Saturday, May 7, 2011

When dynasties die

A part of me doesn't really believe anything I'm about to type after this paragraph. A part of me remains convinced the Lakers will steal a game against Dallas on Sunday afternoon, then cruise to a victory at the Staples Center two nights later. Now it's Game 6 and Dallas feels all the pressure. Lose this game at home and they're on the verge of becoming the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead. No one's done that, not even the tortured Lakers teams from the 1960s, which lost in every conceivable manner except that one. But the Lakers pull out a close Game 6. The teams return to LA for Game 7 and is anyone outside of Dallas or Germany expecting the Mavericks to pull that one out? The Lakers roll and ride the type of momentum no one in league history has had into the Western Conference Finals. Eight games later - after sweeping Oklahoma City and Chicago - the Lakers are NBA champs. Again.

But maybe that doesn't happen.

Dynasties don't end well. Even when it ends with a team going out on top - like Jordan's 1998 Bulls did - the following seasons are disastrous and produce the type of basketball that is usually only produced by guys running around in Timberwolves jerseys. Dynasties end with young legs running past old ones, unless they end with the old legs breaking down. In 1989 the Lakers went for three in a row and rolled to an 11-0 record in the playoffs until Byron Scott's hamstring snapped before the Finals, followed by Magic's in Game 2. And that was it for the Magic-Kareem-Worthy-Cooper gang.

No one knew until November of 1991 that the Magic era had ended in June of that year, but when the Bulls methodically ushered the Lakers out in five games, it followed the template that's been repeated time and time again - the younger, fresher, hungrier team overwhelming the aging warriors. Same thing happened with the Celtics in 1988 against the Pistons. And those Pistons suffered a humiliating exit in 1991, when they, like the Lakers this year, were seeking a third straight title and fourth straight Finals appearance. Instead Jordan and the Bulls swept them, forcing Detroit's players to perp walk off the court in the closing seconds, a moment that might have been the most humiliating moment in Isiah Thomas's career, if not for his time spent in the executive offices in the CBA and at Madison Square Garden. In 1996, the two-time defending champion Rockets finally fell, losing to Seattle in the conference semis. They got swept, actually. Sound familiar?

There's something...beautiful about watching a dynasty die. It's the circle of the sporting life. No one's a champion forever. When you see a champion lose, when you see how easy it is for a season to end, it helps you appreciate just how lucky you have to be to win in the first place. You appreciate just how good a team has to be in the first place. The eventual struggles help put the past triumphs in perspective.

From a Lakers point of view, this series feels a bit like 1990. A year after Kareem finally hung up the goggles, the Lakers went 63-19, the best record in the league. In the semifinals they met Phoenix, a franchise that had served as a purple punching bag for the Lakers for much of the 1980s. But after winning the first game in LA, the Suns returned to Phoenix and swamped the Lakers in Games 3 and 4, before finishing it off in 5. Pat Riley won the Coach of the Year that year but was finished after the playoff exit. It was the end of an era, just like it will be the end of Phil Jackson's era if - when - the Mavericks dust off the Lakers in this series.

There's no such thing as a tortured Lakers fan. The only time Lakers fans could ever claim that was in the 1960s and boy could they claim it back then. But 10 titles in 30 years - and a total of 16 trips to the Finals - disqualify any current Lakers fan from crying woe. No one wants to hear it. On Lakers messageboards, when people aren't clamoring for the hiring of Larry Brown (no, really), they're trying to put this expected loss in historical perspective. How disappointing is it? To me, it would rank pretty far down the list. It doesn't compare at all to the defeats in the 1960s , when the Lakers were still seeking that elusive first title in LA. It doesn't compare to 1970. It doesn't come close to 1984, when Magic fell apart, as did the Lakers in seven against Boston. It doesn't come close to 2004, when the end of the season felt apocalyptic, as Phil left and no one knew if either Shaq or Kobe would return. If this is it for the Lakers, it ends a superb three-and-a-half year run. It was a run that produced a pair of titles, including a delightful Game 7 comeback against the hated Celtics. Have the Lakers underachieved? Yeah, a bit. Gasol looks lost, Kobe looks tired and Fisher appears fossilized. But Dallas deserves more credit than the Lakers deserve blame. Dirk's playing as well as ever, they have a great coach and tremendous depth. They deserve to be up 3-0. there a chance at a comeback? Sure. No team has come back from a 3-0 deficit but teams have come back from being down 3-1. So the Lakers have to win Sunday and then it goes from there. If any team is going to finally climb out of a 3-0 hole to win, wouldn't you think it'd be a team with the resume of the Lakers? Most teams that fall behind 3-0 are clearly inferior. That's certainly not the case for the Lakers in this series, at least for the first 42 minutes of the games. And for any team to pull it off I think they need Game 7 at home, which the Lakers would have. In 2003, the Mavericks were up 3-0 on the Blazers before losing three in a row. Game 7 was at Dallas, and in that game, the Blazers actually led by two points with four minutes to go, before the Mavericks pulled away. So no team has come back from 3-0 down but they have come back to tie it and lead by two with four minutes to go in Game 7.

Is it likely? Nah. This is probably the end, the death of a dynasty. And in its own way, it will be beautiful. But...

No one thinks the Lakers can win four in a row. But then, how many people thought the Mavericks would win three in a row?

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