NBA Finals Notes: Day 1 & 2
When I came to L.A. last year for the NBA Finals, my situation resembled that of the Lakers in one very specific way: We were both woefully unprepared. They weren’t ready for the harsh realities of the championship round, and frankly, neither was I.
My decision to make the trip to the ’08 Finals was a hasty, last-minute one; Phil Jackson has continuously talked about how last season’s team was “a year early”.That group wasn’t supposed to win a title – not nearly tough, experienced, or battle tested enough – and they evidently did not.
This year, things seem different. For them and myself. I planned this particular trip months in advance and am ready for virtually anything. The team has passed each and every single postseason test thrown their way to this point, and if Game 1 of the Finals is any indication, there’s little reason to believe they won’t pass the ultimate exam.
You saw and read what happened in the series opener; below are some of my notes and observations following the game and the practices prior to Game 2….
Game 1: Postgame
-Phil Jackson was at ease during the postgame news conference, but he showed some irritation with an L.A. Times writer and walked out of the room without bothering to answer his question.
-Stan Van Gundy’s dealings with the media, in the words of NBA.com’s Rob Peterson, are like performance art. Following the dispiriting Game 1 beatdown, Stan did not disappoint. As always, he began the presser with an extended monologue about everything that took place. He was disappointed, but not discouraged.
(I particularly love that Van Gundy comes to his meetings with the press with a well thought-out and detailed explanation about the game — win or lose. It’s when the reporters open their mouths that things go south. And naturally, this is the best part of any Stan Van Gundy press conference.)
-After listening to a probing question from a reporter, Stan informed everyone in the room that no one actually cares about what they write. They’re all arm-chair psychologists, and according to the Magic head coach, they’re not particularly good.
-Van Gundy also refused to blame Jameer Nelson for his team’s poor execution on the offensive end, and said he was happy with the way his point guard played in the first half.
-Some maniac from an L.A. radio station, dressed from head to toe in Laker regalia, was asking these long, nonsensical questions to folks on the podium. It should come as no surprise that the only person who seemed to understand him was Lamar Odom. The two of them even shared a special moment, as the guy handed Lamar a bag full of candy from Japan. Odom was more excited about this than anything that took place in the game.
-As weird as the Laker-clad yahoo was, the strangest part of the press conference was the presence of the immortal Jimmy Goldstein. The League’s scariest-looking (and apparently most well-connected) fan was sitting in the second row of the media room at Staples Center, and hanging on to every word being said. This, of course, made absolutely no sense. Which made it perfect.
(Jimmy, by the way, was dressed in a black cowboy hat, matching skin-tight leather pants, and a purple and green leather jacket. He’s the best.)
Lang and I hit up the practices of both teams yesterday afternoon, and while most of the journo types in attendance crowded around the stars on the Staples Center floor, we focused on the bit players and personalities in this series. Simply, we paid attention to the people likely to say things that might be revealing, or at the very least, remotely interesting.
-During the portion of the practice the media was allowed to watch, the Lakers seemed relaxed, playful, and full of confidence. Not that you could blame them after the dominant Game 1 win.
-Trevor Ariza told me that he expects Hedo Turkoglu to be a lot more aggressive in Game 2. Trevor also enjoyed it when someone in the media scrum compared his defense to that of Scottie Pippen during his Chicago Bulls days. I did my best not to roll my eyes.
-I had to wait for a few minutes to get at Sasha Vujacic, as he was conducting an interview with a group of Italian reporters. You may recall that people made fun of the fact that he and Kobe were speaking Italian in the Spike Lee documentary.
(Vujacic told me that he lived in Italy for five years, and is perfectly fluent in Italian. So, there’s that.)
-Speaking of foreign languages, I approached DJ Mbenga, and we conducted a fairly long conversation entirely in French. The man hailing from Congo talked about how exctatic he was to step on the floor during Game 1, even if it was just for some garbage time when the outcome was no longer in question.
-Mbenga is awesome. He’s the only NBA player I’ve met to this point who talks about his job with wild-eyed enthusiasm. DJ is genuinely excited and thankful for the opportunity to not only play in the League, but for the chance to win a title.
-The Lakers’ third-string center told me that he received congratulatory calls from friends and family from back home, and even heard from some high-ranking politicians from his home country, as they left him messages of encouragement after the win.
(Mbenga’s favorite part of the evening, though, was running into Shaq at Les Deux following the game; the Diesel told him to keep playing tough defense, and to not let Andrew Bynum get down on himself when guarding Dwight Howard.)
-Speaking of Bynum, he said that he was happy with the defense he played on Howard in Game 1, and said his length bothers Dwight and makes it tough for Superman to finish. Andrew also said that he’s perfectly comfortable guarding Dwight one-on-one. We’ll see if he keeps feeling the same as the series progresses.
-Mickael Pietrus came to the media availability session wearing low-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars. He said that he’s still waiting for the Fed Ex delivery of the Air Jordans he wants to wear in favor of Kobe’s old Hyperdunks.
(Pietrus also expanded on the “AF477″ tribute he had scribbled on his kicks for Game 1. He said it was in honor of the families who lost their loved ones in the recent Air France tragedy.)
-According to Pietrus, the Magic weren’t intimidated by the big stage of the NBA Finals, and all of those actors and rappers sitting courtside did not faze them. Mickael then highlighted this point by doing some weird sort of rap dance, which left everyone confused.
-Courtney Lee, wearing silver and black Jordan 5s, said he didn’t know why Pietrus was still rocking Hyperdunks and wouldn’t agree to lend Mikael his Js. Courtney then added that he’s just trying to look fresh. Mission accomplished.
-Jameer Nelson was taking questions from a large group of media, and rocking sweat pants from this year’s All-Star game. Nelson talked about how surprised he was by the nice hand he got from Laker fans upon his entrance into the game.
-Nelson informed us that he had talked to Rafer Alston about making a comeback in this series, and got Skip’s blessing. No word on a similar chat taking place with Anthony Johnson, the man whose minutes are most dramatically affected by this.
(As for Rafer, I don’t think he recalls that convo too much right now.)
-Jameer added that he doesn’t know what’s in store for Game 2 as far as playing time goes.
Alright, that’s it from Staples for now. Game 2 tips off in a few hours, see you then…