Lakers are consistent closers
After L.A. eliminates New Orleans, it's clear the team knows how to finish things off
NEW ORLEANS -- It is far from a certainty, but for a team as unpredictable as the Los Angeles Lakers, it's as close as you're going to get to a sure thing.
When the Lakers are in position to close out a series, the closeout game has essentially become nothing more than a formality for a team that has become the NBA's version of Mariano Rivera.
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After beating the New Orleans Hornets 98-80 to win their first-round series in six games, the Lakers have now closed out a playoff opponent on the first try 11 of the past 12 times, and did so on the road for the fifth time since 2009.
It is one of the few times this self-admittedly uninspired team during the regular season plays, well, inspired.
The Lakers play like a championship team with a purpose that simply isn't there until they see a young Alec Baldwin on the screen, staring back at them during the team's morning film session, reciting his famous monologue from the 1992 film "Glengarry Glen Ross."
"A-B-C. A, always -- B, be -- C, closing," Baldwin's character says in the film. "Always be closing, always be closing."
Chris Bodaken, the Lakers' scout and director of video services, usually splices in the scene toward the end of the film the Lakers watch the morning of a closeout game. It has been used ever since coach Phil Jackson came to the Lakers in 1999 and has resulted in the Lakers' closing out their opponent on the first try 21 times in 24 tries.
"I don't know how effective it is," Bodaken said. "I know they like it, though. I always hear the guys talking about it and saying 'A-B-C' before closeout games."
In the scene, Baldwin pulls out a pair of brass balls and tells Jack Lemmon to put down his cup of coffee because "Coffee's for closers."
After the Game 6 win, as Lakers guard Derek Fisher sipped on water instead of coffee, he talked about the message behind a clip he has seen more times than he can count.
"There's nothing quite like seeing that clip for us," Fisher said. "We've seen it a lot. We've been in this position a lot, but it kind of brings a smile to your face every time as though we haven't seen it 30 or 40 or 50 times. It's a great scene and it makes the point. No matter how much we've discussed what we need to do in a game situation, that scene seems to bring that level of attention and focus and intent to an even higher level."
More impressive than the Lakers' ability to close things out when they have the opportunity and not extend a series further than necessary, is the Lakers' recent ability to do so on the road.
Kobe Bryant laughs at reporters when they bring up the importance of home-court advantage. By the end of the regular season, he basically refused to answer questions about the standings as the Lakers chased the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics for the best record in the NBA.
"Home-court advantage to me is overrated," Bryant said. "It's not going to win or lose you a championship."
There is something about being on the road during the playoffs that seems to focus the Lakers more than playing at Staples Center, which can feel more like an oversized library when there isn't something exciting happening on the court.
No one enjoys winning on the road more than Bryant.
He made like an airplane with both arms extended and slapped Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry on the backside as the Lakers closed out the Phoenix Suns on the road in last year's Western Conference finals.
On Thursday, Bryant raised his bandaged index finger and hushed the crowd at New Orleans Arena after making a 3-pointer to give the Lakers a 63-53 lead with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Both plays not only effectively ended the game and the series, but once again reminded everyone why the Lakers are hard to beat in closeout games no matter where they are being played.
"It's more enjoyable to do it on the road because everybody is expecting you to lose, hoping you lose, and the crowd is against you," Bryant said. "It's more intense. It's much more enjoyable to do it in a hostile environment."
The Lakers' success in closeout games is a small footnote, however, to a larger goal. After each playoff game, they are reminded of that as Jackson writes the number of games the Lakers have left to win another championship.
With 12 mo' written on the white board to his left as he iced his feet, Fisher said there is only one closeout game he is concerned with this postseason, and it is still about six weeks away.
"It's hard to stop and appreciate what we've done and where we've been because we're constantly expecting more from ourselves," Fisher said. "It's kind of the gift and the curse that comes with being who we are. You've accomplished a lot, yet you haven't accomplished anything because there's always more to do. We've put this on ourselves. This is a burden that we've brought on by being the most successful team in recent memory and it's not something we want to let go."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.