NBA Finals Preview
Do you believe in Magic?
by Myles Brown
Scoff if you will, but I actually saw some good coaching from Kevin McHale as he patrolled the sidelines of the Target Center this year. The most impressive aspects being his demeanor and approach to game management. He was always of the mindset that practice was when the particulars were worked out, because once the game started it was too late to start scrambling and trying to teach what should’ve already been absorbed. If the players didn’t get it by then, they weren’t going to.
They didn’t, of course.
Phil Jackson however, has worked wonders with this same approach for decades now. His laissez faire leadership allowed players to master the moment by figuring things out for themselves. But as his detractors would note, it’s easy to do so when dealing with the greatest players of all time. And while that’s certainly worth considering, so is the job he’s done with a much younger roster this time around.
The Lakers apparent character flaws are their sporadic effort and lack of a killer instinct. It could still be contended that their youth along with prolonged exposure to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood manufactured a naïve confidence which was only reinforced by the Zenmaster’s hands off approach. Yet even with those same hands entrenched deeply in his pockets as Jackson looked more disinterested than ever and his players focus waxed and waned, they still found themselves atop the Western standings in April.
Perhaps he knew what he was doing all along, letting us sweat the details while his narrow eyes remained fixated on the big picture. Isn’t that the purpose of the triangle, enabling his team to adapt in any situation without micromanagement? Jackson has never been a strategist of X’s and O’s, but of psychological warfare. He molds minds, preparing them for the constant uncertainty of the present, ready to accept instruction whenever he rises from the comfort of his cushioned throne. They win not only due to their talent, but because he’s taught them how.
Or maybe it was just Kobe.
Go try that mystic bullshit with Allen Iverson and see what happens. Or Vince Carter. Or Ron Artest. Jackson’s teachings are all for naught if he isn’t blessed with someone capable of implementing them and there is no one in this league more suited for psychological warfare than Kobe Bryant. Much was made of the newfound focus and determination his Olympic teammates brought back with them from China after witnessing his relentless regimen. They saw his commitment, his drive, his understanding of what it takes to not only achieve such a level of greatness, but to maintain it. They saw it and they learned.
And now well see what he’s learned.
There’s much that Bryant has ascertained from the travails of June, but for the last seven years we’ve yet to see if he’s learned how to win. He tried to do it without the Big fella in Detroit and he had to do it without him against Boston. But in the rarefied air that he seeks, trying simply isn’t enough. Plainly put, he failed. This is his best chance and very well may be his last.
Scoff if you will at his perceived antics for the camera, yet it could still be contended that he isn’t trying to show us that he’s a good teammate, but that he’s trying to show them how to win. He isn’t chatting them up about their families or hobbies, but basketball. It’s always been about basketball. About how to take advantage of an opponent, about how to fight through their own weaknesses, about how not to succumb to pressure. The collective talent on this roster is undeniable, but despite any claims to the contrary, they’re spare parts without Kobe. Pau Gasol had never won a playoff game before donning the purple & gold and Lamar Odom is still a case study in dissonance. Yet these are the second and third best players on a back-to-back Conference Champion. Flawed as they are, they’ve absorbed his will. He’s shown us he can lead. But there is still one thing left.
Stan Van Gundy provides an alternative, if not completely opposite approach to coaching. He’s manic. Incomprehensibly meticulous. Sweaty. Emotional. And overbearing. But just like Jackson, when you look at him, you can never tell if he’s up or down by twenty. Because like Jackson, he’s ferociously competitive. He’s never been handed anything and a great deal has been taken from him. He is who he is because he’s had to fight for everything he’s got.
The Orlando Magic were never underdogs, they were just ignored. They were always the better team, we just refused to acknowledge them either because we cared more for their opponents or cared less for how they continued to prove us wrong.
Dwight Howard was supposed to be nothing more than a gimmick, an affable goofball destined more for the bright lights of All Star Weekend than prime time Finals glory. He wasn’t supposed to be a leader and in many ways he isn’t. But that’s what makes this team work. They’re a collection of castoffs and mismatched pieces that somehow blend perfectly. Hedo Turkoglu supposedly saw his best days in Sacramento, but he’s become the clutch player that Peja Stojakovic never did. Rashard Lewis was supposedly a waste of cap space, but he’s proven himself to be worth every penny this postseason. Rafer Alston was supposedly an incorrigible knuclehead, but he’s seamlessly transitioned himself into a contenders starting lineup. Jameer Nelson was supposedly done for the season, but if he comes back at even 60% the Lakers are in big fucking trouble.
This was statistically the league’s best defensive team, yet they never were mentioned with Cleveland, Boston or even Los Angeles. This is one of the leagues most potent offenses, yet they were never mentioned with the Lakers, Suns or even the Cavs. But they’re still here. And they’re still not the underdogs.
So Van Gundy and Howard can play up that role all they want for the media, but they know that within the walls of that locker room and of their hearts and minds, they always thought of themselves as the better team. Better than Boston, better than Cleveland and better than L.A. Because they’re just as talented as any of them. And more selfless. With more heart. That’s why Van Gundy is so animated, that’s why Howard can laugh everything off and that’s why they keep hoisting up those threes. Because they’ve always believed. But there’s only one way to finally prove it to the rest of us.
You guys know what I think. Make your own predictions.