NBA Sunday: Lakers Quiet Criticism, For Now
Lakers Answer Questions… For Now
Like they almost always are, the L.A. Lakers are the story this morning, having defeated the upstart Denver Nuggets in seven games to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But, believe it or not, a Game 7 win at the end of an excellent series isn’t even the most interesting part of the conversation. Instead, we find ourselves talking this morning about how Pau Gasol saved the day, about how Metta World Peace mattered more in the second half of this game than we thought he could, and about how Mike Brown rose to the challenge of his own criticisms. For now.
“If we would’ve lost tonight, then probably some changes were going to be made,” Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles’s Ramona Shelburne after clinching the series, indicating what most of us knew anyway, that the team explored trading Gasol at the start of the season and could potentially considering doing so again at the end of it.
“This team with the players that we have and this franchise is always expected to win and give their best. So I understand where it’s coming from,” Gasol added.
Now that the expectation to win the first-round series has been realized, the Lakers move onto a much tougher series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who some expect will represent the West in the Finals this year. If Thunder center Kendrick Perkins misses any time with that sprained hip—and he may—the onus will fall on Gasol once again to pull his weight for a team with those high expectations, otherwise we’ll be having the same conversation in two weeks about whether or not to trade Gasol, fire Brown, and make a host of other changes to get the Lakers to where they need to be.
Mike Brown’s future as head coach isn’t as uncertain as it might have been had he lost to Denver, but Magic Johnson made headlines on Saturday by saying, “They’re going to run Mike Brown out of town (if L.A. loses to Denver).” The team immediately came out and made a statement backing their head coach regardless of what happens in the postseason, which Brown appreciated, but it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the conversation.
The team’s bid of confidence could mean little if the Lakers fail to reach the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row after spending three straight years contending for a championship. If that happens, Gasol, Brown, and even Metta World Peace, who has been the most polarizing character for this team all year, will go right back under the microscope.
It’s one of the hazards of playing for the Lakers, where the expectations are just so high. They deserve congratulations for winning the tough series with the Nuggets, but now we’re on to bigger and better things and the microscope gets magnified. Will L.A. rise to the challenge again?
Do the Celtics Have A Shot?
They’re old, and they’re ailing, but despite the Boston Celtics’ obvious shortcomings right now is there still the possibility that they could represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year?
Rajon Rondo dropped another triple-double and Kevin Garnett scored a season-high 29 points in a one-point win over the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night, getting them one win closer to the Conference Finals.
Paul Pierce muscled through a sprained knee, and Ray Allen fought through the pain in his ankle, but those injuries are going to be ongoing issues for the rest of the postseason. Despite that, Rondo continues to show his grit as one of the younger legitimate playoff veterans in the league, and Garnett is playing like a man possessed. Are several more big games from those two guys, plus occasional contributions from Allen and Pierce, enough to push Boston to the Finals?
It’s a surprisingly reasonable question. Beating an eight-seed team like Philadelphia wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but Indiana or Miami in the next series would prove terribly challenging. Miami is every bit as experienced as Boston, and Indiana is every bit as physical, but the Celtics have the benefit of knowing that this could be their last chance. Garnett and Allen are free agents this summer, and there’s no telling what will happen to Rondo and/or Pierce if the other two guys don’t come back.
C’s head coach Doc Rivers said towards the end of the regular season that he didn’t think that would be a motivating factor for this team, knowing that it might be their last hoorah together, but maybe it has little to do with being together and more to do with time running out of time in general. Whatever the case, Boston is entirely more formidable than any of us expected, and them winning a championship in 2012 would be almost as feel-good a story as the Boston title was in 2008.
There’s no question that these guys are past their prime physically, but they may not be past their prime as a team. With proper rest between games and all that postseason experience on the roster, why shouldn’t we take the Celtics seriously?
They’ve got a series to win against the Sixers first, but there’s a great chance they’ll be among the final four teams left in the NBA this season. There’s also a chance, albeit a relatively small one, that they win the franchise’s 18th championship this June.
LeBron Wins (And Rightfully Deserves) the MVP Award
There were times earlier this season when LeBron James was carrying a PER above 33. Whatever else he did (or will do) the rest of the year, that’s a ridiculous piece of statistical work right there, and the fact that he maintained a strong majority of those statistics through the second half the year is a major reason he won this award.
His final PER of 30.74 is actually only third best of his career, but the two better statistical seasons just so happen to be his two other MVP years, proving that there are just some times when a player is too dominant statistically not to win the award.
James received his trophy on Saturday after earning 85 of the possible 121 first-place votes, but Kevin Durant came in second with 24 first-place votes and a whole bunch of second places. There are some that say Durant was a better candidate for the award, but despite the fact that Durant led the league in scoring and improved his overall game tremendously this season, he blew his opportunity to surpass James when he and the HEAT struggled (relatively speaking) at times after the All-Star break.
That’s not to say that Durant, as well as Chris Paul, Tony Parker, and Kobe Bryant, who also received first-place votes, didn’t deserve some consideration, but LeBron James just put up one of the top-ten most efficient seasons in history. His winning this thing was inevitable.
The next step for James has to be winning a championship, which he obviously has sworn will be something he accomplishes, and soon. No player in the history of the game has won three MVP trophies and zero championships, so despite the fact that LBJ is now officially in the company of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Moses Malone, he’s still just a little bit short of true immortality.
He’s got to win a championship while the getting is good, or the criticism will never stop. It hasn’t stopped for Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson, the only three non-active MVPs in league history to win the award but not a Larry O’Brien trophy. Steve Nash could soon join that list, and Derrick Rose could someday, too. They won’t escape criticism either, because as great as top-notch individual seasons may be, they’re meaningless without that ring, especially for the guy who might be the most gifted physical specimen in the history of the game.
Miami is as serious a threat as any team to win the championship this year, so LeBron might not have to wait long to remove himself from the ranks of the ringless. If this ends up being his third wasted MVP season, though, James will solidify himself as one of the most confounding players to ever play the game.
He deserved to win MVP this year, but how valuable can a three-time MVP be if he can’t win championships?