Chamberlain was a thoroughly unstoppable force who couldn't get past Bill Russell. He was said to lack heart, motivation, even a love of the game. What he did have, though, was every imaginable ability out on the court, save shooting free throws. Wilt was basketball incarnate; the scrawny, defensive-minded Russell (and his generally superior teams) just wanted it more. Or does that mean Russell had the essence of basketball in his grasp, and Chamberlain was advanced weaponry handed over to an immature brat?
This dichotomy was here before LeBron-Kobe, and it won't go away when Bryant bows out in a couple of years -- with James, presumably, still riding high. Kevin Durant, this year's scoring champion at age 21, is by any earthly standards, freakishly versatile and preternaturally skilled. Still, he's no LeBron.
Yet what differentiates him most from The King is his need to win, the sheer angst you see on his face when a game ends in a loss. It's bleak, morose, and makes even Kobe seem like someone concerned mostly with his reputation. Durant feels wins and losses way down in his gut.
We question sometimes if James has such an organ. Unfortunately, this year he's no longer around to prove us wrong. And if Kobe does beat the Celtics, not only will he unexpectedly, and definitively, overtake LeBron for the time being -- he'll also resurrect the Russell-Wilt question.
It's up to James to, at very least, convince the public that it's apples and oranges. Otherwise, before he knows it, Durant will be breathing down his neck in much the same way.