Remember that movie with Freddie Prinze Jr., the one where he has to make the goofiest girl at his high school into the prom queen? I can’t remember what it’s called, because honestly it wasn’t very memorable. Save the Last Dance? Weekend at Bernies II? I honestly don’t know because after the first 700 romantic comedies you’re forced to watch, they all seem to run together.
But the premise is easy: take Rachel Leigh Cook, a girl that no one else sees anything in, and try to bring out the natural beauty in her. Get to know her and realize attractiveness is more than just fancy clothes and expensive makeup. Fall in love. It’s boring and cliché, but in a way the same story line is taking place in the 2009 NBA Playoffs.
Kobe and the Lakers are favored in the Finals
Despite needing seven games to close out a vastly undermanned Rockets team, everyone is back on board in the Lakers express, next stop NBA Finals. Sunday’s Game 7 against Houston never really got going, turning into a dud faster than a Danny Bonaduce reality TV show. As planned, L.A. is back in the Western Conference Finals, to the surprise of no one.
In Game 7 against the Rockets, the Lakers had that look, the one that the Rachel Leigh Cook’s of the world can’t dream of competing with. The swagger, extra passes and fastbreak dunks that led the Lakers to 65 wins this regular season were back. Their play Sunday was reminiscent of why everyone- including myself- had them winning the championship at the beginning of the playoffs.
But when L.A. host’s the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night, they’ll be looking at their polar opposite in the mirror, the bizarro Lakers, if you will.
Forget the arrogance, flashy smiles and courtside celebrities: the Denver Nuggets bring none of that. Denver’s MO is what the Lakers have struggled with all playoffs long: Play hard on both ends of the floor and for 48 minutes. Come in focused every night. The Nuggets have been almost mind-numbingly steady in this postseason, but in the eyes of most fans unspectacular.
Because, despite Denver winning eight of 10 playoffs games, and seven by double digits, no one seems to be picking them to beat L.A.. Sure I’ve heard they could win. Or they might win. Of course Jennifer Aniston could find a husband while doing Pilates today. Khloe might replace Kim as the hottest Kardashian before all is said and done. But I don’t think anyone actually expects either to happen, just like no on actually expects the Nuggets to beat the Lakers.
And I understand why. The Lakers have the glamorous superstar and coach. They’ve got the home-court advantage and the deeper bench. They’ve got the famous fan base and electric arena. But if I can channel my inner Leo Corso, all NBA fans need to step back a second and say, “Not so fast my friend.”
Are the Lakers more talented? Yes. But when evaluating these teams, you’d think people were comparing the ’98 Bulls to Reggie Theus’s gang on Hang Time. Despite popular belief though, these teams are more equal than advertised.
Look around: At the point guard (Billups vs. Fisher) and small forward (Carmelo and Trevor Ariza) positions Denver inexplicably holds the advantage. Anyone disagree? Anyone? Speak now or forever hold your peace. Ok good, moving on.
At the center position you could argue the battle’s a wash, but I’m going to take Nene.
No he doesn’t have the size of Andrew Bynum, but the 6’10 Brazilian is more athletic, aggressive and a strong finisher around the basket. Argue with me if you want, but if someone’s holding a gun to your head and making you choose one right now, you’ve got to go with Nene, right? Bynum hasn’t played with nearly the poise or confidence since returning from a knee injury, averaging just five points in a shaky 15 minutes per game this postseason. Remember I’m not talking about what each guy did in December, or what he could do in three years. I’m talking now, and taking Nene.
So right there you’ve got Denver with advantages at three out of the five starting positions. See where I’m going with this?
Moving to the shooting guard position, I think we’re once again in agreement Kobe Bryant is the guy, and it’s really no comparison. Despite being held relatively in check by Shane Battier and Ron Artest of Houston, Bryant can go for 30 in any given quarter, and can still get you 50 if you need it. His counterpart Dahntay Jones from Denver will be lucky to get 30 points all series.
But once again look deeper. Jones doesn’t have the size and length of Battier. Or the crazy (pun intended) competitive streak and terrible haircut that Artest possesses (however if Jones were to break out some crazy hieroglyphics and Chinese script on the side of his head before Game 1, I don’t think any of us would be opposed).
What Jones can do however, is something that neither Battier nor Artest was able to: focus 100 percent of his energy on Kobe.
The Nuggets don’t need Jones to score a lot, or really at all. This is a guy who’s averaged seven points a game this postseason for a team that gets 111 a night. Think they’re counting on him for much more than a fast break lay-up or open jumper? Me neither.
What Denver does need Jones to do is play in-your-grill, chest to chest defense with Kobe. Get under his skin, know what Kobe ate in the pregame meal. If Jones fouls out, who cares? Goes for zero points offensively, what does it matter? And unlike Houston, Denver has a bunch of big, athletic guys to defend the rim if Kobe does get by Jones. The Denver frontline isn’t going to block every shot, but I guarantee they’ll help their guards better than either Chuck Hayes or Carl Landry could in Houston.
Moving onto the power forward matchup, Pau Gasol, the Lakers power forward and second leading scorer this season will be guarded by Kenyon Martin.
What is the Spainard’s biggest weakness also couples as Denver’s biggest frontcourt strength: toughness. While K-Mart, Birdman Andersen and Nene play with an old school flavor to their game, attacking the boards, bodying their man defensively and getting nasty down low, Gasol is anything but. While he didn’t invent the soft European brand of basketball, he, along with Manu Ginobili (who isn’t even European) seem to have perfected it.
Now I’m not trying to rag on Gasol, I’m really not. I think at times he takes too much blame for the Lakers struggles, and in my opinion doesn’t get enough credit when they win. Seriously, L.A. wasn’t a genuine contender until Gasol came to town last spring.
But looking back at the Houston series, how does he not get 28 and 15 every game against Landry, Hayes and even Luis Scola? How? He’s got four inches on basically whoever was defending him on every single possession for the last five games of the series. Sure he went for 21 and 18 in Game 7, but just 14 and 11 the game before that. For a guy who’s the second best player on this team, Gasol doesn’t always play like it.
And therein lies my concern with Gasol. If he couldn’t dominate a frontcourt with no one bigger than 6’9, how is he going to handle the most physical group of big guys in the West? It’s like I said in my “The Good and the Bad of the 2009 NBA Playoffs,” column, Gasol is afraid of what’s under his bed and in his closet. And now he’s going to go blow for blow with K-Mart and the Birdman? Sorry, but count me as skeptical.
Coming off the bench, the Lakers can throw out more bodies than Denver, but no one on L.A. can match the scoring capability of J.R. Smith (16 points a game in these playoffs) and the defense of Andersen.
What L.A. does have, is a hodge-podge of mismatched parts that worked just fine in the regular season, but simply hasn’t clicked consistently over the past month.
Lamar Odom is a great player, but has also been banged up in these playoffs. Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown only seem to be play well when the Lakers are comfortably ahead, but disappear just as quickly, afraid to make an assertive play when the ship starts to sink.
That alone brings me to my most important point on the Lakers, and ultimately their most egregious downfall: They are two completely different teams when they are ahead and behind.
It might sound oxymoronic, but here me out. When L.A. is able to jump out to a quick lead like in Game 7 against the Rockets, the confidence and swagger I mentioned before permeates from their pores, like cheap cologne. Farmar and Odom are making open jumpers, Ariza’s running the court and Kobe’s chest bumping with guys on the bench he doesn’t even know. When the Lakers play this way they win, and win big.
But no one seems to mention that when things aren’t going well, the Lakers turn into Mr. Hyde at the snap of a finger.
All of a sudden lapses on defense become commonplace (how many uncontested lay-ups did Luis Scola seem to be on the receiving end of all series long?), and no one wants to shoot or run a set play. The whole team freezes and waits for Kobe to do something great, and simply put, he can’t win these games alone. Through 11 playoff games, the Lakers haven’t won once in a really tight, down to the wire game. It’s why Denver not only has a chance in this series, but can pull off this upset.
The final factor in this series- which I would be remiss not to talk about- has nothing to do with points, rebounds or assists. It can’t be chalked up to Billups, Carmelo or the Birdman. It is bigger than this series.
It is the legacy of Kobe Bryant.
As things stand right now, Kobe is in my mind one of the top 10 non-centers in the history of the sport, and most people agree. But to be one of the top players of all-time he needs to win another championship, and he needs to do it without Shaquille O’Neal.
Currently, Bryant has three rings on his resume, but is without one as the guy. Remember when we always used to say Kobe was Robin to Shaq’s Batman? Well right now playing the role of Batman, Kobe has a 2008 Finals appearance, but no jewelry he can call his own.
And with LeBron peaking back east, championships are going to be almost impossible to come by for the remainder of Bryant’s career. At 31 Bryant’s biological clock is ticking and he knows it.
It’s this simple: win one this year, and Kobe is an all-time great. Don’t, and he’s a great who never got the ultimate prize by himself. The reason Kobe ran Shaq out of town in 2004 was to be the guy on a championship team. And this is looking like his last chance.
So ultimately, what do we know about this series? It may come down to an otherworldly talent, showing supernatural skills. Or Billups, a guy nicknamed “Mr. Big Shot,” being a big time distributor.
It may rest in the hands of a Birdman, a bearded foreigner or two of basketball’s best coaches.
But what it will likely come down to will be these two questions:
1) Who Do the Lakers Want to Be? 2) Who Can the Nuggets Force Them To Be?
So far this postseason L.A. has been comfortable playing the role of the bully, the tough guy, the prima donna prom queen. They’ve been just as uncomfortable when the other team gets mean, physical and pushes them around. And they’ve yet to face competition that will not only play that way against them, but is just talented. It will happen in the Western Conference Finals.
Throughout it all, Denver has been hiding in the background, waiting to get asked to the big dance. No one has paid them much attention, even as they’ve completely dominated their competition through the first two rounds.
You can listen to any number of television shows, radio chats and blogs, and not one seems to be picking Denver. The safe route is to go with the Lakers, go with the easy pick.
But for some reason I believe in the team that no one else does. The Denver Nuggets are my Rachel Leigh Cook.
And I’m taking them to beat the Lakers in six games.
Just like in She’s All That, I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
Oh right, so that’s the name of that movie.