(AP Photo/Chris Graythen, Pool)

So it happened again. In last year’s Finals Game 4 we saw the Celtics historic comeback, an improbable win snatched from the jaws of defeat, a 48-minute nightmare that LA would wake from only to see the insurmountable 3-1 deficit staring back at them. It happened again this year, not a comeback as anywhere near as epic, but a nightmare nonetheless for Orlando. Except this one lasted 53 minutes.

I’ll never forget last year’s Game 4, it was one of the most memorable games I’ve watched in my life. I was in the lounge room with my old housemate, the devout Ray Allen fan, trying to balance my wide-eyed amazement at the Lakers basketball perfection through most of the first three quarters, while consoling my housemate who was becoming more depressed after every play. “This was the reason” I thought, while watching LA in that second quarter, “why I tipped them to win the series in 6″. Nowhere over the first three games had Boston put on a basketball display like that. And then it all turned.

You could argue that this year’s Game 4 Lakers victory pales in comparison to that Celtics win – they were never in a 24-point hole like Boston was. But that is underselling the Lakers effort. History will show that with one minute to go in last year’s Game 4, the Celtics were up 3 with possession and would hold on for a comfortable six point win. With a minute to go yesterday, the Lakers were down 5 without possession, yet they still found a way to force overtime and get the W. And for the first time all series, after the game we saw Kobe smile.

A few other observations from Game 4:

  • Two days ago I said Dwight Howard was the Orlando player with most room for improvement on his Game 3 effort – in a way I was right and wrong at the same time. I was right because Dwight answered the call with a monstrous defensive game including a Finals-record 9 blocks to go with 21 rebounds. I was wrong because it was Dwight’s turnovers and free-throw shooting that cost Orlando the game. With 11 seconds in regulation Dwight walked to the free-throw his team up three, in all likelihood just needing to bury one to seal the win. Career-defining moment? Or an aberration? He makes those and he doesn’t only get credit for sealing the win, his effort goes down as one of the greatest in NBA Finals history. His missed FTs are forgotten, his turnovers made irrelevant, his team on the verge of gaining the upper edge in the series. But as it stands, Dwight’s amazing 21 rebound-16 point-9 block performance will be completely forgotten and rendered meaningless. Amazing what one free throw can do.
  • Has Kobe always chewed gum like that? I need a die-hard Lakers fan in here. As if he doesn’t have enough of MJ’s mannerisms down pat, now he goes with the gum? Have I just overlooked this previously? (Ahh the wonders of the Internet, turns out I’m not alone in finding this new and unusual, apparently he did it in Game 4 of the Utah series as well). In all seriousness though, did anyone think that Kobe somehow looked even more self-assured than usual because of his gum chewing? Is it solely because of Michael Jordan that when I see a premier athlete chewing gum I immediately think they’re invincible and way more cooler than seems humanly possible? Kobe, drop the gum. It’s just too unsettling.
  • I feel bad for Hedo Turkoglu. The guy is by far the most talented offensive player on that Orlando team, yet he’s also supposed to be running the offense and making every big decision down the stretch. I was flabbergasted to see Jameer Nelson play so many minutes in the fourth when Rafer has been far more dangerous and seemed far less likely to just fall over at any time, but then it occured to me – Stan Van Gundy doesn’t really want the ball in either of their hands down the stretch. He wants it in Hedo’s hands. It’s been one of the more surprising things I’ve learnt about the Magic this postseason, just how dependent they really are on Hedo Turkoglu. And when his partner in crime Rashard Lewis conveniently chooses to turn invisible, the load Hedo has to carry is just too much. I honestly blame the Nelson return for a lot of this. Down the stretch of a close game you want consistency, you want execution, you want your go-to moves and your go-to guys. While SVG deliberates when to play Rafer/Jameer and for how long in the fourth, he messes up that balance, and it forces him and his players to seek the only shred of consistency they can rely on in the clutch – that is Hedo. Dwight gets big numbers and the superstar attention. Hedo is their MVP.
  • I have to laugh at Andrew Bynum sometimes at how freaking hopeless he is. I’m sorry Lakers fans, but he is. His intentions are good, he plays with passion and energy, but he does too many dumb things on the court. He’s like a taller blacker Mark Madsen. What is even more amusing is how he was supposed to be the Lakers savior coming into this postseason – “if we only had Bynum against the Celtics” they cried. Hell, I’ve said this several times myself – when Bynum was playing well. I wonder, how much has his mediocre play been due to his knee? How far from 100% is he really? Or maybe he’s just choking a little in his debut-playoff campaign? After all, I can’t think of too many starting centers that are playing for the title-favored team all the way through June, while only being 21 years old. Either way, it’s become increasingly clear that the biggest difference-maker from last season’s losing Lakers team is the inclusion of Trevor Ariza – not Andrew Bynum.
  • Late in the game, one of the ABC guys (think it was Mark Jackson) was wondering out loud about who Mitch Kupchak will make his priority in signing for next season – Trevor Ariza or Lamar Odom? It may be the biggest problem the Lakers face this off-season. Both have been instrumental at various times through the playoffs – Odom huge in finishing off both the Jazz and Nuggets series, while Ariza has had his fair share of game-saving steals and threes. The difference is one is about to turn 30, while one is 25. Ariza has to be the Lakers priority, if only for the reason that Kobe will be pushing it fiercely. Why? Becuase Kobe has been to battle with Odom for several years now, all the way back to the 04-05 season where the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs, to both first-round exits against Phoenix, to last year’s Finals whopping by the Celtics. Too many times Kobe has had to look over at his number #7 “sidekick” in the locker rooms after a season-ending loss.  Contrast that to Ariza’s first full-year with the team where they will probably win the championship, where Kobe will get his fourth ring. You don’t think Kobe sees it that way? You bet he does.
  • I have to give a little props to Tizzle, our resident Knicks fan. From the day Ariza entered the league in 2004 with New York, Tizzle proudly started proclaiming him the G.O.A.T. He used to go on and on about Ariza’s defensive talents, about his endless potential and his work ethic – after a couple of years of this I realised it wasn’t a fad, that Ariza wasn’t just Tizzle’s “favorite of the month”. Tizzle my man, you were right. While I don’t doubt a lot of it was eager Knicks hype to distract yourself from your very shitty team, you clearly saw something in Ariza five years ago that I – and everyone else I know – didn’t see. Your boy is probably going to win an NBA championship ring, not just as a passenger, but as arguably the third most important Laker on that team. How do you feel?
  • How bout Derek Fisher? Watching Game 2 last week we were talking about how Kobe might finally shred the ‘never without Shaq’ tag, when one of my mates asked me if Fisher had played with Kobe during the three-peat. I answered “yes”, to which he replied: “So if he wins this year, it will be ‘never without Fisher’”? I laughed, if only because I could see Kobe-haters seriously trying to level that argument (couldn’t you?). And it is a silly argument, but let’s keep in mind that fewer players have made more big-time playoffs/finals shots over the last ten years in the league. After Kobe, Horry and Duncan, I’m stuggling to think who would be ahead of Fisher on that list. Billups and Pierce maybe, but even that’s a stretch. Michael Jordan only had one teammate that won all his titles alongside him – Scottie Pippen. Perhaps we’ll be saying the same thing about Kobe and Fisher when their careers are over.
  • Last thing I want to talk about is that elbow. The ABC commentators called it a foul, as have a few other bloggers around the Interweb. Here is my take. Firstly, Kobe didn’t “swing” his elbow like many are saying. His elbows weren’t out like some players when they’re trying to clear space after a rebound. I won’t say Kobe’s movement was an entirely “natural motion” – his elbow was a little more raised than it needed to be to make that pass – but the ball was also well above his elbows. If the ball was around his chest when he had connected with Jameer, it would have looked a lot worse. But if you freeze the frame when Kobe made contact, you’ll see the ball was above his head and his arm was almost vertical. Tough to make the call in that situation. Put it this way, if that had been Pietrus closing on Kobe, he would have been hit in the upper-chest and we wouldn’t be debating this. But because it was Nelson and he is small, it was made to look a lot worse. Taking into account the nature of superstar calls, it’s easy to see why there was no call in that situation, and I don’t have a major problem with it. Though if it was Detroit’s guard getting elbowed you could have expected a 2000-word cry of outrage. What’s your take?

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