Saturday, May 15, 2004


Political comment, and plenty of it, has been relegated to the (clickable) American Samizat blog lately. But by Thursday I’d hit the emotional wall. Five of the last six books I read were on terrorism and war: four for a review already published in the San Francisco Chronicle, and one I’ve reviewed for a future issue. In the midst of this, the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal hit, followed by the beheading of an American civilian, both of them weird stories as well as doubly horrific because of how seamlessly they fit into my reading. And of course the war in Iraq continued, as the prisoner photos played endlessly, illustrating every even marginally relevant comment made by anybody on TV.

The moment I couldn’t get past was when one news show dropped Iraq for a few minutes to finally report on the Sudan, and the immense “humanitarian crisis” as we so blithely have to call it, caused by war there: refugees starving in border camps, having fled from the slaughter of ethnic cleansing. It was the kind of scene we’ve grown too accustomed to out of Africa for decades, the flies on starving babies. But what got to me most was the incredibly beautiful clothing the women wore—the brilliant colors and patterns of their everyday life. It was just too much to bear.

So I opted out of the newstream for all of Thursday. How about a nice relaxing basketball game instead? Fortunately for my blood pressure, I couldn’t watch the Lakers-Spurs Game 5 live, but had to do a tape delay. I turned it on just in time to see Phil Jackson’s half-smile, see the score (Lakers by one point) and hear the announcer sign off saying, “one of the most dramatic games in NBA history.”

This second round series has been billed as the one that will likely decide the championship. The Spurs won the first two games at home, over the Lakers who looked disorganized and slow, especially in 4th quarters (when in previous championship years, they systematically dismantled the Spurs) after their 5 game first round over Houston. But then the Lakers won game 3 by 20+ points at home, and held off the Spurs to win the fourth quarter (finally) in game 4. These were classic Kobe and Shaq games, the kind that seemed gone forever.

I learned that the Lakers had held a lead through most of game 5 in San Antonio, where they have never yet won a playoff game. Apparently with ferocious defense and a lot of Kobe Bryant offense, and an unusually active Deavon George. But by the 4th quarter they were just hanging on, their shots weren’t falling, and the Spurs were desperately attacking and scoring. A 16 point third quarter lead turned into the Spurs ahead by one point. The rest can only be recited:

At 11+ seconds, Kobe gets a screen from Malone, elevates on a jump shot and scores. Lakers by one.

With 5+ seconds the Spurs inbound to Tim Duncan, their veteran MVP star. The Lakers defense is stifling. He can do nothing with the ball, and Shaq has come out to stop him beyond the foul line. He throws the ball towards the hoop without being able to see it, as he falls down. The ball goes in. It’s a miracle finish. The Spurs go wild, as do their fans.

It’s all over except for the formality of a Lakers inbound, because there is less than a half second on the clock. Four tenths of a second, to be exact. After a couple of time outs, the Spurs cover Shaq, they cover Kobe, and Gary Payton throws a perfect pass to Derek Fisher. Payton has replaced Fisher as a starter. There are few players better liked or respected by his teammates and the media than Fisher. When murmurs were becoming open dissatisfaction with Kobe’s game, Fisher spoke up for him. He plays tenacious defense and in earlier years was known for his dagger three point shots when they meant something. This year he wasn’t playing all that well off the bench, until the playoffs. He'd never made a game winning shot. They call him Fish.

He’s left handed, he was on the left side of the basket, open. As he caught the ball he started to twist for his shot. Through replay after replay, the ball was maybe a foot out of his hands when the lights around the backboard flashed on, signaling end of the game---and so the shot was legal. And the shot went in.

While the commentators search the record books for anything like this—3 changes of lead in the last twelve seconds, two miracle shots, the last with less than .5 seconds on the clock—they also cited history: that in a 2-2 series, the team that wins game 5 wins the series more than 80% of the time, including last year’s Lakers-Spurs series, almost a mirror image of this one: the Spurs led by more than 20 points, the Lakers fought back and could have won the game on a Robert Horry 3 pointer that went in---and came out, at the buzzer.

But as usual they’re a bit too quick to proclaim the Lakers as champions yet. The odds are in their favor for game 6 in L.A., and they do seem to have jelled as a team more than ever before. Payton to Fish could turn out to be the glue that will hold this team together and take it to its destiny. But the Spurs have lost 3 in a row and face elimination, as the reigning NBA champs. They've shown they can come back. The Lakers are going to have to be intense, and they can’t suffer another 4th quarter letdown. (Kobe was so exhausted he had to receive intravenous fluids for dehydration after the game. Even on the bench in the last seconds it was clear he was having trouble catching his breath. He appeared to meditate for a moment, and when the horn sounded to resume play he jumped up to join his teammates.)

But the Lakers do get better as a series goes on, which credits their court smarts and their coaching. The problem is fatigue in the fourth, and energy and concentration throughout, which has been inconsistent. After a first round and early second round with lots of days between games, these last four games have come with just a day between. It's good for concentration, but not for aging legs. Still, they're at home and the crowd should boost their energy. In a inconsistent year, they've done pretty well in big games, and Phil Jackson teams do well in closeout games.

Even if the Lakers get past the Spurs it’s not over. Though it’s doubtful Sacramento can win 4 out of 7 from them, if Minnesota wins that series, they could pose problems. The Minnesota Timberwolves are the team of the near future, but this could be their year to emerge. They're young, fast and hungry, with this year's MVP Kevin Garnett. Still, you have to like the Lakers chances a lot better than when the playoffs started.

Even if they can’t maintain, they’ve played some memorable games already this postseason. None more so than Game 5, which I have securely on tape, and the ending doesn’t change whenever I watch it. There’s the shot, Fisher running down the court towards the dressing room, grabbed by the exhausted Kobe, who apparently just kept repeating, Fish, Fish, Fish. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.