Remember that Lakers team that struggled to put away an injury-riddled Houston Rockets? Remember how unlike a championship team they seemed, and what a frustration they were to their fans?
Yeah, me neither.
If there is one thing that we've learned from LeBron James (regular season MVP) and the Cavaliers (regular season best record), it's that once the playoffs start, the regular season doesn't matter. If there's one thing we've learned from last year's Celtics, who barely hung on against weaker opposition through the early rounds of the playoffs, only to dominate in the Finals, it's that it's now how you start that matters, it's how you finish.
In the end, the 1996 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10 in the regular season and 15-3 in the playoffs, finished with the same result as the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers: an NBA Championship. No more, no less. The basketball historians know the details, and sometimes it's fun to rehash them, but in the end, Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, and their Chicago Bulls are remembered primarily for one thing, and it's not any advanced measure of the specific degree of their dominance. It's simply the championships – six of them, to be about as precise as we need to be.
And so it is that the Los Angeles Lakers became the 2009 NBA Champions, and when all was said and done, a truly great team.
For the Lakers, the regular season began in dominant fashion. It wasn't just about their win-loss record – though that was mighty impressive – it was about how they played. They seemed to have shored up all their primary weaknesses, playing with toughness, crashing the boards, and throttling their opponents defensively. They played as though they had something to prove, which was appropriate, considering how the previous season had ended.
Alas, that effort did not last long. By the time a quarter of the season had passed, the Lakers had settled into what would be their default mode for the rest of the regular season. They lacked passion and intensity against lesser opponents, leading fans and critics to begin questioning their mentality and ability, only to step it up and absolutely dominate in a key game. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The playoffs seemed a good time for this team to pick it up, but that happened much more slowly than we expected. The effort against Utah was unimpressive, and the second round series with Houston went a couple games longer than it should have. The team seemed unfocused, and Phil Jackson seemed downright insane at times, playing lineups never before seen and giving significant playing time to players who seemed to have no business being on the court. We began to wonder if the legendary coach had lost his edge – all of which, of course, now seems silly in retrospect.
The Lakers got their act together against Denver. They made relatively quick work of a team most expected to give them more of a challenge, and they closed the series out in a Game 6 that no one expected them to show up for. Then, in the Finals, they completely cast off the specters of their earlier up-and-down play, rolling to a dominant 4-1 series victory.
Who can say whether it was a question of motivation, or simply a case of the Lakers pacing themselves? The former is typically unintentional, and can suggest a lack of mental fortitude and discipline. The latter is deliberate, and indicates an overall strategy based on prioritized goals. I have often thought it was more of the former, but I have come to believe that more of the latter was involved than I realized at times. This was especially true, I think, of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. Bryant, for his part, certainly seemed to pace himself during the regular season. And why shouldn't he? While he is known for playing hard all the time, he has also played two straight years of basketball at a very high level without missing a single game, and with hardly any rest or down time.
Meanwhile, a retrospect on Jackson's coaching methods (and in particular, the odd lineups he sometimes uses) would seem to indicate that he was using the regular season, and even the early rounds of the postseason, as a time for teaching and experimentation.
Take a moment to chew on that thought. Phil Jackson used the first two and a half rounds of the playoffs, against very solid competition, as a time for experimentation and teaching. How many coaches would have the chutzpa to do such a thing? For most, that is a task for the regular season; when the postseason arrives, the primary objective is to play hard, play well, and do everything necessary and possible to win basketball games – preferably in the most dominant fashion possible.
Not Phil Jackson. So assured was he of his team's ability to handle Utah, Houston, and even Denver, that he often gave long minutes to the bench, even when it became clear that it was the bench that was repeatedly relinquishing large leads with their consistently bad play. So confident was he in his game plan that he gave Derek Fisher big minutes against smaller, quicker guards that Fish couldn't possibly keep up with defensively, all while Fisher continued to struggle mightily with his shot – simply because he knew that Fisher needed the reps to find his shot and keep him ready for when the Lakers would need him. He played Lamar Odom over Andrew Bynum, even when Odom wasn't delivering and the Lakers could have used Bynum's length and size on defense and in rebounding, because he understood that Bynum would be little more than a role player in these playoffs, but Lamar Odom could be a key component and needed the minutes to get going.
Simply put, while most coaches had used the regular season to prepare their teams for the playoffs, Phil Jackson was still using the first half of the playoffs to prepare his team for the Finals. That, my friends, is why he is the master.
In the Finals, Jackson's team silenced all previous criticism.
They've been called soft, but they were tough enough for Utah, Houston, and Denver, and in this final series – apologies in advance, I'm about to break character and attempt a witty, pop culture pun (put your helmets on) – they were so tough that Magic fan Hulk Hogan is asking for his mojo back. Pau Gasol defended "The Beast" of Dwight Howard far better than any other center has – many of them bigger and stronger than Gasol – and the Lakers as a collective unit were a team with unyielding resolve.
Their defense has been criticized, but in the Finals, they shut down Superman and absolutely smothered one of the most powerful offenses in the league. Their ghastly pick-and-roll defense had become as integral to their identity as their Hollywood swagger, but in the Finals, it was impeccable. Once lazy and half-hearted, their defensive rotations were quick and crisp, leaving the Magic witih few options and making quick work of an offense that no other team had been able to solve.
They had been called lackadaisical, lazy, unfocused, and they had been blasted repeatedly for their lack of intensity, motivation, or any sense of urgency in the regular season and the earlier rounds of the playoffs. They had failed to close out series, had developed a reputation for not showing up to games when they enjoyed a lead in a series, and were not expected to be able to match Orlando's desperation in a Game 5 that, in reality, they did not need to win. But in these Finals, they were fiercely intense, incredibly driven, and keenly focused. They played with determination in every game, and it was clear that they were a team on a mission. They had been here before, had lost, and had been focusing on this goal for the last year. Over the course of a week and a half in these Finals, they channeled all of that desire and drive into an incredibly dominant all around performance.
The Magic had taken the Celtics best shot, and come back from being down 2-3 to win in Boston. They almost seemed to toy with the vaunted Cavaliers, not only upsetting the supposed best team in the league, but sending them home in six quick games. By all accounts, they presented a nightmare matchup for most teams, combining the sheer brute force of Dwight Howard in the post with an absolute barrage of three-pointers around the perimeter, in a beautifully executed offense built on player motion and crisp ball movement.
The Orlando Magic were, according to most, the toughest matchup for the Lakers – tougher even than either Cleveland or Boston. But these Lakers, so dominant were they in this final round, made the Magic look like anything but a tough Finals matchup, giving up only one game in a five-game rout.
Not impressed? Consider this. Much has been made of the fact that if a couple plays had gone differently for the Magic, they could have been up 3-1 after four games, rather than down by the same count. But what few have pointed out is that even the Lakers one loss was close until the final seconds, and but for a couple uncharacteristic mistakes by Kobe Bryant, could easily have been a win as well. A few less misses at the free throw line by Kobe, or one fewer turnover, and this series could have been a sweep.
Make no mistake, however – this Magic team was a very good team. Much has been made of the various mistakes they made that led to losses on a couple different occasions, but in the end, it was clear as day that this Lakers team was just a lot better than its opponents. The Magic were beaten by a truly great team. And while it's easy to point to missed three-pointers, Dwight Howard's struggles, or the Magic's free throw woes, it's also important to recognize how the Lakers forced them into areas of weakness. The fact that the Magic never put together even one dominant performance from three-point range is not a coincidence. Nor is the fact that Dwight Howard struggled so much, after being so brilliant in earlier rounds. Both of these were direct results of the Lakers' exceptional defense – a truly impressive feat, in that they effectively took away not just one of the Magic's primary offensive strengths, but both of them.
And the free throws? Yes, the Magic missed them, but credit the Lakers for sending poor free throw shooters to the line when that was the right play, rather than allowing them to make a play with the ball (think Kobe Bryant dragging Dwight Howard to the ground in the final moments of Game 4). Bemoan the missed free throws all you want, but this is nothing new or unexpected for the Magic. They were the worst free throw shooting team throughout the regular season. Missing free throws isn't something they did wrong, it's just who they are. Forcing them to the line instead of allowing quality looks from the field was a deliberate and effective strategy for the Lakers, and one that they executed to perfection.
Regarding the Lakers' suffocating defense, DexterFishmore's analysis from his Statistical Series Retrospective (a must-read) bears repeating, as it gives great perspective and insight into just how impressive the Lakers were on that end of the floor:
In fact, the Lakers' defensive performance for the series was something close to a masterpiece. Consider: in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Orlando's opponents held the Magic to less than a point per possession in only three out of 19 games. The Lakers did it in four out of five. During the regular season, the Magic averaged 1.07 points per possession, and they managed to crank that higher in the Eastern Conference playoffs, hanging a PPP of 1.09 over three rounds (including 1.14 against Cleveland). But with - and this bears repeating - three of five games in their own gym, the Magic could barely average a point per possession for the series against the Laker D. A truly stifling effort.
This is how dominant the Lakers were. They not only addressed their shortcomings, but they turned every one of their major weaknesses into a formidable strength. And in the process, the team that had "struggled" in previous rounds (relatively speaking, of course), leaving many to question their heart and their ability to win a championship, became an nothing more than a fuzzy memory. Those who had suggested that this team was not a great team, winning simply because of superior talent rather than heart or will, were left to marvel at the truly dominant force that they became in their final seven games. So dominant were they, when all was said and done, that all talk of the team that underperformed at times earlier in the year has long since gone the way of the buffalo. Instead, Kobe Bryant's 2009 Lakers are now being recognized as one of the 10 greatest championship teams ever.
As my dad would say in a moment like this, pay attention, kids – you're watching a great team develop in front of your eyes. Don't take what you have witnessed here lightly. This is true basketball greatness, wearing our favorite colors – and just maybe, a dynasty in the making.
But that is talk for another day.