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Rob Peterson

Race to the MVP

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Race to the Finals MVP: At this point, one man stands apart

By Rob Peterson,
Posted Jun 13 2009 10:59AM

ORLANDO -- With the Lakers up 3-1 against the Magic, it's time to start thinking about who should win the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.

Right now, only one name comes to mind.

Before we get to that name, however, let's crack open the history books. The NBA has been holding this little end-of-the-season shindig since 1947, but has only handed out Finals MVP hardware since 1969.

Here's the interesting thing about that first Finals MVP award: It was Russell's last chance to win it. And he didn't. But another legend from the losing team did.

Russell, then the Boston Celtics player-coach, had already led the Celtics to an amazing 10 titles in 12 seasons. But now, the aging Celtics dynasty was on it's last, weary legs and faced their longtime West Division nemesis: the Los Angeles Lakers, who had acquired Russell's longtime foil, Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers before the 1968-69. Teamed with a dangerous Lakers tandem of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, the Lakers won 55 games and looked to capture the franchise's first title since moving west in 1960.

Things looked good for the Lakers as they won the first two games in L.A. But the Celtics stormed back and won the next two in Boston. Back then, The Finals was 2-2-1-1-1 format, and through the first six games, each team had won on its home floor. With Game 7 in Los Angeles, then Lakers-owner Jack Kent Cooke was so sure of victory, he had thousands of balloons prepared to drop from the rafters of The Forum to celebrate the Lakers win.

But Russell and the Celtics got wind of the plans and, inspired by the Laker organization's hubris, won Game 7 108-106. Russell gets his 11th and final ring, but West, who plays most of the series on a torn hamstring and averages 26 points wins, the first MVP award and the car that goes with it.

The prize is of little consolation to West, who had then never won an NBA title and suffered his sixth loss in six Finals tries to the Celtics.

"I'd just as soon give up that car if it would have meant winning the championship," West said. "I think it's insignificant when your team doesn't win."

So, that first Finals MVP remains irony-infused. West is still the only player from a losing team to win the Finals MVP and was denied a chance to win an NBA title by the team led by the man whose name is now permanently on the award.


Fast forward 40 years to the one name that immediately comes to mind for the 2009 Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant. Who else?

In essence, much of the focus in this Finals has been on Bryant. Just check out this sound bite from the ABC ad promoting Game 5 (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET): "With Kobe Bryant one win away from a championship ..."

Not the Lakers, Kobe. There's pressure on everybody in The Finals, but for Bryant it's double and much of it is self-inflicted. Much has been made of his desire to win a title without former teammate and three-time Finals MVP, Shaquille O'Neal. A lot has been said about last year's soul-crushing defeat to the Boston Celtics in six games.

Bryant's on a mission for a ring, and he will more than likely get a trophy out of it, too. Like the NBA championship, the Finals MVP, right now, is Bryant's to lose.

If Bryant does win the MVP, it will be the 10th time a Laker player has won it. West, as you know, won in 1969. Wilt won in 1972. Magic Johnson was the youngest player ever to win one in 1980 when he was 20. He added two others in 1982 and 1987. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the oldest player to win a Finals MVP at the age of 38 in 1985. James Worthy won it in 1988 and then there was O'Neal, who won three consecutive awards from 2000 to 2002.

It's a rich Finals history for a team that is on the cusp of winning its 15th title in 30 attempts and one that Bryant will more than likely add to some time in the next few days.

1. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
33.0 5.5 8.0 1.3 0.75 .429 .806
Only three men have started their first four Finals games by averaging 30 points and eight assists: Jerry West, Michael Jordan and now, Bryant. Kobe hasn't been very efficient as he's chucked up 28 shots per game, but he has been effective. His 40 points in Game 1 set the tone and his behind-the-head pass to Pau Gasol on the break in Game 4 may be the most underrated play of the series. Instead of being met at the rim by Orlando's Dwight Howard and Mickael Pietrus, Bryant had the presence of mind to find a streaking Gasol to cut the Magic's lead to three in the final minute of regulation. Huge. Like Bryant's overall performance.

2. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
19.8 7.8 2.0 1.0 1.3 .588 .826
As much as everyone likes to point out he could win his first title without Shaq, Kobe wouldn't be winning his fourth overall without Gasol. He is the low-post yin to Bryant's perimeter yang. Gasol has killed Rashard Lewis, among other Magic, on the low blocks and he hasn't made fewer than seven shots in any game this series. He's also played decent defense on Dwight Howard and his flare-up with Mickael Pietrus at the end of Game 4 showed that he isn't planning on backing down.

3. Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando Magic
19.5 5.3 4.0 0.75 0.5 .491 .741
Turkoglu may be the Magic's most versatile player in addition to its most valuable this series. Sure, Howard can clean the glass and block shots, but Turkoglu can run the team, get his shots from the perimeter or in the paint and provides length on defense. When he went out with foul trouble in Game 4, the Magic offense stagnated. And when he missed four free throws in the fourth quarter, it contributed to the Magic loss. Turkoglu can opt out to become a free agent this offseason and the Magic are reportedly prepared to go into luxury tax land to do it.

4. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
16.5 16.5 2.5 1.3 4.3 .471 .618
If he would have hit one of two free throws with 11.1 seconds left in regulation of Game 4, Mr. Howard here may have been No. 2 on this list and the Magic would be heading into Game 5 tied 2-2. Alas, Howard, missed them both leading to a chain of events that helped put the Magic in a 3-1 hole. Howard has been spectacular on the boards with 16.5 per game and he recorded a Finals-record nine blocked shots in Game 4.

5. Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers
12.5 7.3 1.0 1.0 1.3 .583 .636
Last Week's Rank - 8
All season long, Lamar Odom has done what he's been asked to do. That hasn't changed in this Finals series. Odom, once a starter, still comes off the bench and often quite early considering starting center Andrew Bynum gets into foul trouble almost immediately against Howard. Odom has had to squelch the playmaker in him to concentrate his efforts on helping guard Howard in the post. And he's done a great job of providing pressure and help defense against the Magic big man.

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