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In a pair of conference finals that have been as electric as any in decades, the signature moments have come not only from superstars but also from unlikely figures such as the Lakers' Trevor Ariza, who, with the game on the line, has been stealing something more important than the spotlight
When Lakers forward Trevor Ariza is facing a steep deficit late in a game of around-the-world, he turns to a strategy that inevitably rattles opponents and sparks comebacks. He calls timeout, walks casually to the spot on the court where players have left their personal items, and steals his adversary's car keys.
Since NBA players do not generally stash the keys to their Escalades on the bench, Ariza has resorted to a different kind of larceny in the Western Conference finals. Twice in the first three games, with the Lakers leading the Nuggets by two points and less than 40 seconds remaining, Ariza dashed across the court to swipe a lollipop of an inbounds pass and cinch a Los Angeles victory. "I'm like Ed Reed," Ariza says, channeling the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl safety also noted for his game-changing plays and closing speed.
In a pair of spellbinding conference finals unrivaled for twists and turns, Ariza is a 6'8" emblem of the laws of basketball improbability. Not long ago he was jettisoned by a lottery team and wasn't trusted to take a jump shot; his NBA future, if he had one, looked as if it would be measured in 10-day contracts. To see Ariza now, finishing L.A.'s fast break, sinking a succession of fourth-quarter threes and defending the opposing team's best player so that Kobe Bryant can preserve his invaluable energy, is among the postseason's most surprising sights. Ariza is a reminder that titles are not won by brand names alone.
Call the first week of the conference finals May Madness—except the losers were getting a chance to exact revenge. Of the first five games (three between the Nuggets and the Lakers, two between the Cavaliers and the Magic) none was decided by more than six points, none was resolved until the last minute, and all featured severe momentum swings, impromptu tactical adjustments and heart-in-throat finishes. There was Kobe switching assignments to cover Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony switching to take Bryant. There was Orlando wiping out a 16-point deficit to win Game 1 in Cleveland, then rallying from 23 down two nights later. But then there was LeBron James, catching an inbounds pass with one second left in Game 2 and draining a 24-foot fadeaway from the top of the key that resuscitated his city's quest for its first major sports championship in 45 years.
How did the league's MVP assess the most dramatic shot of his career? "For me," James deadpanned, "a second is a lot of time."
James's dagger was Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo, only deeper and a whole lot sweeter for the hard-luck crowd at Quicken Loans Arena. The most poignant reaction belonged to point guard Mo Williams, who had thrown the inbounds pass but then was physically incapable of celebrating the shot. Crumpling to the floor, Williams held his face in his hands, a la Duke's Thomas Hill after the buzzer beater by Christian Laettner against Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final. But then the Magic, unbowed, came back to win Game 3 in Orlando 99--89, getting another strong night from Ariza's Eastern Conference counterpart, 6'6" reserve Mickael Pietrus, who has also impressed with his deep shooting and hectoring D. The NBA's final four is matching the college version thrill for thrill, heartbreak for heartbreak.
Corporate sponsors from Nike to Vitamin Water have banked entire advertising campaigns on the Kobe-LeBron battle royal that was seemingly scheduled for the first week of June. But as Nuggets guard Jason Hart put it, "Basketball cannot be planned." After both the Lakers and the Cavs had lost a home game, it was suggested to Anthony that he might want to start filming his own commercial with Orlando's Dwight Howard in anticipation of the Finals. "That," he said with a party crasher's devious grin, "would make a lot of people really mad."
No team is having more fun on this stage than the Nuggets, with their Mohawks, dreadlocks and Technicolor tattoos. They have the only player in the NBA who has come back from two micro-fracture surgeries (Kenyon Martin) and the only current player who has served a two-year ban for drug use (Chris Andersen). Their center is a cancer survivor (Nené), as is their head coach (George Karl). Their best perimeter defender (Dahntay Jones) was playing a year ago for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the Development League. "This is the team you'd want to have a beer with," says Nuggets general manager Mark Warkentien.
These Nuggets are also capable of masterpieces and meltdowns, sometimes on the same day. They outplayed the Lakers in Game 1, beat them in Game 2 on the road and led for most of 3½ quarters in Game 3 in Denver, but they trailed 2--1 in the series because they could not make a simple inbounds pass without Ariza stealing it. As Karl reflected on his pack of "stray dogs"—Warkentien's pet name for the Nuggets—at the beginning of the series, he was reminded of the cast of characters from his favorite Jack Nicholson movie, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. "Sometimes," Karl acknowledged, "I feel like I'm Jack."