Friday, June 13, 2008

3-1 and done

Last night was one of the great games in NBA history. For the Lakers and their fans it was a true heartbreaker, a game where they got the lead too early and had to bear the weight of hope and fear as it was whittled down. For the Celtics, and especially Ray Allen, it was vindication for everything they've worked for and a statement that despite their lack of playoff experience and their early troubles, they were not going to give up without a fight. I was particularly happy for Jesus, who probably played one of the best and definitely the most significant game of his life last night. He was outstanding on both ends of the floor, he drove and shot with amazing skill, he scrapped and fought even when the Celtics were down 21, and he never sat for one second. In the end, every one of his 19 points and 9 rebounds seemed like they were more significant than those of anyone else.

This year's Celtics bring to mind another great team, the 1994-1995 NBA Champion Houston Rockets. Those Rockets had an even more difficult time in the playoffs than the Celtics; they were down 2-1 in a best-of-five series to the Utah Jazz in the first round and down 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. They were scrutinized during their entire playoff journey, and when they reached the Finals, they had to face an Orlando Magic team featuring Penny and Shaq in their prime that had just beaten the Michael Jordan.

The Rockets steamrolled the Magic in four games. They were led by hungry and humble Hakeem Olajuwan, an aging but excellent small forward in Clyde Drexler and a scrappy team of adequate scorers like Vernon Maxwell and Mario Elie. The offense was conducted by the tandem of quick Kenny Smith and a young Sam Cassell.

One particularly notable moment in the Rockets 1995 playoff run came during the series they played against the San Antonio Spurs, who had won 59 games that year. During the pregame events, David Robinson was presented with the Most Valuable Player award, a clear statement by observers and prognosticators that he and his Spurs were superior to Olajuwon's Rockets. Hakeem dominated Robinson, outscoring him 42-22 and showing that being MVP is about more than the ability to dominate the regular season. (Robinson had averaged 27.6 points per game that season.)

Obviously, the resemblances to the Celtics are significant, and that's fine and dandy, but if there's anyone who should take an interest in the old Rockets team, it's Kobe Bryant. Kobe is currently on the hook for an epic collapse, and it is clear to everyone watching the game, from me to Curt Schilling to a beer-drunk redneck in Easton, Pennsylvania that he is not doing anything to make his team play better than the sum of its parts.

Olajuwon, in my opinion the greatest center of all-time, was also one of the great leaders of all-time. He was humble both on and off the court, he was accepting and open-minded, and he displayed honesty and candor without worrying that it would undermine his authority. When combined with his incredible talent, these qualities that made his teammates admire him, follow him, and play better and more cohesively under the capable command of Rudy Tomjonavich.

When Hakeem's team was down 3-1 to the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, he spoke to his teammates about the position they were in and the pressure that was on them. He explained that any fear or nervousness they had was misguided, because down 3-1, no one expected them to win, so they had no reason worry about losing. They (along with everyone else) had already written themselves off, and although that was certainly not positive, they could play without the pressure of expectation (something Kobe knows a thing or two about).

Hakeem explained how the Rockets' near-failure also presented a great opportunity, because if they played hard, they could do something historic. Each athlete recognized this opportunity and instead of coming into Game 5 depressed and embarrassed, the team came out focused, hopeful, and relaxed. Hakeem knew he was the best player in the series and he knew his team could win, and his team knew this, too. Bolstered by Hakeem's confidence in himself and in his team and his sheer domination on the Court, the Rockets won their next three games and stunned a Suns team that seemed destined for greatness.

Anyone who has watched the Finals would assume that there is no way Kobe can perform similar magic, but his team is in the same position those old Rockets were. It is probable that they have the ability to beat the Boston Celtics if everyone can get on the same page, and Kobe is capable of a much stronger performance than he has given so far.

Can the Lakers make a historic comeback? I say no. But if Kobe ever hopes to be remembered as an all-time great, and if these Lakers want to be known as true peers of their forebearers in LA, they should see that they have been given a chance that very few athletes ever have: beat the odds, beat the favorites, and you will be remembered next to the most dominant of champions in the annals of history.

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