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Tribute to Lamar Odom, NBA Champion

I've often wondered if I would ever get a chance to write this. It's not that I didn't expect the Lakers to win a championship; it's just that I wasn't sure how much Lamar Odom would have to do with it.

As Lakers fans, you understand where I'm coming from. I'm going to spare you the rehash of the last few years, and assume you're very well acquainted with the history of Lamar Odom as a Laker, and the implied frustration that has accompanied that experience. Suffice it to say that at times, he is almost unstoppable, while at others, almost invisible. The Lakers can win when he plays poorly, but they almost can't lose when he plays well. As such, he is the Lakers' perpetual "X-Factor."

The biggest and most common criticism of Odom is that he tends to disappear in big moments -- such as the 2008 Finals, where he pulled his disappearing act in four out of six games, and the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics. After a strong second half of the 2008-09 regular season, it was much the same in the first two rounds of the playoffs. So it was that like most Lakers fans, I was nervous about his performance -- until the Western Conference Finals.

In the final two games of the WCF, Odom was an almost unstoppable force, playing a big role as the Lakers closed out the Denver Nuggets. In the Finals, he continued his excellent play, contributing in a big way to the Lakers' dominant five-game victory. When it mattered most, he answered his critics and silenced the doubters, and that is why I am proud to write this tribute to Lamar Odom, a true NBA Champion.

The numbers only tell part of the story. In the first round against Utah, Odom scored 13 points or more in four out of five games. He averaged 17.8 points and 11.0 rebounds in that series. But in the next two rounds, he seemed to struggle.

In the first 11 games, he scored more than 10 points only once, averaging 8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. The strong rebounding is not surprising – if there is one area in which Odom is usually very consistent, it is rebounding. At the same time, attentive observers will note that while Lamar continued to put up large rebounding numbers, there were a number of games in which the Lakers were solidly outperformed on the glass, and in those games, Lamar often wasn't his usual dominant self on the board.

On five different occasions in these 11 games, Odom attempted five shots or less. In one game, he played 25 minutes, took four shots, scored two points, and had six rebounds. I can recall several games after which I checked the box score, saw that Lamar played fairly high minutes, and realized that I could hardly recall even noticing him on the court during the game. Had he really played? His disappearing act was that good.

At this point, I recall telling a couple different people that I wasn't interested in the return of Lamar Odom in 2009-10. Not only did I want the Lakers to keep Ariza over Odom if it came down to one or the other, but even beyond that, I wanted the Lakers to shop Odom for something more reliable. As I saw it, a dominant stretch or two during the regular season was worthless if Odom was going to disappear like this in the playoffs, when the Lakers needed him most.

Then ESPN ran a video special on Odom, depicting his extreme addiction to sugar, some wondered whether that might have something to do with his up and down play. Coincidentally, perhaps, he proceeded to have his best game of the playoffs. Having lost Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers responded with a strong 103-94 win in Los Angeles. Odom took 15 shots and scored 19 points, along with 14 rebounds and four blocks. He was so good that when some questioned his high sugar consumption, he simply responded that he had had a plate of candy for breakfast before Game 5. There was no responding to that.

Game 6 was much of the same. Purportedly, Odom again enjoyed the Breakfast of Champions Odom, and again, he dominated the game. He took 12 shots, hit both his three-pointers and all four of his free throws, and ended with 20 points and eight rebounds in only 31 minutes – all without a single turnover. The Lakers won by 27, and Odom's play had a lot to do with it.

In the Finals, Lamar Odom continued to be a force for the Lakers. HIs offense came and went – he didn't score much in Games 3 and 4, which resulted in a close win and a close loss for the Lakers. On the other hand, two of his best performances in the series came in Games 1 and 5 – two Lakers blowouts. In particular, those were his two best rebounding games of the series. He had 11 points and 14 rebounds in the Lakers' Game 1 blowout (by 25 points), and 17 points and 11 rebounds in their Game 5 closeout (by 13 points).

His best and most important performance of the Finals, however – in fact, likely the best and most important performance of his career – came in Game 2. While many of his teammates struggled to find their shot (the Lakers sans Lamar shot 40.6% from the field), Odom hit an astounding eight of nine shots, including a huge long two-pointer down the stretch. He finished with 19 points (on nine shots!), eight rebounds, three blocks, two assists, and a steal. Most importantly, he played long minutes despite being in foul trouble most of the game, and managed to play smart, stay in the game, and make big plays. He played the final 10:05 of the game with five fouls, and managed to play good defense without committing his sixth foul for that entire stretch.

Ironically, the biggest shots of his life may have been free throws. With the Magic down three and 22 seconds remaining, they brilliantly fouled Odom to stop the clock and send him to the line. Odom is notorious for splitting a pair of free throws, and has even been known to miss both in similar situations, with the game hanging in the balance. The Lakers couldn't afford two misses; in fact, they really needed two makes. And that is what Odom delivered.

In the most pressure-packed moment of his life, standing at the charity stripe, the man known for missing free throws and wilting under pressure stepped up, swished both shots, and delivered the death blow to the Magic. Had Orlando pulled out that game, the series would have been tied 1-1 – and who knows what could have happened next. Odom's clutch free throws likely determined the course of the Finals, as much as any other single play in the series.

And of course, I would be remiss not to mention the "boneheaded plays." After all, it is not just Odom's "disappearing act" that has frustrated Lakers fans, but also his tendency to make stupid, boneheaded plays at the most inopportune moments. You know, plays that could be described as the polar opposite of "heady plays" or "smart basketball." Plays that an athlete of Lamar Odom's age and experience shouldn't be making anymore. But you know what? I'm sure he made one or two such plays in these playoffs – even Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher have made a couple – but the most telling thing is that I can rack my brain, but I can't recall a single one. That's not the Lamar Odom I know... but it is the Lamar Odom I love.

Meanwhile, Odom became the defensive force in the Finals that we always knew he could be. He has the size to handle big men in the post, the quickness to keep up with smaller guys on the perimeter, and the length and speed to chase shooters off of the three-point line. At the same time, he has the physical skill set to make the Lakers' unique defense so strong, without exposing it to its potential weaknesses. As Daris put it at Forum Blue & Gold, "[Odom] provides the mobility and length to move from one side of the court to the other, pick up flashing big men, guard perimeter players, trap the ball handler, and still recover to the paint to rebound."

In addition, Odom has become a strong leader, both on and off the court, both in his actions and with his words, both by encouraging his teammates and by setting an example. Ironically, perhaps – considering how much he has been criticized for a lack of toughness since the 2008 NBA Finals – Odom gave his teammates a huge lesson in toughness when he landed hard on his back during the Houston series. I don't have to tell you that hurt; it was obvious, and it was reported on throughout the Finals. But Odom didn't miss a game, or a beat. He played through it, even after landing hard on it a second time, just a couple days after the first and while still in great pain – and he delivered in a big way.

Meanwhile, here are some more very insightful thoughts from FB&G's Darius on Lamar's leadership in other areas:

And when you talk team building and chemistry, he’s also a real leader for the Lakers.  Many will point to Kobe or Fisher as our leaders - and rightfully so - but it’s Odom that has been the stabilizer for our squad.  He’s been the bridge between our first and second units, the guy that organizes team dinners and brings in a chef for training camp, the guy that is in the middle of the huddle motivating and inspriring our guys for the battle ahead, and the guy whose lighthearted nature and devotion to the team keeps the locker room loose.  We need this player.

In these playoffs, Lamar Odom defined toughess. He took the hits, and kept on playing. He took the criticism, and kept on coming. He took the pressure, and he delivered the biggest performances of his life. He was a true warrior.

Is it possible for a player to have a breakthrough in a big moment, or a big series of moments, that not only affects his current situation, but completely changes him as a player? I think the general idea is that such things can and do happen.

LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Carmelo Anthony spend a summer playing with Kobe Bryant on the U.S. Olympic "Redeem Team," and he brings a defensive focus they've never experienced before. Right from the start, he gives that team its identity, and they go on to become one of the best defensive teams ever assembled – again, something they've never experienced before. They see his work ethic, and they join him in the gym. And most importantly, the experience first hand the fruits of those labors. So what do they do? They return to their respective NBA teams, drastically step up their defensive games, and lead their teams to higher levels than any of them have ever seen. They are changed players. That Olympic experience was a breakthrough for them, and it will forever affect how they play the game.

I believe this could become just such a breakthrough moment for Lamar Odom. He answered his critics. He overcame his own prescribed shortcomings. He fought through injury, and he refused to let himself get stuck in a rut of poor play. He answered the call, and he showed an ability to understand what was needed from him, and to deliver it. He played strong, tough, and smart. He was the exact opposite of everything his critics have lambasted him for. And it was beautiful.

Having figured out how to be who the Lakers needed him to be, in the biggest, most pressure-packed situation of his life, and having been rewarded for it with an NBA Championship that so few players ever attain – and that he not only received, but fully earned – I would be a little surprised to see him completely relapse when the 2009-10 season begins. He has had a basketball epiphany, and like LeBron, Dwight, and Carmelo, I suspect that it could affect his game for the rest of his career.

That is why I want Lamar Odom back. He has the heart of a champion, and he delivered the game of champion. He was a huge contributor to the Lakers' 2009 victory, and I believe he is continuing to grow into the player the Lakers need him to be. Not the same player they wanted him to be back in 2005, mind you, but the player they need him to be now, with this team. In that role, he is vitally important to this team.

Here's to Lamar Odom, for proving me wrong and copmletely changing my mind. Welcome to the big stage, Lamar, and thank you for helping lead this Lakers team to a championship. I think I speak for all Lakers fans when I say that we fiercely hope to see you in purple and gold in October.

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