A great many of you Laker fans out there probably aren't big fans of John Holinger. Maybe your distaste for his work stems from the proclamations that LeBron James is far and away the best player in the league, and Kobe isn't even top 5 at this point, or maybe you don't like how he often picks teams that are not the Lakers in the playoffs, despite the Lakers having an edge on paper that bears itself out over the course of the series. Either way, the source of all this is the same. Holinger has a system which relies on stats to predict outcomes. Credit the man for his consistency, and no, his predictions are not made out of hatred of the Lakers. His picks are made because statistics hate the Lakers. The Lakers don't perform with the consistency required by a statistical model.
Why intro a piece about the Lakers finishing off the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals with discussion of an ESPN stathead? Because that story has a moral in it. The stats can lie to us. Having watched all 288 minutes of this series, I feel comfortable stating that the statistics are lying to us in one major way: Despite the Lakers averaging a gaudy 1.24 points per possession, I was impressed (at times) with the Phoenix Suns defense.
Let's take a quick review of all the talking points going into this series. The Suns, coming off an impressive sweep of the San Antonio Spurs, were winning games in ways we never really thought possible. They were still the running, gunning team we all have a soft spot in our hearts for, but they had other qualities not seen in previous versions. Their bench went 10 deep, and brought grittiness and tenacity. With the development of Robin Lopez and Lou Admundsen, they would no longer be bullied. They were resilient. And most important of all, the Suns could now play some defense. Not a lot, mind you, they still weren't gonna drop some OKC level D, but enough to get the job done. They had been playing better basketball than the Lakers for a longer stretch of time (basically since the All-Star break), and their sweep of the Spurs was much more impressive than the Lakers sweep of the bereft Utah Jazz.
The Lakers talking points? They're big, they're the champs, they've got Kobe.
Well, guess what? Every single one of those talking points bore themselves out over the course of this series. The Suns bench does go 10 deep, providing grittiness and tenacity. There were times the Lakers took advantage of the Suns' size, but the Suns were not bullied. And they did play some decent defense in this series, despite what those numbers say. It wasn't there all the time (not at all in the first two games, or the 1st quarter of last night's contest), but it was there. The Suns were every bit the unquantifiable team you were led to believe. It just didn't matter.
The Lakers were bigger, the Lakers played like champions, and the Lakers have Kobe. Their size allowed them to dominate the offensive glass in every game in this series, save the all too familiar game 4 Lakers letdown. Their championship moxie shown through because there were large parts of this series in which Derek Fisher carried this Lakers squad (re-read that sentence, and then smash your head into a wall). And Kobe just threw down one of the best playoff series you will ever see. 34 points, 7 boards, and 8 assists per game. He shot 52% from the field, 43% from 3 pt range and 88% from the FT line. Those numbers are tremendous, epic, legendary, and yet they fall so far short of explaining exactly what Kobe provided to his team. The shots he hit in reaching those numbers were as impossible as they were necessary. Kobe is the main reason why the stats give no indication of the Suns' defensive improvement. When Kelly Dwyer, known Kobe enthusiast, has this to say, you know Kobe has been amazing.
There's no other way to describe the sorts of shots that Kobe Bryant hit down the stretch in this ballgame. There just wasn't any stopping him. There was nothing the Phoenix Suns could do. Even though you know that greatness is coming, Kobe's just amazing. He truly is.
We've seen him take, and make, bad shots all year; mostly during the regular season. But the overwhelming bulk of those bad makes were looks that didn't really have to happen. Shots that a proper running of the Laker offense could render anachronistic. Just a few extra passes, and the right mindset to start the possession, and Kobe wouldn't have needed to fire up a 20-foot line-driver with a hand in his face.
Against the Suns, in Game 6, he kind of had to. He definitely had to, because the Suns continued to get better and better defensively as the game went on. Abandoning their 2-3 zone for most of the second half, the Suns went to a potent man-to-man attack that forced Bryant into playing the hero, again, and he delivered. Impossible shots, incredible makes. And as a result, the Lakers are going back to the Finals for the third straight season.
The man's right (and I tend to think he usually is). The Suns defense wasn't that bad, but you just can't do anything to prevent Mamba being Mamba.
All credit must go to the Suns for a great series, and a playoff run that should be much more sweet than bittersweet for them. There were plenty who didn't think they'd even make the playoffs, their entire season could have been much different if they dealt Amar'e at the trade deadline, and they performed well above expectations. It would be a nice building block for them if not for the fact that we have no idea if the team will still exist in the same form next year. Either way, their bench is filled with some nice, young contributors, and they won't spend much time in the lottery even when Steve Nash starts to fall off.
Steve Nash ... wow. Nothing but compliments for him. Nash is my personal favorite non-Laker player (and he is, without question, the funniest player in the league). The man plays with everything he's got. He didn't have a spectacular series, a la Kobe, but he did provide some big shots when his team needed them (like in Game 5, when he almost single handed-ly brought them back, only to fall short to the pride of Queensbridge. If the Suns are a resilient squad (and they are), he is the reason.
But the Lakers are moving on to the NBA Finals. If you look at how the Western Conference bracket played out, the Lakers caught a lot of breaks. Oklahoma City was the perfect combination of defense and youth to give the Lakers a wake up call sooner than expected without posing a real threat. Utah's upset over Denver basically provided the Lakers with a free pass in the 2nd round. And Phoenix, while they are a fantastic team, never had the size or necessary equipment to prevent the Lakers from getting where they needed to.
Waiting for the Lakers are the Boston Celtics. Just as it was two years ago, this will be epic. We'll have more on the matchups later, but this one is absolutely delicious. The past two defending champions. Two teams that, in March, looked more likely to be playing each other in a celebrity golf challenge in June than in the NBA Finals. Match-ups that look dead even across the board. The Celtics franchise has a huge edge over the Lakers in overall Finals match-ups, winning 9 of 11. But this ain't the 60's. In the 80's, the Lakers and Celtics punched and counter-punched throughout the decade. And this year, the Lakers have the home-court edge. Is it the Lakers turn? Will Boston play with more desperation because their window is closing by the day? I have no idea, but I can't wait to find out.