As always, we're taking a last look back to the series that just concluded before looking forward to the series that will begin in a few days. After all, you can't know where you're going until you understand where you've been. While we're at it, let's all take a moment to really appreciate the fact that after every series so far, we've been able to move on and start thinking about the next one. For many fans, the end of the series that ended their season is all they have left to contemplate. Here's to the Lakers for keeping us going!
With that said, and without further ado, here are some thoughts from the SS&R authors on the Western Conference Finals, which told us a lot about the team that is now scheduled to meet the Magic in the Finals.
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First of all a huge congratulations to the Denver Nuggets. The difference between this year's team and last year's is startling. However, in the end the old Nuggets began to rear their ugly head, and after all the technicals had been assessed and the three pointer missed, it was the Lakers who ended this spectacular series on a very unspectacular note. After Kobe carried them for the first few games, the Lakers struck an incredible balance that we had yet to see from them in these playoffs. This does not mean that I think Derek Fisher's shot is back, nor does it mean that I am back on the Lamar Odom bandwagon, because I've made that mistake too many times. However, it does mean that I am now comfortable that the Lakers have at the very least figured out what it takes to win. If one person is slumping, others are now stepping up, so I am very confident that anything Orlando does to limit Kobe, Pau, or Ariza will hurt them more than us.
It's amazing how much my perception of the Lakers has fluxuated during these playoffs, but I guess I should expect nothing less from a team that runs hot and cold like they do. The good news for me? They only ran cold for one game this series (Game 4), and they are finally playing like the aggressor, if not for the whole game than at least in the all-important fourth quarter. My confidence in them right now is at an all-time high for the year, but of course that was how I felt going into the Finals last year. Yet, this year seems different. Never before have I seen such a talented team relish the underdog role so much, and even though they know that they are the better team, I think that they still consider themselves the underdogs. Wouldn't you if before every game you had to be reminded of how soft you are, how today is the day David slays Goliath, and how great LeBron and recently derailed Cavaliers train is (was)? This is the source of their strength because it makes them hungry, just like a biological clock made Boston hungry last year. And who would you rather face, a dog that has been lavished with praise, or one that has been kicked, beaten, and starved for a week? Look out Orlando, there's a hungry dog headed your way.
The Western Conference Finals were either deceptively one-sided or deceptively competitive, depending on one’s viewing angle. Thanks to the Lakers’ crushing victory in Game Six, I suspect that many will remember the series as a dominant L.A. triumph and conclude that the Nuggets never really stood a chance, which is one way of looking at it. The other is to note that the Lakers didn’t take control of the series until the fourth quarter of Game Five; to that point of the series, in fact, Denver had actually outscored Los Angeles. I sit somewhere in between those two poles. Now even more than at the time, I’m convinced that the Lakers almost consciously punted Game Four, and if you redact the Game Four numbers from the series totals, the Lakers had an edge in points per possession of 1.14 to 1.05. And if you shrink that gap a little to acknowledge that three of the five remaining games were played at Staples, you get what I think is a fair measure of the underlying difference between the two teams. The Lakers were decisively, if not overwhelmingly, better.
As for What It All Means, that will be decided in a couple weeks, when we know whether the Lakers have won their 15th NBA title. If they defeat the Magic, the last two games of the Western Conference Finals will be cast as the moment when the Lakers found their inner resolve and championship form. If they don’t, someone will decide that the Lakers fattened up on a weak Western Conference that couldn’t produce a legitimate challenger. I’m not a fan of rewriting history to fit a pat media storyline, so I’m going to accept the Lakers’ series victory for what it is: a fitting coda to a conference race that the Lakers owned from the starting pistol. Maybe it wasn’t a grand, historic triumph that we’ll be watching on ESPN Classic years from now, but it’s nothing to be blasé about, either.
The Lakers don't have the killer instinct. The Lakers don't have the mental toughness. The Lakers don't have the physical toughness. The Lakers haven't learned that defense and rebounding win titles. We heard it all before the Lakers and Nuggets tipped off Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Now that the Lakers have dispatched the Nuggets in six games though with a dominant Game 6 performance, many may believe the Lakers rolled over Denver. That's far from the truth though. Let's rewind and take a look.
Denver was well-rested and the Lakers were coming off of a tough seven-game series. LA hadn't shown the ability to close out teams, while this year's edition of the Denver Nuggets were mentally tougher than in past seasons with Chauncey Billups running the show. Hell, many picked Denver to beat LA and considered the Nuggets the favorites. When you think about all of that you realize, this was a good team that the Lakers beat. This wasn't 2008 when the Lakers had no problem taking down Western Conference foe after Western Conference foe.
Through two games, the series was tied 1-1. It was a justified series score because really, the two teams were dead even. Both teams had their opportunities in the first two games and either side could have been ahead 2-0, but 1-1 was a fair result. With that, the two teams headed to the Pepsi Center, where the Lakers took Game 3 behind yet another late Trevor Ariza steal. Denver took Game 4 with ease so the two teams headed back to Staples Center for the crucial Game 5. There, the two teams were even well into the third quarter when the Lakers took over. They rolled over Denver at the end of the game, and then did so again throughout Game 6 to win the series. The difference in the series was the end of games. When Denver was picking up technical fouls, missing assignments and throwing the ball away, the Lakers worked methodically, fought for every loose ball and when all else failed, had that guy named Kobe who's pretty good.
The Lakers showed at the end of the games that they had the mindset and toughness to win a NBA title. Does that mean they will? No, but they're a better team mentally than they were a year ago and they can thank Houston, but more importantly Denver for that. George Karl said it best: "I saw little cracks in the Lakers and somehow we've cemented those cracks back up." That's what this Denver series did for the Lakers. The state of Colorado doesn't hold a soft spot in Kobe's heart and for good reason, but if the Lakers can win four more games, the 2009 Nuggets sure will.
I think ultimately we as Laker fans should probably be quite grateful to the Denver Nuggets for the series they just gave our team. Denver has clearly progressed quite a way from where they were a year ago (or even where they were at the start of the season). They are a team that appears to really be on the rise and should be able to build on what they did this year in the future... if they can leave their "knuckleheadedness" behind them. What may be most telling about Denver is that for a time in this series they were being viewed as the deeper and more talented team, and considering how deep and talented the Lakers have been touted as being all year, that's really quite a compliment. Denver may have actually been a more explosive team than the Lakers, but ultimately it's steady consistency which will win you championships. While the Lakers have not exactly been a beacon of steady, consistent play in these playoffs, they certainly were in the final two games of the series; and that is why I think we Laker fans should be grateful that our team had to go through a series like this to hopefully get them ready for the mammoth challenge that lies ahead. I think the best compliment you can pay to your opponent is that they brought out the best in you, and I think that FINALLY these Nuggets were able to do just that with this Laker team that has frustrated us so much over the past month. Denver has nothing to hang its heads over with how things played out. They'll certainly be back.
C.A. Clark (FryingDutchman)
At the start of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers had not done much to prove they were made of the stuff of champions. They were coming off a series in which their play, especially after the injury to Yao Ming, could be labeled as uninspired at best. People questioned every possible aspect of the team, from defense to toughness, from heart to talent. The only clear fact was that the Lakers were not playing their best basketball. I guess you could say things have changed a bit. All those qualities which were in question, have now been proven. The Lakers are tough. The Lakers can defend. And the Lakers talent is still second to none. And now they are playing their best basketball, rolling into the Finals, looking like the juggernaut that started the year. It may only have been two games, but that's one dominant game more than they had had in the enitre postseason up to that point. Denver finally managed what Utah and Houston could not. They managed to bring the best out in our team.
Denver came into the series looking like champions and left it looking like they were one year away. This should not be overly concerning for Nuggets fans, as the Lakers run this year is teaching us all. It really was a joy to see this team begin reaching its potential. I don't like all the Nuggets players, but Melo is quickly becoming my favorite non-Laker. And its clear that this team did tap into something special in the postseason. Here's hoping they take the example of the first 15 games of their playoff run, instead of the last 1.
I knew before the Western Conference Finals started that the Lakers would be better than they had been in the semi-finals against Houston. They were better against Houston than they had been against Utah, and I expected them to continue to improve. Having seen that improvement through five games – even in the losses, and even while the series seemed even, it was clear that the Lakers had played better against Denver than they had against Houston – I expected the Lakers to take Game 6. Don't believe me? It's true, I really did! I know, I know... I should have put it in writing.
At this point, it is clear to me that three things are true about these Lakers:
- They have been improving throughout these playoffs, and they will be better in the NBA Finals than the were in the Western Conference Finals.
- They have great composure, and perform extremely well when the pressure is on.
- They learn from their mistakes.
The second item on that list is what this series came down to: composure. The Lakers and Nuggets played each other quite evenly throughout the majority of the series. But in close games, two very opposite things tended to happen as the end drew near. One, the Nuggets began to fall apart, losing their composure and self-destructing. And two, the Lakers played with poise and composure, never lost their cool or seemed worried, and with machine-like precision (sorry Sasha, I'm not talking about you), they made the big plays and usually ended up with the win. The difference of this series was not talent, drive, motivation, or execution; throughout most of the series, the Lakers and Nuggets were nearly identical in these areas. The composure of one team, and the lack thereof of the other, is what decided this series.
That this team plays so well when the pressure is on — be it when they're trailing in the fourth quarter, or when they're in a must-win game with the series in doubt — should be a tremendous encouragement to Lakers fans. That their best performance of these playoffs, the Game 6 blowout in Denver to close out the series, required no such external motivation should be even more so.
If the Western Conference Finals were about composure, then the Lakers playoff run to date has been about learning from their mistakes. No one would argue that this team is without weakness; some, in fact, would argue that it has a fatal, tragic flaw (or two). But what is clear to me at this point is that the Lakers, themselves, are as aware of their weaknesses as we are – and they are not content with accepting them. Instead, they have consistently addressed their weaknesses, improved upon their shortcomings, and made themselves into the championship contenders that, quite frankly, they were not at the start of the postseason.
These playoffs have been frustrating for us as fans, but I encourage you not to view the Lakers' struggles to get here negatively, nor to look only at the negatives of the first three rounds. Instead, notice also how the Lakers have steadily improved on their weaknesses over the past several weeks, and be grateful that these playoffs have tested and tried this team, exposing their problems while there remained time to solve them and making them keenly aware of their playoff mortality. Appreciate the stiff competition the Lakers have faced, and the opportunities they presented to overcome some different challenges.
This team did not waltz through the first three rounds of the playoffs. They did not blowout their supposedly lesser opponents. Considering how last year's run ended, and how things went for the seemingly dominant Cavaliers this year, I am extremely glad for the competition the Lakers have faced, and the difficulty they have had, at times, in overcoming it. They are more prepared to win a championship than they have ever been, and it is because their weaknesses were exposed by teams who fought hard but, in the end, were not able to fully take advantage of them. The fact that the Lakers did not blow out and sweep their earlier opponents, as the Cavs did, does not make me less confident about this team – quite the opposite, it makes me all the more confident that they now have learned the necessary lessons and have what it takes to win a championship.
As Wild Yams and others have said, many thanks to the Nuggets, who experienced that first hand.