1. A Lot On The Line For Lakers In L.A.
ESPN The Magazine
One thing and one thing only should be on the Lakers' minds Tuesday: winning Game 6.
Don't think about Game 7, about how hard it will be to beat Boston twice. Don't think about history, about how a Finals loss to the hated Celtics would be worse than a loss to any other team. Don't think about the potential death of your potential dynasty, about how Phil Jackson might coach his last game for the Lakers.
Just think about avoiding elimination and leave the thoughts of what else is at stake to us. Because there is indeed a lot more than the 2010 NBA title on the line.
First of all, there's poor Ron Artest. He's already destined to go down as a woeful underachiever. Although he's had a very productive career, his bizarre, sometimes violent behavior has undoubtedly lessened his impact on the court. But if the Lakers lose this series, he'll have one more negative on his résumé, and he knows that better than anyone. Back in September, Artest told us to blame him if the Lakers don't repeat as champions.
"They won last year, and I'm the new addition," said Artest, who's averaging a mere 7.8 points on a sorry 30 percent shooting in the Finals. "The fans expect to repeat. Everybody in L.A. expects a second ring. And if we don't, then yeah, they should point it right at me, throwing tomatoes and everything."
From the looks of things, this could get messy, and Artest's struggles near the end of Game 5 won't compel vegetable-hurling fans to call off the dogs. With 43 seconds left and the Lakers having cut a 12-point deficit to five, Artest missed two free throws. Then, 15 seconds later, with the Lakers still within five, he failed to foul Rajon Rondo, who's shooting 27 percent from the line in this series. Artest's brain lock allowed 10 seconds to run off the clock before Derek Fisher was forced to foul sharpshooter Ray Allen, who sank both free throws to end all doubt.
Asked after the game whether he feels extra pressure because of his preseason declaration, Artest said:
"No. That's something you worry about afterwards. I'm not thinking about that right now."
Second, Kobe Bryant can never be Michael Jordan if the Lakers lose. But some coaches, executives and scouts within the league believe that Kobe is equal to if not better than Jordan. They say he's a better shooter and ball handler. One of Jordan's former teammates once strongly implied to me that Kobe was MJ's superior.
"All I know is Mike never scored 81 points in a game," he said. "And believe me, he tried."
But Mike also never lost in his six trips to the Finals. If Kobe fails to lead a Lakers comeback, his record will be 4-3 in the Finals, with his crew being the favorite in each of its three defeats. And although the Celtics are clearly the deeper team, the Lakers have the best player (Kobe), the best big man (Pau Gasol) and the best coach in league history on their side. The clubs are evenly matched, but if Kobe is to be Jordan-esque, he has to be the difference and get the Lakers over the top.
Some will say Kobe can't be even the greatest Laker if he falls short in this series because beating the dreaded Celtics is a prerequisite for that honor. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won two titles at Boston's expense. Kobe, on the other hand, is on the verge of losing two.
I don't agree with that argument. I think Kobe is neck and neck with Magic as the greatest Laker of them all whether he wins or loses this series. After all, Magic never won any of his five rings without Kareem, but Kobe has one title sans Shaq. I'm not the ultimate judge, though, and I have a feeling that Los Angeles fans demand the blood of the Green from their all-time Super Laker.
Speaking of 7-foot teammates, Gasol could be branded as Mister Softee again if the Lakers go down. It's not fair because Gasol has been strong for most of this series, averaging 18.8 points and 10 rebounds on 52 percent shooting. And quite honestly, he hasn't gotten the touches he deserves, having taken fewer than 15 shots in each of the Finals' five games.
But history isn't always fair, and Gasol is likely to be one of the scapegoats if the purple-and-gold fold. In L.A.'s Game 2 loss, he scored just one of his 25 points in the fourth quarter. In the Game 4 loss, the ancient Celtic, 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace, locked him up in the fourth, holding him to just four points. And in Game 5, Gasol scored only 12 points overall.
With numbers like that, plus a lanky build and finesse game, being arguably the best big man in the league might not shield Gasol from wearing the "soft" tag in defeat.
Even the great Zen Master won't get away unscathed. Sure, with 10 titles he'll still be recognized as perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history, but a second loss to Doc Rivers definitely would be a chink in his armor. This also could be the first time in 48 tries that Jackson loses a playoff series after winning the first game. It's in an evenly matched series like this that a coach, especially an all-time great, is supposed to make the difference.
But Rivers, not Jackson, has pushed all the right buttons. Jackson hasn't gotten Gasol more shots. Jackson didn't make sure Artest fouled Rondo near the end of Game 5. Jackson hasn't found a way to crack Boston's airtight defense and push his high-scoring club past 94 points in the past four games.
So the Lakers stand to lose more than a game and a championship on Tuesday. Bryant, Jackson, Gasol and Artest could lose a slice of their reputations as well.
Chris Broussard is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime.
2. Who's Better Than Doc?
One win from a title, overseeing a team many called too old and too emotional to make it past the first round, Doc Rivers might be doing a coaching job for the ages.
But because his team had a weak finish to the regular season, he has no shot of being considered the NBA's best coach of this season.
I remember being a guest on a radio show just before the playoffs. We were talking about who should win coach of the year. Scott Brooks made a lot of sense to me -- can you remember seeing one of the league's youngest teams be also its most defensively disciplined? That has to be good coaching. ...
We were assessing coaching accomplishments with the assumption that the regular season was enough to judge on. That's how the coach of the year award works -- the voting was almost done by the time we were talking. It's a regular-season award.
But of course, kicking some regular-season butt is child's play compared with what the "big boy" coaches do. People like Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers coach all season with the playoffs in mind. That may even mean giving up regular-season wins, for instance by sitting a key player, to make sure the team is ready for the playoffs.
The best coaching of the year happens in the playoffs, which is why it's strange that the best coach is picked before they begin.
Rivers didn't even come up in that radio conversation. The Celtics were a 50-win team just like Portland, but they had not had Portland's string of injuries. Instead, they had a title-winning roster from two years ago that apparently just wasn't as good anymore. There were whispers they'd lose to the Heat in the first round.
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3. Sealing The Deal The Toughest Part
Special to ESPNBoston.com
Doc Rivers got a phone call from an old Knicks teammate the other day. John Starks was on the line to remind Rivers of their communal suffering 16 years ago. Not that Rivers needed a reminder.
The Knicks led the NBA Finals 3-2 and flew down to Houston to seal the deal. Starks was a starter at guard. An injured Rivers was a spectator. In one of the epic shooting performances of the NBA Finals (and we mean "epic" in an "The English Patient," excruciating-to-watch sense), Starks missed 16 of 18 shots, including a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 6 that might have won it all. He was 0-of-10 in the fourth quarter, with Hakeem Olajuwon getting his hand on the 3-pointer. The Rockets went on to win that game, took Game 7 a couple of nights later, and to this day Rivers still is upset. It was the closest he got to winning an NBA championship as a player.
"We had opportunities, obviously, both in Game 6 and Game 7," Rivers said. "That's a bitter memory for me, obviously. It just felt like I couldn't help. For me, obviously, [it was] a learning experience, but I can't use that for the players on this team. Half of them are too young to remember and half of them probably don't care."
Well here's a teachable moment for Rivers: The Celtics are the seventh team to take a 3-2 lead into the opponent's building for Games 6 and 7 since the dreaded 2-3-2 format was implemented in 1985. Four of those teams -- the 1985 Lakers, the 1993 Bulls, the 1998 Bulls and the 2006 Heat -- took care of business in Game 6 to win the title. The two teams that didn't, Rivers' 1994 Knicks and the 1998 Detroit Pistons, also lost Game 7.
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4. Defining Moments At Hand
The Lakers stand on the verge of NBA Finals elimination at the hands of the Celtics for the second time in three seasons. Throughout these Finals, we've heard talk about what a title would mean for the legacies of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant.
A Finals win would give Jackson title No. 11, put him into position for a fourth three-peat and further cement his standing as the coaching gold standard.
For Bryant, it would be a second title without Shaquille O'Neal and a fifth in all, placing him just one behind Michael Jordan. It also would put a feather in the cap of anyone aiming for the title of greatest Laker of all time: beating the Celtics to win a championship.
Should the Lakers fall short of the title, it would be Bryant's third failure in the Finals (as opposed to Jordan, who went 6-for-6) and the second time he comes up short as a team's unquestioned alpha dog. Fuel also could be added to the most common criticism of Jackson, that his fortune came as the result of his players rather than his coaching acumen.
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5. No Longer With The 'Band
6. Room For Improvement?
The fourth win in this series will be the single toughest win of the New Big Three era. Despite never having lost a series with its starting lineup intact, this team has not exactly been a juggernaut when it comes to closing out series on the road. Over the last three seasons, the Celtics are 1-7 in potential close-out games on the road, including losses this season in Miami (Game 4) and Orlando (Game 5).
You think back to Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, and you have a tendency to conclude this team will never, ever miss an opportunity to win a title when it is this close -- that the Celtics will play with a super-intensity no team in the NBA can match and simply outwork the Lakers. Game 6 of the 2008 Finals was one of the few games I can remember in which the cliché was true -- one of the teams on the court was not going to lose, under any circumstances.
But that game was at home, when the combination of a good start, a hungry team and a bloodthirsty crowd can unnerve a team already unsure of itself. One of those elements will be missing on Tuesday.
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7. Time To Stop 2008 Rewind
Meanwhile, Boston's defense is as smothering as ever and its offense is finding the cracks in the Lakers' defensive schemes to score just enough points to keep the Lakers at arm's length over the course of a game. Things are not looking good for the Lakers and it's now time for them to play their best game or suffer another Finals defeat at the hands of the Celtics.
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8. Cowens Sees No. 18 Coming
With Game 5 in the books, Celtics Hall of Famer Dave Cowens doesn't see much standing in the way of another Boston championship, especially if Andrew Bynum can't play significant minutes for L.A. Plus, why Paul Pierce has "figured out" Ron Artest.
9.The Original Bean
Kobe Bryant's father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, talks to 710 ESPN's Steve Mason and John Ireland in Los Angeles about his view from Boston during the Lakers' Game 5 loss in Boston, and what the Lakers need to do differently in Game 6.