It had to end this way.
After 35 years, Thursday night will bring to a close the 35-year relationship between KCAL-9, the Lakers and legions of Laker fans. Three and a half glorious decades that grounded us all in at least one shared experience. Regardless of age, income or ethnicity, if you’re a sports fan that has resided amid the urban sprawl of Los Angeles at any point in the last three and a half decades, KCAL (or KHJ when I discovered it) has touched your life. For anyone whose introduction came at least 10 years ago, it’s where you met Chick.
Forever the voice of basketball in Los Angeles, Chick Hearn, the Lakers’ play-by-play man (this title, while accurate, seems insultingly simple) for 37 years until his passing in 2002, anchored the simulcast on channel 9 for the last quarter century of his legendary career. Initially flanked on the mic by Pat Riley, later Keith Erickson andfinally the great Stu Lantz, Chick invited us along on everyLaker road trip, never failing to mention the huge dinners Magic’s mother would prepare when the team visited Detroit or that despite growing up in the shadow of the Forum in Inglewood, every trip to Phoenix carried added meaning for Arizona State alum Byron Scott. Not once did he fail to thank producer Susan Stratton or statistician Jimmy Pells.
It’s where I was introduced to Chick’s most famous appliance and learned the game of basketball from as great a professor as one would dare hope for. My family moved to the United States when I was four years of age –the “Lakers on 9” are due as much credit as any teacher for my rapid grasp of the English language. And, in the seven years since my departure from Southern California, Chick’ssuccessors (though never replacements) Paul Sunderland, Joel Meyers and Bill MacDonald kept me in touch with hometown I’d left behind.
Win or lose, tonight is the last-ever Laker telecast on KCAL-9. It was a hell of a run.
Whew! A bit dusty in here, no? Let’s get to the game at hand.
Despite Kobe Bryant’s best efforts, a lackluster Game 5 effort from the Lakers Tuesday night in Los Angeles has this returned this series to Denver for a vital Game 6. Despite committing just 9 turnovers and holding a decided edge on the offensive glass (15, v. 8 for Denver) and from beyond the 3-point line (9-of-24, v. 3-of-19 for Denver), the Lakers simply lacked the energy and quality (just 38.9% from the field; 21-of-58, or 36.2% excluding Kobe Bryant) to slam the door on George Karl’s crew.
Tonight the Lakers will take the floor before one of the NBA’s best home crowds –one sure to be frothing at the thought of sending them home for a do-or-die Game 7 in what could be their Nuggets’ final home game of the season. Now more than ever, it is critical that the Lakers – especially, but by no means only, Andrew Bynum – maximize their effort from the opening tip, as they will likely have to weather an early Nuggets barrage. Once the opening onslaught has passed and the teams are simply playing a basketball game, it will be vital for the Lakers to dictate the tempo. On the offensive end they must look to establish the league’s best post-up tandem early and often. As they have all season, Bynum (whose 16 and 11 deflects attention from a listless effort which resulted in his domination by JaVale McGee) and Pau Gasol (who had an awful 9 points on 4-of-11 shooting, with 10 rebounds) represent this team’s greatest mismatch and must be utilized as so. The Nuggets have used a sagging defense to neutralize them too often, but that must change tonight.
Especially with Kobe Bryant under the weather. Yes, Kobe will have the opportunity to put forth his own “flu game” – though of the stomach variety – and while we’d all appreciate an addition to the legend of Kobe Bryant, this may be a game where it’s his teammates that must lift him up rather than he putting them on his back. On offense, must feed the post. Sessions MUST raise his game & facilitate & Drew/Pau must get in the paint, fight for position and attack aggressively.
We say this all the time, but is particularly vital tonight, as it will allow Kobe to pace himself and have something in the tank down the stretch. On a side note, executed properly, this could result in the Lakers not even needing Kobe down the stretch, as the potential for dominance and Nugs’ foul trouble could lay the foundation for a comfortable win. This is the hope, but of course far from assured. But, the point remains, Kobe will not be 100% physically but his mates will be. The Lakers big men can carry them to a win should they do the work that’s needed of them. Ramon Sessions can add to this equation by attacking more off the bounce and forcing himself into the creases of the D. The Nuggets will be there to challenge him – especially JaVale McGee – but those forays into the teeth of the defense will only help to create opportunities for the Lakers bigs to mimic what their counterparts have done so well this series; to be garbage men that clean up and impact the game on the way.
The environment will be hostile. An insane crowd will only serve to energize the home team and inspire them (as if they needed any more in an elimination game) to bring their best effort. But the Lakers cannot wilt in the face of this. They must put a body on JaVale and Faried. They CANNOT allow Andre Miller to dominate/dictate tempo. They must match effort and energy with their own while also bringing precision and discipline. Game 5 is the exact opposite of what the Lakers need. Instead, they should look to the last time they were in this building; they must look to game 4 where they won by playing smart, (mostly) focused basketball. The blueprint is there for them to follow, they just have to do it.
The Lakers will play on Saturday. They’ll either do so at Staples Center in a game 7 where anything can happen or do so in Oklahoma City for game 1 of the second round. I don’t know about you, but the latter sounds much better to me.
- Emile Avanessian (with some help from Darius)