After the Golden State Warriors won game 7 against the Sacramento Kings to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals, my first thoughts were not about Steph Curry’s 50 point game and how it was the most points scored in a game 7, but rather Kevon Looney’s performance on the glass, and how instrumental he was at keeping the Warriors season and championship hopes alive.
The game was tight throughout the first half, with the Kings holding a 2 point lead at halftime. Outside of Curry, the Warriors shot very poorly, including a 1-10 start from Klay Thompson. The poor shooting continued into the 3rd quarter. However, by the end of the quarter, they had a 10 point lead despite all the missed shots. The reason for this was the Warriors rebounding. They had 23 rebounds in the 3rd quarter including 13 on the offensive end. Looney was responsible for 10 of them, including 8 on the offensive glass. The Warriors had 24 second chance points from their offensive rebounding throughout the game, and Looney was a huge part in that. They had 10 second chance points just in the 3rd quarter from the offensive boards from Looney.
With the Warriors now facing the Lakers in the semi-finals and another matchup between Curry and LeBron, it hit me why despite all the Hall of Fame teammates James has played with, he only has a 4-6 record in the finals, while Curry is 4-2, Kobe was 5-2, and Jordan 6-0. While the NBA is a league dominated by superstars, you still need a complete team to win, and that gets amplified come playoff time. The playoffs are when the role players come up huge.
The Bulls of the 90’s were led by Jordan Pippen Grant and Rodman. But even with Pippen and Grant, it took Jordan 4 attempts to defeat the Pistons. When he finally broke through them in 1991, it was due to involving his teammates more. BJ Armstrong was the floor general for the first 3-peat, and Ron Harper for the second. Bill Cartwright was a lockdown defender against Patrick Ewing on the Knicks. John Paxson made the title winning shot in 1993. Steve Kerr made the title winning shot in 1997. When the Bulls struggled early against the Pacers in game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, Toni Kukoc kept them in the game, similar to how Looney kept the Warriors in the game until they eventually pulled away.
The Lakers in the 2000’s were led by Kobe and Shaq for the first 3 championships, and then Kobe and Pau Gasol for the last 2, but many role players played a major part in those championships. There’s a reason why Phil Jackson brought several of his Bulls veterans with him to LA when he took the Lakers job. Not only to teach the young Lakers how to win, but to provide critical mentorship to the role players who would help the Lakers hoist 5 trophies.
Everyone remembers the iconic BRYANT…TO SHAQ call in game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals to punctuate a 25-4 run that erased a 15-point deficit. But that comeback was sparked by 2 huge 3-pointers from Brian Shaw. The 2001 Lakers bulldozed everyone on their way to their 2nd championship, but what I remember most from their 15-1 playoff run is Derek Fisher’s performance in game 4 of the WCF to eliminate the Spurs. He missed the first 62 games of the season with a broken foot, and there was a very good chance he would miss the entire season. Fisher played the role Harper played with the Bulls, and the 2000-01 Lakers struggled early in the season without him. Fisher improved the team’s defense when he returned. In game 4 vs. the Spurs, he had 28 points, including 6 3-pointers. Robert Horry, who won 7 rings in his career, and was known by his nickname “Big Shot Rob”, saved the Lakers 2002 title run with a walk-off 3-pointer at the buzzer in game 4 of the WCF to tie the series. Even though the Lakers didn’t win the championship in 2004, they would have never had a chance to win it without Fisher’s 0.4 shot in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Fisher would come up huge for the Lakers again in game 4 of the 2009 Finals. With Orlando looking to tie the series, Fisher made a huge 3 to tie the game and send it into overtime. In overtime, he made another clutch 3 to give the Lakers the lead with 30 seconds left, and eventually win the game and take a 3-1 series lead on their way to the championship. Ron Artest saved the Lakers 2010 championship run twice. In game 5 of the WCF, Artest made the game winner at the buzzer. In game 7 of the finals, the Lakers struggled early, but Artest kept the team in the game, and made a clutch 3 late in the 4th quarter to seal the win for the Lakers.
This shows just how important it is to have a complete team. You absolutely need your star players to lead you to the championship, but over the course of a 7 game series, having an off-night is amplified due to the win or go home nature of the playoffs. Phil Jackson regularly talked about how important it was to have a deep bench. One of the things he liked to do was leave the 2nd unit in the game even when his team was trailing early in the 4th quarter. He trusted them to cut into the deficit, especially at home, and then bring in the first unit to feed off the crowd’s energy and finish off the comeback. Even though Lamar Odom did not have a signature moment like the other Lakers reserves did, he was instrumental in their 2009 and 2010 championships. Lakers management was initially reluctant to bring him back for 2009-10, but Phil and Kobe convinced management that they needed him to repeat. Because Kobe and Phil knew how important the role players are. There’s a reason why Phil has 11 rings. It takes an entire team.
Even in international play, having an entire team is critical. Following Team USA’s 6th place finish at the 2002 World Championships and 3 losses that culminated with a bronze medal finish in the 2004 Athens Olympics, Chicago native Jerry Colangelo was brought in to overhaul Team USA Basketball. Instead of constructing a team of superstars, he decided to build a full team, and remove cancers like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury who wrecked the 2004 team with their attitude and playing the game like it’s streetball. The 2008 team was led by Kobe, LeBron, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Dwight Howard, but Carlos Boozer and Tayshuan Prince were added to the team for their tough defense and rebounding. Michael Redd was on the team for his outside shooting, which is more important in international play than the NBA due to the heavier use of zone defense and the 3 being a 20 foot jumper in international play. Because Team USA had not won an international tournament since the 2000 Olympics, none of the core players on the team had any gold medal experience. But just like Phil brought his Bulls veterans to the Lakers to show them what it takes to win, Colangelo did the same by adding Jason Kidd to the team. Kidd had a gold medal from those 2000 games. Kobe took over the gold medal game to put Team USA back on top, but if they had built the team in a similar manner as 2002 and 2004, the results probably would have been the same.
The point of all this is to show just how close things really are come playoff time. The lack of depth and role players around LeBron is a major part of the reason he’s 4-6 in the finals. It’s not just poor management where James has played, but rather his demands and desires to play with his superstar friends. During his 4 years in Miami, he was 2-2 in the finals, but there were a lot of struggles. When the Bulls were healthy, they gave Miami a lot of trouble, and dominated them, especially with their bigs. After Wade, Bosh, and LeBron, they didn’t have the kind of depth the Bulls and Lakers had. The lack of depth is what did Miami in in the 2011 Finals vs. Dallas. When LeBron returned to Cleveland, their lack of depth was compounded by injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in their loss in 2015.
This is ultimately why I believe the Warriors will prevail over LA in this matchup, and why despite the Warriors up and down season and their horrible road record, they still have a very good chance at hoisting their 5th trophy since 2015. Not only do the Warriors have Looney doing the dirty work on the boards, but in addition to Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, they have Andrew Wiggins, who was a former #1 overall draft pick that LeBron had traded away when he returned to Cleveland for Love. During the 2.5 years Klay was injured, Jordan Poole emerged as the 3rd Splash Brother. Gary Payton II was a major part of their championship run last year, and bringing him back at the trade deadline this year saved the season for Golden State.
At the end of the day, a superstar can win the championship, as evidenced by LeBron’s 4 rings, but to have a dynasty, you need an entire team. That’s why Jordan was 6-0, why Kobe was 5-2, and why Curry is 4-2.