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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What it Takes to Make it to the NBA Finals

A couple months ago, ESPN The Magazine ran a fascinating article about what it takes to get to the NBA Finals. Guest writer Baron Davis interviewed fellow All-Star guards Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker. Bryant, of course, teamed with Shaquille O'Neal to lead the Lakers to three straight NBA championships from 2000-02. O'Neal and Bryant's Lakers also made it to the 2004 Finals, where they lost to the Detroit Pistons as Billups won the Finals MVP. This year Bryant, sans O'Neal, guided the Lakers back to the Finals, where they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics. Parker has won three championships as a San Antonio Spur (2003, 2005, 2007) and he was selected as the 2007 Finals MVP.

Davis noted, “I know what it's like to make big shots and to win a playoff series or two. I've reshaped my game to make a good team into a scary one." Davis said to Bryant, "I've only been to the conference semis. How do I get further?” Bryant answered, "Execution. You have to focus on Xs and Os, on how you want to take your opponent apart. That's what it's about. It's not about the crowd being loud or how many towels they wave." Bryant added, “The trick is to get everybody playing together, trying to accomplish the same goal. If you have the talent and the sacrifice on top of that, you have a championship caliber team. One player can only do so much. If you haven't gotten to the next level, you haven't figured out how to get everybody on the same page.”

Bryant drew a distinction between the mindset of the three championship teams he played on with O'Neal and the 2008 Lakers team that made it to the Finals: “I'd never been on a winning team that got along (prior to 2008). When I was young, I was like, ‘Take it or leave it. Train's gotta keep moving.’ If you want to win a championship, if you're slacking, I'm going to let you know. And that went from Shaq down to Rick Fox. But when you have that togetherness, you don't get into finger-pointing. If a guy makes a mistake, loses a game, everyone plays the next game to redeem him. That attitude was critical to our getting the number one seed this year.”

So much has been said and written about the “Shaq-Kobe Feud” but what it always boiled down to at its core was a basic and fundamental difference between Shaq and Kobe's basketball philosophies: Kobe is a gym rat, a work out fiend and a perfectionist, while Shaq is someone who always has to be pushed to give maximum effort, particularly when it comes to staying in shape and playing defense. It was natural and inevitable that Shaq and Kobe would clash as teammates. Throw in the huge age difference plus Shaq's craving for recognition combined with Kobe's desire to prove his greatness and a clash was inevitable. Previous great NBA duos--Jordan/Pippen, Magic/Kareem, Bird/McHale, Erving/Malone and on down the line--featured players whose skill sets and personalities complemented each other. Shaq and Kobe's skill sets complemented each other very well--a dominant inside player paired with a dynamic perimeter player--but their mental and philosophical approaches to the game are completely different.

Billups' advice to Davis is exactly what one might expect from a player whose Pistons have several All-Stars but no superstar: “Everybody has all the cliches. You have to sacrifice. You have to be on the same page. But they're all true. When you're on a team that isn't championship-caliber, nobody looks around and says, 'You've got the better matchup tonight. Let's ride that.' You can't care about who's going to be on SportsCenter's top plays, who's going to be in ESPN The Magazine, who's making the All-Star team. When you win, everyone gets the glory.” Davis asked Billups, ‘What's you recipe for winning it all?’ Billups replied, “One of the main things is--and I may be biased--great guard play. A great center is a plus, but it doesn't matter who your center is if your guards can't get the ball to him.”

Billups also told Davis that the game is not decided in the first half but that what happens in the early minutes sets the tone for the rest of the game. It irritates me when people say that you only have to watch the last two minutes of an NBA game, because that kind of thinking disregards the fact that what happened in the first 46 minutes great impacts the strategy, tactics and execution of the closing minutes. A basketball game unfolds in stages, much like a chess game has an opening, a middlegame and an endgame--and any strong chess player understands that each stage of a chess game flows directly into the next stage, because the deployment of forces and the exchanges that are made or not made provide the template for what will happen. Similarly, how a basketball team runs its offensive sets and how it defends against the other team's offensive sets in the first three quarters influences the decisions that are made in the fourth quarter. Billups provided an example of this to Davis, citing a key factor in Detroit's victory over the Lakers in the 2004 Finals: “The Lakers' weakness was pick and roll defense, so we were going to make them stop that. It didn't matter who was guarding me; my job was to pick and roll Shaq. Every series has its own version of that. And if we have to run it every time, we run it every time.” Someone who only watches the last two minutes of an NBA game misses the chess match between the coaches and players as the teams utilize different personnel combinations and strategies to try to exploit their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

What is fascinating about Parker is that he successfully made the transition from being a European basketball prodigy to being one of the top point guards in the NBA; Parker started playing pro basketball at the minor league level in France at the age of 15 and by the time he was 17 he was playing for Paris Basket Racing, one of France's top professional teams. Parker had just turned 19 when the Spurs drafted him in 2001 but he made the All-Rookie First Team in 2001-02 and has been steadily improving ever since that time.

For Parker, his journey to becoming a Finals MVP was all about developing toughness, prodded by hard nosed San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich: “My first three years, sometimes he was so hard on me he made me cry,” Parker told Davis. “It seemed like I could never do enough for him. But when I was Finals MVP, his eyes were watering, and mine, too. That's why it gives me goose bumps anytime I see anyone win a championship. I know how it feels to work hard all year just so you can hold that trophy at the end.”

Each Finals trip was different for Parker: “My first Finals, everything went so fast, I didn't realize what I was doing and what I was part of. I enjoyed the second time more, but the third is when I saw everything in slow motion. Everything was so easy.” Davis asked Parker, “Were you ready for the Finals the first time?” Parker candidly admitted, “No, I didn't realize how hard it was. I see that now but the reason I played so well last season (in the 2007 Finals) is that I had the experience of the first two trips.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:42 PM

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