Lakers 99, Magic 86: NBA Champions!!!
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Obviously, no "Bad" after a game where the O'Brien punches a first class ticket to La La Land, but here's a sample of the "Good" that stood out most in my eyes.
It would have taken a serious turn of events for someone other than Kobe Bryant to get named Finals MVP (and had the unusual gone down, I would have pulled a "Zack Morris," called "time out," hopped a red eye to Orlando, driven to a still-frozen Amway Arena, put the gold in Kobe's mitts, then called "time in," because I can't deal with an entire offseason hearing about more "proof that the NBA hates Kobe"). Nonetheless, some blog debate has recently waged over Kobe's "Bill Russell merits."
After all, Pau Gasol's resume heading into Game 5 included two double doubles, no game below 50% shooting, and some increasingly effective defense against Dwight Howard. Lamar Odom's opening pair of efforts were outstanding. Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher didn't forge as many complete games, but both were Game 4 heroes. Plus, Kobe's Game 3 wasn't so hot and was book-ended by good-but-not-great efforts, allowing a discussion to feel reasonable for some. Bryant did nab the hardware, but it's fitting a series-clinching win would be secured through a balanced effort echoing the powerhouse these Lakers emerged.
El Spaniard notched double-double numero tres (14/15), dished three assists, swatted a quartet of shots, and relentlessly challenged Superman around the glass. LO was Pau's dub-dub partner-in-crime (17/10) and went perfect on his trio of three balls. Just like in Game 4, TA was a tone-changing spark plug, this time in the second quarter after a brief nose-to-nose with Hedo Turkoglu. Double T's were assessed, but whatever adrenaline rush ensued clearly paid more dividends for the Laker than his ex-Magic mate. In the half's remaining 5:43 after their skirmish, Ariza canned a pair from behind the line, manufactured turnovers, got to the line and put scored eleven of his fifteen points. (Memo to Hedo: Leave Trevor be.) As for Fish, 4-7 FG for a baker's dozen, with a downtown shot the starting point for a second quarter 16-0 run, which transformed a nine point deficit into a ten point lead before the break. Throw in contributions from an an extremely active (if shot happy) Andrew Bynum and solid minutes from Luke Walton and this night hardly required Kobe to strap the squad on his back.
All of which, I imagine, makes Bryant's 30 points (10-23 shooting), six rebounds, five assists (against just one turnover), and four blocks that much more fulfilling. Just another notch on his belt, as opposed to a hernia to nurse. And it's been this way throughout the Finals. Kobe wanted teammates who could deliver when it mattered most. Hard to claim his wish didn't come true.
- Defense: As the old adage goes, it's what wins championships (although the truly accurate expression would not that defense wins championships, but only if your team is also proficient on offense, but I digress). Clearly, that message spread at the season's start wasn't lost on anybody. In cementing their Larry O'Brien relationship, the Lakers put Orlando in a multi-faceted head lock. 42% shooting (rounding up). 30% from Downtown (also rounding up). Orlando scrounging up just 18 points in the second quarter, three more than their third quarter sum. Boards crashed 47-36 in L.A.'s favor. Six steals. Eight blocks, one of them added to Gasol's name with less than 90 ticks to go and an eleven point cushion. Reflective of a squad unwilling to ease up until melons were officially sized for crowns.
- Not going for a knock out from Jump Street: While appearing on 710 ESPN's pregame radio show, I was asked what could most directly result in a Laker loss, beyond simply getting outplayed. My biggest concern was a determination to turn every possession into a "dagger." The desire to bury Orlando from the outset, which is hard to do while minding a blueprint and under control. The image that immediately hit me was the "Ain't so Bad" match in Rocky III, where Clubber Lang (Mr. T) unwisely attempts to render Rocky Balboa unconscious with every punch, as opposed to adopting a tactical strategy. As Clubber's disapproving trainer admonished, "You're wasting your punches! Don't try to knock him out with one punch! Use your head! Wear him down!" Clubber didn't listen and Rocky's plan to tire out an immature opponent reached fruition.
Obviously, I wasn't suggesting the Lakers follow this strategy to the letter and allow Orlando to tucker themselves by firing uncontested shots. There just couldn't be a "knock out" desire so overwhelming that it threw the game plan off kilter. That's a surefire recipe for disaster
Turned out, my concern was for naught. During Orlando's first quarter (easily their best), the Lakers withstood an initial storm they had to expect from a team fighting for its postseason life. They didn't panic or treat the game as if it was somehow slipping away. Kobe and Co. remained calm, confident their superior abilities would allow them ride out the storm and eventually come out on the other side of it. Slowly but surely, they got stops, hit big shots, forced Orlando mistakes and allowed their desperation to emerge a fatal enemy. As the game wore on, the Magic played tighter (as in "rigid," not "well oiled machine") and more aware of dire straights, which led to an unglued state. Chances to capitalize on mini-runs or Laker misses went uncashed, perhaps the most glaring example coming when Rafer Alston attempted a home run pass to Mickael Pietrus, sailing the rock over his head and into the stands. Bad decisions like that won't win a team many games, much less stop the dirt from filling up a grave.
In the meantime, the Lakers were an athletic metronome. Steady. Never too high. Never too low. Never too desperate to "make something happen." Just working a plan. It reminded me a lot of the San Antonio Spurs during their "every other year" title runs. What made those Duncan/Popovich crews most dangerous was an eerily methodical nature. Didn't matter if they were playing at the top of their talents or stinking up the joint. They were impossible to rattle. We saw that look's foundation laid for the Lakers during Game four's first half, when foul trouble led to some visible frustration, but didn't lead to bad play. Tonight, the Lakers took that next step, a big reason they made reversing Orlando's fortunes look so easy.
- Okay, I lied. One negative. If you're one of jackasses I watched on the news tear up the Staples Center/L.A. Live area or various spots around Los Angeles, find another team to root for. Seriously. You embarrass me and give the city a bad name. At the very least, do the "semi-right" thing, go back tomorrow and clean up your pointless mess. Then find another team to root for. The Raider Nation is always taking applications.
And the fans who didn't act the fool, congrats on a special night. I know firsthand how much y'all bleed purple and gold, so enjoy the fruits of your labor. You deserve it.
Photo: Kobe Bryant holding trophies. Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images