Stan Van Gundy is usually both colorful and purposeful when giving his post-game remarks. He often takes too much of the blame for any of his team's losses, and gives away all of the credit to his players when his team wins. Considering the fragile egos of most NBA players, it's not a bad way for a coach to go.
But after the Lakers beat the Magic on Thursday to take a commanding three games to one series lead, something Van Gundy said just didn't seem right. Even though he was sticking with his usual rule of deflecting criticism from his players, when it came to the question of whether or not experience is an important factor in the Finals, his answer was a little hard to believe.
"That has nothing to do with any of it," Van Gundy said. "We've played enough basketball games. It's basketball. These guys have been in hundreds of games, thousands of them. Most of these guys have been in huge games. It's just too cliche to say it's all about Finals experience and that we're all of a sudden playing with 11-foot baskets and a smaller court. I just don't buy it."
The height of the rim and the size of the court are the same, but the ramifications of a loss are not. And that's why, when you look at the many ways that Orlando choked (it's a harsh word, but an accurate one), it's hard to believe that experience is meaningless.
The Magic had a three-point lead with 10.4 seconds remaining, and Dwight Howard was heading to the free throw line for two. If he makes just one of his attempts, it becomes a two possession game, and time, at that point, is not on the Lakers' side. Howard missed 'em both. Now, Superman isn't the greatest free throw shooter in the world, but certainly, with a few more years under his belt and many more trips to the foul line in those situations, it's hard to believe that he wouldn't hit at least one of those to seal the game.
Even after Howard's misses, the Lakers were still down three with little time left. They inbounded the ball and had to go the length of the floor to score, while precious seconds ticked off the clock. Van Gundy could have given the order to foul intentionally, sending the Lakers to the line for two free throws, and not allowing them to attempt a three-pointer to tie the game. But Van Gundy chose to play the Lakers straight up, and Derek Fisher pulled up for a long three-pointer to tie the game.
It's one thing not to intentionally foul, it's another entirely not to have your defenders overplaying the three-point line and forcing the Lakers to go inside. Inexcusable, really, and again, a more experienced coach (or player in Jameer Nelson, who was "guarding" Fisher) would have been prepared in that situation.
Derek Fisher was 0-for-5 from three-point land on the night, yet he had the confidence to shoot one to tie the game. And in overtime, Kobe Bryant had the confidence to kick it out to Fisher for another that all but put the game away for the Lakers. Afterwards, Kobe explained why he had no hesitation going to Fisher in that situation, despite the poor shooting he had displayed all night long.
"Because he's been there before,'' Bryant said. "He's been there and done that."
Experience matters. And the fact that the Magic don't have it at this point is the reason the Lakers are one game away from winning the title.