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Winning is a little different this year
by Jon Finkel / May 15, 2002

How the Lakers are winning while all of their major stars' numbers are down from the last playoff run is a summer question right up there with where are Lieutenant Dan's legs in Forrest Gump?'. Honestly, where did his legs go? He fell, swam and wheeled around without us seeing his legs. Gary Sinise has legs. How does Lieutenant Dan not? The answer, special effects... I think. I still don't know how he swam and we didn't see water displaced where his legs should be, but that's something entirely different, and yet somehow he reminds of the Lakers this year. The Lakers aren't so much as missing a leg, as they are missing a whole person. Let me explain.

Computer Graphics Imagery. CGI. CGI can seamlessly remove someone's legs and have that actor function as if his legs were never there. Seamless, meaning you don't even realize the effect is in place because the quality of the visual picture has not changed. So, would it be possible for CGI to remove an entire player from the Lakers' 2000-2001 roster without the quality of the team diminishing? I guess they can. This is special effects, remember. I'm not talking about a real player. I'm talking about an intangible player. A player whose stats don't exist. A phantom player composed entirely of statistics Lakers players put up last year in the playoffs and aren't putting up this year.

We'll give this phantom player number 3 and call him Spanky, since the Lakers don't have a number 3, they're gunning for they're third straight championship and I don't know if any team has someone who goes by the nickname Spanky in the entire League. It'd also be great to hear Chick make the call "Spanky yo-yo's the ball up the court, dishes to Foxy back to Spanky... score, Foxy to Spanky." Trust me. Now, let's talk about Spanky.

How important is Spanky to the Lakers? 14.8 ppg important. That's how many less points a game Shaq, Kobe, Fisher, Fox and Horry are averaging collectively compared to the playoffs last year. How much of that was long range shooting? Three point shots are crucial in the playoffs. They ice games, silence 'away' crowds, incite the 'home' crowds, end runs, start runs, stop momentum, keep momentum and basically play a major role in the game. So, could Spanky shoot from downtown? Yup. He shot 14% better from behind the arc than the big four shooters are doing this year.

How about Spanky's inside presence? In the playoffs, every possession counts and you've got to be strong on the glass. Number Three was strong on the glass. He pulled down an average of 6.4 boards a game during last year's playoff run. That's seven possessions, seven scoring opportunities, upwards of a 14 to 21 point swing (if the other team stole each board and scored a deuce or stuck a 3) in each game that the Lakers of last year afforded themselves and the Lakers of this year did not.

#3 in your programs - Spanky - 14.8 ppg - 6.4 rpg - .400 3P%. Those are significant numbers. You'd think that a defending championship team would miss a player like that night in and night out when everyone is gunning for their throne. You'd think Phil Jackson would be at the podium after a tough game 5 or game 7 loss explaining that it's tough to win without a player as valuable to your team as Spanky. But he's not. And it's not the presence of Samaki Walker or Devean George that's making up the difference. Those guys help, they do, but the Lakers aren't going to win a third championship because of them... or because of Spanky.

So how is this possible? Are the Lakers better without the phantom Number Three? Does he even matter? Do they miss his almost 15 points a game and 6 boards and sharp shooting? Do any individual numbers on a stat sheet matter? No. Not if you have Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on your roster. The numbers that count are in the Win and Loss columns. They swept the Blazers again and only dropped one game to a Spurs team headed by the League MVP. They are now poised to square off against a Sacramento team that many feel is much better than the one that got swept by Shaq and company a year ago. Will the absence of Spanky matter? Not likely. How about the absence of Tyronn Lue and Horace Grant from last year?

Other than the main five players we've mentioned before, Lue and Grant were the only other Lakers that logged major minutes in last year's playoffs. Grant averaged six points and six boards a game last year and played the fifth most minutes on the team. Tyronn Lue didn't play as often as it seemed and was mainly used on defense, which is the real reason the Lakers keep winning. Sure, it's great to have a veteran like Grant on your team, but Samaki Walker has pretty much made up his numbers and they haven't missed a beat. But back to defense.

Aside from the fact that nobody can stop Shaq or Kobe on offense and the other guys like Horry and Fisher and Fox have a knack for hitting huge shots, even game winning shots, it is the Lakers defense that has kept them at the top of the League and it has not waivered since last years run. Their defense is like Slimer in Ghostbusters. No matter what you throw at it, it won't go away and when it's done with you, you know you've been shut down - slimed. You lie there like Dr. Venkman, unable to move, wondering what just happened to your high powered offense.

None of the teams that faced the Lakers last year averaged their regular season per game stats against the Lakers in the playoffs. Portland averaged 5 points less against the Lakers, Sacramento, over 4 points less, San Antonio, 15 points less and Philly, 1 point less. It's the fourth quarter. They shut you down at the end of the game.

Look at what just happened to the Spurs. They had a chance to win each game they lost. They led last night for a large portion of the first half. Unfortunately for Tim Duncan, there are two halves, and the Lakers excel in the one that counts. They excel at everything that counts and that's what makes the Lakers... the Lakers.

They are winners. You can crunch the numbers... or I can crunch the numbers for you, which I have... and the only relevant statistic you'll find is that the Lakers win. Doesn't really matter how - great defense, great team chemistry, Shaq goes off, Kobe goes off, Fox steps up, the bench plays well - doesn't matter. Whatever they need to do to win, they do. All champions do.

Jon Finkel is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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