Lakers have strong record in closeout games
The performances become as notable as the Laker flags waving all around Los Angeles.
And the record reveals about the same dominance as the Lakers' 16 NBA championships.
Ever since Phil Jackson took over as the Lakers' head coach in the 1999-2000 season, he has gone 27-7 in closeout games, a good sign for the Lakers entering Game 6 Thursday at New Orleans, where they have a 3-2 series lead. Because of differing personnel, it's misleading to look at the 12-2 closeout mark the Lakers' three-peat teams established in their 2000 to 2002 championship years, pointless to revisit Jackson's only major blip when the Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Phoenix Suns in 2006 and even wonder why it took seven games before the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets in the 2009 semifinals since the defending champions have gone 8-1 in closeout games the last season.
The most valuable blueprint on how the Lakers can close out their first-round series against New Orleans and face the winner between Dallas and Portland in the West Semifinals beginning Monday points to the 2010 postseason, considering their entire starting lineup and Lamar Odom remain on the team. They went 4-0 during closeout games with Game 6 victories against Oklahoma City (first round) and Phoenix (West Finals), a sweep against Utah (West semifinals) and winning that memorable seventh game against Boston (NBA Finals). Below the jump are a few areas the Lakers perfected in closing out the series on the first opportunity.
Pau Gasol let out a roar. Kobe Bryant waved his hands like an airplane in front of Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry. And Ron Artest blew kisses to the Staples Center crowd after making a game-defining three-pointer against Boston. Yes, as clichéd as it sounds, closeout games feature clutch performances. Gasol made a game-winning putback in the Lakers' 95-94 Game 6 victory April 30 against Oklahoma City. Bryant and Gasol teamed up for 55 points in the 111-96 Game 4 win May 10 over Utah. Bryant and Artest combining for 52 points in the 111-103 Game 6 win May 29 over Phoenix. And Artest's Game 7 against Boston earned him good graces among the Lakers faithful and led to one of the most memorable postgame press conferences.
The Lakers' closing out against New Orleans might require the same type of effort, whether it's Bryant dominating again despite a sprained left ankle or Gasol and Andrew Bynum maintaining their aggressiveness inside. Considering Bryant has scored at least 30 points in eight closeout road games during his 15-year career, it's a pretty good bet that could happen again.
Laker fans can laugh about it now, but the anxiety level reached an all-time high when they saw Sasha Vujacic's elbow to Goran Dragic suddenly lead to the Phoenix Suns slashing a double-digit deficit and remaining competitive in the game. Bryant, in a serious look, told TNT's Craig Sager, "I'm still going to kill him." But it's good Bryant decided to hold off because Vujacic hit two free throws to clinch the Lakers' Game 7 victory over Boston. None of these closeout games has ever been perfect. But the Lakers managed to avoid lapses in play that resulted in a loss.
Bryant airballed a potential game-winner against Oklahoma City, but Gasol made that a non-issue by delivering the putback. The Utah Jazz sliced a double-digit lead into single digits in the fourth quarter and Bynum didn't do his part in exploiting the Lakers' size advantage, finishing with only six points on two-of-six shooting. But the heroics from Bryant and Gasol made that a non-issue. The contentiousness between Vujacic and Dragic almost set off an international criss in Slovenia, but there was no crisis in Phoenix thanks to Bryant and Artest lighting it up from the outside. And Bryant was on the verge of tainting his legacy with 23 points on six-for-24 shooting, but timely shots from Artest, Vujacic, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and 15 rebounds from Bryant himself helped offset the poor shooting night. It's very plausible the Lakers will meet different challenges against New Orleans, whether it's Chris Paul proving to be unstoppable, Bryant experiencing setbacks with his ankle or Gasol's increased aggressiveness fading, but the Lakers have plenty of other talent and resiliency to make up for it on other ends.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant avoids the block attempt of Hornets power forward Carl Landry before throwing down a dunk in Game 5 of their playoff series on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / April 26, 2011