June 18, 2008
There's no point in getting too crazy with this recap, clutching at straws or trying to derive meaning from things that just don't deserve our attention. No point, because Tuesday's Celtic win was a swift and warming reassurance of just about everything we know about professional hoops.
It reminded us that you need time to build a winner, even if that time is just a season's term. That no amount of activity and aggression and batch of good intentions can make up for a group of five players who are confident in a consistent game plan while working dutifully to execute it. That taking care of the ball and taking care of the glass means so, so much.
It also reminded us that offense, just as much as defense, wins championships. The Boston Celtics may consider themselves a defensive team that can score, and they're right in that regard, but that stifling defense doesn't mean a thing if you can't do something with the ball on the other end. It may not be as cool to admit, but offense also wins championships. Never forget that.
While it feels good to be right about certain tenets of the game we love, it also feels even better to be completely wrong about certain things, and to be reminded for the trillionth time that this game - in spite of what you might hear from ex-players or glean from tired writers who really don't feel like keeping up anymore - can teach us new things, every damn night. That's what keeps us going, and will keep us second-guessing and questioning things, all summer long.
This postseason proved that matchups are this league's great equalizer, because why else would the Atlanta Hawks give the Boston Celtics more of a run for their money than a Los Angeles Laker team that burned through the league from February to May?
Sluggishness, following a rest-happy end to the regular season can be attributed to some of that, but the Hawks also had answers for the Celtics that the Lakers - despite their deserved standing as the champs of the West - did not have. Rest easy, Dirk Nowitzki and the 2007 Dallas Mavericks, because the idea that a less-talented team with matchup advantages can overcome all has been driven home.
Meanwhile, it's become obvious that the regular season, and especially that run from late October to the end of the pro football season that nobody cares to pay much attention to, counts for quite a bit. The Lakers traded for Pau Gasol a few days before the Super Bowl, and with all eyes on the NBA in the weeks and months following, traipsed around the league until meeting up with the Celtics in the first week of June. And in the end, it didn't mean nearly as much as the Boston run from October to February did.
After watching the Lakers stagger once the Boston shut off its guard penetration, once it overplayed the post, and once it gave a little Eastern Conference hip-check to the pinch post option on the weak side, it's become obvious that training camp, and a full season to get things really wrong and really right, counts for everything. It's why the 1999-00 Lakers (a team that took until February to start dominating and pulling away from Portland) are champions, and this year's model is not. No shame in that for Los Angeles, the team just isn't ready.
The game itself was a huge blowout, the Lakers were down but three points nearing the mid-point of the second quarter but (according to Phil Jackson) more or less lost the game by halftime, heading into the locker room down 23. Boston's defense was just dominant, holding the Lakers to a 75 points per 100 possession rate (the team averaged 112 per 100 with Pau Gasol in the regular season) in the first half, and a 97 per 100 mark overall.
Los Angeles just could not stop coughing the ball up, almost to a ridiculous degree. Actually, it was to a ridiculous degree, because 18 of the team's 19 turnovers came off of steals. That's a nearly unbelievable mark, to be that savvy with the ball in all other areas (charges, not tossing it out of bounds, not falling victim to shot clock or three-second violations) while still allowing the Celtics to set an NBA Finals record with 18 pilfers.
Lots of teams have turned the ball once in every five possessions in a game this year, as the Lakers did in Game 6. At no point in my basketball-watching life have I seen such a direct and consistent way of giving the ball up, though. 19 turnovers, 18 steals for the opposition. Wow.
On top of that, the Lakers were crushed on the glass. Just slapped silly. Boston enjoyed a 48-29 rebounding advantage, everybody chipped in, while the Lakers just showed no enthusiasm toward making a go of it on the boards. The Los Angeles backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher had just three combined rebounds (all Kobe's) in 70 combined minutes. Pitiful. Pau Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic combined for 11 in 54 minutes, and that's just not going to work.
You'll probably have a hard time considering the next bit to be the biggest detriment to Los Angeles' chances, but you also have to understand that this team's offensive potential is so great, that it could have overcome the rebounding issues, and any bit of sticky Boston defense. That's why I picked Los Angeles in six games. That's why I never counted the Lakers out, even if I didn't expect things to turn around.
The team just had no confidence in that offense of theirs. Sure, different parts of it were taken away by the Boston defense, but there is a counter within the Triangle offense to just about every defensive advantage or mismatch you can come up with.
The offense got its first exposure when it mitigated the influence of Wilt Chamberlain in college during the 1950s, working around a dominant defensive center that seemed miles taller than anyone else on the court, and was able to limit the range and scope of Gary Payton at his defensive best pestering a hobbling Ron Harper or hopeless Steve Kerr. It can take on all comers.
Done right, the Triangle can provide an answer for everything. And the Lakers just don't have those answers right now. They need to develop that faith, and they need a training camp with Pau Gasol.
It's why I'm up in arms when I hear people criticizing Phil Jackson. Vladi Radman could have stood to spend less time on Paul Pierce, though the secondary options were just as nasty for Los Angeles (Trevor Ariza can't hang with him either, and worse, he'd rack up more fouls than Vladi guarding Pierce, putting Celtics besides The Truth at the line), and the point guard situation was overblown.
But just as I chortled (chortled, I say!) when observers would credit Phil with a "masterful" job done during the midst of the Finals in championship seasons past, I'm quite peeved that people are expecting magic from this guy in the face of a team that doesn't want to run his offense properly, and can't be bothered to make the right decisions that you know they've been informed about dozens of times over.
Jackson is a practice coach. He gets the bulk of his work done during regular season games and season-long practices/shootarounds, and by this time in the run, the players should know exactly what to do.
There's very little Jackson could do or say to these Lakers to get them to instinctively (because that's what it takes to run the offense) go into sets that would seem to have no great payoff at the outset. His team didn't know any better. Essentially, as presently constructed, it had half a season. Pau Gasol believed in that offense when the going was good, but was clueless when things got tough against Boston. And the rest of his teammates took his lead, sadly.
Time for the champs, though, who got it done, and proved us wrong time and time again.
Proved us wrong for what we thought last summer, proved us wrong when we were scared that running Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for too long during December and January would affect what happened in June. Proved us wrong when we were scared that limiting Pierce, Allen, and Kevin Garnett's run in April may have squandered their playoff hopes for sustaining chemistry. Proved us wrong when it became apparent that the Detroit Pistons were back on the horse. And proved us wrong when we picked the Lakers in six.
Wrong, wrong, wrong we were. And it feels so, so, so bloody good.
We're not supposed to take sides in these things, and we didn't, even as Boston took a 3-1 lead and the hopes for a seven game series dwindled away. Even in a sweep, we can appreciate. But I have the feeling that, should the Lakers have taken this thing in six as I expected a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have the same feeling of contentment and warmth and satisfaction as I do now. Knowing that these Celtics, this defensive monster based around the talents of three needlessly-maligned stars, pulled it out? That feels tremendous.
This isn't to say that the stars in question shouldn't have been taken to task in years past. Pierce's play in 2003-04 was nearly amongst the most despicable I've seen in all my years obsessing over this game, Vince Carter aside. The guy was an absolute mope, and though we don't blame him for being upset at the direction his team was headed in, lots of great players have to put up with bad teams. Doesn't mean you give up on games.
Garnett and Allen shouldn't take as much heat, but KG's behind-the-scenes machinations in asking for certain Minnesota Timberwolves to be retained didn't help the team's chances, and Allen should have probably seen the writing on the wall and taken less money to be on a winner heading into 2005-06.
But that's all - as John Mayall once told us - way, way in the past. These men are champions, leaders who took a team and a rotation that might not have had any business winning 55 games to the absolute top. We can talk all day about how important James Posey was, how Eddie House learned and grew as the season moved along, how P.J. Brown (P.J. Brown got a ring, people. Sweet.) helped, and we'd be right in every instance. But it was that triptych of giants that went beyond its own collective talents and contribution levels to create a monster.
These guys talked a great game, and followed it up. Not only did Ray Allen remind us incessantly that this was Pierce's team, and give up the ball, but he gave up the ball more than expected (and more than we were comfortable with, though we were wrong in that regard), and stood in the corner. Allen, and you know this wasn't easy for him, acted the glorified James Jones at times while Pierce did his thing, and got the other team in the penalty.
Not only did Kevin Garnett tell us that a stifling defense was going to have to be the thing that set Boston apart, but he acted the (really, really) glorified Ben Wallace at times, going quarters without a play being run for him; and not only did he make the Celtics the best defensive team in the NBA, he made sure they won that run by a country mile.
Garnett's defensive turn this season was just brilliant, and while I'm sure there have been individual seasons that were just as good - Bill Russell and Scottie Pippen would like a word - that was just about as good a defensive turn as I've ever taken in.
I used to have to rank players for SI.com, and while I appreciated the gig and loved who I was working with, I wasn't really a fan of the role to say the very least. Ranking these guys was sort of an anathema to me, it went against more or less everything that I believe in as an NBA scribe, but I needed the gig.
Either way, what hurt the most was when readers seemed to have no idea just how good Garnett was defensively, and that his output on some nights far, far eclipsed the latest 30-point game from Kobe, or the 18-point, 12-assist game from Steve Nash. This stuff mattered, and nobody saw it.
They saw it this year, thank Chuck Berry, and if you think the buildup to KG's first ring (the Bill Russell interview, which I was warned against and still haven't seen; the commercials, the screams, the screams, and the screaming) was a bit much; understand that it was still deserved.
In spite of his exposure, and his Q rating, this is still this generation's most unheralded, most underappreciated player. Even forgetting that, think of what he's done for this league. He was the first prominent player to be taken out of high school in nearly two decades. Faced with a lithe frame that wasn't getting any bigger, he revolutionized the power forward position using touch and guile. His 1997 contract extension led to an ugly labor dispute that more or less saved the league. And his presence on the 2007-08 Boston Celtics led to a return to glory for the most storied franchise in hoop.
Keep screaming, KG. Keep on.
And that's really all we should get into now, because the focus shouldn't extend much beyond KG (18 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, 1.7 steals, one block in the Finals), the deserving Finals MVP in Paul Pierce (22 points, 39 percent from long range, over six assists a game), or Ray Allen (20.3 points per game, 52.4 percent from long range, just 1.8 turnovers in nearly 41 minutes a game during the Finals).
Rajon Rondo (21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, six steals, one turnover) was scary-good in his own inimitable way, and Kendrick Perkins was one of the biggest reasons they made it out of the East, but the focus needs to be on these giants. Years later, it's the Three that we'll remember, and that's OK. And they are this team's Big Three. Nobody's comparing anyone to anybody, and there's no shame in that. If a team has a Big Three, then we can call it that.
If you'll allow an indulgence and a documentation of said indulgence, I would like to mention that, since 1998, I've celebrated the end of an NBA season on the night of the last game of the Finals with a poorly-lit and cheaply-prepared cigar. Just a thing I have.
I'm not a smoker of anything save for that one night in a year, and for some reason that nasty taste and familiar burn just feels right on this particular night. It has nothing to do with Red Auerbach, though he crossed my mind about a hundred times on Tuesday night (before NBA TV switched over to post-game interviews, we were treated to a classic "Red On Roundball" featuring Bill Russell and Bob McAdoo, with the ancient Russ dominating a player 17 years his junior), but as someone who appreciates the Grizzlies playing up in Minnesota in December as much as a playoff game, it feels good to give a little more attention by way of a plume of smoke to the end of the Finals run.
And most years, because I'm not really in the habit of dashing around town trying to locate cigars, I'm left with a last second run to some drugstore to pull in whatever looks like it won't give me nausea. No biggie, because it's a reminder that the end is nigh and that I should appreciate the last game, whenever it comes.
Last year, however, I didn't partake. I'd forgotten to grab a few stogies, and though I had ample time to go purchase a few before and during Game 4 of the series between the Spurs and Cavaliers, it just didn't seem right. That didn't seem like a Final. That seemed like ... "what happened." That the season just ended up that way. For whatever reason. In the end, it didn't even deserve a cheap cigar.
This season deserved the finest Cuba had to offer, or one of those expensive logs, soaked in cognac and best served in the hands and in the lungs of someone who knows what they're doing. I enjoyed the hell out of that sucker last night, taking it right down to the nub, which is quite the achievement for someone who hasn't touched a cigar in two years, and usually goes 12 months between puffs.
Part of that had to do with this column, and this blog. Since December, I've had the privilege of getting to write about the game that I love, in the style that suits me most. After over a decade of bouncing around the internet, I can't tell you how important it is to me that I've finally found a place to teach and talk about the game that has taught me so much, while doing it on my own terms. So I'd like to thank the people that made that happen, and helped me along the way, both this year and in the decade prior. You know who you are, if you want to make sure you're among that lot just email me, and you rock. You roll, too.
And I'd like to thank you, however many of "you" that are out there. I'd like to thank you for reading, and thank you for understanding that the game has something new to teach us, every night. Every damn night. Thanks for coming back, readers
It's over, and it was a blast, and there'll be no more BtBs for a while. That said, and as far as I can tell, we have but four and a half months until we get to do it again.