L.A.'s turnaround remains a mystery

Updated: May 19, 2004, 10:20 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

They are either Hollywood's hottest entertainers, or they have been sandbagging us this whole time.

Actually, maybe they're both.

The Lakers are such a mystery to themselves that it took 96 games, counting exhibitions, for the group to start playing withering defense and playing with a real oneness.

They're not proud of it, either.

"It shouldn't be like that," Shaquille O'Neal says. "We should be out here killing teams."

Says Game 5 hero Derek Fisher: "I wish I knew why." Fish went onto to suggest that, if the Lakers "could bottle" the unity and intensity they unleashed in Games 3 through 6 against the Spurs, "We probably would have been the team people expected."

Well, guess what?

They are now.

  • They didn't come close to winning 72 games during their roller-coaster regular season. They didn't come particularly close to 62 wins.

    Yet Phil Jackson is vigorously defending his players, insisting that, to him, it's perfectly acceptable that the Lakers took so long to make Shaq the centerpiece of their offense and shame him into some active defending on the side.

    That's because Jackson believes the Lakers weren't capable of being these Lakers until the San Antonio series.

    "They couldn't play that way all year," Jackson said, blaming the injuries that, most notably, cost Karl Malone half a season. "They weren't on the floor together."

    Guess what?

    They are now.

  • The difference between winning and losing?

    Phil Jackson
    Phil might win his 10th ring after all, but it'd be his first without the triangle.
    Had the Lakers kept losing to the Spurs after dropping the first two games, you could have slammed Jackson harder than he has ever been slammed before. You could have loudly second-guessed the coach for not recognizing that, given his personnel, the smart move was not waiting until the playoffs to scrap the triangle offense. The best coaches, as they say, adjust to their personnel.

    Now?

    Now that the Lakers have KO'd the defending champs, Jackson will be in line for praise for gradually going away from the offense that has won him nine championships. It's an even bigger deal that Jackson, in this series, finally abandoned his stubborn refusal to send multiple defenders at Tim Duncan. The Lakers didn't do so last spring when San Antonio won in six games.

    You can be sure Jackson didn't enjoy making either concession, but he made them and the Lakers recovered from 2-0 down.

    It's a fine line.

  • The difference between winning and losing will also certainly impact the Lakers' still-cloudy future. Winning a championship would make it easier for Jackson (by securing that record 10th ring) and Mailman (by claiming his first) to retire. If Jackson goes, the likelihood increases that Kobe stays. And if Kobe stays, chances are Gary Payton won't be back.

    Of course, if you listen to Hollywood's real-life Fisher King, they're all coming back.

    That's not what I'd be betting on, but everyone in L.A. stops to listen these days when Fish makes a proclamation.

    "I think it all depends on how strong we finish," he said. "That's just the nature of professional sports these days. You finish strong and everyone finds a way to get back together."

  • When the Spurs lost Game 6, Robert Horry trudged off the floor without shaking any of the Lakers' hands. Fisher ran after his old buddy to give Horry a hug.

    Playing against the Lakers, for the Spurs, clearly unsettled a guy famed for his playoff cool. But that obscures the fact that Horry had a pretty fair season in San Antonio until the L.A. series. Up until he had to play the Lakers in the second round, Horry saw his switch to the dreaded SBC Center as perfectly normal.

    "I didn't hate the Spurs," Horry said of his Laker days. "How can you hate a team that has guys like Duncan and David Robinson? That's like you're trying to hate the Pope or something."

  • If we're going to send LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire to Athens, why not Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade as well? These kids are the future -- so we might as well get them all playing together regularly right away -- and they're all damn good.

    These playoffs have boosted claims from the Wade camp that we indeed had three worthy Rookie of the Year candidates. Wade has six 20-point games in the playoffs, the most since Alonzo Mourning had six for Charlotte in 1993. The rookie record for 20-point games in the playoffs is 10, held by a decent scorer with 1970's Milwaukee Bucks named Lew Alcindor.

    Wade, furthermore, is attempting to be just the fifth rookie since 1952-53 -- and the seventh all time -- to lead his team in points per game and assists per game in the postseason. Wade is averaging 17.5 points and 5.9 assists in the playoffs, and his predecessors include one Michael Jordan, who averaged 29.3 points and 8.5 assists for Chicago in 1985.

    Reggie Miller
    The Pacers could use some vintage Reggie Miller shooting.
  • There's a reason why Reggie Miller has logged 34 and 37 minutes in the past two games of the Miami series.

    Reason being: Indy is 16-1 when Reggie scores at least 15 points and is hoping it happens a few more times.

    Problem is, it has only happened once in the playoffs so far. Miller had 19 points in just 18 minutes in a Game 2 victory over the Heat.

    Getting Miller going in Game 6 or Game 7, if he has something left to give, will certainly get the Pacers to the conference finals.

  • Defense wins championships?

    Well, yeah. But not necessarily the best defense.

    Only once since 1980 has the NBA's champion also led the league in scoring defense during the regular season. That was Detroit, when it allowed 98.3 points per game in 1989-90.

    The Pistons and Spurs shared the league lead in scoring defense this season at 84.3 points per game allowed. Until Detroit won Game 6 at New Jersey on Sunday night, it looked like neither of the league's stingiest clubs would be reaching the conference finals, and the Pistons still have to beat the Nets in a Game 7 to get there.

  • Have to admit I enjoyed all the Fish That Saved L.A. references prompted by Fisher's Game 5 turn-and-heave. "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" was an abomination by most accepted cinematic standards, but ... who cares? I loved it, and I can promise you that any of the NBA players you love are fans of the movie, too ... assuming they've actually seen it.

    In one of the true injustices in America, the 1979 cult favorite isn't available on DVD, as far as I know. Mere VHS copies are pretty scarce. All I have is a grainy version I taped about 20 years ago, with the commercials. Still ...

    Who could forget Lucian Tucker lifting up his jersey to reveal a "Trade Me" message painted on his stomach? Those dreadfully edited scenes where Dr. J could take off at halfcourt and still throw down a windmill dunk? Every time Bruce Bowen sinks a three from his favorite spot, I remember Jackhammer Washington's legendary soliloquy: "Rappin' and slappin', that's my claim to fame. Plus I've got a mean B-ball game. From the corner, it's a goner."

    So ...

    On top of that Cal State Fullerton/Leon Wood throwback I'm still waiting for someone to market, can someone in the jersey business answer me this one: Why can I find Slap Shot hockey sweaters all over the place, but never Pittsburgh Pisces retro gear?

    Male of the Week

    Gregg Popovich
    Popovich
    Gregg Popovich. Listen to your coach, Spurs Nation. Pop was exactly right when, before Game 6, he said of Game 5's finish: "We didn't get screwed. If anything, they got some fairness given back to them." Pop reached that conclusion because his players "expect me to tell them the truth," which meant admitting that Tim Duncan's two miracles from beyond the free-throw line -- a double-clutch bank shot and a miraculous rainbow over Shaquille O'Neal -- were at least as lucky as Derek Fisher's turn-and-heave at the buzzer. Pop also knows that the Spurs are pretty much the last team in the league that can claim to be unlucky. They've been in the lottery twice in the past decade-plus and came away with David Robinson ... and then Duncan. They're lucky enough to have a brain trust (Pop and general manager R.C. Buford) that convinced Duncan to pledge his future to San Antonio and managed to land Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with the 28th and 57th picks, respectively. They're lucky enough to have an owner who lets Pop and R.C. run the show and who knows how fortunate he is. Asked if his fellow NBA owners are envious are what's been happening in San Antonio, Peter Holt says: "They say I'm lucky and they're probably right."

    E-Mail of the Week

      Does Robert Horry still think the first two games of a series are the most important?
      Travis Hawkes
      Boise, Idaho

    STEIN: It was a rough week indeed for Horry's theories, and for those who subscribed to them. He also said back in October that he didn't think Duncan would feel outnumbered against the Lakers' four future Hall of Famers, because Horry considered Parker and Ginobili ready to help Duncan at the highest level. Said Horry at the time: "Those three guys right there ... man, you can just add anybody to that." Parker and Ginobili apparently aren't quite there yet.

    Tony Parker
    Parker
    Speak of the Week

    "I don't think so. This was the Finals."
     San Antonio's Parker, asked if Minnesota or Sacramento or the Eastern Conference champion can deny the Lakers a championship.

    Stat of the Week

    31-1
    That was San Antonio's record this season when holding the opposition below 80 points. The only loss? Game 5, on Fisher's buzzer-beater.

    Stat of the Weak

    14
    That's how many years have elapsed since San Antonio's last Game 7. In 1990, the Spurs lost to Portland in Game 7 of their second-round series.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics
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