The Boston Celtics, who had largely dominated the Miami Heat in three out of their four contests, succumbed to their Miami-based successors in a hard-fought, but surprisingly short-lived, five-game series.
Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers, winners of the last two straight NBA championships and the last three Western Conference titles, came apart at the seams due to “trust issues,” age and a complete and utter lack of intensity, and were swept by the Dallas Mavericks.
The NBA universe has truly been turned upside down.
It is arguable that the Lakers’ exit was the most disappointing of all. While both the Celtics coach Doc Rivers and the Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have been involved in retirement rumors, as of now, both are expected to return next season.
However, if Lakers coach Phil Jackson is to be believed, we have seen him coach his final NBA game.
With Jackson gone, the Lakers are headed toward uncertain times. Perhaps this season was the beginning of their end.
What factors led to the Lakers’ anti-climactic collapse? What could have helped them send Jackson off with a more appropriate farewell?
Find out here.
Let the record show that the Lakers’ 2004 NBA Finals-like collapse was more a reflection of them than the Dallas Mavericks.
With that said, Nowitzki did do a commendable job in the series.
When you’ve averaged 25 points a game over the course of a series and your lowest field-goal percentage over the course a single game was 50 percent, you’re doing something right.
However, the defensive pressure Nowitzki was faced with was nonexistent.
Pau Gasol, who rest assured you will be hearing plenty about, was anything but forceful.
While Nowitzki’s shots weren’t all open looks, he never appeared uncomfortable. Worse, he expended very little energy on the defensive of the floor.
Gasol made it easy for him.
On the rare occasion where Gasol had the ball on the block or anywhere near the post, he was not only hesitant to attack, he was unwilling. He would stall, dwindle down the clock, and if he wasn’t passing to a teammate completely out of position to score, he was throwing up fadeaway bricks.
His aggression level was simply pathetic.
When you give a player of Nowitzki’s caliber a free pass on the defensive end of the floor and when you allow him to so freely pick his spots on offense, you are asking for trouble, and the Lakers got that in spades.
If Kobe Bryant ever had the slightest chance of making the slightest claim to the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) title, it died in Dallas.
Can you imagine Michael Jordan getting swept at this point of his career by anyone? It's unfathomable.
Hell, even if Jordan were to take a series loss at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, a team whose guard unit is so ill equipped to defend him, would he have scored a mere 17 points in Games 3 and 4?
Okay, maybe that’s unfair. He is Jordan after all.
But try to wrap your mind around Kobe going out so meekly even two years ago.
That’s equally unfathomable.
If it took Kobe 50 shots, he would have finished with a point total no lower than the 20s and probably the 30s.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing bothers me more than watching Kobe settle for those god-awful fading, contested, off-balance jumpers of his, but mostly because his timing is off when he chooses to do it.
It seems that Kobe takes those ill-advised shot attempts more when the game is within control and his teammates are contributing than when his team isn’t producing.
Game 4 got away from the Lakers quickly, but the urgency that served Bryant so well during the last two championship runs was nowhere to be seen.
Eighteen shot attempts in an elimination game? That wasn't even enough to match his season average.
Aside from Bryant's 36-point outing in Game 1, he did nothing to establish himself as the most dominant player in that series and looked more like a second-banana trying to do a top dog’s job than a two-time reigning Finals MVP looking to add a third.
Perhaps the worst of it all was his off-court demeanor.
Bryant, who repeatedly challenged Shaq for showing up out of shape at the start of regular season games, who blasted Andrew Bynum practically before he had a chance to set foot in Los Angeles, who “wanted to kill” Sasha Vujacic for the flagrant-two foul he was called for in the 2009 Western Conference Finals, all of a sudden had nothing to say about the disappearance of Pau Gasol?
All of a sudden Bryant, who’s publicly clamored for roster changes for much, much smaller offenses than this, has such confidence in a team that couldn’t pull out a single win against the Dallas Mavericks that he believes that the team as is can absolutely “come back and do it again”?
LeBron James was blasted for his "unsportsmanlike" exit of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, walking out of Amway Arena without shaking hands or talking to reporters, but call me crazy, I would rather have his exit than Bryant's laissez faire demeanor.
Even in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, Bryant's demeanor oozed with a quiet rage that was evident on his face, his tone, his words and his aura.
Now, Bryant edges ever closer to retirement, Jackson is gone, Gasol has called into question whether he can be a number two option on a title team ever again, and if Kobe were your only barometer you might have thought that this series was a preseason exhibition.
Did the Lakers really run into a team so potent, so deadly that their defeat was the result of a superior opponent, or did in-fighting, lack of intensity, a failure to show up and the steady decline of a much softer Kobe Bryant do them in?
The Lakers' style of defense has always been predicated on high-pressure on the ball and attention to backdoor cuts.
In principle, it sounds good, and before this postseason it worked out in most cases.
Sure it left the Lakers vulnerable on the perimeter on several occasions and weakened them even further against speedy, pass-oriented point guards, but hey, who argues with a formula that helps you win two straight titles?
Well apparently someone should have.
The Dallas Mavericks didn’t execute any special strategies or lineups to oust the Lakers, but they didn’t need to. Ultimately what did the Lakers in was the precise ball movement of the Mavericks and the production of the open shooters.
The Lakers' perimeter defense, though exceptional on paper, has struggled with leaving shooters open, but got by due to the speed and hustle of their guards and the length of the Laker forwards.
Not this time.
Do you want to know how to lose a basketball series?
Allow the other team to shoot over 40 percent from deep in Game 3 after taking a 2-0 lead, then allow over 60 percent (60, freaking 60) from beyond the arc in Game 4, and you'll be well on your way.
Experimenting with Ron Artest on Nowitzki, albeit for brief stretches, didn’t help much either given the rather obvious and distinct gap in their respective heights.
Artest is 6’8” on a good day; Nowitzki is 7’0” and has made a living shooting over people his height and taller.
Not a good matchup.
Phil Jackson is the most decorated NBA coach of all time, and you won’t get many arguments against him as the greatest coach ever, but somewhere between his observations, his adjustments and the team’s follow-through, something didn’t add up.
Its not as though the players themselves don’t share the blame. Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum (aside from the JJ Barea incident) are the only Lakers whose performance over the course of the series didn’t suck.
Still, one has to wonder if Phil Jackson will have any regrets in his approach to this, his final series, as he looks back on it down the road.
These Lakers have been perhaps the most one-dimensional championship team since their early 2000s incarnation.
The Spurs have always been able to hit you from multiple directions. The 2004 Pistons were perhaps the purest team of the last 20 years. Even aside from the Celtics’ Big Three, they have made it a habit to employ veterans who at any given moment could hurt you.
Though the 2006 NBA champion Heat were a one-dimensional team in the Finals and were almost single-handedly spurred to victory by the heroics of Dwyane Wade, Shaq was still a worthy second option, and like the Celtics, the Heat employed a slew of talented vets that could creep out of the woodworks at a moment’s notice.
The Lakers? Well, they possess a roster as talented as any of the aforementioned teams, arguably more so, but you wouldn’t know that by watching them in the playoffs.
More often than not, the Lakers have been a two-man show. The other players had a habit of fading into the background, particularly in the clutch.
Outside of a timely three-pointer from Derek Fisher here or there (plays which are far more isolated and spread apart than the average Laker fan seems willing to admit), the Lakers have almost always fizzled down the stretch when neither Bryant nor Gasol made an outstanding play.
Well, that sounds normal doesn’t it?
Not for teams trying to establish themselves as the class of the league.
The list goes on but the Lakers offense, which for far too long has held a habit of stalling at the worst possible times, is only that much worse when the two leading men don’t deliver Academy Award-level performances.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, neither did and that was the difference.
Prior to the conclusion of the 2010 NBA Finals, I wrote an article positing that Gasol’s career had taken a massive turn for the better and that if the Lakers were to emerge victorious, Gasol would be cementing a suddenly Hall of Fame-bound career.
Gasol had outplayed Kevin Garnett in the 2010 Finals worse than he had been outplayed by Garnett in the ‘08 Finals, and helped propel the Lakers to another title. Many even believed that Gasol was the true MVP of that series.
Well I don’t think we have to worry about these compliments going to Gasol’s head any more because he’s done hearing them.
Is it fair that three years of solid work goes down the drain because of two poorly played playoff series?
No, it's not. But it's life.
Buildings, relationships, lives can take years to build and only moments to destroy.
Now outright calling Gasol’s career “destroyed” would probably be a bit of a stretch, but damaged and smeared sound about right.
After the Lakers went down 0-2 in the series, the Internet was set ablaze with the rumor that Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife, had stepped in and ruined Gasol’s relationship with his girlfriend.
Its just not good journalism to assume any truth to that rumor, but no answer has taken its place and something was clearly amiss.
One doesn’t simply go from jumpstarting what could have been a dynasty to fading into the background without a reason.
Whatever that reason is, Gasol oughta be ashamed of himself.
It's one thing to drop off for a game or two, but to fall off the face of the earth when your team needs you most, is lame, disheartening and well, soft.
If you know of any team that ever endured a successful title run with its second-best player putting up numbers like 13 points per game on 42 percent accuracy from the floor, let me know, and I’ll buy you a pizza.
Until then, good luck trying to find a more valid reason why the Lakers won’t be hoisting the Larry O’Brien in June and why this team may never do so again.