After a somewhat dismal few weeks which featured shoddy play and desultory losses that put into question the Lakers claim as a legitimate championship contender they entered the Christmas holidays facing two pivotal games. One to reaffirm their dominance in the West, the other to shed the disappointment of last year’s dominance at the hands of Boston.
In their first match up the Lakers opponent was in a very similar situation that we would face on our Christmas day game a few days later against the Celtics. Unlike the Lakers, New Orleans failed the test miserably. Though not ousted by us from the playoffs last year, the Lakers had proven in the regular season to be the superior team. Our win on their court earlier this year magnified the sense that New Orleans did not have an answer to the Lakers game. This game was their last chance to show that they could indeed stop us-on their own court no less.
The Lakers responded with a fine effort and impressive win that must surely make even the most die hard Hornet fans and players feel a seven game series in the playoffs can only result in more frustration and disappointment for the Big Easy’s hopes of getting to the title round.
The win cemented the preseason predictions by most basketball aficionados that the Lakers will be going to the finals. The game showed that even with recent flaws in Los Angeles’s game and their problems with the Eastern teams, the West still remains in it’s stranglehold.
Of course the Hornet game was only the appetizer for the main course: the long awaited convocation with our erstwhile tormenters and current NBA Champion Boston Celtics.
In sports, unless you are in the playoffs, there are not a lot of must win games. This was one of the few exceptions. Because of the debacle of last years two regular season matchups and the way they foreshadowed the results of the finals, there was no way this team could lose another home game to Boston and realistically convince themselves they could then somehow go on to triumph over them in another seven game series.
In a game of X factors, this was a really the Lakers season. Win and rejoin the championship chase, lose and become a also ran who’s ultimate fate was already writ.
The Lakers, looking for all the world like team that knew exactly was at stake played their best game of the year and finally exorcized some of demons of last year.
Does the win mean that we can beat Boston in a seven game series? No, not necessarily. But it does mark huge paradigm shift from last year. In the two regular season games last year all that was established was that we had neither any answer for Boston’s offense, nor could we in any way effectively or consistently penetrate their defense. Going into the finals this weighed both psychologically and strategically on the Lakers and also made Boston comfortable in the knowledge that unless some strange and unreasonable turn of events happened, the Lakers had nothing new to offer that would trouble them. It was a very nice way for the Celtics to enter that series, conversely, it was the worst possible way for us to play for the championship.
Because of this win, last years formula is no longer set in stone, the previous assumptions no longer so immutable. For the first time in two years of regular season games, the Lakers looked like they actually belonged on a basketball court with Boston. They played good enough defense to actually get meaningful stops and executed their offense well enough to score not only throughout the games entirety, but also in those so important pressure minutes at the end when the issue was being decided.
This game was a very good first step in buttressing our position amoung the elite and telling Boston that last years Lakers are not this year’s team.
What would be the next step? Beating the Celtics at home. A tall order? Yes. Difficult? Of course. But did not the Celtics do just that to us last year? Once one mountain is climbed there is no where to go but the next. If the Lakers can accomplish this feat, then last years scenario is completely reversed and it is we who would have the upper hand in so many ways in a finals rematch.
Some of the interesting and hopeful signs:
Kobe seemed to be much more comfortable and effective playing Boston this year than last. This is essential since unlike the Celtics, who have three all star players to carry the load, Kobe is currently the only player of that magnitude on our side. He must be able to play effectively and inflict damage on Boston for us to compete and defeat that team. It was only one game, but very nice to see.
The addition of Drew and Ariza. While neither man had a monster game, both contributed enough in different areas to make a huge difference. If you took away all that they did, would we have won? It seems highly unlikely. By the end of the year both players should be playing even better and able to add even more to the mix if we do end up playing the Celtics (or Cleveland).
The Lakers did not fall completely apart under the Celtics offensive and defense pressure as they so easily did last year. They never got that look of confusion or defeat. Every time Boston made a run or put the pressure on the Lakers responded like a good team that had confidence in its own game and abilities.
I know there are a lot of very keen observers on here who will add much more to the list. I can’t wait to see what each of you noticed.
A couple last thoughts on the victory.
It was interesting for this fan (among many others here) who has questioned Phil not playing Drew in crunch time, watch him completely reverse course and leave him in.
I am sure Phil, if asked, will have his reasons. But I don’t think it is any coincidence that today, in the most important game of the year, in a game that for so many reasons he knew he had to win to have any thoughts of being a legitimate championship contender, he was forced to play what many of us consider his best closing lineup. It was a tacit admission from Phil that Drew is indeed a player that should be in the game when the rubber hits the road.
Phil is a successful, proud and stubborn coach, but in the end, even if it is kicking and screaming, he will be forced to abandon his current game plan and use Drew as he should be. Just like he was today.
Stopping the Celtics victory skein was nice. It seems either us our them are always trying to make NBA history. Last year they did, at our expense. Ending their bid to supplant our 33 game historic win streak does not assuage the loss from last year, but its nice to know that we are the team that stuck the pin in the Celtic victory balloon. They will hate us for it- and thats as it should be.