Lakers look like champions with Game 1 finals win


Jun 5

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

The NBA Finals isn’t over, though it seemed like it Thursday the way the Lakers dominated the Orlando Magic 100-75 to win Game 1.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy sought out Lakers history for inspiration, going back to the famed 1985 Memorial Day Massacre when the Lakers lost the opening Finals game by 34 points but went on to win the series in six games.

“I know playoff history,” said Van Gundy. “It’s pretty hard to find a champion who at some point in their playoff run hasn’t gotten their butts beat by 20 plus. San Antonio, it seems, they did every year in playoff runs. Those kinds of things happen. I know this: We’re a lot better than we showed today. We’ll come back Sunday and give a better effort and play better game. The margin is disappointing, but they get one win. They don’t get two wins for it.”

So it moves on to Game 2 in Los Angeles Sunday. And if the Magic is to make it a series they have to win that game. They’ve done that as they opened the playoffs losing at home to the 76ers and falling behind 2-1 in that series. They trailed the Celtics 3-2 and the Celtics had never lost a playoff series after leading 3-2. Until this season. Phil Jackson teams have never lost a playoff series after winning the first game. There are always those statistics that are pretty much meaningless because playoff series are about exceptions.

And what was most exceptional Thursday was the play of Kobe Bryant, who had a personal career Finals high 40 points along with eight rebounds and eight assists.

Though Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he’d rather more players get involved (only two other Lakers scoring in double figures as Bryant attempted 34 shots), Jackson conceded it was Bryant’s “drive, his intensity, his energy in the game that carried it.”

Bryant often was seen baring his teeth after baskets and in his post game comments he was somber and short, acknowledging only he wanted this “real bad.”

This would be a championship, which would be Bryant’s fourth. Much of the talk around this series has been Bryant’s desire to win a championship without Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant did an ABC-TV interview with Magic Johnson before the game and said that notion was nonsense, that O’Neal needed him and they both needed Robert Horry and Derek Fisher and Rick Fox, that championships are won by teams and not individuals.

Organizations win championships?

It is true, though it also matters in history. Players measure one another by championships and one more for Bryant matches O’Neal’s four. More importantly for Bryant, say some who know him, is getting that six to match Michael Jordan and seven to get one beyond.

Which if the Lakers do win this series begins to raise serious questions about where Bryant ranks in NBA history. It’s always difficult to compare eras and players within those eras.

There’s no actual NBA top 10 players, but the general consensus is something like this: Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Roberston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and then some debate among Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dr. J, Tim Duncan and Rick Barry.

It’s subjective, of course, but if Bryant continues to perform like this and the Lakers get that title, you’d have to consider Bryant not only in the top 10, but likely ahead of West and Baylor on the fringe of moving into that elite Magnificent Seven of alltime greats.

“I just want it so bad, that’s all,” said Bryant, deferring any commentary beyond talk of each game.  “I just want it really bad.  You just put everything you have into the game and your emotions kind of flow out of you. My kids call me Grumpy from the Seven Dwarfs.  That’s how I’ve been at home, just a grouch.”

For the guys from Disney World, they simply were dwarfed by the Lakers, figuratively and literally. Not only did the Lakers put the game away by going up by 24 after three quarters, but the Lakers size was much too much for the Magic. The Lakers outrebounded the Magic 55-41, had a 56-22 domination in points in the paint and kept the Magic without a fast break basket.

As Pat Riley famously said, rebounds equal rings.

The Magic may be in serious trouble even though it is just one game. The key to the Lakers’ preseason domination of the experts’ predictions was their unusual interior size with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

But Bynum was hurt again this season and slow to come back in the playoffs, constantly in foul trouble, while Odom had been his usual inconsistent, sometimes seemingly indifferent, self.

But not this time. After blowing through the Nuggets in the last two games of the Western Conference finals, the Lakers continued to be filled with all the right clichés—focused, intense, sharp, committed, energetic.

Though the Magic competed well early and hardly seemed intimidated, Van Gundy had to make a key early move that was telling. The Magic led 24-22 after one quarter, but Van Gundy had to go to rarely used Tony Battie as the Lakers opened pounding the ball to Bynum. That threatened to put Dwight Howard into foul trouble, and Howard drew his second less than 10 minutes into the game. Bynum got his second less than nine minutes in, which was perhaps longer than expected. But the Lakers could then bring in the 6-10 Odom and not fear the loss of size.

It left Rashard Lewis fighting to control bigger guys, and Lewis shot two of 10. Hedo Turkoglu was just three of 11 shooting as the Magic shot just 29.9 percent.

It wasn’t just Lakers’ defense, though the Lakers did a good job stunting against Howard. The Lakers came with help when Howard would put the ball on the floor. Howard gave up the ball, but his teammates were missing badly.

“Dwight made some good passes out,” said Van Gundy.  “Second half we weren’t able to make any shots out of that.  I thought we had a lot of trouble getting the ball inside.  I thought they did a good job of making that difficult, and we’ve got to find a way to get better ball movement. I thought early in the game our ball movement was excellent, and after that I thought they did a great job of shutting down passing lanes, playing us one‑on‑one, going to the basket and stuff. We’ve got a long way to go to get back into this thing.  We’ve got to play a lot better.  But we’ve been a team that’s bounced back all year.  I think our guys will bounce back with a much better effort on Sunday.”

And Jackson agreed. “Things just didn’t go right for them tonight,” Jackson said.  “They didn’t get things in rhythm and they didn’t get things in the paint that they normally get, and those situations change the complexity of the game.  The first half was nip and tuck right up until the end of the second quarter.  We were able to come out and play with a different type of an attitude the second half.”

Actually, Orlando looked in good shape with a five-point lead early in the second quarter with some sharp play from backup center Marcin Gortat and Jameer Nelson, who was supposed to be out for the entire playoffs. But Nelson pushed hard to return and had four points and four assists in the second quarter before tiring.

After the Magic took that 33-28 lead with about eight minutes left in the first half, Jackson called a quick timeout and brought back Bryant, who’d been more aggressive than usual.

He was just three of nine shooting in the first quarter, but that’s been rare in the playoffs because he’s been mostly a facilitator early in games in these playoffs. But he was attacking rookie Courtney Lee, who wasn’t getting much help because of the Magic’s concern with the Lakers big guys.

With the Lakers stunting and crowding Howard, the Magic, as they are wont to do, began to forget about Howard and fire away on threes while Bryant went to work, hitting on six of nine in the second quarter.

This Lakers team that was viewed as blasé and overconfident early in the playoffs was hustling and recovering on defense, clearly being goaded by Bryant constantly in their ears whenever they went to the bench. The Lakers also were quick to retreat, cutting off the Magic’s fast break. And in making 52 percent of their shots, the Magic was taking the ball out of the basket. Plus, Nelson isn’t as much a push point guard as Rafer Alston, and Van Gundy has an interesting decision on whether to stick much with Nelson after Nelson was out for so long and Alston helped the Magic into the Finals by pushing the ball in transition.

The Lakers took a 53-43 lead at halftime, and then came out firing. At least Bryant did.

He opened the second half scoring over Lee and then Turkoglu after a switch. Bryant then began to put the game away with a highlight show of his own, driving through three Magic players right to the rim from half court and dropping the ball in left handed as the 24-second clock went off and right afterward hitting a hanging bank shot as the clock expired and was fouled, the Lakers also controlling the pace better and getting the Magic into an uncomfortable halfcourt game.

Orlando then brought a hard double at Bryant. So he skip passed the ball to Trevor Ariza for a three and the rout was on.

“I think the best thing we can do is just forget about it,” said Bryant about the big win. “This is a resilient Orlando Magic team.  They’ve been through a lot of adverse situations before.  This is nothing to them.  They’ll be ready to go Game 2, and we’ve just got to forget about this and move on. We haven’t found anything.  It’s one game. No big deal.”

Oh, but it is.

When you see a great player playing with that type of ferocity and determination, you better get some wins and get them fast. Or it will fast be over. And Bryant will be fast tracking to NBA history.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: