Saturday, May 07, 2011
Given that the significant majority of NBA experts in the NBA had no problem suggesting that the Lakers were going to be fine in this series, I think it is fair to say the league's world has been rocked with the way this series has now put the two-time defending champions in a hole that no team in basketball history has ever climbed out of.
I know my world has been rocked.
I figured the Lakers would be fine in this series because I always hold serious questions about the Mavericks ability to function in the final few minutes of playoff games of great significance. When the chips are down, I had very little faith that Dallas could match Kobe Bryant possession for possession and basket for basket.
To me, the NBA has 2 games inside every game. Especially when it is a matchup of the elite and especially when we are in the playoffs. There is the first game which is about 40-45 minutes - where benches matter, secondary scoring matters, and players you don't think of much can play a major impact in the game. And then there is that 2nd game inside the game. It is the final 3-5 minutes. It is called "money time" or "crunch time". It is where the best players in the world square off over the course of a half-dozen possessions each and the team that can get 3 or 4 baskets or stops will get the win.
It is Magic vs Larry. Michael vs Stockton and Malone. And in this series, it is Kobe Bryant versus Dirk Nowitzki. Even those of us who have spent much of the last decade participating in debates on behalf of Dirk, his greatness, and his legacy would be foolish enough to argue that Dirk can emerge victorious in "crunch time", right?
And yet, here we are. The morning after one of the most amazing final 5:00 in Mavericks' history. Dallas had not done very well all night getting offense from any source beyond the 3-point arc. The points in the paint were a horrible disadvantage and the Lakers looked like they were forcing their way back into the series and there wasn't much Dallas could do to stop them. Pau Gasol had one of his positive moments at just the right time with a turnaround move in the paint and the Lakers had a 85-78 advantage with 5 minutes to play. Somehow, the Mavericks would have to not only "win" the final 5 minutes, but they would have to win it while starting with a 7-point disadvantage.
How did this happen? How did the Mavericks - like in Game 1 - beat the Lakers in the one place that many of us thought impossible; the ability to execute in those last few minutes where failure is the likely conclusion?
Dirk. Lots of Dirk. And let's not underestimate the role of those who were given open looks because that Dirk guy can attract a crowd.
It started with the Lakers forgetting about Nowitzki at the 3-point line. 85-81. And there, you saw the Lakers' achilles heel from this series exposed yet again. They just cannot get everyone covered. Rotation was lacking there, and somehow they left the one guy who is bringing those Larry Bird comparisons to the next level. And after Dirk had a moment to compose and release, the swish seemed inevitable.
But, Kobe answered with another tough shot. 87-81. And then, Dirk was called for a charging foul which caused the arena to quiet. 4:23 left, Lakers ball and the 6 point lead.
But that Kobe shot was the last he would make in the game. The Lakers would get 10 more possessions in the game and aside from Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher both scoring important hoops, Los Angeles would not score on 8 of them.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks - who I was certain would rue the idea of launching so many perimeter shots all night long - started making shots of absolute huge importance. Maybe the biggest was a Peja Stojakovic 3 that was made possible when Dirk drove the lane and kicked to Peja. Peja was open for a second but with Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher closing in, this was a shot that was very significant in the comeback and the Lakers lead was just 87-84 with 3:50 to go. And for the second time in these playoffs, the Mavericks win a game that they certainly do not without the contributions of a guy many of us thought was washed up. As one person said last night, very few people would believe that Stojakovic would have a chance in 2011 to exorcise his Lakers' demons from the past decade. And when it mattered Friday night, his aim was true.
Then, the narrative turns to Jason Kidd. Kidd, 38 years old, has figured out how to make his contributions count at just the proper moments. Asked to guard Kobe when it matters (crunch time) has been a challenge that is obviously something he welcomes. After Peja's big 3, the Lakers predictably when to Bryant to get them points. Kidd locked down and forced Kobe into the air with help from Dirk at about 17 feet. Kobe changed his mind in flight and attempted to pass it inside to Gasol, who had turned his head to get the rebound that he suspected was soon to follow. The pass bounced off Gasol's back and Kidd grabbed the ball and was fouled by Kobe. 2 free throws from Kidd make it 87-86.
Next possession, the Lakers go right back to the Black Mamba. But, with the shot clock rolling down, Kidd is on him again and Kobe must settle for a fallaway 22 footer. Front rim, and the Mavericks rebound and run their offense through Dirk who is fouled in the paint and 2 free throws later, Nowitzki had put the Mavericks on top, 88-87 with 2:40 to go. The arena is going out of its mind at this point.
The two teams go back and forth with Fisher's basket putting the Lakers back up. But then, maybe the signature moment of crunch time. Dirk is double-teamed on the high post and he sees the play happen before the Lakers do. Kobe comes to Dirk leaving Jason Kidd open from the wing. Kidd receives the pass but Fisher was on his way on the defensive rotation. Kidd hesitates on his decision and let's Fisher come to him. Ah, veteran savvy knew that If Fisher gets all the way to him that will leave Jason Terry in the corner with nobody closing him out. As Terry catches the pass, Kobe is already gesturing at Andrew Bynum for blowing this assignment. The whole arena could feel that a swish was forthcoming and Jason Terry made no mistake as his 3 puts the Mavs up 91-89 with 2 minutes to play. Pandemonium.
The Lakers decide to attack Peja with Odom on the next trip as Kobe sits up top and looks for the kick out. But, Odom makes a very tough shot to tie the game at 91-91 over Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler with 1:39 to play. We are seeing some awesome playoff crunch time moments at this juncture.
Any possession that doesn't end up in a hoop now could be deadly. High post Dirk. No double team quick enough as the Lakers seem hesitant now to leave their guys on the arc. Dirk goes left on Pau and by the time Bynum arrives Dirk is already on the left block and a cheeky left jump hook again puts the Mavs back up 93-91 at 1:23.
Any stop might be the game now. Odom wants to go at Peja again. There have been no whistles to get Shawn Marion back in for defense and with Kobe on the weakside, Peja may not get any help. Odom backs in Peja and again with Chandler helping out, Stojakovic is able to force Odom to miscalculate to angle on his shot and then Peja snags the rebound from Lamar's reach.
They had their lead and the ball with 60 seconds to play. The arena has never been louder. Again, Dirk is double-teamed, again, he finds the open man. Kidd puts the ball into the corner for Peja, but this time the 17-footer is too long. But, because Chandler is causing so much attention for the rebound, Jason Terry is able to save the ball back to Dallas with a fresh 24 seconds with :38 to play. Again, Dirk is double-teamed with Bynum running at him with :23 seconds left. Nowitzki is now ready to go cross court to Peja who rotates it to Terry who is bumped and fouled by Fisher with :19. A crucial call with :17 to play, but because the Lakers are so out of sorts on defense, it seemed inevitable.
Los Angeles' last gasp in Game 3 came on an inbounds play with a 4 point Mavericks lead. Fisher cannot find any options that are attractive with Kidd closing down Bryant, so Fisher must try a touch lob to Odom who is guarded by Marion. Again, in a game of inches, the Lakers are a few inches off in their touch and the ball goes out of bounds and the game is, for all intents and purposes in the bag.
An amazing final 5 minutes that showed precision, composure, and execution from Dallas. And, after a brilliant 43 minutes of road basketball from the Lakers, a devastating exhibition of poor ideas and decisions from the champions.
3 games to 0. What a night in Dallas.
It is difficult to articulate where the Mavericks are right now. It would seem foolish to assume the Lakers are in their grave until you see the casket lowered into the ground. They deserve the respect as champions to conclude that the series is not over until the fourth victory is won.
But, Dallas seems so confident and also so guarded from past experience that I am sure many are at hardware stores right now pricing brooms. This Mavericks team is playing very well and more importantly is playing like a team that understands that if they keep their heads, there is nobody that they cannot compete with in the NBA. Every statistic that used to make sense is being proven irrelevant. Points in the paint? Lakers, 56-20. And yet, the Mavericks get the win.
This is the most unlikely of scenarios and it proves yet again why sports is so important to many of us. There is no scripted drama that can match the roller coaster of emotions that one feels who invests the time and energy to follow a team that is trying to achieve their dreams. Year after year, you feel the defeats with them and your faith wavers. And just when you think there is no chance of a happy ending, they tease you with fairy tale dreams again.
Both in this series and in this playoff run, there is a great distance yet to travel. But, after this week - as unlikely as it seemed 7 days ago - people are beginning to dream about where this road could take them. I know the NBA slogan is over-used, but I can think of no other way to summarize my thoughts than to use it myself:
Amazing is happening.