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The Team Time Trial of Basketball

I don't really know much about cycling, but I read every article I can get my hands on about the Tour de France.

The timing has always been right. My whole life I have been scouring the sports section for NBA news day in and day out. At some point in early July, most sports sections begin to operate with an editorial ethic you might characterize as "what NBA?"

Right about then, the Tour de France starts. So after triple-checking there are no NBA stories I missed somewhere, I read all those cycling articles. It's fascinating and so different from basketball. Basketball is about as dynamic as sports get -- ten people moving in really complex ways. Cycling is more or less one guy trying to ride a bike faster than some other guys.

Basketball is about symphonies of different movements: handling and curling and passing and leaping and landing. Cycling is more about lung capacity and sheer capacity for suffering. (It's a funny sport where the best in the world, performing at their absolute peak, look like they kind of want to die.)

This year's Finals, however, highlighted a similarity: In both sports, the fifth best member of your team can decide who wins the championship.

Team time trialThe sexiest part of bike racing is the team time trial. This is when nine teammates using all of their fanciest wind-resistant gear team up to fly as past as possible in a race against the clock. They work systematically, taking turns at the front of the line doing the hard work of confronting the wind resistance. Thanks to this teamwork, the pace is dramatically faster than when riders time trial solo.

But here's the deal: For all those guys who are working so hard, in the typical scoring system, they all get the same time, and that's the time of the fifth guy.

Heaven forbid you're on a team with four really strong riders. If they finish three minutes ahead of that fifth guy, it doesn't do anyone any good. You all get the time of that fifth guy. Which is why everyone has to be concerned with how well that guy does.

If two teammates crash, you keep going. If five teammates crash, you stop. The team's going nowhere with four.

Now, consider the NBA Finals. The Magic and Lakers were two of the NBA's best defensive teams all year. Neither plays 48 minutes of straight up man defense -- there is plenty of helping, trapping, doubling and keeping the ball away from option A.

There is a lot of rotating and switching, but by and large what all that means is that the help is coming from the weakest scorer on the floor. The fifth guy gets left all alone, for spells.

And the offense gets to make a decision: Have the main man like Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant fight to score against a double team, or entrust your NBA Finals experience to someone like Trevor Ariza or Courtney Lee for an open 3.

I mean think about it. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant who can score from anywhere. Pau Gasol who is efficient as all get out. One of the league's great young post scorers in Andrew Bynum. Derek Fisher who has hit legendary shots. Yet 24 times over five games, based on what the defense was giving them, they decided their best offensive option was Trevor Ariza.

(Twice already I have written about how Trevor Ariza's shooting in these playoffs. It's like an obsession. I'm so impressed that player and coaching staff united to add a powerful new element to his game, it so blatantly paid off. Again, before this year, he had hit nine NBA 3-pointers in his life.)

On offense Ariza was, in many ways, the fifth guy on this bike squad, and he turned in a great time, which lifted the whole team.

Generously lumping in the regular season, I can say the Magic and Lakers played seven times this year. At the end of 48 minutes, the Lakers were ahead twice. The Magic were ahead three times. And the two teams were tied twice. Although the calm, determined, and veteran Lakers were far better in overtimes, these were two pretty evenly matched teams.

In games that close, you can point to just about anything that happened and say it cost a game or potentially the series. A missed layup, a blown defensive assignment, a silly turnover ... every single one of them could have potentially meant everything.

Let me add a new idea to the mix: The fifth offensive players had a huge hand in deciding it. The first players matter most, but the easiest opportunity to really change the game comes to that guy who is all alone, catching the ball, shooting the shot that has become pretty much the most important in basketball (other than a free throw, layup, or dunk, it's the most efficient in the game): The 3-pointer.

Ariza hit at a rate that was impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. Phil Jackson, meanwhile, gambled that the rookie Courtney Lee would tighten up in his first Finals, and Lee -- a 40% 3-point shooter all season -- obliged by making just two of his eleven shots. Ariza made ten of 24, and the Lakers won.

Teams are set up different ways. Some have abysmal offensive players (Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao, for instance, not to pick on Cleveland) who can be left to double superstars. Other teams keep at least four shooters on the floor at all times. But on almost every team, there are one or two 3-point shooters who are good enough to have the green light, but shaky enough to be left open.

When I look at a roster now, there's something new to look for. Just as you might scan a time trial team for five fast cyclists, I'll scan an NBA roster for not one or two, but three, four, or five really good 3-point shooters. If everyone does their jobs (the stars star, the bigs are big, and the defenders defend), that last shooter is first in line to decide everything.

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)