The NBA season has finally culminated, and now we have to wait an excruciating 128 days for the 2010-11 campaign to kick off.
Even though this year’s NBA Finals was anything but aesthetically pleasing, the level of competition was through the roof. Every possession was a battle, the intensity was unlike anything I’ve personally seen, and Game Seven provided one of the most dramatic and climactic final 24 minutes in the past 20 years.
This year was a crash-course for fans and players alike in terms of learning how to win (the Lakers won playing Boston’s game), how to embrace the moment (the easy answer is Kobe, but Pau Gasol took this to heart in Games Six and Seven), how to give 100 percent each and every game and possession in the postseason (we’re looking at you, LeBron James), and how to step your game up when it matters most (the entire Boston Celtics team for the first 22 games of the playoffs).
But what else did we learn? Let’s keep the whole “list of sevens” streak alive and look at seven more things we were educated in during the Finals…
…we learned that the regular season is utterly and completely meaningless.
The Cleveland Cavaliers dominated the regular season for the second consecutive season only to have no intensity in the postseason and before the Finals. Despite dominating the first 82 games, they couldn’t get better in the playoffs—they didn’t have an extra gear to shift into.
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics were left for dead in the regular season. They dropped seven of 10 to end the season.
There was bitterness amongst the players.
They looked old, disjointed, slow, and out of shape ( OK, maybe it was just ‘Sheed that looked like that).
But they followed the golden path. They couldn’t have cared less about the regular season; they wanted to get better and peak in the postseason, home court be damned. And they did. And they went to a seventh game in the NBA Finals.
Other examples… Orlando looked unstoppable in the regular season before they ran into the Boston buzz saw.
Phoenix was a team in despair at the trade deadline, almost moving Amar’e Stoudemire for 50 cents on the dollar. Instead, they got hot down the stretch and carried that momentum to the Western Conference Finals.
The regular season is great for entertainment, but I will never get excited about anything that happens in those 82 games again…unless someone scores 101 points in a game or a team wins 34 games in a row.
…we learned Ron Artest is officially the craziest player in NBA history.
Odd? No doubt.
Mentally unstable? Of course.
And after watching his postgame interview with Doris Burke and the press conference that soon followed, there’s little doubt that Ron Artest has ran laps around Rasheed Wallace for the coveted “most insane NBA player” of our generation… and of all time.
Anytime that somebody thanks his psychiatrist immediately following the game, it should set off some red flags.
And his press conference was even better.
“… and [Kobe] passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball, and he passed me the ball."
“He’s a Zen master, so he can speak to you, and he doesn’t need a microphone, you can hear him in your head, ‘Ron, don’t shoot, don’t shoot’ … whatever, pow, three! I love the Zen, though.”
…if you say so, Ron-Ron.
…we learned that you can never call Pau Gasol soft again.
Many people (including myself) were all over Gasol after Game Five. He was punked by Kevin Garnett, he had the quietest 12-point, 12-rebound game you could possibly imagine, he was anything but a force in the paint, and was part of the reason the Celtics shot something like 90 percent inside of five feet and scored 46 points in the paint.
But his performances in Games Six and Seven, with his back against the wall, will go down as the one of the greatest, most forgotten about back-to-back games in Finals history.
Aside from Lakers fans, few will remember the significance of his impact. Maybe people will look at the box score 15 years from now and say, “oh, 17-13-9 in Game 6, 19-18-4 in Game 7, pretty impressive.”
But he redefined his career and the perceptions of the Lakers with those games. In Game Six, he ran the floor. He dominated the post. He commanded attention from the Celtic defense, and, unlike each of L.A.’s losses in this series, was undoubtedly the best big on the floor.
And in Game Seven, he set the tone early, grabbing five rebounds in the first two-plus minutes. Simply put, he was possessed.
My favorite moment came in the final two minutes. The Lakers had been running isos for Kobe at the top of the key in the previous possessions. The last time down the court, the Celtics ran a delayed double-team at Kobe and forced him to give it up, leading to a bad three-point attempt from Lamar Odom.
In a four-point game with 1:45 to play, the Lakers took the ball out of Bryant’s hands and gave it to Gasol. He made a ridiculously awkward turn-around jumper with both Wallace and Garnett right in his face, giving the Lakers a six-point lead.
And, up by three, he got the biggest rebound of the season, cleaning up Kobe Bryant’s miss with less than 30 seconds to go and eventually setting up Kobe’s two free throws that put the Lakers up five.
You could make a case for Gasol being the MVP of the series simply because when he played well, the Lakers won. And you can no longer say the Lakers (and Gasol) can’t play tough and can’t win a physical game.
…we learned you can’t win a title without the Robert Horry/Steve Kerr/Derek Fisher types.
One of my favorite stats (I guess it’s not really a stat, more of a tidbit) is that from 1994-2005, only one team won an NBA title without either Robert Horry or Steve Kerr on its roster (the ’04 Pistons).
The ’94-’95 Rockets, ’00-’02 Lakers, and ’05 Spurs had Horry.
The ’96-’98 Bulls, ’99 and ’03 Spurs had Steve Kerr.
What does this mean? It means that, even with an extraordinary amount of talent on a roster, no matter how great a player is (the best players on the aforementioned championship teams were Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant), you need a guy that does all the little things: grabs a key rebound, hits a big three, plays defense so well that you almost don’t even notice it.
And after Thursday, Derek Fisher is officially now a proud member of the “role players you would absolutely kill to have on your team.”
He hit shots all series that you couldn’t imagine. In Bill Simmons’ Cover It Live, he said Fisher was pulling clutch shots out of his small intestine. A little graphic, but you get the idea.
In Game Three, he was the best player on the floor in the fourth quarter. He hit a few step-back jumpers and had the dagger, the one-on-three fast break and-one layup that sealed the game for Los Angeles.
Statistically, he was really quiet in Game Seven. But you can’t put value on the two shots he made in the second half.
Down 10 halfway through the third quarter, he hit an awkward jumper from the right wing that hit every part of the rim before bouncing in. The next possession, Lamar Odom got a tip-in off an Artest miss, the Lakers cut the lead to six, the Staples Center came alive, and you finally got the feeling that L.A. was going to make it a game again.
And down by three in the fourth, he got open off a double-team of Gasol in the post, squared up and buried a 26-foot three-pointer to tie the game. The next possession, Kobe nailed two free throws and the Lakers never trailed the rest of the game.
You can’t put a price on shots that start 9-0 scoring runs or drain some of the momentum from the other team. But that’s what the best role players do…and it’s what Fisher does so well.
…we learned that Celtic Pride never dies.
Admittedly, I dislike Boston more than any other team in the NBA. I probably couldn’t hide the wry smile on my face when they walked off the court dejected and defeated.
But almost every time I think about why I despise them so much, it comes back to one thing: I always wish my teams play more like Boston does.
Here’s what I mean by that…every game (in the playoffs at least), you never question the heart of any Celtic. They do all the little things that every basketball die-hard appreciates: they look for the extra pass, they crash the boards with passion and energy, and display so much character and heart every single play.
They have a spectacular young player (Rondo), an unequivocal ambassador of the league (Allen), a clutch player who thrives in pressure situations (Pierce), a guy who literally looks like he’d kill someone just to win a game (Garnett), and players that know their role and execute it near-flawlessly (Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis).
They have a coaching staff that preaches teamwork and unselfishness over everything else.
They have the best fanbase and home court in the league. The crowds at TD Garden intimidate me and give me goosebumps…and I’m sitting at home in Ohio watching the game on TV.
Even though they’ll be a year older and more people will discount them in 2010-11, there’s zero doubt in my mind that they’ll be a force in the playoffs. They’ll find ways to compete and make the beasts of the East go through them…because that’s what great teams and great franchises seemingly do every year.
I know it’s little consolation to the disappointed fans, but Boston is the epitome of how a franchise should be run, how a team should play, and how fans should support their city.
…we learned that Game Sevens in the NBA Finals are the best 48 minutes in sports.
Maybe you knew this already, but I didn’t.
In fact, I never realized that in my lifetime there had been just three Game Sevens in the Finals. One came in ’88 when I was one-and-a-half years old. Let’s just say I don’t remember it too well.
Another came in ’94 when I was seven. Oddly enough, I do remember watching the game, but I couldn’t tell you any specific thing that happened.
Then there was the ’05 Spurs-Pistons finale, but since America openly hates the Spurs and secretly hates the Pistons, everyone kind of agreed to pretend like this series never happened.
But this game…this was everything you could want in basketball. A game where the referees (for the most part) swallowed their whistles and let the teams duke it out. The physicality, the sweat that was left on the court, the emotional toll this game took on both sides and its fans…it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
People love the Super Bowl and March Madness because it’s one-and-done; you get one shot to prove your greatness and that’s it. You live with the results.
Game Seven is better though. It’s a culmination of everything that’s happened in first six games of the series. It’s a culmination of everything that happened in the first three rounds of the playoffs. It’s a culmination of everything that happened the previous 82 games (you know, if they weren’t completely meaningless).
It’s the best athletes in the world playing the best game in the world for one last time. There’s no way it can get any better.
…we learned Kobe Bryant isn’t the best Laker of all time…but he’s pretty damned close.
For three quarters, Kobe was throwing up an epic stink bomb. The crowd was tense and in shock, not because the Lakers were losing, but because their beloved hero was having one of the worst playoff games of his career.
If the Lakers would have lost, it would have tarnished his legacy forever.
But that’s the thing. It’s easy to say, “if the Lakers would have lost…" but they didn’t lose. They didn’t lose because Kobe wouldn’t let them.
He ripped down rebounds in the fourth quarter like he was Dwight Howard. When he couldn’t hit a jump shot to save his life, he got to the rim much like Michael Jordan did in the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals.
And he did what we wanted him to do his entire career: he trusted his teammates. You might think “how?” when he shot 6-of-24 and had two assists. When the season was on the line in the fourth, he didn’t force anything. He didn’t take any of the awful or questionable shots he took in the first 36 minutes.
He trusted Gasol on the block to get a big bucket in final two minutes.
He trusted Artest to knock down the biggest three of his life (though this one is questionable, since no one in their right mind thought Artest would take the shot, let alone make it).
Now, he’s a five-time champion, he’s beaten the Celtics in the Finals, he’s won two titles without Shaquille O’Neal…and he’s still easily got three or four years left in the tank.
Is he better than Kareem right now? That’s highly debatable.
Is he better than Magic? Not in my mind.
But he’s oh-so-close. And if he ends his career with 30,000-plus points and six or seven NBA titles, he’ll have to be considered the greatest Laker ever.