Posted by Neil Paine on June 15, 2009
And so it came to pass that Game 5 of the NBA Finals, at home in Orlando, would be the site where the weary Magic would make their last stand. Having allowed two games to slip through their fingers in the series already, Orlando now faced the sobering reality of needing to win 3 consecutive games against the Lakers, a team that did not suffer a 3-game skein all season long, to capture the prize. The odds were heavily against a comeback, but then again, the odds had been against the Magic all season. Did they have one last epic surge left, or would the Lake Show permanently crush their collective will in Game 5 on Sunday night?
|Los Angeles Lakers||89.7||99||110.4||95.9|
Unfortunately for the Magic and their faithful, while the team came out strong in the early going, this was never really a game after the middle of the second quarter. Trailing 40-36 with 7:11 left in the first half, L.A. went on a 16-0 run that, in retrospect, was the most significant nail in Orlando's coffin. The Lakers never looked back after the run, outscoring the Magic by 17 points in the 2nd and 3rd quarters combined, and cruised through the fourth to the 15th championship in franchise history, leaving Orlando with just 1 win in club's last 9 Finals games. When the dust cleared, Kobe had earned MVP honors and his 4th championship ring as a player, while Phil Jackson secured coaching title #10, passing the Celtics' great Red Auerbach as the league's all-time leader in that category.
People will make much of Bryant & the Lakers' offensive performance in Game 5 over the coming days -- and don't get me wrong, they played very well in that department, notching a 110.4 offensive rating against the NBA's top D -- but the real secret to Los Angeles' success, not just last night but all series long, was their defense. In the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland, Orlando had their way with the Cavs' D (which ranked 3rd in the league during the regular season), averaging 113.2 points per 100 possessions and raining down 3-pointers from all over the court. By contrast, against L.A. in the Finals the Magic averaged just 100.5 pts/100, and their vaunted 3-point attack never really got off of the ground (in the Game 5 clincher they were limited to just 29.6% shooting from beyond the arc). Over the course of 5 games, that's an extra 58 points the Lakers saved versus the Cavs' defensive performance against the same Magic team, and that ultimately proved the difference between a 5-game championship victory & a disappointing 6-game loss in the conference finals.
And Now, Let's Close 2008-09 With One Last Rant About Kobe Bryant
Kobe was terrific in this series, of course, and no one can take his accomplishments away from him, but I fear that in the upcoming Kobe lovefest, many will forget his talented teammates and the way they contributed to title #15. First of all, no one man can make a defense -- especially if that man is a guard -- so the Lakers' defensive credit against Orlando belongs to all of Los Angeles' players, especially Pau Gasol, who made life hell for Dwight Howard inside, and Lamar Odom & Trevor Ariza, who hustled their butts off on D to shut down the Rashard Lewis/Hedo Turkoglu duo. With all due respect to Kobe, he may have won this ring "without Shaq's help", but he also won it with the help of a really great collection of supporting players, without whom there's no way Kobe would be hoisting another Larry O'Brien trophy.
That's why it was more than a little insulting to everyone involved (Kobe's teammates, the home viewers, hoops historians, etc.) when ABC's announcers tried to artificially pump up Kobe's performance -- and his playing abilities -- as "the best there's been since Jordan" and "among the best ever" (culminating with Jeff Van Gundy calling Kobe "Machiavellian" and Mark Jackson actually saying Kobe was "the best we have seen at the shooting guard position") in an effort to make the fans feel like they were watching something as special as MJ in his prime. Because look, folks, it just wasn't that special. I hate to drag out the tired, played-out LeBron James comparison again, but here's how they stacked up in their respective series vs. the Magic -- the same team, the same players, the same defense:
The Standard Sportswriter Take™ this week will be that Kobe has definitively reclaimed the mantle of "NBA's Best Player" with a Jordanesque offensive performance that carried the Lakers to the NBA title. Don't believe it for a second. As you can plainly see, James actually performed better than Kobe on offense against Orlando's top-ranked D; the defensive end is where Bryant would hold any edge, and we all know that the difference between Cleveland's defensive performance vs. the Magic and L.A.'s had far more to do with the two superstars' supporting casts than it did with Kobe and LeBron themselves.
So remember: although many Kobe fans will attempt to use this championship as "proof" that Kobe Bryant is a superior player to LeBron James, Kobe is still not definitively "better" than LBJ. In fact, to the contrary: every shred of statistical evidence we have still suggests that Bryant is inferior to James, and by no insignificant margin, either. The fact that the Lakers won a title Sunday night proves nothing except that the Lakers are a better team than the Cavaliers (actually, check that, it doesn't even necessarily prove that either, but that's a rant for another post). So don't be fooled. Bryant is a fantastic player, an Olympic Gold Medalist and a 4-time NBA Champion, but team honors should not be confused with individual ability. Sorry I had to go into rant mode, but the utility of this public service will become clear to you over the coming weeks and months...