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The Los Angeles Lakers And The Power Of Three

April 15, 2011

Bill Simmons’ NBA regular-season wrap-up column listed all the instances in league history in which a team won three straight championships. The total number – five – is actually surprisingly low given the NBA’s dynastic nature, although the ’59-’66 Celtics did accomplish the feat two and a half times. But the important takeaway here is three of those five – the ’91-’93 Bulls, ’96-’98 Bulls, and ’00-’02 Lakers – did their dominant work in the last 20 years. Recent NBA history runs in threes.

The 2011 NBA playoffs are really about one team: the Los Angeles Lakers. There’s a certain poetic justice in their quest – four three-peats for Phil Jackson, six titles for Kobe Bryant, and a tie with the Boston Celtics for the most NBA championships. But if the Lakers make it three straight this June, as Simmons very begrudgingly acknowledges, that places them in extremely rare territory. It’s something Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and plenty of other champions commonly placed among the “greatest teams of all time” never accomplished. Does this make the Kobe-Pau teams among the best in history? Hell, are they among the best Laker teams in history?

Our gut reaction – especially now, but even should they prevail in June – is probably “no.” Between having Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom to throw at Shaq and Ron Artest to pester young Kobe, this team could give the ’01 Lakers a solid competition, in some whatifsports universe. But unlike the best of the ’90s Bulls or early-2000s Laker teams, they’ve never put together a dominating postseason run. It took six games in both 2009 and 2010 to dispose of relatively mediocre Western Conference Finals opponents (Denver and Phoenix respectively) and in their one showdown with a championship-caliber opponent, their decisive victory came through a facet of the game – offensive rebounding – that tilted in their favor so egregiously only because of a Game 6 injury to the opponent’s starting center. The 2011 team is unlikely to win with substantially more ease than the versions with younger Bryants and Fishers. And from the sentimental side of things, they haven’t, through no fault of their own, managed that iconic play that’ll appear on “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year, 2.0” commercials 20 years from now. There’s been no Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop, no push-off on Byron Russell, no switch-hands-in-the-air layup. There’s nothing exuding greatness.

But assuming the Lakers’ complete Jackson’s collection this June, they’ll have entered that rarified air, whether or not we appreciate it at the time. And it will suddenly seem foreign to think we ever questioned they’d get there. We forget that Michael Jordan once faced the same doubts now plaguing LeBron James, that the Bulls didn’t have home-court advantage every year, that the Lakers faced a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter of that Game 7 against Portland. It will all make sense: Jackson will have his 12 rings, Bryant will have his six, and they’ll be as much a part of NBA lore as every dynasty before them.

What’s made the recent three-peaters so special, molded them into our minds as “champions,” is the ability to combat father time, logic, or both. In 1993, the Bulls dropped the first two games of the conference finals to the top-seeded New York Knicks, but stormed back to take the next four, the indelible moment being Charles Smith’s ill-fated stuff attempts at the end of Game 5. Sorry, Patrick Ewing – no NBA Finals for you. In 1998, the Bulls faced an Indiana Pacers team primed to finally break onto the league’s biggest stage, but outrebounded the Pacers 50-34 en route to a gutsy Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals win. Sorry, Reggie Miller – no NBA Finals for you. And attribute the Lakers’ win in their 2002 seven-game epic with Sacramento to whatever combination of fortunate bounces and NBA conspiracies you like, but coming back from a 24-point deficit while trailing 2-1 in the series – and putting Robert Horry in position to make that game-winning 3-pointer – is the definitive archetype here. Sorry, Chris Webber – no NBA Finals for you.

The beauty of the 2011 playoffs lies in the near-guarantee the Lakers will get that chance. Maybe they’ll beat Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City again, this time in the conference finals. Or perhaps they’ll turn back Tim Duncan’s last, best charge in a titanic battle for the soul of the post-Jordan NBA. And should the Lakers reach the Finals, they’ll represent either the last foil to James’ or Derrick Rose’s full ascent to NBA royalty or the last barrier to the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics getting that crucial second title.

In the next two months, somewhere along the line, the Lakers will face a potential Waterloo. And if they survive, they’ll earn the respect their numbers will imply.

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From → April 2011

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