We’ll do the votes, then we’ll talk about the amazing, incredible completely unpredictable predicament the Lakers have found themselves in thanks to this super Dallas team.
3 votes – Derrick Rose. The best game of Derrick Rose’s playoff career thus far. He was so aggressive that I was almost offended just watching him. He was brutal from the opening tip, scoring 17 points in the first quarter and establishing the tone for his team. After the many questions surrounding the Bulls and Rose’s own iffy ankle, Rose silenced them all in less than ten minutes. 44 points on 16-27 shooting, 7 assists, 5 rebounds is huge by anyone’s standards. But the real amazing stat from this game was this: the rest of the Bulls starters scored only 21 points combined. That is the real reason why Rose gets the 3 votes today. Dirk was sensational but got help. Rose got little help (mostly from his bench and some hustle from Noah) and they still whooped them. A perfect game from the MVP.
2 votes – Dirk Nowitzki. I found myself shaking my head in awe at least 5-6 times yesterday watching Dirk. I’ll be honest. I kind of wanted the Lakers to win, only because I want to see 6 or 7 games between these teams, rather than a Mavs sweep. This series has been too damn entertaining to end prematurely. But time and time again Dirk stood up, made crazy difficult shots, made a mockery of Pau Gasol, and on every possession down the stretch, played the game exactly the right way. I could only shake my head. All the good things about Dirk’s performance late in this game are all the things that make me frustrated watching Kobe Bryant sometimes. Dirk will make the extra pass. Dirk will hit an insane shot but reset his ego on the next possession. Dirk will make the simple play even if it looks ugly, rather than the dazzling play that requires perfect execution. In essence, clutch without trying to be. Thanks to Peja and some curious Laker decisions, Dirk didn’t have to single-handedly carry the Mavs home. And that is what I loved about his performance. He played smart, he played efficient, he didn’t need to be the hero. But he was anyway.
1 vote – Peja Stojakovic. Where did this come from? Each of Peja’s three treys in the fourth were like daggers slowly being jammed into the Lakers hearts. They were deflating shots because Peja is not supposed to be a guy that beats them late in games. Kidd couldn’t buy a bucket, Barea was quiet, Dirk was Dirk but wasn’t going gang-busters. Things were looking pretty good for the Lakers early in the fourth… but they left Peja open and he was the reason they got back in this game. It’s about at that time when something dawned on me – the Lakers don’t have any good three-point shooters. Sure Shannon Brown was draining a few earlier in the season, but we know that’s not his forte. Where is their Peja? Their Steve Kerr? They don’t have one. And let’s face it, a huge three in a playoff game can be a momentum shifter, especially when it comes from your three-point shooting guy. The Lakers don’t have that. The Mavs do, and he was the difference-maker late in this game.
Let’s talk a little more about this Lakers-Mavs series.
It is fascinating for so many reasons. Firstly, let me throw out any chance the Lakers have of winning it. The series is over Lakers fans, your team is done. No one predicted this. But what is so surprising to me, is the manner in which the Mavs have taken care of business. They have been the better closing team. They have been the smarter, calmer and more composed team down the stretch of each and every game. This is stunning because this was supposed to be the facet of Dallas basketball that was weakest – the ghosts of their choking pasts still haunting them. This is supposed to be one of the Lakers key strengths. Yet it has unfathomably turned upside-down in the space of three games, and that is the reason I can’t see the Lakers winning another game.
If the Mavs hadn’t fought back and won in Game 1 they probably would be down 2-1 now. But they gained such a huge leap in confidence, in crunch-time confidence in Game 1. And it was there again in Game 3. So you can throw out the disappointment of collapsing in 2006 against Miami, or in 2007 against Golden State, or the first-round whoppings in ‘08 and ‘10. All this Mavs team remembers now is closing out the Lakers in Game 1, 2 and 3 of this series. All they remember now is Dirk and Jet and Barea and Peja stepping up to hit big shots when it counts. All they remember now is the Lakers folding under pressure for three-straight games.
So if Game 4 is close, the Lakers will lose. They’ll lose because the Mavs have owned them down the stretch of every game, and they’ll lose because as I said a couple of days back, the Lakers can’t rely on Kobe like they used to. But I don’t think Game 4 will be close. I think it will be a blow-out. That’s what tends to happen in sweeps. The Mavs confidence is sky-high, the Lakers are at their lowest point in years. You had to be out of your brain to pick the Mavs winning this series before it started, but to pick the Lakers from here, you clearly don’t have a brain.
Pau Gasol. He’s become the scapegoat for the Lakers struggles in this series, which is only partially deserving in my opinion. Yes he hasn’t been the Pau we’ve all expected, but he hasn’t been terrible (he’s averaging 13-10). And I’m actually not that surprised. Like I’ve said before, Pau Gasol, by nature, is not a dominant player. He will not go out to seek and destroy his opponent. He will not scream and demand for the ball. He can disappear from the offense for 5-10 minute stretches before you realize, “hey, why the hell is Pau not getting the ball more?”. Of course, he’s exceptionally talented, and the reason the Lakers have been so successful the past few years is because as far as second-bananas go, Pau is about as good as they come.
So Pau has gone into a bit of a shell this series and he’s struggling to get his confidence up. Great players find a way to shake themselves out of that, and I’m not surprised that Pau can’t. That’s why you see Phil Jackon shoving him in the chest and getting in his grill. That’s why you see Kobe calling for more ‘black swan’ and less ‘white swan’. They know Gasol will not turn this around by himself. And like I said a few days back, I think Gasol is really sick of continually having his mental resolved questioned, of having to prove he can bounce back. The guy helped the Lakers franchise get to three-straight Finals, and he’s still the scapegoat? Ridiculous. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. The only way he saves face is to drop 30-15 against Dirk in Game 4. And that just isn’t how Pau Gasol works.
Dirk Nowitzki. Like I tweeted yesterday, I can’t believe I used to joke with my friends and call this guy ‘Dirk No-winski’ or ‘Dirk Chokerwitzki’ or even ‘Duck Nowitzki‘. It’s a little early to proclaim, but Dirk is positively affecting his legacy in a big way this series. If, and it’s a big if, the Mavs go on to win the championship this season it fundamentally rewrites Dirk’s chapter in the NBA history books. Most players suffering those Mavs playoff-exits in ‘06 and ‘07, in their primes, would have mentally checked out. Just like David Robinson lost his testicles against Hakeem in 1995 and never regained them. And as far as I could tell, Dirk did check out. From 2008-2010 he was great but largely irrelevant when it came to high stakes in the NBA. Now he’s very much relevant again, and its an incredible turnaround, for a guy so late in his career. Like I said, too early to call, but let’s keep an eye on this one, eh?
Jason Kidd. Same story here. Kidd rewrites his chapter in NBA history if the Mavs go all the way this season. He arguably goes Top 4 point guards of all time (behind Magic, Isiah and Oscar). He’s doing a great job defensively on Kobe, he’s running this Mavs offense beautifully, and he’s orchestrating the right plays in crunch-time for his team. In other words, it’s exactly what made Kidd an MVP candidate ten freaking years ago! He’s shooting like crap, OK, but he doesn’t need to be firing offensively for this Mavs team to win. They have too many other weapons. Again, watch this space.
Derek Fisher. Somewhere in all of this mess, D-Fish may be the true scapegoat for Game 3. His stupid foul on Terry made it a two-possession game. He then threw the ball away on the inbounds which made it a three-possession game. Even the cool-headed veteran for LA was making stupid mistakes on this night, and when that shit starts happening, you know your time is up.
Kobe Bryant. Kobe actually played a very well controlled game in Game 3, facilitating mostly, reminiscent of how he played Phoenix in the 2006 series. He hit his shots in the flow of the game, including a couple halfway through the fourth quarter that kept the Mavs at bay. He was efficient. There was nothing wrong with what Kobe did in this game – it’s what he didn’t do. He didn’t take over in the final minutes, and he couldn’t keep facilitating because no other Laker stood up. The Lakers went away from the system that had worked so well through the first 3.5 quarters. It was remarkable to watch. The reason? What I’ve been saying all week. Over the last few years the Lakers formula late in games has been to ride Kobe Bryant. Kobe will jack shots, he will miss some, but for the most part it works out ok – good enough to win two championships from three. This is like muscle memory for the Lakers, and for Kobe. Except it’s not working anymore, and it’s not necessarily Kobe’s fault. This Lakers team needs to re-learn how to get it done in crunch-time. Game 3 was the perfect candidate. They should have jumped on Bynum’s back because he looked unstoppable in this game. But that is not something his teammates – and Phil – are used to doing. It may have cost them a game and a shot at a third ring.
As for Kobe’s legacy, plenty of people will be quick to jump on him and say things like “MJ would have never been swept” (except he was, a couple of times). And there will be lots of typical anti-Kobe sentiment to balance out the over-protective LA media. Fact is, losing this series to the Mavs changes nothing for Kobe’s place in history. It’s another bump in the road for him, just like failing to make the playoffs without Shaq was in ‘05, just like losing to Phoenix in Game 7 in ‘06, and just like getting whooped by Boston in the ‘08 Finals. What I think this series represents is a turning point in his career, a sign that he might need to change his ways, and luckily for him there’ll be a new coach in Lakerland next season which could be a blessing in disguise. But I don’t think Kobe’s thinking about that any of that right now. I’ll tell you what he’s thinking about – coming back to win this series from 0-3 down. Because MJ never did that. No one ever did.
The Mavs will win this series, and many will be quick to call this the “End of the Era” for LA. The “End of the Kobe Era”. Let me tell you something folks. That, is complete and utter nonsense, and typical of the overreaction we’re guilty of for this Lakers team. The only thing this truly is, is the end of the “Phil Jackson Era” because he is retiring. The Lakers still have one of the most talented teams in the league, and they still have a hungry Kobe Bryant. Regardless of your coach, those ingredients are enough to be a title-contender in this league. We knew their run of Finals appearances had to end at some point.
We just didn’t expect it to end like this.