Mirror Sports Writer
For a while there was glee throughout Los Angeles, but in the end there was reality.
The Phoenix Suns were a far superior team to the Lakers over the 82-game regular season even though their star center Amare Stoudamire was injured and couldn’t play. They finished second in the West while the Lakers finished seventh.
But in the NBA’s playoff system a team can wipe out the memory of six poor months in one seven-game series, and the Lakers almost did.
But after the Lakers took a 3-1 series lead the Suns restored order by countering Coach Phil Jackson’s unique plan to feature his inside players and have Kobe Bryant shoot less.
It was a bold and brilliant scheme. Who would have thought the NBA’s leading scorer wouldn’t be the Lakers’ main guy in the playoffs? But Jackson showed why he’s worth his $30 million contract when Phoenix Coach Mike D’Antoni admitted the Lakers were beating them with Kwame Brown and Luke Walton and the Suns reluctantly began double-teaming them.
That forced the Lakers back to relying on Bryant’s jump shots, an offense that had lost seven straight times to the Suns since Shaquille O’Neal was traded two years ago.
Bryant scored 50 points in Game 6 and the Staples Center sellout crowd chanted “MVP,” but the Lakers were only playing into the Suns’ hands.
The Lakers couldn’t beat the Suns in a high-scoring game and they stopped playing a slower one that gave them a chance.
I saw it early and was pleased that a couple of TV analysts I respect, Doug Collins and Charles Barkley, saw it too.
Both said Bryant’s 35 shots in Game 6 were too much and by abandoning their inside offense they stopped making the Suns’ inside players work hard on defense.
So, now the Clippers are in the second round against the Suns and Bryant can look back on his two years without O’Neal, which consist of no playoffs last season and one round this season.
Laker owner Jerry Buss believed Bryant could carry a team. When the Lakers were struggling during the season Buss went on national television and said the Lakers could win the championship this season. The startled announcer sought clarification and Buss confirmed what he had said, reasoning that any team with Kobe could win a championship.
But I thought the Lakers might not even make the playoffs and had a fortunate season when several teams floundered. Tracy McGrady had a foot injury all season in Houston, Kevin Garnett didn’t get enough help in Minnesota and the New Orleans team which led the Lakers most of the way wore out from having to move 35 home games to Oklahoma City.
The Lakers made a lot of improvements during the season. Being able to win three games in the playoffs were three more than I expected. But they have a long way to go. San Antonio, Phoenix with Stoudamire returning, Dallas and the Clippers are better than the Lakers right now. Memphis and Sacramento, which acquired Ron Artest late in the season, are about as good.
I also think Jackson has some soul-searching to do. He could have had the Cleveland job and he’d be coaching LeBron James.
Instead he has completed the first season of his three-year Laker deal and added a couple of firsts to his name – the first time in 15 career playoff series he has lost the first game and the first time he has lost a first round series.
If you believe it was a fluke that the Suns could win the final three games of the series consider that several favored teams that were in playoff battles all raised their games on the same weekend to reach the second round. Phoenix, Miami, Cleveland and San Antonio all won Game 6 on the road.
Throughout the years I’ve had a healthy respect for the ability of home teams to win games. But ultimately, when its time to win a road game in order to wrap up a series, the superior teams frequently come through.
The Lakers’ first round elimination hurts in the pocketbook too. Quite a bit, in fact. The Lakers will lose many millions – the playoff revenue they’ve had for so many years. There would have been enough money there to pay the difference which led to the breakup with O’Neal. Letting him go was a major mistake, a move that I still don’t understand.
The Lakers’ television outlet, KCAL Channel 9, got terrific playoff ratings and made in the neighborhood of $2 million per game. Going one more round, even if the Lakers would have lost to the Clippers, would have given the TV folks the profit they’ve come to expect from the Lakers at playoff time.
Instead, that revenue will go to KTLA, Channel 5, the Clippers’ outlet.
There are high-scoring individuals on several teams that don’t win a lot. McGrady, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson are examples. Bryant’s fans believe he’s better than that, but after two years without O’Neal’s presence the results don’t support such thinking.