LOS ANGELES — If I was David J. Stern, commissioner of the NBA beat, I would give serious thought to calling one Mr. Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and pledge to return all draft choices and fine money from the Joe Smith affair several years ago. In fact, I would even throw in bonus picks and small bills.
Why? Because the T-Wolves, who have never won a playoff series — and may or may not win this one against the Lakers — did something even more significant Thursday night at the Staples Center: They overcame a true Hollywood screwing . . . without a casting couch in sight . . . and, at the same time, bailed out the league big-time.
It wasn’t folly enough that the NBA — at mid-season when the Threepeating Lakers were sleeping in — decided to make the first round a best of seven. Conspiracy theorists at home and away all at once hollered “unkosher,” contending the new format was designed to get Shaq and Kobe a higher percentage shot at a “fourscore.”
(FYI: According to those with a need to need to know, Kobe and USA Basketball have resolved his security and commercial issues within the last 48 hours, resulting in his commitment to play for the Olympic squadron in this summer’s qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico and Greece in 2004. An announcement will be made Tuesday when Allen Iverson and Jermaine O’Neal will also officially be named to the Dream Team.)
Sure enough, the Lakers began their playoff parade returning to the franchise’s roots in Minneapolis and were so dominant in Game 1, the T-Wolves almost opted for extinction.
To their credit, Flip Saunders’ pack somehow regrouped in the sequel and showed Phil Jackson’s “party for two” this was going to be no waltz in the wilderness.
In Game 3, Jackson’s disorganized juggernaut may have come home, but didn’t come to play . . . nodding its way through most of regulation while getting out-hustled, out-thought and out-coached at every right turn only sign.
If not for the input of seldom seen guard Brian Shaw (more adept than any Laker at getting the ball to Shaq when he re-posts against double coverage),insignificant others and referees Bill Spooner, Leroy Richardson and Ronnie Nunn (25-6 free throw attempt disparity in the third and fourth quarters), no way L.A. could have managed to keep the game within inhaling distance.
Still, with 23 seconds left on the game clock, the Lakers trailed by five. That’s when Kobe visited the 4-Point shrine on a play where the infracted Wally Szczerbiak’s only crime was being within the sound of the whistle.
Poetic justice reared its handsome head in the form of a missed Kobe free throw on the Lakers’ final possession — extending the struggle to overtime, a tough break for the officials because it afforded them five more minutes of negligence.
The sixth foul on Kevin Garnett (Richardson fell for Robert Horry’s flop on the perimeter), as well as Szczerbiak’s phantom contact on a Jannero Pargo drive were so abysmal, Stern offered to upgrade the refs from first class (don’t be surprised if they don’t work again until next season) to charter just to get them out of town in a heated rush.
(“What’s all the crying about?” asks a team executive. “The good officials got old and retired. The mediocre ones are expected to be good, while the bad ones are expected to be mediocre because the young ones can’t be trusted to work the playoffs. Unless Steve Javie, Joey Crawford, Dick Bavetta or Danny Crawford are between the lines, look for the reigning champs to continue to reap the reward of excessively friendly calls.”)
Fortunately for truth, fairness and the American way, the league lucked out and the better team won. Getting major mojo again from Troy Hudson and Marc Jackson, who came out of nowhere to generate 12 points, eight rebounds and four icy free throws in five dicey tries, the Land of a 10,000 Lakes is two upsets away from repossessing a nickname that hardly applies to L.A.
With Game 3 history and Game 4 scheduled for Sunday. The NBA must convince the populous it doesn’t care who wins, while the Lakers have to convince themselves they care.
Like all defending champs or playoff proven ensembles, the Lakers aren’t lacking for confidence. Naturally, they feel they will prevail as long as everyone does what they’re supposed to do.
Like, getting some coaching out of Jackson should he feel somewhat threatened. Like, making the majority of free throws. Shaq missed 8 of 16 in Game 3.
Like, keeping Anthony Peeler, as per instructions, from grazing on the offensive glass. Kobe twice failed to put a body on him in crucial situations.
Like executing the play as designed. At the end of OT, the idea was for Kobe (10-28 FG, 9-10 FT) to run the clock down to four before attacking the defense; instead he split the double team early and wound up hoisting up an off balance shot.
“For every five spectacular shots he makes, you have to accept 2 1/2 bonehead plays,” reconciles an associate Laker. “Great player, great talent, but his mental decisions remain wanting. But he’s getting better and I’m not about to bash him. I just wish he would pace himself more.”
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