Finally! Finally the Lakers have won their 15th championship after a long and protracted struggle. Phil Jackson wins his 10th ring to move past Red Auerbach and Kobe won’t have to hear anymore that he can’t lead a team to victory without Shaq. How sweet it is !
I must admit that there were times when I wondered if there was going to be a repeat of last season’s post season collapse. Not in the finals , but earlier against the Rockets and the Nuggets. Playing against a Houston Rockets team without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, LA was blown out ,not once but twice and I can be pardoned for wondering whether the Lakers had the mental toughness to become champs. I was very apprehensive at the start of the Nuggets series as LA appeared listless in dropping a home game early. However, once the Lakers evened the series in Denver and ratcheted up the defense they left no doubt as to who was the better team.
The Lakers won the Finals 4-1 but while the first and fifth games were runaway victories, the Magic put up a good fight in the other three, twice losing in OT . Indeed , if it wasn’t for missed free throws and some inexplicable coaching decisions , they might have taken the Lakers the distance. After the Magic lost a heartbreaker in the fourth game, Coach Stan Van Gundy downplayed the importance of playoff experience saying that the players had played hundreds of games at this point of their careers and that not having played previously in the finals was a non-factor. I have to disagree. One of the reasons the Lakers won so many close games was that they were able to withstand pressure and keep their cool in the final minutes at a time when the Magic did not. For this they can point to last year’s devastating loss to the Celtics in the pressure cooker of Boston Garden. That experience toughened them mentally and led directly to a much more resilient, determined group with a sharpened focus. This was very evident in the way they played in the final game . Once they spurted ahead in the second quarter, you sensed that the game was about over ; the Magic players seemed to feel it too. Hard as they played , the air seemed to go out of them midway through the third quarter and their game fell apart as the Lakers dominated the boards and answered every challenge.
Kudos to the Magic for their performance and a well played series. There was none of the nastiness that was so evident during last year’s finals against the Celtics.Dwight Howard is still a raw talent and once he develops his offensive game , he and the Magic will be a force to contend with. The Celtics had better watch out because the path to the finals will go through Orlando… providing the Magic are able to keep the team intact and solve their point guard controversy.
Kobe in the finals showed that he has matured as a player. This was particularly evident in last night’s victory when he involved all his team mates and took over the game when necessary. That acrobatic shot in which he switched hands in mid air and somehow shot the ball over two Magic defenders is going to be on the highlight reel for some time to come. With all due deference to my idol , Jerry West, there is no way that Lebron James , at this stage of his career compares to Kobe. True, as his game matures, LeBron may yet move ahead of Kobe but not now, no way. He is sturdier, physically stronger than Kobe, but he is nowhere near Kobe as a closer or an inspirer. Not yet.
One of the things that I’m happiest about in this Lakers win is that it moves Phil Jackson past Red Auerbach as the winningest NBA coach of all time in terms of championships. The reason that I’m so happy is that Auerbach was a nasty curmudgeon who constantly belittled opponents and opposing coaches , a sore winner who rubbed it in ( remember the infamous victory cigar?) and never gave Jackson his due.( See today’s column by Adrian Wojnarowski in Yahoo Sports). Red was very jealous of his reputation and grumphed that Jackson was only able to win because he had superstars like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal/ Kobe Bryant to thank for his victories.To which I could retort that Bill Russel was the mainstay of all those victorious Celtic teams and that in the days before free agency it was easier to keep a team intact and fashion a dynasty. That is impossible these days as stars jump from one team to another ;next year’s team may be drastically different from this years’s. Note that I never said that Jackson is a better coach than Red Auerbach. It is impossible to compare coaches or players from different eras when there are so many extraneous factors to consider. Still, most fans are stats minded and statistically, Phil Jackson is now forever ahead of Red Auerbach.If I had to pick the greatest coach, I’d go for John Wooden who in his years at UCLA won with a revolving cast of players and developed so many of them into future All-Stars and inspired them to be great not only on the court but off it. You can look it up.
For all those euphoric LA fans who are talking of a Laker dynasty, chill. There are many, many obstacles standing in the way of a repeat, forget three or four in a row. It looks as though the Lakers will not be able to re-sign both Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom to new contracts. Both are now free agents and with Kobe Bryant probably resigning for a maximum contract there is not enough money to go around. Fisher is getting older and , clutch player though he is ,they need to groom his replacement. Andrew Bynum has shown flashes of what he can do but he still has to remain healthy over an entire season.There is also some doubt about Phil returning because of his health. I’m not even going to go into the nature of the opposition that the Lakers will face next year. Chauncey Billups has improved the Nuggets immeasureably and Carmelo Anthony has finally realized what it takes to be truly a great player. Houston, Utah and San Antonio seem to be on the downward spiral but Portland will mount a stiff challenge if Greg Oden plays upto his potential.In the East, Cleveland is going to go all out to give James the supporting cast he craves , Oralndo will be a contender for years to come and the Celtics will try to win once more before their trio of aging superstars calls it a day.
No , it is not going to be easy for the Lakers next year. But, what the heck. Next year can take care of itself. For now , the Lakers are the champs . Lets enjoy this the moment. Yeah Baby !!