June 15, 2009
Los Angeles Lakers 99, Orlando 86 (Lakers win championship, 4-1)
Apparently the only thing I'm left with, after 82 games and two months of playoff basketball, is just to plead with you to appreciate what we have left.
That's nothing new. I'm spending a good chunk of these BtBs throughout the year begging you to have fun with and coo over a game that keeps evolving and changing and growing before our very eyes. And today, the morning following the final game of the season, my effort is best suited to be spent telling you just how great the Los Angeles Lakers are.
And, just a step or two behind, how great those Orlando Magic were.
The Lakers, in a way, are still active. They're all we have left. They haven't been defeated, or knocked out. Unlike those other 29 teams.
The Magic? They lost the fourth game of a seven-game series on Sunday night. And no matter how close things were in three of the five games that were played, no matter how this nearly turned into a series that may have been completely reversed had things spun Orlando's way in Games 2 and 4 ... spin it did. It did, it did, and they dead.
But before they were dead, man, they were great.
The Orlando Magic were a fantastic basketball team. An absolute joy to watch from the beginning, even if Dwight Howard's(notes) offensive foibles or Rashard Lewis'(notes) aversion to contact had you bouncing off the walls in frustration at times. They cared so much, on nights when no other team seemed to. They worked so hard.
They were a team that so many got completely wrong. Not just an underrated defensive team, but the best defensive team in the NBA during 2008-09, while still boasting the offensive firepower that led a whole heap of pundits (usually on a television set) to call them an offensive-based outfit.
Sure, Kevin Garnett's(notes) absence in Boston may have vaulted Orlando to the top in those defensive charts. And who knows how the Rockets would have fared had Aaron Brooks(notes) not started at point guard for half the regular season. We don't know how those hypotheticals would have turned out.
Here's what we do know. Rashard Lewis spent the entire season at power forward for the Orlando Magic. Jameer Nelson(notes), who can just barely see over the top of Avery Johnson on the ESPN set, started half a season at point guard. Hardly 2/5ths of a defensive lineup for the ages.
And though the team took in heady defensive play from Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Mickael Pietrus(notes), rookie Courtney Lee(notes) played 41 percent of his team's minutes at shooting guard during the regular season. A number that was no doubt topped in the postseason, even as Lee had to work while wearing a cumbersome facemask.
So what's the difference? What set them over the top? What made them the best defensive team this league had to offer in 2008-09? The Defensive Player of the Year helped, no doubt. But most of all -- and I know this seems like a copout in lieu of actual analysis -- the Magic worked their asses off.
No team came close, and I watched ‘em all, this year. Watched ‘em over and over again. This squad played so hard, so unrelentingly, and without hesitation. It wasn't an act. The Magic just didn't want your screen and roll to work, if you didn't mind. They weren't too keen on you beating them in transition. They didn't like the fact that you attempted to procure an offensive rebound. They felt uneasy in regards to your stated hope of making close to half of your shots.
So, if that's the case regarding the Magic, where does that leave the Lakers?
As absolute, deserved, champions.
I know it took a while to put together. I know it looks at times if they wouldn't make it out of their own bracket or, worse, didn't deserve to. And that's coming from people with dimmer expectations of what this team is capable of.
I don't know if anyone expects as much out of this version of the Los Angeles Lakers as I do. I saw 70-win potential in them, heading into this season. Didn't think it would happen, not with all those variables, but I know that offense and I've seen what that defense can do. I know stats and I know where these players were headed. If they got it right, and stayed healthy ... 70 wins.
Problem is, they didn't stay healthy. And some of the career arcs seemed to spin off course.
After completely shoring up Los Angeles' awful point guard defense from two years ago in 2007-08, Derek Fisher(notes) fell off the face of the earth defensively, like an NFL running back that somehow went from 1300 to 500 yards in a year's time.
Jordan Farmar(notes), out of nowhere, fell off. Andrew Bynum(notes) tore a significant ligament in his knee, and Kobe Bryant(notes) lost a little bit of patience. A lot of patience. Especially in the first three rounds of this year's postseason.
But with all of that logged against them? 65 wins, in 82 tries. 81 in 105 attempts, overall. Third in offense, sixth in defense. Those are championship stats, and as much as I'm telling myself to remember this team at its best, I'll probably remember this team for not being able to take that extra step. Coming close, but falling short due to injury, slumps, and an impatient tone in May.
And I should stop, because that's being ridiculous. Could it have gone better? Could it have gone smarter?
Yes, and yes. And guess what? They're not robots. And, from November until mid-June, they walked all over this league.
The playoffs, I'm sorry, but that was a tough, tough run. Laugh at the Utah Jazz all you want, but that team can play. And some of the best offensive stretches (small things, good four or five minute runs, but "stretches" nevertheless) I've ever seen in my life came from these Lakers against a Jazz team some picked to win the West before the season started.
The Rockets? Chortle if you must at the absence of Tracy McGrady(notes) and (eventually) Yao Ming(notes), but that was an impossibly-tough defensive team that had advantages in all the right slots (Aaron Brooks taking on Fisher's defense, most profoundly), and were about as stern as second round warnings come.
The Denver Nuggets? Mock if you will, but that was a championship caliber team that had quite a few pundits wondering aloud about who, exactly, would win a Denver/Orlando Finals pairing. They weren't wrong in that line of thinking, because the Nuggets were good enough to get there.
And the Lakers were good enough to top them all.
And they were great enough to down the Orlando Magic in five games.
Three may have been close. Two may have been won in overtime, but they beat a great, great team four out of five times in June. That is so, so impressive.
These are the things we have to remember. These are the things we need to appreciate, now. Not just for this week, as something to chew on before the Draft hits and free agency takes over.
But for all time. These Lakers were a powerhouse.
These Lakers are a powerhouse.
Understand what the Lakers did to Orlando, with their offense. Please.
Teams double-team offensive firebrands like Kobe Bryant all season long. But nobody seems to get away with doubling Kobe, not just because of Kobe's brilliance, but because of Los Angeles' offense. And when the Magic, the best defensive team in the NBA did it, Los Angeles seemed to have a 6-on-3 advantage due to that offense, with its unmatched spacing. Not just your typical 4-on-3. The Magic were helpless once that ball started moving.
115, 104, 121, 103 and 110 points per 100 possessions for the Lakers in the series. That's against the NBA's best defense, a defense that gave up only 101.9 points per 100 points on average during the regular season. If the Lakers are the unstoppable force, and the Magic were the unmovable object, well, the force wouldn't stop. And the object got to moving.
That's the stuff I have to remind myself of. The Laker defense, however, will be hard to forget. Splayed out in front of me from Games 1 through 5, is the biggest thing I'll take from this series.
Now, Orlando isn't exactly the 2005 Phoenix Suns. They can fill it up as they did during Game 3, but they were still 11th in offense during the regular season. So it's not the greatest accomplishment if you shut them down.
But watching that Laker defense in person? Observing that all-out effort? The length? The timing? The game plan (Phil Jackson's assistants are just the gold standard)? The results?
Seeing the way Trevor Ariza(notes) absolutely manhandled Hedo Turkoglu? It wasn't just that he was playing him physically; he was beating him to the spot, every time down court. By the end of Game 4, Hedo wanted absolutely nothing to do with playing against this guy, any more. Ariza just swallowed him up.
You might be sick of me going on about it, but the way this man was able to move his feet, I swear, it was downright Rodman-ian at times. I don't toss that out there lightly. He had help, especially from slap-happy Laker guards and Lamar Odom(notes) on the baseline, but Pau deserves so, so much credit that I regret to assume he'll never get for his work in this series. Just swallowed Dwight Howard up.
Kobe's help defense was excellent. After years of me banging on about how I don't believe he's earned those all-NBA Defensive Team selections (I still don't, because for the good of the Lakers, he takes defensive possessions off. Lots of them), this was continued proof (proof that I didn't need, mind you) that Bryant is amongst the game's best defensively when he has the ability to be.
And after a year spent working with Tim Grover, Bryant had that needed stamina. I talked with Grover after Game 5, and he wasted no time telling me that he thought the media reaction to Kobe's supposed weary-legged ways was "hogwash," mainly because Grover and Bryant had developed a system of stamina-building and rest that even went down to ways of conserving energy while others shoot free throws.
"Every second counts," he told me. And while we were talking about little breaks in the action meant to refuel and reinvigorate, he may as well have been talking about Bryant's overall approach to the game he's obsessed with.
Kobe's mannerisms may annoy the piss out of you. He might come off as transparent, or cloying, or obvious in his approach. It shouldn't matter. The guy works hard. He obsesses over the game more than anyone in this league. And there's a reason why, even if he isn't as dominant a force as Jordan and Bird and Magic were, he still seems to put together just as many highlights as they did.
Not because he's a publicity hound, desperate to make the cable recaps. Far from it. It's because he knows the game well enough to work in this Laker offense and make the phenomenal look, well, phenomenal. Because he's developed all the moves.
This isn't to say he still isn't worth shouting at. He does things in and out of that offense that leave stomping my feet with frustration, and I could give a rip who wins or loses. I'm not going to tell you that he's earned the right to freelance as much as he does in that offense, because nobody should freelance in that offense, that much. Michael Jordan certainly didn't, even when he wanted us to believe that he did.
What I can tell you is that the man deserves our respect. This paragraph used to be several paragraphs. It included several reasons why he deserves our respect. It could have grown into dozens of reasons why. I'm not going to bore you with them. I'm just going to demand that you appreciate a guy like Kobe Bryant, while he's around.
This was more of a team victory than the coverage surrounding it will suggest. Bryant has a team that suits his talents, and I'm not trying to be obscure or contrarian when I suggest that Gasol's defense was certainly on par with Kobe's offense in this series, and that Bryant's defense was about even with Gasol's offense, making them both MVP candidates.
But if anyone deserves to be pushed forward, singularly, when four or five others deserve the spotlight as well, it's Kobe. Because of that unending obsession, the one we all want our favorite players on our favorite teams to have.
And if Kobe's your favorite player, on your favorite team? Congratulations. Because I don't think this team is done, yet.
Bryant may be in his 30s, but there is absolutely no reason why he can't have the security and the willingness to fade into the background a bit, as was the case with the man who drafted him, Jerry West. You know he's smart enough to pull it off.
The 1971-72 Lakers set a then-NBA record for wins in a season with 69, and though West and Wilt Chamberlain were that team's most enduring superstars, Jerry was second on the team in scoring, and Chamberlain was fourth. There's no reason Kobe can't take a step back, work as a facilitator, and remain his team's most dangerous offensive contributor even if he does rack up the points or (and this is important) the assists. That's up to Kobe, ever mindful of his place in history, to be secure enough to assume that we'd understand.
It's also up to us to understand. To see why scaring people on the weak side offensively can be just as potent as nailing a 17-footer in Courtney Lee's face. Hell, if we were good enough to appreciate Jackie Robinson scaring the wits out of the pitcher as he moved up and down the third base line, why can't we admire the same from basketball players?
That's in the future, we hope. For now, I guess I have to come back, and throw another bon mot Los Angeles' way as the season ends. It wouldn't be the first time.
I remember wrapping up a season-ending BtB for the last game of the 1999-00 season, giddy with potential, looking forward to a possible Laker dynasty even after a wearying season such as the one we just worked through. "See you next year," I wrote. It's what I ended the post with.
Of course, the site I wrote for didn't make it ‘til the next season. And the site I wrote for after that didn't make it to the Finals the next year. And the site I wrote for after that wasn't really interested in detailing the game action. And on it went, for years.
These Lakers? They look set to dominate. And that, to me, is never a bad thing when the basketball is good. And with these Lakers, the basketball is so, so good.
I don't care that this franchise always seems to be in the Finals. I don't care that we've seen these faces before. I don't care if we know, by Christmas, who's going to win it all.
I care about great basketball. And outside of my family and friends and the readers that dare pull me up every morning, it's always been what I care about the most.
The Los Angeles Lakers are giving us great basketball. Time and time again, on both sides. And whatever happens from here on out, whatever form they take, whatever fork they choose, I'll always appreciate what they gave me, us, this season.
See you next year. I mean it, this time.