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June 15, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Champions

by Kevin Pelton

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L.A. Lakers 99, Orlando 86 (L.A. Lakers win series 4-1)
Pace: 89.9
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 112.9, Orlando 93.3

Midway through the Western Conference Finals, when it still appeared the Los Angeles Lakers might be vulnerable to an upset at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, I participated in the FreeDarko Presents Disciples of Clyde podcast and tried to contemplate how these playoffs would look at the conclusion. Would we remember the trouble spots whichever team emerged victorious had faced along the way, most notably the Lakers' inconsistent play against Houston and in the first half of the series with Denver?

As the Lakers were dispatching the Orlando Magic last night to complete their 4-1 NBA Finals victory, we got our answer, and it was a resounding "no." Last night's game was less a competition than a coronation for a Lakers team back at the top after a seven-year "drought," and a validation of Kobe Bryant's stardom. Even during the media sessions between Games Four and Five, the storylines had shifted to what a championship, seemingly inevitable, would mean for the legacies of Bryant and Phil Jackson, who broke a tie with Red Auerbach and became the first coach in NBA history to reach 10 championships.

In the early going, it seemed Orlando might at least delay the inevitable. With Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee bouncing back from sitting out the late stretches of Game Four to start the game well, the Magic led throughout the first quarter. At some point, however, it became apparent that Orlando had been unable to build the kind of lead that would reflect the difference in the way the two teams had played. The question became when, not if, a Lakers run would come. The answer, it turned out, was the six-minute mark of the second quarter, a 16-0 lightning strike that emboldened the sizeable contingent of Lakers fans on hand and quieted the Magic faithful.

By halftime, with the Lakers leading by 10 and holding the momentum, ABC's analysts had all but called the game, election-style. While Orlando was able to get within five at one point on a Rafer Alston three, the Lakers always felt in complete control, their advantage of 10 or 11 points much of the quarter seeming at least twice as large. When the Magic was able to spurt, the Lakers had the answer.

Missed shots will surely haunt Orlando. As in Game One, the looks were solid yet the ball refused to go down. The Magic, so effective from long distance all season long, shot 8-for-27 from three-point range in the season's deciding game, and the starting five was a combined 5-for-21. Orlando's dependence on the three is somewhat overstated, but beating a team as good as the Lakers without the benefit of the longball is a tall order, and the Magic was never able to get much going inside either, with Dwight Howard scoring just 11 points.

For the Lakers, we saw a variety of season-long (or at least postseason-long) storylines play out. Let's start with Lamar Odom, for when the Lakers' jack of all trades is playing well, the team is nearly unbeatable. They went 11-3 in the playoffs when Odom scored in double figures, 5-4 when he was held to single digits. Odom was brilliant in Game Five, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He knocked down all three of his attempts from three-point range, including two immense back-to-back hits from beyond the arc after Orlando had gotten within five in the third quarter. Odom's ability to match up with Rashard Lewis was one of the biggest reasons the Lakers had much less difficulty with the matchups in this series than Cleveland or Boston did before them.

The other key role player was Trevor Ariza, who carried the Lakers in the second quarter, scoring 11 points in a span of less than six minutes starting immediately after he and Hedo Turkoglu drew technical fouls for jawing at each other going into a timeout. Ariza had a pair of three-pointers in that stretch and finished with 40 in the Lakers' 23 playoff games, hitting them at a 47.6 percent clip. His development into a dangerous shooter in addition to an athletic force in transition and a capable defender made a large difference for the Lakers, who were able to get the perimeter production Vladimir Radmanovic offered at small forward a year ago without having to sacrifice anything at the other end of the floor.

As with the team as a whole, the conclusion of Derek Fisher's postseason will surely be remembered instead of the low points. He followed up his Game Four heroics with a strong Game Five, scoring 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting. So even though Andrew Bynum suddenly decided to call his own number time and again and the bench outside of Odom contributed just four points, the Lakers won this won in large part because of the number of players they had offering quality contributions.

Then there's Pau Gasol, derided a year ago for his soft play. Apparently, alas, he is not too soft to co-lead a team to an NBA championship to go along with the World Championship he won with Spain in 2006. He finished this series shooting an even 60.0 percent from the field while going up against the Defensive Player of the Year. Gasol's more impressive contributions came at the other end of the court, where he battled both Howard and Lewis with aplomb. That's two of the trickier matchups a frontcourt player can face, especially because of the contrast between their two styles. Gasol barely struggled with foul trouble even as he played two All-Stars 40-plus minutes a night, and he capped the performance with four blocks in Game Five.

That I can get this far without mentioning Kobe Bryant is testament to what Mitch Kupchak and company have built around the Lakers' superstar. Bryant has grown since the team's dark first year without Shaquille O'Neal, when Jackson was away from the team, but perception has changed more than player. Bryant's shoot-first, shoot-second, shoot-third style was what those Lakers needed. Given a quality supporting cast, Bryant has happily integrated himself, and his string of six straight games with eight-plus assists (snapped last night; he handed out just five) along with his crucial assists late in Game Five are testament to his trust in the other Lakers.

There have been times during the playoffs (especially in the Houston series, when he seemed determined to prove that Shane Battier could not guard him) where I've felt Bryant was too quick to settle for the long two-point jumper, the worst shot in the game. Ultimately, though, the numbers bear out the high level at which Bryant played. As M. Haubs noted at The Painted Area, Bryant had his best postseason in terms of PER. I don't think winning a championship sans O'Neal does much, if anything, to change my opinion of Bryant, but then I also never believed it needed to be salvaged.

Let us conclude with Jackson, who, it can now be said without any argument, is the only coach in NBA history ever to win 10 championship rings and still have to deal with critics. Most recently, Alonzo Mourning spouted off about Bryant doing the heavy lifting while Jackson is "just showing up." Jackson's minimalist style of coaching is in no small part to blame. While other coaches want to visibly be in control of everything going on in a game (and Stan Van Gundy, much as I believe in his coaching, tends to fall into this category), Jackson's willingness to let his team work through problems on its own at times continues to pay off. It's probably no coincidence that Jackson's Lakers teams, this one included, have coasted at times. Ultimately, while the journey may have been bumpier than expected, those teams generally reached their destination safely. That end result, more than the path, will be the story told of the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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