Lakers 99, Magic 91: Don't plan on forgetting where you were when it happened
I mean, I remember where I was when Slava Medvedenko once got so goofy dribbling the ball during a meaningless regular season game that Stu Lantz actually paused for a good 1-2 seconds before finally asking, "What is he doing?"
Sitting on the floor in the living room of the apartment shared by the K Brothers from 1998-2004.
If that memory still remains clear, I'll go out on a limb and predict the one captured below will retain such specificity of locale.
Yeah, that was kinda cool...
As BK noted during the Live Blog, it's hard to figure out exactly how the Lakers won this game Fair statement on his part. To say the least, this was a goony bird, haywire barn burner that borderline defies description. Down by a dozen at the half, the Lakers appeared anything but a team on the verge of pulling out one stunning comeback for the ages. 33% shooting from the field. Foul trouble plaguing the frontcourt (most notably, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom). Dwight Howard dominating to the tune of five blocks and fourteen boards, the latter figure matching the Lakers' entire tally. In a nutshell, not a damn thing gone right. Packing it in would have been easy. Playing hard-but-unfocused would have been somewhat more commendable, if not necessarily more productive. Instead, the Lakers weathered one ugly storm and came out smiling for their troubles. To attempt an explanation, I think one word might sum the outcome up:
On various levels. Team-wide, and in particular, from a few players. Here's my best attempt at explaining how I think this special night in franchise history was made possible.
- Making the best of bad first half circumstances: Frustration over whistles was evident, most notably when Trevor Ariza, on his butt and steaming mad over a loose ball foul called against Odom, bounced the ball and got hit with a technical foul Stevie Wonder saw coming a mile away. For many squads, such boiling emotions would have marked the beginning of a sloppy meltdown in the making, especially in a hostile environment. Not the case with the Lakers.
If you're looking for a reason why the first half remained "trying" instead of "disastrous," it was the Lakers' ability to avoid making a crappy hand even worse. Floor combinations like Kobe, Ariza, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, and DJ Mbenga haven't been employed much this season, and the ensuing struggle to unite ball and net demonstrated exactly why. But despite that lack of familiarity, the Lakers only turned the ball over three times during the first half, minimizing the damage inflicted by a gummy O. They also went 8-11 at the stripe for an acceptable 73%. With plenty working against them, the Lakers executed as well as humanly possible, which prevented the proverbial "little things" from turning into mountains.
By contrast, the Magic, sitting pretty in front of a home crowd, eventually frittered away their driver's seat status in large part nineteen turnovers (resulting in a sweet 16 Laker points) and an absolutely atrocious 60% at the stripe. And like the Denver Nuggets, inbound plays are the equivalent of Sisyphus and that rock. With fewer screws to them, Orlando often behaved like the team inside a pressure cooker.
I also wonder if the halftime break may have played savior to the Laker psyche. A period of solitude to vent, stew, scream, slump into a chair, punch a locker, or simply breathe. Whatever is necessary to flush 24 minutes of horror down the porcelain and regroup. Maybe this is me playing armchair shrink, but the calm exuded post-orange slices was quite striking. I couldn't help but suspect that downtime was exactly what the doctor ordered.
- Trevor Ariza: If you asked me during that same halftime who would end up scoring 13 third quarter points and l spearhead the rally cry, I certainly wouldn't have picked Westchester's Finest. I'm a big TA fan, but having just watched him go 0-6 from the field, Thursday didn't appear to be his night. Well, shows what I know. Beyond simply the pair of downtown makes and five baskets in all, Ariza arguably made his biggest contribution in a way which won't show up in the box score. With 7:11 left in the frame, Ariza snagged the rock after a Kobe miss at the rim, drawing Hedo Turkoglu's fourth foul in the process. Turkoglu was the NBA Most Improved Player in 2008, and if anyone needed further evidence of how much he improves Orlando in '09, check out the nine minutes and change he spent pinned to the bench. The Lakers' opponent absolutely fell to pieces without Turk's services. They only scored fourteen points during the third quarter. Credit a swarming, relentless Laker D, but also acknowledge the "headless chicken" transformation sparked by Turkoglu's absence.
- Derek Fisher: Another unlikely candidate for hero worship. Particularly via the three point line, where Fisher spent most of the game bageled on five attempts. But as has been his lot in (purple and gold) life, the man has something of a flair for the dramatic. Down by the three out of a time out, Phil Jackson opted for Trevor Ariza to inbound from the back court. Ball goes to Kobe Bryant, who quickly beats a double team by shuttling it to Fish. The vet takes a few bouncy dribbles, pulls up at the arc with considerably too much space offered by Jameer Nelson (particularly with a trey the only shot that crushes Orlando). Nothing but net. Like, literally nothing. Barely even a reaction. That shot sent the proceedings into OT, and with 31.3 bonus basketball tics remaining, Kobe posted up Mickael Pietrus, then upon meeting a double from Nelson, swung towards Fish (clipping Jameer with an inadvertent elbow to the chops, but in a game with an embarrassment of botched calls, Orlando panties can only get so punched) and made the pass. Another triple. The Lakers never trailed again.
The dagger didn't come off busted chaos, nor did it beat a buzzer. But this shot nonetheless instantly reminded me of Robert Horry's iconic game-winner against the Sacramento Kings in 2002. Maybe because of Fisher's sly grin. Maybe because of the casual backpedaling stride, one fist raised slightly in the air. Or maybe because, like with Big Shot Rob, the spoils went to a victor exceptionally easy to root and feel happy for. Asked after the game about this display of clutch, Fisher first expressed guilt over his failure to cash in on a few wide open looks kicked out by Pau Gasol. After being set up for redemption by Kobe, Fisher thanked Pau for "warming up (his) elbow." Fish then grew more serious while explaining the determination to right his previous misses.
"I have a responsibility to my team that if I'm going to be on the floor, I have to make a difference."
While his play has picked up as each rounds continued and particularly during the Finals, Fisher's playoffs have been anything but a masterwork as a whole. In particular, the notoriously streaky shooter hasn't been on the opposite of a tear, and many- myself included- have questioned at times the length of Phil Jackson's leash extended to Fish during the playoffs. Tonight demonstrated exactly why PJ's faith in his longtime lead guard hasn't wavered. Asked why Fisher is capable of coming through so huge after 40+ minutes of misses, Jackson's answer spoke volumes.
"Well, it's character. We've always said the character has got to be in players if they're going to be great players. You can't just draft it. It's not just about talent, it's about character, and he's a person of high character, brings that to play, not only in just his gamesmanship but also his intestinal fortitude."
- Kobe Bryant: During our typical "Three Good/Three Bad" breakdowns, BK and I occasionally toss out a wild card category for a specific individual. During halftime, I decided that if the formula was intact, I'd place Kobe under his own heading: "The Valiant."
Kobe didn't own the Magic, and props are in order to both Pietrus individually and the Magic as a collective for making him bust his ass for every point earned. 32 points on 31 shots (and more than a few badly forced), with only eleven falling. Yes, he notched eight assists and seven rebounds, but in terms of pure brilliance, ain't a prayer this night will be considered among Bryant's better playoff games when he finally decides to hang up the sneaks.
But measured by grit and grit alone, we could be talking top-5 with a bullet.
During a first half where bigs were foul magnets and the entire roster 1-12 was employed in a way conducive to anything but scaring Orlando, Bryant- the only Laker without a personal- was forced to truly carry his team. Without his 16 points and 5-5 work at the line, I don't think the Lakers would have remained afloat enough to eventually roll. Kobe hardly put on a clinic, but sometimes what's needed from a star isn't flash or a masterpiece, but rather guts. Dude provided plenty, and seemed to gather more strength as his shooting percentage diluted. Fouling a dunk attempt by Howard- whom you may have noticed is somewhat built- Bryant didn't just offer a hard foul. He dragged Superman to the ground. When asked the game's "turning point" came after erasing a twelve point deficit, The Zen Master singled out a third quarter moment I bet wouldn't have immediately occurred to most folks.
"That was part of it, but I thought the real turning point in the game was Kobe took that rebound away from Howard (late in the third quarter) and was fouled on it. That just kind of showed the grit that this team has tried to develop over the last year, to come back from circumstances that are dire or being down. "
Leading by example, as the saying goes.