Kobe Bryant has now done something that Tim Duncan never did: lead his team to back-to-back Finals appearances. That thought startled me a little when it first entered my brain, but it’s true. Since MJ and the Bulls faced off against Karl Malone and the Jazz in ‘97 and ‘98, it’s been exceedingly difficult for teams to see June action for two-straight seasons. Obviously Kobe and Shaq did it earlier in the decade for their three-peat, the Nets had back-to-back Finals losses in ‘02 and ‘03, and the Pistons made it in ‘04 and ‘05 – that’s the list. The Lakers deserve to be congratulated, because they’ve already managed to achieve something many of the best teams the last decade have failed to.
Game 6 may have been the Lakers best performance all playoffs. It was an ominous warning to the waiting Cleveland and Orlando teams, a sign that maybe the Lakers are just starting to peak. The reason this was such an impressive win was not only due to the monster 27-point final margin, but because the Lakers did something their critics didn’t think they could do: put two great games together back-to-back. After watching them turn bi-polar against Houston, it really seemed to me that the Lakers had focus issues. A “turn it on when we need to” attitude that I had grown so hopefully accustomed to during the Pistons several deep playoff runs. Today against Denver I saw them play with a sense of desperation and focus I had not yet seen – well, to be clear, I usually see it in Kobe but not everyone else. Today, they were locked in one-through twelve, for 48 minutes, and it was beautiful to watch (even for someone barracking for the Nuggets).
Bill Simmons Twittered after the game that he thought this was Kobe’s second best ever playoff game to his Game 4 against the Kings in 2001. I wouldn’t go that far (Kobe had 48 points and 16 rebounds that day), but it is hard to argue with stats: only once before has Kobe had 35+ points and 10+ assists in a playoff game. Interestingly, that was against Denver in last year’s playoffs when he went for 49-10. In games 1-4 of this series Kobe was an offensive threat, in Game 5 he played as a “decoy”, and in Game 6 he did both. That is a rarity for Kobe, because generally the offensive threat/decoy are mutually exclusive things for him – like oil and milk they don’t dissolve easily. The perfect example of that was the Lakers-Suns series in the 2006 playoffs. That was the season Kobe averaged 35 points and finished it off by averaging 40 points through the month of April – clearly he was in a heavy scoring mode. Then in Game 1 against the Suns he flicks the switch and he becomes the facilitator. That switch would remain on for the first five games – none of which saw Kobe take more than 27 field-goal attempts, which is what he averaged during the regular season. Kobe clearly wasn’t looking to score, that is, until Game 6 when he flicked the switch again and scored 50 (in a loss). My point is, it was always blindingly obvious which mode Kobe was in, and Kobe himself seemed content to emphasize that switch-flicking himself, as if to prove his “do anything for the team” mentality.
The maturity of Kobe Bryant is evident in the fact now he can flick that switch during the course of a game, during the course of a few minutes – all without seeming like pre-rehearsed theater. It’s coming more naturally for him. He appeared to be cruising the entire first half, getting shots for Ariza, Odom and Gasol. Then BOOM! Over the final three minutes of the first half he scores 11 points. You cannot underestimate what a sense of helplessness this leaves for opposition teams. The “oh shit that’s Kobe Bryant not Steve Nash” realization. I still can’t figure out (and neither can the Nuggets I’m sure) how Kobe managed to score 35 points today, because all I remember is his passing. If I get that feeling during the Finals, the Lakers are your 2009 NBA Champions.
Pau Gasol is an unbelievably talented big hairy man. Some of the shots and passes he made today almost had me blushing in awe. Like I said a few days back, he should be the focal point of the Lakers offense. He should touch the ball on every possession, because today he DID NOT MAKE ONE BAD DECISION. If I was a Lakers fan I would be screaming for Pau to get more of the ball, just as I have spent years screaming for Detroit to get Sheed more touches in the post. The difference is Sheed will make shots from the post; Gasol will make shit happen in general. While watching him go to work on Birdman, K-Mart and Nene today, my mind drifted to the possible finals match ups… visions of him going up against Anderson Varejao and Rashard Lewis…. does that not seem incredibly unfair to you? Pau Gasol is about to go seriously caveman on someone’s ass. Pau Gasol could be your 2009 Finals MVP.
The Nuggets chose an interesting early strategy in defending Trevor Ariza, that being not to defend him at all. He punished them accordingly with an assortment of threes and dunks and looks of surprise at being so open. I guess if you’re George Karl you can live with Ariza jacking up threes, that was no doubt part of the game plan. But it was the Nuggets execution of that plan that was disturbing. On one particular play Melo drifted away from Ariza to give Jones help with a double on Kobe. The problem was Melo didn’t really get close to Kobe/Jones, and when Kobe threw the pass to an open Ariza on the perimeter Melo didn’t run over to him either. He kinda just stood there in the key watching the play unfold and the ball sink through the net. Hopeless defense. Melo may have improved in many areas these playoffs, but defensive effort and intensity is not one of them.
Where to now for Denver? I feel like today’s whooping will overshadow what a huge step forward they’ve made. Let’s not forget that barely a week or two before the playoffs they were struggling to hold on to the #2 seed, and were by no means the clear second best team in the West. During the playoffs that became an undisputed fact and they morphed into a very scary looking unit – to the point where three out of ten “experts” tipped them to beat LA. I didn’t rave on about them having all the championship ingredients for nothing, because on paper, they had it all. In my eyes, they lost this series because of three things:
1) Discipline. They’ve come a long way, but every now and then they did something stupid like JR taunting after a huge three, or K-Mart holding Vujacic’s leg while he tries to hop away. Just little things, but they disrupt the level of 100% focus that is needed to win a championship (and more directly, they lead to free-throws). You could see the Nuggets grow up during these playoffs, because barely a year ago they were a seriously undisciplined bunch of misfits. But there’s still a ways to go.
2) Team defense. The Nuggets have very good individual defenders, that much is certain. K-Mart is one of the better defensive power-forwards in the game, Birdman blocks shots for breakfast, and Dahntay Jones has arrived on the scene as a Bruce Bowen-eque stopper (i.e. he’s annoying as fuck). What the Nuggets aren’t as good at is team defense: rotations, funneling, help-defense, communicating, having your pal’s back, etc. All the things that were so amazing about last year’s Boston Celtics, despite them having no stand-out individual defenders. The Nuggets have improved in this regard, thanks to Chauncey’s experience from his Detroit days, but it’s still not at a Finals-caliber level. There’s still too many lapses, which is exactly the criticism that was leveled at the Lakers last year. The Lakers exploited this Nuggets weakness, just as Boston did to them last Finals.
3) Experience. Plain and simple, the Nuggets are inexperienced when it comes to high-pressure playoff situations. They hadn’t made it past the first round since Melo came into the league, and they never got a chance to play a close-out or a Game 7 which is – in Doctor Phil speak- where you learn things about yourself. You could argue they weren’t even tested through the first two rounds this year. The Lakers were essentially their first big test, and they failed, and most inexperienced teams fail that first big test. Even Michael Jordan and the Bulls did: MJ himself said he would have never won the title if not for the Pistons punishing them repeatedly in the post-season. The Nuggets have now paid their dues, and despite Chauncey being at the helm, “lack of experience” is not a bad excuse for them. Next year it will be.
What do we make of Chauncey Billups after today’s performance? As a Detroit fan, I’ve watched Chauncey go curiously missing in elimination games in the ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08 Conference Finals. You can add 2009 to that list – Mr Big Shot apparently doesn’t hit big shots in elimination games any more. If he was still in Detroit, there would be a lot more outrage and finger-pointing at Chauncey. But because he’s in Denver where he’s been seen as a savior this year, and because Carmelo Anthony is on his team, Chauncey will no doubt escape some of that harsh light. Rightly so in a way – Melo should shoulder just as much of the blame. But it is curious that Billups can light up Chris Paul and make him look like a D-Leaguer, yet struggle against Derek Fisher and end up going 2-7 in an elimination game. Chauncey’s numbers dropped dramatically across the board against the Lakers compared with the New Orleans and Dallas series – his shooting percentage was especially pathetic (39.7%). His 10 points in Game 6 was his second-lowest output of this playoffs, topped only by a blow-out game where he hardly needed to shoot. Saving his worst till last. Regrettably, it’s what a Detroit fan has come to expect from Chauncey the last few years. And just so you know, It really hurt typing that sentence.
What about Carmelo Anthony? I kind of laugh when I hear people talk about how Melo has now become one of the game’s best players – Magic Johnson, God bless him, said that today after the game. This quite frankly is a load of crap. Melo has been one of the league’s best players for the past five years. Offensively only a handful have been better. I’ll agree that he didn’t demonstrate the improvement and learning curve that Lebron and Wade exhibited since entering the league, but lets remember that Melo was a far more complete player than both of them when they were drafted (it is not often that a rookie automatically becomes one of the most complete offensive players in the league, but Melo was exactly that). All Melo really needed was some playoff success to legitimize his claims and attract a little more attention, and now he has that. His form towards the end of the Dallas series and during the start of the LA series was sublime and frankly, historic – he looked like he was going to win the Nuggets a championship by himself. But then he hit a little slump and ended up shooting only 40% in the Lakers series. Today he missed really easy shots he’d been making all playoffs. It looked like the pressure of the game got to him, and like I said above, that ain’t surprising because Carmelo Anthony has only played a handful of games in his career that really matter.
I have nice things to say about JR Smith, which you shouldn’t expect from me often because in general, I think he’s a total douche. But today he was the only Nuggets player that looked like he gave a shit. He stayed aggressive, he shot well, he abused Lakers defense when they got lazy. At times during this series he did very un-JR Smith like things, such as making plays for his teammates, and resisting the urge to jack up shit shots when you could almost see the adrenaline pulsing through him. I have now seen glimpses of JR that make me think there is a very deliberate and cerebral talent inside him waiting to overthrow the punk-ass dickery he exhibits most of the time. Today was a good example, when he carried the Denver offense through the first and early second quarters and dragged them out of a six-point deficit. He was the reason the blowout didn’t start earlier. But then, after hitting the shot that gave Denver a one point lead, he did his little retarded chicken strut down the court and I immediately lost all hope. If only he could keep a lid on things and celebrated the major victories instead of the minor, trivial ones (like nailing a three in Sasha Vujacic’s face). At that moment I asked on Twitter, “why do I get the feeling that the more JR Smith strutting we see the more chance the Nuggets have of losing”. That’s exactly what happened. Smith scored a minute later, then didn’t do anything of note again until the Nuggets were down 18. The Nuggets should totally ban JR from any outbursts of post-shot punk-ass dickery, because underneath it seems there is a much less-douchey JR plotting a mutiny.
Looking ahead to the Finals, the Lakers will get plenty of rest and spend time watching Games 6 and 7 of the Cavs-Orlando series. Yes, that will go to seven. Who would they rather face? I’m guessing Orlando, partly because of the home-court advantage they would have, and partly because they won’t have to deal with Lebron. There’s that stat about Phil Jackson teams being 43-0 (or something similar-and-0) when they win Game 1 of a series, which makes me think Phil and the Lakers would much rather see Orlando get through to face them at Staples. But either way, the Lakers have the personnel to handle both teams. Like I said a couple of days ago, they don’t suffer from the same Hedo-Lewis mismatches that the Cavs do. They have a defensive weapon in Ariza who will make Lebron work, and a bench that’s far deeper than Cleveland or Orlando’s. I will refrain from making too much speculation on the Finals because that would be disrespectul to the Magic/Cavs who still have games to play.
But the Lakers will win.