They say the neon lights are bright on... Figueroa.
Okay, that's not exactly how The Drifters wrote their lyrics back in '63, but the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics had been well-established by then. Thus, I have to imagine if Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were told June 15, 2010 would feature a Game 6 elimination scenario between these squads, they'd deem it a moment worthy of spotlight. In particular, the Lakers will feel that glare, their backs against the wall and season on the line. By definition, any Laker on the court has a bulb shining in his direction, but some attract more wattage than others.
In my mind, here are five with notable expectations and stakes attached to their performances:
Ron-Ron told everyone last summer to blame it on him if the Lakers fail to repeat. Well, his team stands one loss away from elimination. Make no question, should it fail to be avoided, Artest will bear a large brunt of the finger pointing. Is him not being Trevor Ariza quite literally the reason the Lakers didn't remain champs? No, not with the defense he played on Kevin Durant during the playoffs. Not with his game-winning heroics in Game 5 against Phoenix (albeit to correct his own blunder) and 25 points in Game 6. Not with several strong contributions against Utah and even Boston. But people will nonetheless dwell on how Sunday's pivotal Game 5 featured Ron at his worst on both sides of the ball.Garrett Elwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Ron Artest needs to prevent Paul Pierce from going
off, but prevent himself from being an offensive
After keeping Paul Pierce at a dull roar for Games 1-4, The Truth notched 27 points while often isolated against Artest. Granted, some of Pierce's jumpers weren't exactly a cakewalk, but there were other possessions where Pierce flat out beat #37. Things grew bad enough Kobe Bryant actually volunteered for the assignment. Plus, there were slow reactions picking up other players, and a bad decision not to foul Rondo come hell or high water on a late-fourth quarter layup. For a guy who prides himself on lockdown, it was among Artest's least effective showings of the postseason.
In the meantime, the offense eluding Ron throughout the playoffs turned even more M.I.A. Two-of-nine from the field for just seven points, lowering an already-dismal field goal percentage down to 30.2. Even worse, he missed three free throws in the fourth quarter's final minutes, spreading some rancid icing on an already-nasty tasting cake.
Brian and I talked during our most recent podcast about the uncertainty facing Artest tonight. If the two-way struggles continue, would Phil opt for more minutes from Luke Walton in a bid for better ball movement and decent enough D on Pierce? Would he play Kobe more at the three? Or will PJ ride or die with the small forward who's gotten him this far? In any event, tonight presents Artest with possibly the biggest pressure-cooker situation of his career since the night he snapped in Detroit.
How he responds could emerge the defining moment of his first season in purple and gold.
Save Game 3, it's been a series of precious little impact from LO. During Games 1 and 2, foul trouble kept him off the floor. Game 4's stats were unimpressive (10/7 in nearly 40 minutes) and in the meantime, he got used by Glen Davis. Had Andrew Bynum been available, Phil Jackson acknowledged Odom might have spent much of the second half sitting. Game 5 was an eight point/eight rebound effort notched mostly in the fourth quarter, and while it was nice to see LO come alive during crunch time, a pulse during the other three frames would have been appreciated. Bynum's injury has increased the importance of Odom's contributions, making the ghost act all the more disappointing.Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
If Lamar Odom keeps on smiling, it better be because he had a great game.
Coupled with Odom's failure to show up has been a consistently casual nature about his non-performances. Heavy on "it's gonna be okay," light on "I'm #&%^ honked about the way I'm playing and it ends now." I've seen Odom play through too many injuries and take losses too personally to think the guy is indifferent towards a repeat. He cares. A lot. But with zero urgency displayed towards picking up his game, I wouldn't blame any Laker fan for interpreting this as a lack of engagement. The appearance feeds into the nonchalant reputation Odom's always carried, a vibe some worried increase with a new contract and new socialite wife.
It's ultimately more important for Odom to walk the walk than talk it, but without a strong bounce back, I guarantee fans will grumble about not bothering to do either.
Game 6. Team down 3-2. Continued ownership of a title lying in the balance. This is the time where veterans step up, where players with a propensity for big shots find the bottom of the net. It is a time tailor-made for Derek Fisher.
In theory, if nothing else.
Between Fisher's largely terrific postseason and his game-saving heroics down the Finals' Game 3 stretch, a massive shooting slump from downtown has gone completely overlooked. Fisher has missed all eight of his three-pointers attempted during the Finals and has actually bricked his last dozen in succession going back to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals*. On a semi-related note, Fisher's also a career 34.8 percent from the field in games where his team faces elimination. Of active players with a minimum of 70 attempts participating in this year's postseason, only Jerry Stackhouse (.337) and Jason Williams (.346) have shot worse.**
Neither trend feels particularly promising heading into this do-or-die moment.
Still, we're talking about a guy with a track record not just for coming up huge, but when you least expect it. Everyone remembers the dagger three's drained in Game 4 against the Magic last year, but forgets he missed all five previous tries. For that matter, he spent most of that postseason hearing fans beg for Jackson to bench him. Time and time again, Fisher's been the type of player who simply can't be counted out.
Judging by his career, it wouldn't be out of character for Fisher, as streaky a marksman as they come, to suddenly come out of his shell when his team needs a spark the most. Judging by specific history and current slumps, it would be. I guess we'll see what if anything has to give.
I don't want to be too tough on Pau's Game 5, considering his overall steadiness displayed during Games 1-4. As visibly livid as Kobe was at his team afterward, even he had the grounded perspective to recognize Pau doesn't have too many bad games. But man alive, did Gasol look rudderless. In particular, it was stunning to see him so indecisive on offense. Every time he caught the ball, it seemed like six or seven seconds would pass as he tentatively weighed options before inevitably giving the ball to Kobe. The shots he did launch were typically from the elbow, with few attempts to attack the basket or even back down a defender. It was a disconnected showing, and I don't count on seeing it again.
But should Gasol not come up big tonight, he's likely back at square one after two seasons cleaning a rep for wilting under pressure and/or physicality.Michael Dwyer/AP Photo
There isn't much time left for Jordan
Farmar to put a stamp on his postseason.
With averages of 3.4 points and one assist per contest, it's been an underwhelming Finals for Farmar. Then again, it's been a pretty underwhelming playoffs in general. Of any rotation mainstay, I would contend Farmar's made the smallest impression. He hasn't necessarily played the worst (although he ain't been great), but April-June have been low on signature moments of any kind.
In the meantime, the bench has remained erratic throughout the playoffs. This doesn't fall entirely in Jordan's lap, considering how little help he's getting from LO of late and Shannon Brown (who played less than a minute in Game 4). But the bench is often as good as the backup backcourt, and between Farmar, Brown and Sasha Vujacic (assuming he's actually in the mix), the Bruin has the most natural ability to run offense. Unfortunately, he's also the least naturally inclined to try on a regular basis. Too often, he's doing his own thing.
It's no secret Farmar thinks he's been held back as a Laker, and is capable of bigger and better. I've been predicting for two seasons his career here would end due to mutual disinterest after his contract runs out this summer. But if he's utilizing these playoffs as an audition for another team -- sure has felt that way at times -- I can't imagine he's grown into a hotter commodity. If anything, he looks like a guy who's regressed.
If he wants to regarded as starter caliber, he needs to prove that pedigree. Tonight's as good a time as any.
* - Peter Neumann, ESPN Stats and Information
** - Elias Sports Bureau Inc.