Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Final Defense

I want to begin by congratulating the Lakers for playing an excellent series and having what is so far been an undeniably impressive season. They were the superior team throughout this series and have undoubtedly earned their trip to the NBA Finals. Popovich has always said that the better team usually wins a seven game series and it would be hard to argue that isn't what happened this evening.

I also want to congratulate the Spurs. Although unable to defend their title, they played valiantly and never gave up despite the odds. They didn't play their best basketball but as champions the Spurs can admit that is not an excuse. When the season is on the line you either step up or you don't. Its easy to be spoiled when you have won 3 of the last 5 championships, but there is nothing about a 56 win season and a Western Conference Finals birth to be ashamed of. People may pass around fallacious logic about how "2 in a row" is the key to being labeled a dynasty, but I think few who seriously know basketball would argue that this core squad isn't one of the better NBA teams of all time.

I think this evening showed how close this series has been. Despite the lopsidedness suggested by a 5 game series, 3 of the 5 were thrilling to watch. I think its telling that the Lakers won all 3 of those "thrillers." Traditionally I have counted on the Spurs to perform well late in a close game. I have oftentimes pronounced that I am more worried about blowing a big lead because of the relaxation factor than I am about closing out a tight game (a concern this series would seem to prove is well founded). Either way, the Spurs were consistently unable to finish the job. Poor free throw shooting, an overabundance of Laker offensive rebounds and open looks that just refused to drop had suggested the inevitability of failure far before they occurred on this evening.

Its unclear to me whether my fanaticism for the game itself or for the Spurs in particular takes precedent, but to channel the former briefly, it has been a pleasure to watch this Lakers team so closely. I kept an eye on them all year, but obviously in this series they have commanded my undivided attention. And as I watched I beheld a team that is both focused and lyrical, athletic and intellectual. This team is running the triangle as well as its ever been run and that is both beautiful and frightening. No matter what happens in the NBA Finals, in the upcoming years the Los Angeles Lakers are the team to beat.

Beautiful and frightening are two adjectives I would also bestow upon Kobe Bean Bryant. He played with poise and aggression throughout the entire series and displayed a disdain for failure that perennially has been the mark of a champion. He is without question the best player alive right now but in order to cement his legacy there are mountains still to climb.

Now that I've waxed poetic, let's talk about the game:

The Spurs Offense: The Spurs Offense came out looking beautiful. A potent combination of well placed passes and decisive jump shots sent the team ahead by 17 in the 1st half. But a subtle combination of Laker hustle and frenetic energy seemed to send this team off course. One has to assume acquiring a player that can score reliably for 48 minutes is on the Spurs off-season checklist.

Ginobili: At a certain point the idea that he was injured seem to overtake him. I don't believe his injury kept him from missing open 3-pointers or makeable layups. But it takes little for the seed of doubt to bloom, and 3-9 from the field for 9 points was its flower.

Age: I am less convinced that age was as much of a factor in this series as the world would like to claim it is. Aside from Kobe, the Lakers were not consistently taking their defenders off the dribble. They were not consistently overwhelming us on the fast-break. They consistently out hustled us on the boards but I think that was just as much a matter of positioning as anything else (is hustle genuinely an age related factor or merely a psychological one? This is a serious question, not a rhetorical one). This series wasn't won with youth. They just nailed their open looks and we didn't.

Ed. Note: I'm not saying age wasn't a factor in this series. Obviously it was. But I just feel like there has been this overarching theme of "youth vs. age" that is, although not inaccurate, only a piece of why the Spurs lost this series.

Personnel Decisions: I think part of the problem the Spurs faced this series was their inability to settle on a meaningful rotation. In game one Udoka saw a lot of minutes and did a legitimate job containing Odom (that, disappointingly, was his only notable game of the series). He saw little PT in games 2 through 5. Obviously the minutes Barry saw escalated drastically as the series progressed, which is a undeniably a good thing. What's frustrating is Popovich's inability to see his value earlier. Horry's minutes in the first 4 games are more confounding than the riddles of the Sphinx. On the flip side, why did it take so long for Thomas, the obviously superior back up power forward (in fact he started a couple of regular season games) to make his way solidly into the rotation. I have the utmost faith in Popovich and his ability to make intra-series adjustments is unparalleled, but honestly, I think this was not his finest hour.

On the other hand, Jackson managed his bench very well. In particular his management of Bryant's minutes were superb. He consistently rested Kobe heavily during the 2nd quarter and this inevitably gave way to a fresh and fundamentally unstoppable offensive flurry from Bryant somewhere in the late 3rd or throughout the 4th in all 5 of the games.

Random Lakers Questions: First, what the hell was Phil Jackson talking about when they interviewed him between the 3rd and 4th? Thomas only took one free throw on the "and one." I know his assistant tipped him off about this phantom second shot but you should clarify something like that before you act rather foolish on national TV.

Second, I am glad that Doug Collins called out Sasha Vujacic for taking a bullshit three pointer in the closing seconds of the game. The Spurs had conceded. The sportsmanlike thing to do is merely shake hands and allow the game to expire. The Lakers in game 2 also ran a play as time closed out in an attempt to get a final 3 pointer to send the score to triple digits. Both instances strike me as classless. It seems indicative of a vibe I generally got from the Lakers bench this series. They always struck me as rather cocky given their secondary role. As I've said before I don't hate this Lakers squad as a whole but I find it quite easy to despise Vujacic, Walton and Farmar.

Third, does anyone think its weird that Jerry West, a crucial player on the other side of the Gasol-Brown trade, gave out the Western Conference Finals trophy? If Kevin McHale is at the Celtics Eastern Conference trophy presentation ceremony you're going to hear some shit from me. (A big shout out to Andrew McCaughan for predicting the McHale scenario).

OK, its late. I'm tired. I could talk about this forever and inevitably will be back with not only more Lakers-Spurs thoughts but extended musings on the draft, a cohesive statement on Doug Collins in Chicago and coverage of the NBA Finals. So whether you're a Spurs fan or not, just because their season is done isn't a reason to not stop by. I'm gonna continue to keep at it for the rest off the playoffs and into the off-season. Thanks everyone. Have a good night.


Walter Bishop's Apprentice said...

Well, Jerry West is retired, but McHale is still employed by another organization, so yes, that would be way weirder.

Hat-tip to the Spurs.

Anonymous said...

Vujacic is the kind of person you love to hate. Even Laker fans think his shot is classless. But all in all, I think the real reason why the bench wanted triple digit scores in the two games you mentioned is because of, believe it or not, the free tacos. Not cockiness. Just tacos.

Teej said...

There is a promotion that rewards the fans with free tacos at Jack in the Box if the Lakers score 100 or more, and limit their opponent to under three digits.

This has been a year-long thing, and something Lakers try to achieve while opponents try to prevent, and make the game more interesting toward the end especially for blowouts.

rocket9 said...

I loved Sasha nailing that three. They had almost given a ball game away, if you will recall, and I think they needed it for freakin comebacks for the Spurs.

The Spurs trapped Kobe in the defensive corner and forced him to tightrope down the sideline and pass the ball whilst leaving his feet to Fisher in the offensive zone. If they didn't want a shot to be taken they should have let Kobe walk the ball down to halfcourt and either fouled him or let the game clock run out. Fair is fair. You still want to compete? Cool. So did Sasha.

Chris said...

It is hard for most people to believe, but West had NO hand in the Gasol trade--he wasn't consulted--he didn't work for Memphis at the time of the trade. Those are the facts.

The beauty part of the presentation was the mentor relationship that West and Kupchak have. And the fact that Jerry Buss allowed Mitch to get all the credit. He could easily have insisted that his son Jimmy was involved. After all, at some point there will be a hand-off of executive duties. Can you imagine Steinbrenner passing up such a moment?

Few other organizations in the NBA have the class of the Lakers. The Spurs do, and my hat is off to them for being a worthy opponent.

Unknown said...

Vujacic is a dick with no sportsmanship. I hope James Posey nails Vujacic on a layup and breaks his neck.