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8 Upper

Triomphe d'Arc

By Tom Scocca | Posted 6/20/2001

Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have secured their third consecutive NBA championship, it's time to . . . what? This was only their second? Well, regardless, the third is in the bag. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant both said so at the victory parade. Nobody is beating these Lakers. I quote the Associated Press, direct from the celebration: "Magic Johnson, a member of the Showtime Lakers, called the current lineup 'quite probably the greatest team that's ever played.'"

Well, opinions are opinions. If Magic Johnson wants to say Bryant is a better player than he was, then he's wrong, but it's his own reputation that he's cheapening. If he wants to say O'Neal is better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then he's weighing in on a classic unanswerable then-vs.-now debate. I think Jabbar, in his prime, would have completely baffled O'Neal with his skills in the pivot. But if O'Neal were allowed to elbow Jabbar in the larynx, then who knows?

It's the next step down the ladder where the real troubles begin. If I were James Worthy, for instance, I would be in a taxi on my way to Magic's house to beat his ass. James Worthy! Hall of Fame finalist, lifetime .521 shooter, Finals MVP--and third-best player on the Showtime Lakers. Who on these turn-of-the-millennium Lakers would James Worthy rank behind? Rick Fox? Derek Fisher? Who is the third-best player on the reigning champions? Is there one?

Right now, around the league, there are a dozen point guards who are better than Fisher. Easily. There are a dozen power forwards better than Horace Grant. There are two dozen small forwards better than Rick Fox. You could put eight or nine guys from the Lakers on the Vancouver Grizzlies, and the Grizzlies would still finish last.

This is testimony, of course, to the abilities of Bryant and O'Neal. Especially O'Neal. The Big [insert nickname] effectively settled the Finals when he threw a little tantrum after fouling out of his battle with Dikembe Mutombo in Game 3. "I'm allowed to pivot," he ranted. "I'm allowed to play strong. I'm allowed to be powerful. That's what I've been doing my whole career. I'm not going to change that now." True enough--O'Neal has been knocking people over his whole career. And the refs took the message to heart. Early in Game 4, O'Neal popped Mutombo in the mouth and powered to the basket with nary a whistle to be heard, and everything was back to normal.

But it is also testimony to the ruthless coaching ability of Phil Jackson. Jackson has made a point of only taking jobs where he has superstars to work with. It's easy to make fun of him for it, but those star players--Michael Jordan included--were established playoff losers when Jackson got to town. What he did with the Lakers and the Bulls was elevate the performance of the scrubeenies.

When I remember the Bulls winning their first championship, I don't picture Jordan floating to the basket; I picture him feeding John Paxson over and over in the fourth quarter of the deciding game, hitting Paxson in perfect rhythm for one long jumper after another, so automatic it felt as if Jordan were banking the ball off his backcourt mate into the basket. All Paxson had to do was catch and shoot.

The Paxson Principle has been refined down through the years through an unbroken procession of scrub-ass scrubs: B.J. Armstrong, Jud Buechler, Steve Kerr, Brian Shaw, Tyronn Lue. Get guys who can hit three-point shots, get them open, and let the talented guys kick them the ball.

This is a perversion of basketball, quite as much as the Hack-a-Shaq or the Greco-Roman style of Pat Riley's Knicks. The Lakers did not beat the 76ers because Bryant outplayed Iverson--he didn't--or even because O'Neal was free to knock Mutombo around. They beat the Sixers because every time Philly got close, there was Fisher or Shaw or Fox knocking down an open three. Inside the arc in the final game, the Sixers outshot the Lakers 44 to 37 percent. But the Lakers were 12-for-17 from outside it, on the heels of a 10-for-19 spree the previous game.

There is nothing illegal about winning this way. The three-pointer is in the rule book, and the Sixers were as free to use it as the Lakers. If Aaron McKie hadn't been playing on a broken ankle, Philadelphia might even have been able to do some perimeter damage itself--or at least to guard the Lakers' outside shooters. But he was; they weren't; they didn't. The Lakers are the champions.

Still: Derek Fisher? The Lakers' spot-up shooters may be effective, but they're as uninteresting as designated hitters or hockey goons. Seeing an NBA game decided by the three-pointer has started to feel like seeing a soccer game decided on penalty kicks.

For every thrilling finish the long shot creates, it snuffs another one out. This year was the 25th anniversary of the Celtics-Suns triple-overtime Finals epic--a seesaw game played without benefit of the downtown stripe. The pressure in that game was ceaseless. Absent the three, neither team could shake the other; the biggest, bravest shots only bought them two points.

Contrast that with Derek Fisher, and the triumph of applied mediocrity. And things will only get worse. With the league legalizing zone defense next year, stars will get triple- and quadruple-teamed. The long-range specialists will get more and better looks than ever. The good news for O'Neal is that this puts him in a great position to win that third title. The bad news is, he might not be in the highlight film.

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