June 15, 2009

Purple Reign: 10 Non-Lakers Who Made it Possible

For the past 12 months, I have been haunted by a blog post in which I foolishly predicted the Lakers would defeat the Celtics in last year's NBA Finals. After watching my beloved purple and gold cough up a 24-point lead at home in Game 4 and eventually lose the series to their arch rivals from Boston, I renounced all forms of chicken counting and told myself I would never again declare Laker victory until the confetti was falling and the champagne was flowing.

Needless to say, I waited until the final buzzer sounded in last night's 99-86 Game 5 win over the Orlando Magic before celebrating the Lakers' first championship since 2002, the 15th in their storied history. Last year's bitter defeat only makes this victory sweeter, as Final's MVP Kobe Bryant can attest. In an apparent reference to the 'can-Kobe-win-without-Shaq?' question that has dogged him for the past 5 years, Bryant said, "It finally felt like a big old monkey was off my back."

Besides Bryant's redemption as the main storyline, much has also been made (and rightly so) of head coach Phil Jackson's record-breaking 10th title and #24's well-rounded supporting cast of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Trevor Ariza. But as any Laker fan will tell you, this season's championship was far from inevitable. There were plenty of bullets dodged, tense moments and chips that could have fallen either way. And just as L.A.'s shortcomings a season ago helped Boston to emerge victorious, we must not neglect to mention some of the non-Lakers who played an unintended role in this year's purple reign.

So on behalf of Laker Nation, I would like to thank the following individuals for helping make this year's championship run possible:

10. Paul Pierce. Last year's crushing loss to the Celtics was clearly the fuel for this year's Laker run. By scoring at will and outplaying Bryant on both ends of the court, no one was more responsible for the Lakers' '08 Finals humiliation than Pierce, Boston's captain and leading scorer.

9. Shaquille O'Neal. After the Lakers lost to Boston last June, Shaq bombastically performed a rap song in which he vulgarly flaunted how Kobe had not won a championship since O'Neal departed L.A. in 2004. Not that Bryant was lacking any motivation before this childish spectacle found its way to YouTube, but it reinforced public perceptions that Kobe needed to win another championship to step out from under O'Neal's 325-pound shadow.

8. LeBron James. In leading the Cavaliers to the league's best record and winning his first regular season MVP award, LeBron gave most observers the impression that Cleveland, not L.A., was this year's team to beat. Not only did this give the Lakers something else to prove, it allowed them to focus on their game plan without the limelight and pressure of being the favorite.

7. Kevin Garnett. When KG went down for the season in March with a knee injury, the Celtics lost their best interior player and defensive anchor (not to mention the reigning Defensive Player of the Year). Even without the Big Ticket and frontcourt mate Leon Powe in their playoff lineup, Boston still managed to push Orlando to a 7-game series, which tells me they would have reached the Finals and mounted a serious challenge to the Lakers' title hopes had Garnett been healthy.

6. Aaron Brooks. Standing just 6'0" tall and tipping the scales at 160, Houston's fleet-footed rookie point guard unexpectedly extended the short-handed Rockets' second round series with L.A. to a full 7 games, torching them for 34 points in a Game 4 blowout and 26 more in a Game 6 encore. Thanks to Brooks, the Lakers were forced to dig deep for the determination and teamwork needed to win a championship.

5. Courtney Lee. With Game 2 of the Finals tied at 88 and less than one second remaining in the fourth quarter, Lee misfired on a perfectly executed alley-oop layup attempt that would have stolen the Lakers' home court advantage. Thankfully, Laker Nation breathed a sign of relief as the ball bounced off the front of the rim as L.A. escaped with a 2-0 series lead after prevailing in overtime.

4. Dwight Howard. Ahead by 3 in Game 4 with 11.1 seconds remaining, Howard had an opportunity to seal victory at the free throw line and tie the series 2-2. Instead, he missed both shots and left the door ajar for Derek Fisher's unforgettable game-tying pull up 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left. Fisher wound up hitting another huge 3 in overtime, leading the Lakers to a 3-1 series lead.

3. Stan Van Gundy. With the Magic ahead 87-84 after Howard's free throw misses, Orlando's coach made the baffling decision not to foul the Lakers in Game 4's closing seconds. Regretting this fateful error and Fisher's dagger that made him pay, Van Gundy later said, "That one will haunt me forever."

2. Red Auerbach. The legendary Celtics coach who won 9 titles in the 50's and 60's did not live to see the day Phil Jackson surpass his record, but as Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski observed, Red never hid his disdain for Jackson accomplishments. Even with his trademark psychological discipline and inner competitiveness, it's hard to imagine PJ being so focused on collecting his 10th ring had he not been tied with Auerbach for the all-time lead.

1. Chris Wallace. Better known as the Grizzlies General Manager who traded Pau Gasol to Los Angeles in one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history, Wallace should at least get a complimentary championship t-shirt for his role in helping the Lakers win it all. Without Wallace, Gasol would not be playing in Hollywood and without Gasol, Laker fans would not be celebrating today.

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