Lakers Champions. The Bulls Couldn't Have Won 1 Game?


Jun 15

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See, I was right. I knew the Orlando Magic could not measure up. Of course, I predicted that would be in the first round against the Bulls.

The Bulls then lost the last game in the regular season to the Toronto Raptors. That dropped the Bulls to seventh to face the Boston Celtics and played the best series in these terrific NBA playoffs.

So, yes, as predicted by most the Los Angeles Lakers with a dominant 99-86 victory over the Magic Sunday in Orlando won their 15th NBA championship by a 4-1 margin, Phil Jackson led his 10th NBA team—four times with the Lakers and six with the Bulls—to a championship and Kobe Bryant won a title, his fourth, but first without Shaquille O’Neal.

Bryant was voted the Finals MVP in leading the Lakers with 30 points Sunday, and the Lakers delivered on the season long promise of a championship after losing in the Finals to the Boston Celtics last year.

The assumption generally is the teams usually are the favorites to meet in the Finals again. The Lakers have two of their top six players, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza, as free agents. They are expected to return, though there will be some interest around the NBA in both.

The free agent situation is potentially more acute for the Magic with Hedo Turkoglu sure to opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Magic ownership, with the team moving into a new area next season and expecting a revenue boost even in this recession which has hit Florida hard, has said it would go into the luxury tax to resign Turkoglu. We’ll see.

Turkoglu, who has been one of the most valuable players in these playoffs and the most important generator of the Magic’s offense, will get considerable attention as a free agent. The Detroit Pistons are expected to make a substantial offer, and the Magic has Rashard Lewis making $18 million next season. It’s unlikely the Magic will offer Turkoglu anywhere near that despite Turkoglu being a more important piece. Some executives around the league have told me it was vital for the Magic to win the championship so they could afford to lose Turkoglu and not alienate their fan base, that the new arena and a championship would hold off any disaffection from potentially losing Turkoglu.

“It’s tough to get back,” said Kobe Bryant. “They’re (Magic) going to have a bull’s eye on their back.”

So the big question for the other East teams is what they will face.

I thought the Magic was vulnerable because of their dependence on the three point shot, weak backcourt and tendency to forget about Dwight Howard in the post. And Howard’s failure to develop much offensive game.

That was the story of the finale Sunday with the Lakers’ 18-0 second quarter run blowing open the game, Howard getting just nine shots and the Magic shooting eight of 27 on threes. Odom came up big with 17 points and 10 rebounds and Ariza, enhancing his free agent credentials as well, had 11 of his 15 points in the pivotal second quarter.

The Lakers also followed the classic Jackson defensive philosophy of taking away the best weapon. The Lakers continued to smother Howard with double teams and traps from different angles, effectively eliminating his many momentum changing dunks and getting him in foul trouble in Sunday’s deciding game as they went to Andrew Bynum early to attack Howard. Pau Gasol was efficient and effective and the Lakers’ size dominated the rebounding.

There doesn’t seem to be a major immediate challenger to them in the Western Conference. It won’t be so certain for the Magic, which is where teams like the Bulls come in.

Orlando won the Eastern Conference, and as the Magic players said throughout the series no one expected them to do so. They were right. Howard is one of the top players in the NBA and they effectively were without Jameer Nelson, who came back without much success in the Finals. Even with him, their backcourt is limited. Now they also figure to have a cranky Rafer Alston to contend with. Going into his final season, he’s likely to be traded.

The big elephant standing in the way of all this is the Boston Celtics, who were supposed to be there with the Lakers. But Kevin Garnett got hurt and the Bulls coulda shoulda woulda beat them. Now the 30-plus guys are going into their third season, Glen Davis is a free agent and Leon Powe probably won’t be ready to start the season.

The Cavs are all LeBron all the time. So they’re supposed to get Shaq. If they do, bye bye defense. And Shaq is not exactly one to defer to anyone, at least publicity wise.

The point being it’s hardly a lock the Magic is back and the so called East Big Three doesn’t seem so invincible now. The Hawks have a bunch of free agents and shaky ownership. Dwyane Wade isn’t about to drag that bunch that far again. New coach again for the 76ers and working Elton Brand in again.

So maybe the Bulls aren’t that far off. You have Derrick Rose and John Salmons and if Luol Deng can return and Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah and you make a clever move or two, hey, why not? Yes, that’s a lot of what ifs and could bes and who knows. But it also is why this summer could be as crucial as 2010 for the top guys in the East. Make a move now and maybe James or Wade or Chris Bosh wants to be with you. Who knows?

What we do know is the Lakers are on top. No, I don’t see a great team. Ariza and Derek Fisher, for all their big moments in the Finals, are surely in the bottom third at their positions in the league. Andrew Bynum still seemed to be playing on a broken down leg. With him opening the game missing shots from everywhere, you figured Jackson would instruct the Lakers defense to stop him.

Pau still is an offensive player primarily. The Lakers competed harder Sunday, but their defense generally is passive. Orlando took a pair of games into overtime and lost them both. But you are, as the NBA saying goes, what your record is. The Magic is 4-1 losers. Not close. Oh, yes, they do have Bryant, the league’s best player. Enough with the LeBron debate for now.

It seemed more a relieved Lakers team, especially Bryant, who defeated the notion that he couldn’t win without Shaquille O’Neal.

“I just don’t have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism anymore,” said Bryant when asked yet again after the game. “I don’t have to hear that stuff anymore. For us with the collection of guys that are so young and having gone through what we went through last year and having the goal in mind of trying to get back to this point, and to have the attitude of we’re going to become a better defensive team, better rebounding team, and then to actually do it and to see it all happen, it feels like I’m dreaming right now. I can’t believe this moment is here.

“Every team has a dynamic duo,” said Bryant of being condemned for not winning without another top All Star. “You just accept the challenge and try to prove them wrong. It was annoying. I would cringe every time. It was a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it (I felt). You can say it until you’re blue in the face and rationalize it until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going anywhere until you do something about it.

“From the standpoint of responding to the challenge, from people saying I couldn’t do it without him, that feels good, because you prove people wrong,” said Bryant. “On another note, I think people can look at the special teams that we had together. It (was) probably the first dynamic duo that had two alpha males on one team. We managed to make it work for three championships.”

The AP reported Shaq on his Twitter page wrote: “Congratulations kobe, u deserve it. You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it.”

Yes, it sure sounds like Shaq is trying to get back to end his career with the Lakers. I don’t see that nice guy strategy working.

So Bryant is back in his pursuit of Michael Jordan, now with a fourth title to Jordan’s six, the next big, albeit unstated for now, goal.

Jackson got his as well, the 10th championship as coach, a record unlikely to ever be challenged in the NBA. Jackson passed longtime foe Red Auerbach, who delighted in tweaking Jackson about only coaching stars (as if Auerbach had CBA expatriates). Jackson graciously said he’d smoke a cigar to celebrate Auerbach. Jackson now doubled Pat Riley and John Kundla with Gregg Popovich with four titles trailing.

It was a champagne soaked Jackson who talked with reporters afterward and admitted age is becoming a factor in his coaching. Though Jackson is expected back to coach the Lakers next season (he always says he decides after each season), he admitted he didn’t push this team like he pushed the old Bulls.

“It’s really about the players,” said Jackson. “It’s about Kobe Bryant, about Derek Fisher’s leadership of the team. I tried to take them through some of the build up things that we had to do last year as a basketball club. They came together this year and were self-motivated, and for a coach that’s always a positive sign. When a team is ready, they’re aggressive, their learning curve is high, and they wanted to win. I’ve always felt as a coach you have to push your team, and I told them they had to push themselves. I wasn’t at the stage of my life where I could get out and do the things that I had done 10 years ago or 15 years ago to push a team. And they pushed themselves, and I really feel strongly that this is about them. I think I’ve always said this before, the journey is what’s really important, and it’s important for the players and the coaches to watch these kids come together and form a unit and be supportive of each other, and this was no exception, this team.”

Jackson also was revealing about dealing with Bryant and subtly demonstrating why he is the ultimate coach. It’s not about strategies and plays and speeches, but about being able to both get the best out of players while not being afraid to coach and challenge them.

“There was a point in Kobe’s first, second year when we sat together and watched tape,” Jackson related. “I wanted him to understand his impact on the game a little bit and my feeling about his impact on the game. We had a game in Toronto, and he had gotten hooked up with Vince Carter in the middle of the fourth quarter and they kind of exchanged baskets, and I thought it took our team out of their team play, and the game was much harder than it should have been. So I talked to him a little bit about leadership and the quality and his ability to be a leader, and he said, “I’m ready to be a captain right now,” and I said, “but no one is ready to follow you.” He was 22 at the time. He was a young guy. In those eight years that have ensued from that period, he’s learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him, and I think that’s really important for him to have learned that, because he knew that he had to give to get back in return, and so he’s become a giver rather than just a guy that’s a demanding leader, and that’s been great for him and great to watch.”

And that’s the point with Jackson you don’t see with other coaches with stars, say like Mike Brown now with Cleveland.

It’s easy to say Jackson had stars and should win.

But you also have to coach stars and stand up to stars and challenge them and correct them and then they’ll motivate themselves. I remember Jackson doing that from the beginning with Michael Jordan and the triangle offense, which Jordan belittled. Jordan needed it, but he didn’t know it and was too stubborn to accept from anyone.

He needed be challenged, and only great coaches with great self confidence can do that kind of thing. It’s why, in some respects, it’s more difficult to win with stars because you need to stand up to them and coach them and only the best and most self assured can do that.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy understood. He knows how difficult it is.

“Hey, listen, some of the stuff is almost incomprehensible, okay,” he said of Jackson’s records. “I think if I’m right, the guy has won 51 playoff series now. Check your record book and see how many coaches have even won 50 playoff games. It’s fewer than 20, and the guy has won 51 playoff series. It’s incomprehensible.”

It was an historic night in the NBA. We saw Jackson achieve a milestone we’ll likely never see again and we saw Bryant ultimately morph into the transcendent star who could be on the way to be winning three or four or five more championships before he is done. It’s both and ending and a beginning for the Lakers and the promise of more intrigue for next season. Sorry, I can’t wait for it to start over again.

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