So the eternal doubters of these Los Angeles Lakers should consider this: Even before they make it official against the Orlando Magic, either on Sunday at Amway Arena during Game 5 or next week inside Staples Center for a possible Game 6 or an unlikely Game 7, these Lakers are true champions. They have the stuff of their predecessors, ranging from Jerry West to Magic Johnson to Shaquille O'Neal.
It just took a while to show it.
Lakers 99, Magic 91: Recap | Box Score
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Lakers Lead 3-1 | Next: Sun. @ Orlando, 8 PM ET
There were those three other playoff rounds for these Lakers that featured spurts of lethargy against inferior foes, from Utah, Houston and Denver. Still, they survived back then, just as they did a botched Orlando layup at the end of Game 2 that led to an overtime victory instead of a defeat in regulation play. They clobbered the Magic in the opener, but they were victims of the most prolific shooting team in Finals history in Game 3.
Then came Thursday night at Amway Arena, where the Lakers' 99-91 victory in overtime for a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series made no sense.
Trevor Ariza was doing nothing.
"Yeah, it was a struggle for him tonight on defense and offense," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, nodding, while recalling how Ariza shot and missed all six of his shots during the first half. Not only that, with Ariza theoretically guarding him across the way, Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu went nuts (5-for-6 from the floor on the way to 15 points by intermission).
Just like that, Ariza did everything. With the Lakers needing energy and points after starting the second half trailing 49-37, he gave them both. He finished with 16 points. In fact, his three-pointer midway through the third quarter pulled the Lakers to within one of the Magic at 54-53, and a potential blowout became a squeaker.
"No, I don't put no pressure on myself," said Ariza, sounding like most true champions. "I just go out and play the game. That's when you start messing up when you put too much pressure on yourself. Just come into the game clear and just try to play hard."
Kobe Bryant was playing hard, but he also was doing nothing -- at least compared to his usually prolific self. For the second consecutive time against the Magic, The Best Closer In The Game was a mess in the fourth quarter. He tried to split a double team (again) and turned the ball over (again). He missed shots from long and medium range. He blew a couple in the lane. Worse, he was evolving into a one-man act (again) with his teammates serving as spectators with the rest of the assembled 17,461.
Just like that, Bryant did everything. Remember this name: Derek Fisher. I'll mention it several more times, because he is the essence of what I'm talking about here, and let's start with this: Near the end of regulation play, the Magic led 87-84, and the Lakers called timeout with 10.8 seconds left.
"I'm sure you know who the play was designed for," said Fisher, the Lakers' elder statesman as a massive grin slid across his 34-year-old face. "So the ball will always be in Kobe's hands down the stretch, unless the defense does something to take it away."
The Magic defense did just that, with a quick double team in the back court, but such a thing hadn't kept Bryant before from trying to do too much (see the entire game up to that point). This time, he took the inbounds pass and fired a perfect throw to Ariza, who delivered the ball across the way to Fisher.
You've guessed it. Fisher was doing nothing, especially from three-point territory, where he was 0-for-5.
Guess what the Lakers needed?
You know what they got.
"[It was] just recognizing why I was missing the ones that I missed in the first half and earlier in that second half and continuing to understand that I'm capable," said Fisher, who eventually nailed the three-pointer from Tampa.
He's been around for 13 NBA seasons, including nine with the Lakers. He was there for their three-peat to world championships into the summer of 2002. Added Fisher, "You know, I have a responsibility to my team that if I'm going to be on the floor, then I have to make a difference. None of us can continue at times to just expect that Kobe is going to save us."
Even so, Kobe contributed more than that pass at the close of regulation. He hit the Lakers' first couple of shots in overtime to keep the Lakers moving toward more drama from Fisher near the end. Inside the final minute, with the game tied at 91-91, Kobe battled through a double team, slugged Orlando's Jameer Nelson in the face with an elbow (accidentally, of course) and passed to Fisher.
Another three-pointer for Fisher, and it was over.
The game and the series.