Posted Jun 16 2010 11:59PM
LOS ANGELES -- Basketball is not baseball.
There are more and more sabermetricians who do work in the NBA, and much of it is good, but numbers don't usually tell the story of the pro game. It has always been more art than science, more gut than rational, more jazz than classical. Improvisation is at the heart of the NBA; empiricism is a valuable concept, but still a far second in a sport where Knicks coach Red Holzman's last-second play was called, famously, "What the (Bleep)." It is now Phil Jackson's last-second play.
"This is entertainment," Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons said Wednesday, "and what you're hoping for is that your performance on any given night is better than your opponents'. It's not life and death. You're going to enjoy yourself and you want to give a good performance."
But sometimes, numbers do matter. Sometimes the stakes are too high to ignore the historical implications of a win or a loss. This is one of those moments.
Celtics and Lakers.
As Ralph Kramden once said about something else, homina, homina, homina. (Kids! Ask your great-grandparents who Ralph Kramden was.)
The NBA's two signature franchises, in the Finals. One game for all the marbles. One game for an NBA-record 18th championship for Boston, or a 16th pelt for Los Angeles. Forty-eight minutes, and Jackson will get his 11th title as a coach, and 12th overall -- he was a reserve on the 1973 Knicks title team. A 12th title would give Jackson one more than Bill Russell, who is the unimpeachable gold standard in this league when it comes to winning. One more win, and Cleamons, Jackson's longtime assistant, would get his 10th title as a player or coach, joining the rarified company of double-digit champions -- Jackson, Russell, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones (10 rings apiece, with Sam Jones winning all 10 as a player and K.C. Jones winning eight as a player and two as a coach). And, yes, Red Auerbach won nine titles as coach of the C's and seven more as the team's GM and president.
Numbers matter Thursday night at Staples Center, whether it's your first crack at a ring, or your 14th, whether you've been a Celtic for a decade or a Laker for one. Numbers demand order. Here are some, numerically correct:
Ron Artest's plaintive look suggests he'd like to help you. He'd like to wax poetic about what it would mean to win his first NBA title, his first title of any kind, really, and whether a victory would erase at long last the memories of Nov. 19, 2004, in Auburn Hills, when a fan threw a cup of water on Artest and the league soon tilted on its axis. It's taken six long years for the NBA to get past the Brawl, the Brawl that Ron Artest was right in the middle of, with ratings for the Finals soaring. But Ron Artest can't do Big Picture right now.
"I haven't given much thought to it," he said Wednesday. "It's just so hard to answer that now, because I'm right in the fire, you know? I've got to try to somehow wait to get out of this fire. It's just hard to dwell like that right now ... just hustle, game, intensity, focus, your team. You're in the foxhole together. And we're in it together."
It's been a typically odd year for Artest, who came to L.A. with great fanfare last summer, essentially traded for Trevor Ariza, who replaced Artest in Houston. He has struggled to fit in here, the triangle not being the best fit for his bruising, low-post skill set. (Well, not as long as Kobe, the master of the low post, sticks around, anyway.) He made a game-winning monster putback for the Lakers in Game 5 against the Suns in the Western Conference finals, then missed practice the next day, thinking there was no practice and going straight to the airport for the team's flight back to Phoenix. If he wasn't due $30 million more after this season, one wonders if the Lakers would be aggressively seeking to move him this summer.
But Artest, as ever, says he's a work in progress.
"When I went to Sacramento, Coach (Rick) Adelman taught me how to play a team game, what it was all about," Artest said. "And that's when my ego started to turn around a little bit. And ever since then, I've been even better. It's still not mastered. It still has to be mastered. I still have to be better at that."
Paul Pierce knows that Celtics history fairly demands its seminal player provide Beantown with more than one championship. The Russell-Auerbach Era. The Cowens Era. The Bird Era. Each produced at least two titles. It will take a win on the road, in Pierce's hometown, for him to claim his second.
"I guess, when you think about it, when they have their reunions, with all the great players and great teams, you don't want to be feeling like the little man in there, in the room, where you have all the great legends and all these rings, and you come in there with your little old one," he said Wednesday. "Hopefully I can get another one so I can stand up to at least a few of the guys in there."
No one wants to talk about it, of course, but Doc Rivers has made no bones about the fact that he will think seriously about walking away after Game 7, to spend more time with his kids, and that Tom Thibodeau is leaving for Chicago and taking his manic defensive focus with him, and that Ray Allen is 35 and a free agent, and that Pierce could opt out of the final year of his deal this summer and become a free agent himself. (Not likely, granted, with 21 million simoleons coming his way next season. But there's a chance.)
This could be it for this group of Celtics. But Pierce says he's excited about Game 7, not afraid.
"I couldn't draw it up any better than it is now," Pierce said. "Even the year we won, 2008, that was great, but this is even better. When you talk about Game 7, where basketball pretty much started for me, watching the Lakers, going down to the parks, around the corner, down the block, to be playing at home with a chance to win it all, I couldn't even imagine it. It's a great opportunity."
He swears he's not nervous, sitting in his room "sweating and shaking," as he puts it. He will visualize the game Wednesday night and see what will happen before it does.
He dreamed this, he says, beating the Lakers in Los Angeles for a championship.
"Long before the playoffs, I had this dream," he said. "People are going to say I made this up or I'm crazy, but this is a true story. I had a dream. I didn't know if it was going to happen this year or when, but I won a championship in L.A. I had that dream."
One for the thumb. That's where Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher are, on the brink of a fifth title apiece. A fifth would give Bryant one more than Shaq and one more than Tim Duncan, putting him at the head of the Ought Generation Class, and leave him one behind Michael Jordan. But a fifth would be five more than Derek Fisher, from Arkansas-Little Rock, thought he would ever win in the NBA. Heck, he never thought he'd play in the NBA.
"It's always a little surreal and a little humbling to really put it into words, to think about the career I've been blessed to have, and the great teammates and players I've been alongside of," Fisher said Wednesday. "So much positivity related to NBA basketball, my career in this game. And although this is not the end, the opportunity to win a fifth championship is just amazing. I couldn't fathom it as a kid, and even now I still can't, as a man, being in this position. And until it's done, I can't rest."
He hasn't made one 3-pointer this whole series. He knows it. And he also says if the ball comes his way Thursday, it's going up.
Fisher came back to Los Angeles for a second tour of duty three years ago so that his daughter could get better treatment for the cancer that had struck her as a baby than she could get in Utah, where he looked to be playing out the string for the Jazz. It has led to some hard words toward Fisher in Salt Lake City, but that is in his rearview mirror now. He is back in L.A., the only player on his team that has Bryant's complete trust and respect -- even though Bryant is just as short with his teammates these days as he is with the media.
"He's really got himself into a space where he's, I think he's just spending a lot of time in his head, visualizing the things that he needs to do in order to set us up to be successful," Fisher said. "When he is saying things, it's as though he's thought about not only what he needs to do, but how you need to do certain things to help us attack this team. You can tell he's totally engrossed in this moment."
But even though Jackson talks ad nauseum about living in the moment, and not thinking too much about the past or the future, Fisher found himself wondering what winning on Thursday would be like before tipoff.
"I thought about it after our Game 6 win, what it would feel like," Fisher said. "And even thinking about it brings up certain emotions. So I really had to check myself very quickly, put myself back into that spot and that place of taking care of business, and allowing what comes with postgame to take care of itself. Don't even think about it. Just totally get wrapped up in what it takes to win the game -- every play, every second, all 48 minutes, and if it takes an extra five, or an extra five more, that's all that matters right now."
Remember in Hoosiers, when Gene Hackman had the kid from little Hickory High measure the basket at big Hinkle Field House, just so he could see that it was 10 feet high just like back home? That's sort of the message Jim Cleamons wants to deliver through his coaching in preparation for Thursday. It's one game. Just like all the other games you've played this season. Don't get swallowed up by the bigness of it all.
"Last game of the season," he said. "I can think back when I was on one of those bad teams in Cleveland. We were happy it was the last game of the season. Guys had their cars packed up, and we were ready to roll. Okay, it's the last game of the season. You go out, you play hard, and hopefully you play well enough that you win the game. Because everything is on the line. Growing up in Columbus, you got winners. If you lose, you might as well go home, because the winners are three and four deep, and everybody's got their teams already picked out. So you play hard. If you're used to competition at that level, you play hard. That's all it is."
Cleamons was on the first non-Mikan Laker team to break through and win a championship, in 1972, as a guard and former first-rounder. Teammates with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and Pat Riley. He has spent his entire adult life in the game and has been at Jackson's side for all but one of his titles -- the first one of the second Chicago Threepeat, in 1996, when Cleamons was in Dallas trying to teach the triangle to the Three Js -- Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn. It didn't work out so well, and Cleamons was soon back as Jackson's assistant.
"We have to say, you have to forget your individual, and do what's good for the team," he said. "And that's very tough to do in this day and age, because so many of these young people think that the sun rises on one shoulder, and sets on the other. It's all about me. It's not about you."
Cleamons, 60, is a proud man. He won't put himself out there, either in the NBA or in college -- years have gone by at his alma mater, Ohio State, without so much as a cursory interview for one of the school's all-time great players -- for another head coaching job that should have been his years ago. If this is his life, making good money and doing hard work with a man he likes and respects very much, he can live with that. And he can live with what happens Thursday as long as his team gives its all.
"It's interesting," Cleamons said. "In the course of the day you have people say they're pulling for you, they're praying for you, and all that. You wonder now, if you believe in a God or in a creator, a higher being, a purpose, well, if your friends are pulling for you on that level, well, what's the other guy doing? So it's just a matter of trying to do your best."
As good as it gets.
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