Posted May 8 2011 9:59PM
DALLAS -- As swift as it was stunning and as thorough as it was convincing, another Los Angeles Lakers championship era ended on this day, crash landing before a worldwide audience Sunday afternoon at American Airlines Center.
The Dallas Mavericks' fingerprints were all over the wreckage. But this was an inside job. This Lakers team, aiming for its fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals and its third straight title, not to mention a fitting end to the Hall of Fame reign of retiring coach Phil Jackson, broke down under the pressure.
It was not supposed to end this way, not with two-time defending champions having to crawl out of town on the receiving end of a 3-point storm from an inspired Mavericks team, losing 122-86 in Game 4 and being swept in the Western Conference semifinals.
It was an embarrassing finish to Jackson's career, his quest for an unprecedented fourth threepeat and a 12th championship ring ended in a sea of wide-open shots knocked down by a Mavericks team that sank a record 11 3-pointers in the first half to blow the game wide open and the Lakers' season and the Kobe-Phil-Pau Gasol era up.
The cheap shots that came later from the Lakers -- both Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum lost their cool and were ejected for flagrant fouls before it was over -- added a tasteless punch to one of the most epic meltdowns a championship contender has endured.
"We were losing by 30," a still stunned and clearly embarrassed Odom said after it was all over. "What the [expletive] do you expect?"
All season long, but especially in this series, this Lakers team continued to reach down for something, a championship reserve maybe, that simply was not there.
"I don't know where we lost it, that certain drive and bond that we've had in the past, that cohesive drive that we've had in order to overcome adversity," Odom said. "When I think about this series and this game, it looked like we got beat by ... a good team that, of course, we respect. But their bond on the basketball court was a little better than ours, it seemed like. They were able to come back down from 16 [points in Game 1] and seven or eight with three minutes to go [in Game 3], and there was just something missing in us."
The Lakers hid it as best they could during the regular season. But Gasol admitted Sunday evening that there were signs that this group wasn't up to the task of its predecessors. The Lakers lost more home games during the regular season than they did in either of their two championship seasons.
They still entered the postseason as the favorites to come out of the Western Conference and were considered by most to be the favorite to win another title. Even after they stumbled early against the New Orleans Hornets in the first round, losing Game 1 at home, they seemed to get back on track, winning that series in six games behind a rejuvenated Bryant and dominant showings from Bynum.
"It's been a rough road this year in general," said Gasol, who was a shell of his All-Star self in the postseason after playing like an MVP candidate at the start of this season, when Bynum was out recovering from offseason knee surgery. "This team was a roller coaster. We had ups, great ups. We had downs. We had a lot of home losses this year that we shouldn't have. We didn't start the playoffs right and we obviously didn't finish them right."
Both of the Jackson eras in Lakers' history ended in a heap. The Jackson-Shaquille O'Neal-Bryant era ended in a similarly gory fashion, with the Lakers being trounced in Game 5 of the 2004 NBA Finals in Detroit. They were trying to win four titles in five seasons then. But that team, complete with four future Hall of Famers in O'Neal, Bryant, an injured Karl Malone and Gary Payton, cracked under the pressure of the nasty end of the O'Neal-Bryant dynamic.
As mighty as they have been the past 11 seasons -- five titles in that span, and only the San Antonio Spurs can lay claim to being their equal with four titles in the past 12 seasons -- the Lakers were primed for a beatdown Sunday. (Ironically, the top-seeded Spurs were stunned in the first round by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.)
No team had ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series, some 98 teams before them had tried and all came up short. Toss in the Lakers' dismal record in road elimination games since 2003, 0-4 while losing by an average of nearly 24 points, and losing by 36 doesn't seem like such a shock.
The core of this Lakers team played a staggering 78 postseason games since 2008, when they lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals in six games. What transpired in this series was not only fatigue catching up to the Lakers but also the rest of the pack in the Western Conference.
If it wasn't the Mavericks in this round it might have been the Oklahoma City Thunder or Grizzlies in the conference finals. The distance between the Lakers and the rest of the competition has been shrinking for three years.
The Mavericks did tie an NBA playoff record with their 20-for-32 showing from beyond the 3-point line. They finished the series 49-for-106 from deep and set the NBA record for the most 3-pointers made in a four-game series, surpassing the 45 Orlando made against Charlotte in the first round last season.
Bryant refused to give any credence to the theory that the pressure to win a third straight title and send Jackson out in style had anything to do with their demise. History might tell a different story about this team, but his story will be clear.
"We played through distractions before," Bryant said. "You've got to put the credit in the right place, which is in the Mavs locker room. They played extremely well. They executed extremely well. Their spacing was excellent. Their depth hurt us. Every night it was a different player stepping up and performing and making plays. The credit belonged to them."
The Mavericks will go down as the team that ended an era and the legendary career of arguably the greatest coach in NBA history, and perhaps the history of professional sports in this country.
How they did it, though, will always be subject to interpretation.
"It's like when you're 13 or 14 years old and you have a little fist fight or whatever," Odom said. "You get hit in the mouth too hard and you realize, 'I got beat, man.' Of course, you want to play better. You know that ... but they beat our ass."
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