While past performance is no guarantee of future results, the Lakers head into Thursday evening’s Game 6 in New Orleans with a 3-2 lead and a chance to do something they’ve accomplished with remarkable success: close out a playoff opponent on the first try.
The Lakers have closed out 10 of their last 11 opponents on their first try, including winning all four elimination games last season. Three of the four 2010 playoff close outs occurred on the road, with L.A. winning at Oklahoma City in Game 6 (95-94) when up 3-2, at Utah (111-96) when up 3-0 and at Phoenix (111-103) when up 3-2. Then in the NBA Finals, L.A. beat Boston 83-79 in Game 7 when tied at three in the series.
They were nearly as good in the 2009 title run, closing out the Jazz, Nuggets and Magic on their first opportunity, while losing only to the Rockets in a potential close out Game 6, just the third time since 2001 they’d failed to do so, and the only time since Pau Gasol came over in 2008.
Since 2001, L.A. has closed out opponents on the first try 21 times in 24 opportunities, with a 2006 loss at Phoenix and 2004 defeat at Minnesota serving as the other two L’s. And with Phil Jackson on the sideline, the Lakers have won 21-of-28 close out opportunities, and 32 of their last 33 series when having an opportunity to close at any point. The only time L.A. held a series lead and lost came against Phoenix in 2006, when 3-1 turned into 4-3. The last blown lead had come in 1993 (Phoenix).
Considering how difficult it is to win even one playoff series in the NBA, what Jackson and the Lakers have done is mind-boggling even to a coach with four championship rings of his own in San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
“The incredible nature of what (Jackson’s) done I don’t think has really sunken in on people,” he said before L.A.’s April 12 win over the Spurs. “To win three in a row as many times as he’s done … as I said the last time I was here, I’ve tried 90 times and can’t win a second time in a row. So for him to do that with two different teams is just beyond my comprehension, and that’s not blowing smoke.
“I don’t know Phil, we don’t go out and have beers, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve gotten to know him or anything. So I just see him from afar and see what he’s done, and it’s absolutely incredible to me. That kind of winning, that kind of pressure, that kind of persistence year after year after year to get those wins is remarkable. Whatever plaudits he receives once he does retire, whether it’s this year or next year or five years, they’re certainly deserved.”
The top-seeded Spurs, facing a 3-1 deficit to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, managed to survive in incredible fashion in an overtime victor on Wednesday to force Game 6, thanks in part to some great late-game execution of Popovich out-of-bounds plays.
And while San Antonio will continue their attempt at coming back, Jackson and the Lakers will try and close an opponent out at the first opportunity, something that’s become quite familiar in recent years.