A week has passed now since the LA Lakers became this year’s NBA Champions, but judging by the exuberant victory parade in the streets of LA and Disneyland, not to mention the beaming smile that has replaced Kobe Bryant’s Game Face, Lakers Nation is still celebrating.
Now, Lakers fans can bask in the glow of victory and sport purple and gold like it’s going out of style.
But it hasn’t been an easy road to the Championship for fans, just as it wasn’t a breeze for our Lakers themselves to achieve their goal. The trials and tribulations of this year’s Lakers team caused anger, frustration, panic, wonder, mass hysteria, and possibly ulcers.
From the height of victory, the long journey here for fans and for the team can be assessed and relieved with calm, Phil Jackson Zen Master Like Perspective…well, for the most part.
Of course, Lakers Nation suffered its first blow around this time last year. After advancing to the Finals to face arch rivals the Boston Celtics, LA was the heavy favorite to win the series.
This was supposed to be their year.
It didn’t look as though anyone could stop the Lakers, not even their enemies of old, the Celtics.
I for one was running around proudly supporting my team by donning a Lakers hat in the city where I was working at the time…Boston.
For anyone who has come up against a Boston sports fan, you know they are ruthlessly dedicated to their teams. I was booed, cursed at, glared at…I think at one point I might have been hexed.
But none of that mattered, because the LA Lakers were going to win…right?
They lost the final game of the series by a humiliating thirty nine points.
Suddenly everything was wrong. Pau Gasol was too soft, Kobe Bryant was too old, and perhaps the worst criticism: The Lakers hadn’t wanted it enough.
After the Finals ended, the team mentality was bent on redemption, and as the 2008-2009 NBA Season began, there was no doubt that if the LA Lakers did anything short of winning a Championship, it would be a disappointment.
By any other teams’ standards, the 08'-09' season the Lakers had would have been outstanding. LA ended the regular season with sixty-five wins and were the number one seed in the Western Conference.
But for the Lakers, it was only when the Playoffs began that their season truly started. Strong regular season performances were good, but it was all irrelevant if it didn’t lead to a Championship.
For fans, there is where the roller coaster ride of emotions would begin. For the Lakers, this is where their true mission would start.
The first round of the Playoffs had the LA Lakers playing the Utah Jazz. The Lakers won the series four to one, and all of their victories were by at least a ten point margin, but no one in Lakers Nation was ready to breathe easy.
The LA Lakers knew that the true test of their talent still lay ahead. Nor were fans allowed to jump for joy and claim Lakers superiority.
Generally the consensuses was that though the Lakers were playing well, the Cleveland Cavaliers, heavy favorites to meet LA in the Finals, were playing better.
In the next round, the Huston Rockets beat the LA Lakers in Game One at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The final score was Huston one hundred, LA ninety two.
This was unthinkable. A loss at home in Game One was unimaginable for the Finals-Bent Lakers. Suddenly every NBA Analyst with a microphone was talking about the fact that over fifty percent of the time, the team that wins game one wins the series.
Lakers’ toughness was being questioned again as it looked as though the Rockets and Ron Artest were out-muscling the Lakers big men, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
But Kobe Bryant had a different message for his team and for Lakers’ fans everywhere, and it wasn’t one of panic.
Kobe Bryant said that this year, he wanted his team to be tested in the Playoffs, to be battle hardened and ready for when they made it to the Finals.
This Houston series was going to be that test.
Los Angeles was able to win the next two games, one in LA and one in Huston. But the emotional series was far from over.
The Huston Rockets came roaring back in Game Four to take a twelve point victory. Now the series was tied at two games each.
Lakers’ inconsistency was an issue, and their hunger was being called in to question. I still remember the moment when commentator Jeff Van Gundy said he was giving up on the Lakers and picking the Denver Nuggets to advance to the NBA Finals.
I know, it’s only Jeff, but still…
To make matters worse, Kobe Bryant was in Technical Foul trouble. The Lakers/Rockets series was turning very physical, and both teams were jawing at each other from Game One.
After Kobe Bryant was dealt a Technical Foul for the most PG trash talk you’ve ever heard in the NBA Playoffs (he said “you can’t guard me” to a defender…why penalize a guy for telling the truth?) Bryant received another Technical Foul after a slight collision with Ron Artest.
This call and the play leading up to it were pretty bizarre. On a Lakers possession, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest appeared to bump into each other, and then Artest threw his head back and ran away: off the court and into the stands.
This was initially called a personal foul against Kobe Bryant, but after Bryant tried to plead his case, he was whistled for the Technical Foul.
Ultimately it didn’t matter because the Technical Foul was rescinded by the NBA, but it reflected the level of physicality and the tension between the two teams.
Remember, this is the series where Ron Artest was actually thrown out of a game, and where the 6'1", 34 year old Derek Fisher laid out the 6'9", 29 year old Luis Scola with an elbow.
In a series this rough, victory for either team was impossible to guarantee. And with abundant trash talk and Technical Fouls, there was plenty for fans of both teams to be angry and happy about.
But of the two, the LA Lakers were the franchise with more to prove, and the road ahead did not look promising for redemption in the NBA Finals.
While the Lakers struggled to get past the Rockets, the Cleveland Cavaliers had swept another series and the Denver Nuggets were making quick work of the Dallas Mavericks. It seemed more likely that these two teams would meet in the Finals.
The LA Lakers finally finished off the Huston Rockets in Game Seven, eighty nine to seventy. Afterward, Kobe Bryant said that it should not have gotten that far.
Lakers fans had to agree.
That was the series in which LA truly was the closest to elimination.
But the back and forth nature and sheer physicality of the Huston series seemed to be what taught the Lakers what was necessary to win a Championship.
This was the lesion in toughness that Kobe Bryant was looking for.
But if winning the series against the Rockets gave the Lakers confidence in themselves, it did not do the same for the general sports world.
Instead, the strong playoff performances from Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets had NBA fans and analysts picking Denver to win and advance to the Finals.
Meanwhile, ESPN was airing footage of a shirtless and impossibly muscular LeBron James playing HORSE with his teammates, kind of like that old Larry Bird/Michael Jordan McDonald’s commercial—off the floor, off the score board, off the backboard, no rim…
LeBron and the Cavs looked unbeatable.
LA was going to have to face stiff competition in order to achieve their Championship goal.
This time the Lakers came out with a win to start the series, beating the Denver Nuggets 105-103. After that win, it just felt as though the Los Angeles Lakers were going to take the series.
The next two games were close, but then LA suffered an embarrassing nineteen point loss in Denver.
Yet rather than deflating the Lakers, this loss served to fire them up. LA responded with a nine point victory at home in the Staples Center, and then finally finished off the Nuggets in a way that surprised every Lakers critic; Los Angeles beat Denver 119-92 on the Nuggets’ home court.
The Lakers were going to the Finals.
But the team that would meet them there was not the one everybody was expecting.
As it turned out, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers would not have to figure out a way to stop LeBron James and the Cavaliers, because they stopped themselves, losing their series to the Orlando Magic.
LeBron James may have won this season’s MVP Award, but Kobe Bryant remained the best closer in the game.
Even with the Lakers in the Finals, they were not a lock to win the Championship. Both times the teams had met in the regular season, Orlando had come away with the win.
On top of that, Dwight Howard was coming off the strongest performance of his career in Game Six against the Cavaliers where he put up forty points and had fourteen rebounds.
But now that they were in the Finals for the second year in a row, LA was not going to leave empty handed.
The Lakers set the tone in Game One, blowing out the Magic one hundred to seventy five.
However Games Two, Three, and Four were closer.
Game Two and Four were overtime thrillers, and in both cases, Orlando’s Magic just ran out.
And while Orlando looked deflated, the Lakers looked like a team of destiny.
When Courtney Lee’s alley-oop sailed over the rim in Game Two to allow an overtime that would lead to a Lakers victory, it just felt as though this was the Lakers’ series to win.
When Derek Fisher made a three point shot to force Game Four in to overtime, momentum and fate were on the Lakers’ side.
And in Game Five, the Lakers came away with the Championship they had been hungry for since about this time last year.
Afterward, Kobe Bryant talked about how satisfying it was to achieve this long held goal.
For the fans and for the LA Lakers themselves, this Championship was truly something to celebrate.
This year’s NBA Playoffs were the most competitive and compelling contests that we have seen in years. To come away as the best of these extremely talented teams is something to be very proud of.
So well done Lakers, we’ll see you again next year, same time, same place.