AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
I had to go back to LA. When planning my trip and looking at the games schedule, I knew I had to keep moving East to get to my eventual goal of reaching New York. But there it was, Nuggets @ Lakers, too hard to resist. Especially given the Nuggets new-found identity as the clear number 2 team out West. Especially given the chance to see one of my old Pistons heroes, Chauncey Billups. There was quite a bit of hype leading up to this game, and most of the folks I spoke to in LA genuinely believed the Nuggets were a dangerous team that could upset them. But overriding all of that was the optimism of Andrew Bynum’s return – for good reason, it turned out.
I managed to secure a media pass for this game and headed down to the locker rooms an hour before tip off. The Lakers locker room was mostly empty, except for Ariza who was suiting up. Lamar Odom walked in sweating from his pre-game shootaround. Then I saw Sasha Vujacic, the Machine, in a pose that would typify everything his Machine-parody has made famous. He was standing in front of a tall mirror adjusting a black headband, stroking his long hair.
“What’s with the headband dude?” someone else in the locker room chimed, grinning.
“Is for shootaround” Machine quipped, staring at himself in the mirror. “Always wear this for shootaround”. The expression on his face was deadly serious.
He walked towards his locker and I mustered up the courage to approach him (the first few times I was in the players rooms I couldn’t help but get a little nervous, these are stars of the game, will they be nice to you? Will they bite?).
“Hey Sasha, how you doin?” was what I said. He looked at me and nodded and said “hey”.
“I’m from Australia, I’ve come a long way to be here tonight”. This is not a bad line to use to get their attention, and why not, it’s true. The Machine’s eyes lit up.
“Oh you’re from Australia? Where in Australia, Melbourne?” said Machine.
“Yeah! Melbourne. You been there?” I asked.
“I have some family friends in Melbourne. Never been there though. It’s a great place huh?” said Machine.
“Yeah man, you should come visit some time. You’d love it.” And from there on Machine was my friend.
After being in a few locker rooms and speaking to quite a few players over the last week, I can say without any doubt that Sasha was the most friendly and genuine of them all. We spoke for about five minutes, and the whole time he was happy to answer my questions even though I knew he was itching to get out there on the court for the shootaround. I had probably interrupted the Machine’s pre-game ritual of “Put on headband, check hair, Machine go shoot”. But he never let on he was in a hurry.
He spoke about how this season he’s experienced his ups and downs, and how often he’s had to make sacrifices for the good of the team. Sometimes only playing five minutes is tough, especially when the Lakers have been this successful, especially when you can shoot like Sasha. I asked him how this season compared to last – statistically they’re very different, 8.8ppg on 44% 3-pt shooting in 17.8 minutes last season, to only 5.6ppg on 35% 3-pt shooting in 16.1 minutes this season. Not necessarily the decline you’d expect for a young, improving player on a team this good. “My role is different this season” he replied. No doubt owing to the fact the Lakers have more bench contributors this season, and the play of Trevor Ariza who has stepped up his role considerably (and was injured for most of last season). “But I still love the responsibility, I love the pressure situations” Sasha said, gearing up for the playoffs in his mind already.
Of course, I had to ask him about The Dunk. I told him it was one of the most popular YouTube clips at the moment. He smiled, but then quickly went serious again. “I played the whole quarter that time, which is different to usual. It’s hard to find rhythm when you’re not playing all the time. DJ made a great pass and I was able to cut to the rim”. A much more diplomatic response than I was looking for. “Felt good?” I asked. “Yeah. Felt good” he said while laughing. I wished him good luck for the game, and Machine ran off, tucking his hair under his headband.
Last year I said that Sasha was one of my favorite guys in the league. A lot of people say they like Sasha, because he’s the Machine, because he’s a lovable character, because he’s Sasha. But if you look beyond that, you will see a player with a big heart who wears it on his sleeve. A player who means more to the game than you realize.
A few years ago Sasha Vujacic was looking like a player who wouldn’t be around the NBA for very long. He couldn’t shoot consistently, he wasn’t getting minutes. After the Lakers second successive first-round defeat at the hands of Phoenix in 2007, during the off-season that saw Kobe bad mouth Bynum and throw a few tantrums, the Lakers camp was in disarray. They could have been forgiven for trying to offload Sasha, the Slovenian experiment had seemingly failed. But they persisted and were rewarded for it, as Sasha became one of the deadliest shooters in the game during the Lakers stellar 2007-2008 season. During this time he showed me that he’s more than a long-range gunner – he hustles with the best of them, he runs the court like a mad man, and when he screws up he lets himself know about it. I’ve said a few times that Sasha can get a bit “sooky” on the court, and he can, but this trait is the source of his inner drive. When Phil Jackson mouths off at Sasha you know he’s taking it to heart. When he takes a bad shot instead of passing to an open teammate you can see the look of regret on his face, albeit for an instant. Instead of sucking it up, Sasha lets it out, and it’s this transparency that makes him such a fan favorite.
If only more NBA players seemed to care as much as Sasha Vujacic does, the league would be a much better place. For that reason, and for the fact that having met him he seems to be a really good bloke, Sasha Vujacic is one of my favorite guys in the league. If you see a dude walking around Melbourne wearing a Lakers #18 jersey, stop and say hi. It will probably be me.
UPDATE: In hindsight, for being such a good bloke, Sasha gets into our Wall of Fame. Sorry Ray, you just ain’t no Machine.
I went looking for Chauncey in the Denver locker room. He wasn’t there. K-Mart was, looking a little tired. He saw me approaching and pretended he was sleeping. “Nice try Kenyon” I said. I spoke to him for a couple of minutes hoping Chauncey would walk in, then headed outside where Nuggets coach George Karl was surrounded by reporters. One of them asked him whether defense was the hardest point to coach to this Denver team? Karl paused for a bit. “The changes we made.. made it easier. We couldn’t have picked up a better player [Billups]“. He went on to talk about the impact that Chauncey had made, and how everything about him exudes “winning”. He made the interesting point that last season, “shot selection created our bad defense”, and this was something AI and Melo struggled with at times.
On to the game itself. What an anti-climax. Denver stayed close for a half and Melo looked dangerous when he was on the floor, but ultimately foul trouble was his undoing. The Lakers shot 46 free throws in this game, Gasol and Kobe combining for 18-21. The FT disparity made it difficult for the Nuggets to stay close late in the game, and the Lakers simply blew them out. Kobe made some tough shots late, as he always does, and the gap between first and second teams out West was made to look startlingly large. Bynum impressed me in his first game back. There was a little rust, to be expected, but damn he still looked good. I’m sticking to what I said 8 months ago before the season started – Andrew Bynum might be the most important player in the league. He is the one guy that can negate everything else. The Celtics efforts to get KG healthy for playoffs, the Cavs trying to prove they are the best team in the league, the Magic trying to prove that they can prove themselves – it all doesn’t matter if Andrew Bynum is healthy. He makes that much of a difference.
So can we skip the Western playoffs this year and send the Lakers straight to the Finals? Not so fast. Let me take you back to 2006. The Detroit Pistons finished with 64 wins and had a similar 10-game lead on the next best team in the conference, as the Lakers do now. They were in a class of their own. It prompted Bill Simmons to say this during round 1 of the playoffs (I know, I’ve quoted this before):
They’re cruising to the Finals as easily as any team since the 2001 Lakers unless something goofy happens, like Billups blows out a knee and as he’s rolling around on the ground Rasheed runs over to help him out, leans over and cracks a bone in his back. Or Rip Hamilton’s nose breaks again and leaves him with one of those Michael Jackson/no-cartilage noses, killing his self-esteem in crunch time. Or Flip Saunders intentionally starts tanking games so he can challenge Don Nelson’s record for “most playoff games coached with a career record under .500.” Or Kid Rock and Eminem start beefing at courtside of a home game, followed by Kid’s brother-in-law firing gunshots at someone in Eminem’s posse and inadvertently shooting Tayshaun Prince. Get the point? Something REALLY crazy would have to happen
History will show that something really crazy DID happen, and the Pistons fell out in the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to a Wade-charged Miami Heat. My point is, don’t think the Lakers are immune to having something like this happen to them. There are teams out West that can beat you on any given day. Last year in the playoffs the Lakers got the benefit of most close calls and close games – they had the appropriate mix of dominance and fortune (i.e luck) you need to make the Finals. This time around only a few things need to go wrong, a couple of freaky buzzer beaters or suspensions, and the Lakers could fall short. I’m not saying it will happen, just that there might be a 2006-version of the Miami Heat lingering somewhere in that pack of Western Conference teams. Maybe the Trail Blazers? (not too disimilar to that Heat team). Maybe the Rockets? Who knows. If I had to bet, I’d still put big money on the Lakers making the Finals. But in 2006 I would have lost big money with that line of thinking. That is why we do the playoffs. That is why the slogan asks “Where will amazing happen this year?”. If I knew the answer to that, I would be a very rich man.