[This championship] is definitely the sweetest one by far, because it was the hardest.
It's finally time for us to put a lid on the 2010 season, but not without taking one last look at what transpired for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cliff-Notes version of this season would look pretty appealing to the eye: Another year atop the Western Conference, another championship, another Finals MVP for Kobe Bryant. Not too shabby. In the end, the Lakers lived up to our (and their own) exceedingly lofty expectations.
There's just one problem with the Cliff-Notes assessment ... it's woefully incomplete. The truth about the Lakers' 2010 campaign is that it was extremely difficult. It was a struggle, just about from start to finish. Some of the reasons for that struggle were of the team's own creation, and some were of the type that can only be explained by whichever combination of God / fate / random coincidence that you choose to believe in. Either way, there was plenty of reason to doubt we'd end up where we are now, once again basking in the glow of an NBA championship. Those doubts were what make the glow so much stronger. As Kobe Bryant implied in the quote that leads off this piece, the reward for this successful journey feels so much more rewarding, because it was the hardest to obtain.
In thinking about the season as a whole, there's one unifying theme, and it comes from an old proverb:
It's always darkest before the dawn.
You shouldn't need me to define such a tried and true axiom, but in basketball terms, it works like this. The Lakers always looked their worst, right before they performed their best. No matter how you slice it, the Lakers repeatedly took themselves to the brink of failure, only to magically solve the problems which troubled them at the last possible moment. The theme can be applied on a macroscopic level, a microscopic level, or on the regular scopic level, and still apply. We'll do all three.
Is it possible for a champion to have underachieved?
Considering the finish, it is almost laughable to suggest that the Laker braintrust will look upon the 2010 season with anything approaching regret. In the high stakes world of an NBA championship contender, a season is rightfully defined by a single question: Did you win your last game? An affirmative answer validates the entire season. That last win, accompanied by the requisite celebration and receipt of trophies, washes away any obstacles that were overcome to get there. Don't let the glory of that ending blind you. The Lakers regular season was full of underachievement.
They started off strong, buoyed by a home-heavy slate, and were 13-3 at the end of the 1st month of the season. Pau Gasol's hamstring injury was felt in the way that the soon-to-be-stripped-of-their-title Bench Mob could not sustain a lead, but it was not heard. The Lakers were winning, just about every time. When Pau returned, the Lakers took off, adding 5 more games to that 13-3 mark. At 18-3, the Lakers were on top of the league, dominating defensively in a way that last year's team couldn't match. But the warning signs were already there.
Warning signs like the play of Derek Fisher. Derek will have his own section devoted to him, but his play in the regular season made it clear that upgrading the guard depth on this team was a primary concern. That situation was made worse by the fact that neither Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar could step up and force Phil Jackson to consider an alternative to Fisher as a starter. Brown and Farmar were not alone. Even in winning a majority of those early games, it was clear that the Lakers were one of the best teams in the league because their starters were miles ahead of anyone in the league. In short, the Lakers were winning in spite of players 7-12 on the roster. By December, the coaches clearly did not trust anybody who's name wasn't gracing the starting lineup graphic at tipoff, which is why, in December, Kobe Bryant averaged 40 mins/game, and Pau Gasol averaged 39.
And the final warning sign? The Lakers were winning games with suffocating defense (which is good), but their offense was quite average. Wait, their offense? In 2008, the Lakers were one of the best offensive teams in the league. In 2009, only Portland and Phoenix scored more (when adjusted for pace). With only one name changing from 2009 to the current vintage, there was no reason to believe this Lakers team would struggle to score points. But struggle they did, even early on. That new name, Ron Artest, had something to do with the struggle, but he was not the entire equation. The entire team was failing to play basketball the right way on the offensive end. The guards didn't share the ball very much, preferring to pass around the perimeter and then launch an out of rhythm jumpshot. The bigs didn't attack aggressively enough when they did get the ball. And nobody moved properly. The triangle offense is predicated on movement, but the Lakers played offense like they were stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Keep in mind, we could see all this stuff as the Lakers were winning. No one was ignorant of the issues, it's just that you come off as a bit of a whiner when you complain about a team with a winning percentage north of .800. So we mostly just sat on our thumbs, enjoying the wins and hoping that the problems would sort themselves out without exacerbation. In December, the exacerbation struck. It started with Kobe Bryant, breaking a finger in the last of the Lakers 11 straight wins to reach that 18-3 mark. At first, it seemed like Kobe would be miraculously able to deal with that injury without compromising his game. A few games later he was hitting a game winner against Milwaukee. He'd hit another one against Sacramento early in January. But that was just the first crack in the dam.
The Walking Wounded
The next step involved an embarrassing home loss to Cleveland, accompanied by a concussion for Ron Artest, one that is shrouded in the kind of mystery only Artest could provide. Soon after, the whole team was either out injured, or playing hurt. Pau Gasol missed a stretch with a 2nd hamstring injury. Shannon Brown hurt his shooting hand. So did Ron Artest. Luke Walton started displaying signs of the bad side of the Walton gene pool. Lamar Odom picked up a shoulder injury. The list of names who didn't get hurt would be shorter. Don't even get me started on Andrew Bynum. And then there's Kobe.
By late February, Kobe's body might as well have been used to play Operation. The finger was still messed up. He sprained his ankle. His knee was swelling. He even picked up back spasms at one point along the way. He was playing through at least 3 injuries that would normally make a player take a night or 10 off. And it finally caught up to him. He was able to deal with the finger when that was all that ailed him. But, with all the other maladies coming into play, the bottom finally fell out of his game. His shooting % plummeted, his ability to attack disappeared. It wasn't a pleasant thing to see the Mamba suffer, but it was made decidedly more unpleasant by the typically Mamba response. Instead of taking time off to rest (save a brief 5 game respite around the All-Star break), instead of dialing down his usage rate, Kobe just kept on truckin'. He should have rested more. He should have leaned on teammates more. But he's Kobe. His mindset is a required part of the total package. Most of the time, that mindset is a good thing. The rest of the time, it must be overcome.
By late March, it remained unclear whether the Lakers could overcome it. There were subtle jabs from Phil and from Pau Gasol that the ball needed to work more from the inside out. After Bynum strained his Achilles tendon, the Lakers looked extremely mortal. In their last 11 regular season games, they went 4-7. Home court advantage in the West had already been secured, but hopes of hosting Game 1 of the NBA Finals seemed to be slipping away. In fact, hopes of making the NBA Finals seemed to be slipping away. The Lakers looked eminently beatable. The start of the playoffs did little to alleviate the idea. The Lakers won the first two games of their 1st round series against the OKC Thunder, but hardly in dominating fashion. Then, they lost the next two games, something they never did in 2009's title run. Game 4 was a beat down of epic proportions. The Lakers looked sunk.
Then, the macroscopic dawn struck.
Knee = Switch, Drain = Flipped
From that debacle in the 1st round of the playoffs emerged two pivotal events. Kobe Bryant had his knee drained, and the Lakers rekindled a love of fine ball movement. The differences, in both player and team, couldn't be more dramatic or pronounced. The Lakers won 8 straight games from that moment, which is tough to do in the regular season, never mind the playoffs. Along the way, Kobe went from scoring 24 points on 38% shooting pre-knee drain, to scoring 31 points on 53% shooting. That's a pretty subtle difference, no?
And it wasn't just Kobe. The Lakers picked an opportune time to remember how to play offense. The ball movement became notably crisper. The decisions, from Kobe on down to Sasha Vujacic, were suddenly smarter. It's true the Lakers benefited from some poor defensive teams in the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns along the way, but that hadn't stopped them from failing to score effectively in the past. And wouldn't you know it, when all those outside shots are the result of strong ball movement and inside out play, they start dropping a little easier. Many of the Lakers' most important playoff victories included 3 pt shooting previously thought to be impossible. 12-24 in Game 6 against OKC, 13-29 in Game 3 against Utah, 10-24 in Game 6 against Phoenix.
Even firing on all cylinders, the Lakers didn't exactly steamroll through the Western Conference. OKC took them to six games. They swept the Jazz, but c'mon, that's like an annual rite of passage for L.A. Phoenix provided a real challenge, with a Ron Artest game winning rebound and layup needed in the pivotal game 5. Three times, the Lakers went into a "must-win" playoff game having lost two straight. Game 5 against OKC, Game 5 against Phoenix, and Game 6 against Boston (which we haven't gotten to yet). Each time, they responded with two straight wins (i.e. the scopic dawn).
There's no doubt the Lakers flipped a switch in the playoffs, and once they did, the possibility of another trip to the Finals became very probable. Except they weren't the only ones flipping switches.
We're gonna party like it's 2008 .. wait, that year sucked.
The NBA Finals meant more this year than in 2009, because the opponents were the Boston Celtics. The C's arrived to the Finals in shocking fashion, dispatching two teams thought to be miles ahead of the Celtics' aging core. A rematch of the past two champions, a rematch of the 2008 NBA Finals, a rematch of the two greatest teams in NBA history. The storylines were so thick, you could cut them with a knife, and then dip them in a lovely tension jus.
The Lakers set out to prove this would be no repeat of 2008, in which the Celtics bullied the Lakers en route to the title. In Game 1, they were the more physical team, with Pau Gasol specifically outplaying and outmuscling Kevin Garnett. Then in Game 2, Ray Allen provided one of the best shooting performances you will ever see as the Celtics took one in Los Angeles. Boston did what the Lakers could not in '08, steal one on the road. The Lakers would have to win in Boston to have a chance. Then, Derek Fisher happened.
A permanent Get Out of Jail Free card
Derek Fisher was an abomination in the regular season this year. He shot poorly (45% eFG), he couldn't guard anybody, and he didn't do a very good job of the one thing he's supposed to do better than his replacements, make sure the offense was run properly. The amount of space on SSR dedicated this season to insulting Fish, berating Fish, criticizing Fish, and encouraging Fish (to retire) is probably greater than all other topics combined.
Then, the playoffs started, and Fisher, as much as anyone, flipped that switch. That ugly 45% eFG turned into a lovely 52%. Through the first three rounds, he was the Lakers most consistent offensive performer. Playing nearly 33 minutes per game, his turnaround may have been 2nd only to Kobe's performance. But nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared us for what Fisher did in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. With Kobe struggling, and Pau's physicality disappearing, Derek Fisher carried the Lakers to victory. I've already written about this once, so I'll just quote myself.
In a game that, in every imaginable way, was the yin to Game 2's yang, Fisher's 4th quarter will go down in history as one of the gutsiest performances from one of the gutsiest players in the game. In a game in which the defense, on both sides, was incredible, a game in which every other player, on both sides, was either shying away from the moment, or failing to deliver, Fish carried the Lakers to victory, 91-84. Filling the role normally occupied by Kobe Bryant, Fish was 5-7 with 11 of the Lakers 24 points in the final frame. 5-7, on some ridiculously tough shots: The 10 footer with Ray Allen draped all over him, the 12 foot bank shot with Rondo grabbing his arm (no call) on the way up, and the exclamation point, a driving layup in which Fisher gave up his body as he was fouled by 3 different Celtics as a mass of green, purple and intangibles went flying into the court-side photographers. 6 point lead (7 with the FT), less than a minute to go. Ball game.
Fisher actually didn't play all that well in the Finals. He only shot 42% on the series. He only hit two three pointers, both in game 7. But Game 3 sealed the deal. No matter how badly Fisher plays next year, I won't bash him. No matter how terribly he seems to hurt the team, I will only look at him and smile. For two straight years, the Lakers have won a title thanks to at least one game in which Derek Fisher completely rescued the team. Unlike last year, there were no games to spare this time around.
A series destined to go 7
The next three games seemed pre-destined by fate. The Celtics and Lakers were too well-matched for the series not to go 7 games, and that's exactly how the series played out. Game 7 arrived, and the hype it brought with it was too much for the Lakers to handle. We've written so many words about that game, I've written so many words about that game, more just seems like overkill. So I will only bring it back to where we began.
Game 7 was one of the ugliest games you'll ever see. Neither team shot well. The final score is something that college teams aspire to. It was physical, it was brutal, and both teams were clearly exhausted. But the Lakers were by far the team that looked to be on the short end of the stick. Down for most of the game, the Lakers looked to be done in the 3rd quarter. 18 minutes to play, down 13 points. They looked tired, they looked nervous, they looked scared.
That's when the microscopic dawn struck. You know the rest.