Despite early hole, Magic likely won't disappear from Finals quickly
Clear differences in rosters, coaches and vision often have made for Finals sweeps
Stan Van Gundy's creativity, toughness a good counter to Phil Jackson's success
Kobe Bryant's quest to win minus Shaquille O'Neal has not swept up rest of Lakers
LOS ANGELES -- There have been eight sweeps in the 63-year history of the NBA Finals.
This will not be No. 9.
I write that with a fair degree of confidence. Which probably means you should empty your children's college tuition fund -- how's that going, by the way? -- and place it all on the Lakers in four.
But, seriously, despite the Lakers' Game 1 win and the Magic's Game 2 loss -- the latter a potential spirit-killer if there ever was one -- the broom will remain in the closet. While there has not been a single set of circumstances present in every sweep, a historical look suggests that the Magic will not become the ninth victim of four-and-out.
I was around for all of the sweeps -- by around I mean walking on planet Earth -- but don't feel qualified to speak about three of them since I wasn't close to the NBA: the 1959 Boston Celtics over the Minneapolis Lakers; the 1971 Bucks over the Baltimore Bullets; and the 1975 Golden State Warriors over the Washington Bullets. But I was covering the league to one degree or another for the other five.
So, here are some of the factors that have been present when sweeps occurred. Let's see how the Lakers stack up:
One team is clearly and inarguably superior to the other.
That sounds obvious, but it's not always the case. I'd say that it's happened only in the last two sweeps -- the Lakers over the Nets in 2002 (New Jersey was the representative of an extremely weak East) and the Spurs over the Cavs in 2007 (ditto for Cleveland in that year).
This year? The Lakers are better but not far better. That is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but the Magic have strong starting personnel, a decent bench, a good coach (see below) and a resourcefulness borne of two underdog victorious playoff series. The Lakers are a very good team but not a super one.
One coach is clearly superior to the other.
That happened in 2007 when the experienced Gregg Popovich of San Antonio had it all over Mike Brown, who was still learning his craft in Cleveland. Pop and his staff had no trouble constructing multiple defenses to stop LeBron James, and Brown had no counters.
This year? The Lakers' Phil Jackson is the best in the business and has an obvious edge on Stan Van Gundy. But the operative phrase is clearly superior. That is not the case. Van Gundy had never been to a Finals before this one, but has plenty of experience with pressure basketball as an assistant and is not easily intimidated.
Obviously, he motivated his team in the two days between Games 1 and 2 to come out swinging. He has tinkered with matchups, given the quarterback role to the 6-foot-10 Hedo Turkoglu to get bigger in Game 2 and challenged his guards to play better after Sunday's brutal overtime loss. What he's saying to the struggling Dwight Howard, with whom he's already tangled during the postseason, is anyone's guess.
One team is a lock-down defensive machine.
That describes the 1989 Detroit Pistons, who swept a very good Lakers team, as well as the 207 Spurs. A sweep is always possible when one team can consistently put the clamps on the other.
This year? While I've been impressed with the intensity of the Lakers defense, particularly in its ability to station two or three guys in Howard's path, they are not a super defensive team. Howard will have at least two good games at home, and point guards Rafer Alston and Jameer Nelson will get going from the outside, too. (As long as Van Gundy has one of them on the floor, that is.)
One team has The Great Difference-Maker.
I'm not talking about the best player, a distinction that clearly belongs to L.A.'s Kobe Bryant, who will be this Finals' MVP when the hardware is handed out. I'm talking about that one player who seems clearly fated to drag his team along with him.
The best example is the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, who swept the Lakers behind Moses Malone. Moses wasn't the best player on that team -- the Sixers had a guy named Julius Erving -- but when M.M. came aboard at the beginning of that season, the 76ers suddenly acquired an air of invincibility. And when he uttered his immortal "fo', fo', fo'" comment prior to the postseason, suggesting that his team would sweep every playoff series, I have no doubt that the Sixers, and just as important, their opponents, believed it. As it turned out, the Sixers went fo', fi', fo', losing one game in the Eastern Conference finals to the Milwaukee Bucks before sweeping a Lakers team that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
This year? Bryant's quest to win a title sans Shaquille O'Neal has the feel of an all-business military mission. And he will succeed. But it doesn't have that Moses-will-take-us-to-the-top-of-the-mountain feel to it.
One finalist seems like a team of destiny.
I'd say the best example is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who swept the Magic. They had won the title the year before and no one expected a repeat. They were the sixth seed going into the postseason. Hakeem Olajuwon, who dominated the Finals and who was as nimble a big man as ever played the game, had finished only fifth in the MVP voting. The Rockets were full of that no one-gives-us-respect motivation. They had three extremely confident role players, mini-Moseses in their own way, in Robert Horry, Sam Cassell and Mario Elie. They saw themselves as a powerhouse when no one else did. They were right.
This year? Again, the Lakers are not a team of destiny. They were at or near the top the whole season. When they win the title it will be because they were supposed to win the title.
One team has all the mojo.
The best example is those 1989 Pistons, who swept that Magic-Kareem-Worthy-Pat-Riley-coached Lakers. L.A.'s Byron Scott hurt his hamstring before the series began. Then Magic pulled a hammy in Game 2. The Pistons had lost a heartbreaking seven-gamer to the Lakers the year before and had no intention of being put in that position again. Grand ol' Showtime was breaking up (Kareem retired after the season), and the Pistons were feeling all of their bad-boy swagger. The Lakers always claimed they could've won the series were it not for the injuries; I don't agree, but they certainly would've taken a game or two in L.A.
This year? One could argue that the mojo belongs -- or belonged -- to the Magic, which drew a Celtics team that was without Kevin Garnett, and also marched through the East despite losing point guard Nelson.
So, you put it all together and it doesn't spell sweep.
But the Lakers will still prevail in six. And, ultimately, that's all that matters, right?
NBA Truth & Rumors