Do people still say that thing about how you can tune in to the last two minutes of an NBA game and see the whole thing? If you'd done that Wednesday night, you'd have missed two games, the one the San Antonio Spurs controlled to the tune of a 20-point third-quarter lead and the one Kobe Bryant took over and won for the Los Angeles Lakers.
With two minutes to go the Lakers had a four-point lead, which they'd built by outscoring the Spurs 40-16 over the previous 16 minutes or so. Bryant had 25 points, 21 of them during that run. You'd have watched the Lakers hold their lead. "Hey, Ma!" you'd have said. "I tuned in to the playoffs and I saw Sasha Vujacic hit a couple of free throws!"
Yeah, nobody says that two-minute thing. They talk about how fundamentals are dead and everybody travels. But I needed a narrative device there.
What Bryant did Wednesday, biding his time for whatever reason and then taking over, is an awfully handy thing to be able to do in the playoffs.
Sure, hardly any teams have a player like Kobe Bryant, and it's possible to win without a guy who can do the kinds of things Bryant can do. The Detroit Pistons, it can be argued, have done it, winning a title and enough other series to become conference-finals regulars without a superstar. But it's also possible to argue that the Pistons have a bunch of guys who, on a given night, can take over.
Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, even Tayshaun Prince. None of them can turn it on and off at will, the way Bryant seems able to do, but any of them can take over a game given the right circumstances, which happen often enough to render the Pistons still living every year on Memorial Day.
That's why I think the Boston Celtics, who lead the Pistons 1-0 with Game 2 scheduled Thursday night, are not going any further. They don't have that guy. For reasons I've never understood, Kevin Garnett is not him.
When Garnett gets the ball in the low post and goes strong to the basket or gives a Dream Shake and hits a little jumper, he looks unstoppable and this column wonders why he doesn't do that 20 or so times a night. But he doesn't, he never has, and he just turned 32. He's not going to start.
Paul Pierce did it in Game 7 against Cleveland, but he's more like the Pistons guys. The stars have to align for him. Ray Allen is a great shooter who seems to have hit old age before our very eyes this month. He was never an every-possession monster.
The Spurs have Tim Duncan, who can be that guy but only occasionally decides to do so. Their weapon is that they can stop that guy. Or control him. Usually. They certainly couldn't in Game 1 Wednesday.
It could be they have the excuse that their aging legs betrayed them two days after ending a grueling seven-game win over New Orleans. But if that's the case they're in trouble because they're not getting any younger and this series is on an every-other-day schedule all the way.
It could be that the Spurs, who have been left for dead before and ended up very much alive, got overwhelmed and will have figured out how to handle Bryant by Game 2 Friday, though the Lakers are more than Bryant.
The Spurs are capable of looking hideous and unbeatable within the same series, as they did in their second-round win over New Orleans, or most famously in that crazy Finals series against the Pistons three years ago. Wednesday they looked both in one game, thanks largely to Bryant. They'll figure something out by Game 2, but I don't think it'll be enough.
My conference-finals picks on April 18: Lakers over Spurs, Pistons over Celtics. Nothing I've seen so far has changed my mind.