Sunday, October 16, 2011

A look back at Big Game James

I'm not a conspiracy theory guy. Birthers, Truthers, New World Orders, whatever.

But for awhile I firmly believed that an anti-Laker cabal operated NBA TV's programming. This is a small conspiracy group - our numbers are, well, one. And it's not the type of conspiracy that attracts the attention of Art Bell, Alex Jones or Jesse Ventura. But it affected me. For years - but even more so since the lockout started and NBA TV's programming has consisted of old NBA games, 87 screenings of Teen Wolf, 76 of One on One and 64 of The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh - I watched as the network seemed to only play Lakers losses or Celtics victories. Seemed like every time I turned it on, NBA TV showed Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, or Game 7 from that series or Game 5 of the 1987 ECF or Game 2 of the 1991 Western semis. They showed Lakers collapses and Celtic triumphs.

I wasn't sure who was in charge but I figured they wore green to the office and spoke with an annoying accent.

But a few weeks ago, I flipped to NBA TV and settled in for a long night that celebrated Laker players and victories. Specifically, the network aired Game 7 of the 1988 Western Conference Finals and Game 6 of the NBA Finals, both dramatic LA victories. Plus, a biography of James Worthy's career played before those two games. Hmm, how would this affect my conspiracy theory? Surely it punched holes in my beliefs, and if I actually analyzed the programming I'd realize that I had often seen games from the 1985 NBA Finals or even '87. We'll see. Perhaps I'll accept that there's not anti-Laker bias at the network. Or, like other conspiracy theorists, I'll simply ignore the evidence and bend small pieces of unrelated evidence into a grand theory that re-affirms my warped outlook.

Regardless, that night gave me a chance to watch five hours of James Worthy at his finest. And James Worthy at his finest was strong in the post, fast on the break, quick on the block, efficient on the perimeter, powerful at the rim and practically technically perfect in the paint.

He was the third most-important member of the 1980s Lakers, but while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar towered over the league and Magic Johnson created Showtime, Worthy proved the perfect complement to both and an often-dominant force in his own right. Along with Kareem's sky hook, Worthy's low-post game gave the Lakers an unstoppable inside combination, two options the Lakers always went to whenever someone did slow down the fast break.

Ah, the fast break. Showtime would have existed without Worthy - in fact, it did before the Lakers drafted him with the first pick in 1982 - but it wouldn't have been as effective. And it certainly wouldn't have been as breath-taking.

Worthy came to the Lakers after starring at North Carolina, where he led the Tar Heels to the 1982 national championship. Here's a great video on Worthy's Tar Heels days.

Watching this, you see many of the moves that he later perfected with the Lakers, minus the goggles. And hearing one of the coaches talk, it sounds like Worthy had many of the same moves going all the way back to 8th grade. Probably had the same beard. Strangely, Worthy's freshman year ended when he broke his leg, the same way his rookie year ended with the Lakers in 1983. In the 1982 title game - which ended with Worthy accepting a misguided pass from Georgetown's Fred Brown in the closing seconds - Worthy dominated, hitting 13-for-17 from the floor for 28 points, though he was overshadowed by the winning shot by a freshman named Jordan.

The Lakers drafted Worthy a few weeks after winning the 1982 NBA title, taking advantage of the No. 1 pick through moves that seemed to define the early 1980s, when great teams got even better thanks to bizarre trades with bad teams that always got worse.

For his career, Worthy averaged 17.6 points and shot 52 percent from the floor. That shooting percentage actually dropped quite a bit at the end of his career, when Magic went away, followed by Worthy's knees and quickness. His first eight seasons in the league, Worthy never shot below 54 percent. But Worthy made his reputation in the playoffs - Big Game James did not earn the moniker because of December games against the Kings. In the postseason, Worthy increased his career scoring mark to 21.1 points per game.

Not that Worthy was infallible in the biggest moments. Lakers fans can still picture his pass in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals. The Lakers were up 1-0 in the series against the Celtics and by two in the game. But Worthy's lazy pass - which hung in the air like a Ray Guy punt - never found its target. Gerald Henderson stole it, went in for a layup while Johnny Most's black heart burst with joy, and the Celtics stole the game and eventually the series, also helped along by big missed free throws by Worthy in Game 4. Five years later, in another Game 2, this one against the Pistons, Worthy missed a free throw in the final seconds that could have forced OT, though without Magic and Byron Scott, the free throw likely would have only delayed the inevitable.

But usually Worthy more than lived up to his nickname, and his last name. His greatest moment came in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals, when he scored 36 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dished out 10 assists as the Lakers survived against the Pistons and became the first repeat champion in 19 years. That performance came against one of the great defensive teams of all time, the Bad Boys. Mahorn, Rodman, Salley, Laimbeer, the Pistons threw everything at Worthy, and he kept throwing everything down.

A year later the Pistons got their revenge as the gods took out Magic and Scott's hamstrings. The undermanned Lakers - Kareem was on his last legs, in his last games, and David Rivers and Tony Campbell had prominent roles - lost in four, even though they led in the fourth quarter of the final three games. The final game, however, saw Worthy again at the top of his game. He finished with 40 points. It's one of his most underrated performances, lost in the defeat and in his own Game 7 effort from two years earlier. But everything in the Worthy arsenal was on display.

Here's the first quarter from that game. It's a long video. Worth it.

At one point Worthy hits eight straight shots, again against one of the best defenses in league history. It's a unique mixture of power and finesse, aggressiveness and patience. If you want to fast-forward a bit, go to the six-minute mark - that's when Worthy hits his first shot and then a brawl nearly breaks out after Mahorn flattens Michael Cooper.

Worthy's real explosion begins at the 14-minute mark: Jumper from just inside the 3-point line; up-and-under fake, back with the left hand; fearless drive to hoop for finger roll; turnaround jumper on post; 15-foot jumper; monster dunk off the break (great no-call on a possible charge on Coop); 17-foot jumper.

Worthy put on those types of displays throughout his career. Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale were generally regarded as the two post players with the best moves down low during that era, but Worthy wasn't far behind. He possessed the full array, moves he perfected and practically patented. When he faced the basket and a defender, he was equally comfortable going left or right. A drive to the right often brought a finger-roll. To the left he could explode to the basket for a dunk. He'd hold the ball for a few seconds, staring into the defender's eyes. He'd do a bit of an Ali shuffle and then make his move, when he wasn't simply pulling up for a better-than-you-think jumper.

When he pump-faked inside, Worthy used both arms, his head and nearly his entire upper body to sell the move. Defenders might not bite on the first or even the second, but he'd do it until they did and finish it off with a finger-roll. He could spin off a defender the second he caught a pass with his back to the basket and roll in for a dunk. Or he could simply nail a turnaround jumper, spinning to the baseline or the paint.

But the reason Worthy's low-post brilliance doesn't resonate quite as much is because the enduring image of the 6-9 forward is of him swooping from the lane for a dunk on a Lakers fast break. He might have been the best finisher in NBA history, able to glide in for a layup or power in for a dunk. When Magic grabbed the ball Worthy ran down the court like a 100-meter sprinter, looking up once he crossed halfcourt, just waiting for the moment when Magic would deliver a no-look pass.

Worthy's dunks almost always looked the same. Right arm fully extended, it seemed like all he had to do was flick his wrist at the rim.

People occasionally debate just how good Worthy would have been if he hadn't played with the Lakers, specifically with Magic. It seems people have that discussion about Worthy more than they do about any other Hall of Famer. Worthy's numbers - especially his shooting percentage - did drop when Magic retired. But the years he spent running full speed while Magic played contributed to his decline once Magic left. His knees finally gave out. Physically he was nowhere near the same player, meaning the easy baskets didn't come like they once did. He still could dominate down low. And he showed in those '89 Finals - when Magic played about a game and a half - that he would have been able to score no matter who was at point.

Worthy wasn't a great ball-handler and he was never a shutdown defender, although he did a good job of harassing Larry Bird in both the 1985 and '87 Finals. Plus, one of the most famous plays of his career - the steal in Game 6 of the '87 Finals - came on the defensive end. But he was the perfect offensive weapon for the Showtime Lakers, sleek, dangerous, a cruise missile flying down the Forum's court, launched by order of Pat Riley and controlled by Magic Johnson.

In Worthy's final Finals appearance, he limped along in a way that foreshadowed his final seasons. Worthy suffered a severe ankle sprain in Game 5 of the WCF against Portland. He managed to play as the Lakers clinched in six. But against the Bulls, Worthy staggered along, robbed of all his quickness. Each time he scored, he labored back. There were no fast-break dunks, few classic Worthy finishes in the paint. People said Scottie Pippen got the best of him, but that was only because Worthy was on one leg. Yet he still averaged 19 a game, before finally sitting out the decisive Game 5.

If he'd been healthy...I tell myself the Lakers might have pulled it off. They would have won a sixth title since 1980, would have delayed the Bulls dynasty a year. And 20 years later, NBA TV would have replayed the Lakers' victory in the 1991 NBA Finals.

Or not replayed it.