The Lakers played an absolutely brilliant and magical game. The stat that says it all is that the Lakers team made all 24 of their free throws.
That speaks volumes about the kind of focus and intensity that they brought to executing on both sides of ball. No player missed even one free throw all night.
In the post-game, reflecting back on the series, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl proffered that at the start of the series and through the first few games, he “saw the cracks in the Lakers,” but by the end, the Lakers had sealed up those cracks and become a better team.
Next up is the the Orlando Magic for the NBA Championship. Orlando has a great team, a monster defender in Dwight Howard, exceptional three point shooting and has beaten the Lakers both times they faced them.
Nonetheless, I am expecting that the Lakers will raise another championship banner and beat the Magic.
Why? The team has a unity of purpose; namely, putting the sourness of a Series defeat to the Boston Celtics last year; a series that included a monumental collapse in Game 4 and a 39 point beat-down in Game 6.
For Phil Jackson, winning also means earning his 10th title, and putting Red Auerbach in the rear-view mirror once and for all (and as a Laker diehard, I am a fan of anything that puts the Celtics in the rear-view mirror).
SIDEBAR: Give Kobe his props, as he has played brilliantly, and now is unquestionably the quarterback of the team, which has added a sweet dimension to his game, and made the Lakers a much better team, almost “scary good” at times.
The bottom line is that whereas last year's Lakers were paper tigers, through repetition and good old-fashioned execution, this year's team is spun-steel, tiger meat, having gotten it done for a full season plus three playoff series.
In other words, they are at a special place, simultaneously battle-tested and battle-ready to win the Big Prize.
Case in point, last year they lacked mental toughness, and/or the ability to re-factor and rebound from serious body blows.
As a result, despite an incredibly enjoyable run to the title series (after they acquired Pau Gasol), they fell out of their game and got pummeled when confronted by a more physical, hungrier Celtics team.
Last year, they had a pretty smooth path to the Finals. This year, they had to face down some serious adversity to get where they are.
I hearken back to when Andrew Bynum went down for the second year in a row (both times playing against the Memphis Grizzlies) at the start of a major road swing.
How the do the Lakers respond? Well, in the next game Kobe scores 61 against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, which set the tone.
The trip culminated with the Lakers beating the Celtics and Cavaliers on consecutive nights to go undefeated for the road trip.
Moreover, this year, the Lakers were money when it came to winning games that were super close, coming down to who executed in the final 2-4 minutes.
That this is so speaks to a team-level commitment to lock-down defense at key points of the game, something that they absolutely lacked last year.
This year, they have what I affectionately call the Anaconda Squeeze, a point in the game, typically between the third and fourth quarters, when they absolutely squeeze the life out of the competition.
They do this by running off a debilitating run that breaks the spirit of the competition and puts the Lakers in a very hard to beat state (typical run: 21-7).
I have seen many a game completely turn this year where the Lakers basically overwhelm the competition, and the competition collapses from the pressure.
The Anaconda Squeeze is what the Lakers did to Denver multiple times in Game 6 (and when they took over and won Game 5). They learned something from the No Mercy sentiment that Boston cast their way in relentlessly stepping on the throats of the Lakers them in Game 6 of the Finals last year.
But here’s the irony. While getting through Houston and Denver were really hard, sometimes painfully so, karmically-speaking, it served a greater purpose.
As a result, all is well now in Laker-land, a sentiment best articulated in a wonderful write-up at Forum Blue and Gold:
The road to the finals favors the Lakers. Apollo Creed identified hand and foot quickness as Rocky’s weakness. So he had him chasing chickens. You have a problem guarding quick point guards and perimeter shooters; practice against Houston for 7 games. Tough athletic post players have pushed you around in the past? Practice against Denver for 6 games. Ali prepared for Foreman by sparring against Ernie Shavers, not a lightweight.
In contrast, none of the teams the Magic has played thus far has prepared them for the challenges that the Lakers bring. They had so many physical mismatches against the Cavs that it was like seeing Ali beat up on the light-heavyweight champion, Bob Foster.
But this practice was no preparation against Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw.
Simply put, it's deja vu all over again, and feels like everything old is new (again).
As such, my money’s on the Lakers.
All season long, when confronted with a supreme challenge, they have risen to the occasion.
I expect them to do the same once again, and to take home the trophy.