• Who gets the last word? Boston and Los Angeles have been at it since the 1960s while winning 32 of the league's 63 championships, including a split of the two most recent titles. The back-and-forth rivalry spun on last week through 47 minutes and 50 seconds of intensive play, forcing their most recent meeting to be decided by the NBA's version of penalty kicks as taken by Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen.
First up was Bryant. With his Lakers trailing 89-88, he drove left into the key top, providing him with a view of the entire court that made doubling him too risky. Not that Allen appeared to need the help: He was aggressively mirroring Bryant, who was playing despite a sprained ankle that reduced his lift and long-lasting injuries to two fingers that affected his shooting. Nevertheless, he squirmed and spun and writhed up a flattened fallaway swish that Allen turned to watch like a pitcher glaring at a home run.
So now it was Allen's turn. During the Celtics' timeout with 7.3 seconds to go, he readied himself for the likelihood of a cross-court pass from Paul Pierce. Nothing in Allen's expression or manner revealed his intention to make what could have been the biggest shot of the Celtics' season.
"You've got 10 seconds, this is it, so you definitely are locked in and everybody knows exactly the play you've got to make," said Allen, discussing this very scenario with me six days earlier in the Celtics' locker room. "It would be funny if you could take the five guys [coming out of the huddle], somewhat like the World Series of Poker, and you put the heart rate on them. And you would be able to say, 'He's getting the shot because his heart rate is a little elevated.' Or, 'His [heart] is so calm that he's getting the shot.' "
Allen has learned to read the poker faces coming out of those huddles. "It's like when we're in practice early in the season and we're playing the second unit, and it's a one-possession game and Doc [Rivers, the Celtics' coach] draws a play," said Allen, 34. "I'll look at everybody's face, and I always know when it's [Brian] Scalabrine who's going to get the shot. I'll say, 'Scal's getting the ball, everybody watch what Scal does!' Because Scal just kind of gets real stiff, and he looks straight down like he's trying to remember the play so he can get to his spot and be ready to shoot the ball."
I asked Allen how a monitor might rate his heartbeat coming out of the huddle for the final shot of a tight game.
"I think mine would be slower, sure," Allen said.
He appeared to be relaxed Sunday when Pierce drew in the defense and leapt to swing the ball to Allen at the left elbow of the three-point line near the Lakers' bench. Afterward, the 6-foot-5 Allen felt as if he might have rushed up the shot slightly, to compensate for the close-out defense of 6-foot-9 Lamar Odom. The ball skipped off the back iron like an 18th-green putt struck slightly too hard through the break.
"I've missed plenty of [win-or-lose] shots," Allen said six days earlier. "People leave you alone when you miss a shot, or [they say], 'You'll get it next time.' But when you make a shot, they talk about it for two days like it's the greatest thing."
So it was. Bryant's shot clinched a winning road trip for the Lakers, who lost earlier at Cleveland (they finished 5-3 after a loss at Memphis one day after the Boston game). Meanwhile, Allen's Celtics faced renewed speculation that they were too old to contend and that he may soon be traded. The outcomes of one shot for each team had made all of the difference.
• One thing in common. All of the best big-time shooters share the looks of Bryant and Allen as they waited for the ball last Sunday. They appear to be entirely at peace.
"I walk out there thinking they know I'm going to shoot it, I know I'm going to shoot it," said All-Star guard Brandon Roy, the Trail Blazers' last-second game-changer. "And for a basketball player, that's like the best feeling. For a competitor, you're saying, 'This is great.' "
Instead of tightening under the pressure, Mavericks guard Jason Terry focuses on the moment. "Those are the ones that are pure concentration," he said, looking back on the 10 winners he estimates making over his 11-year career ("and if you go back to college, you can add another six," he added). Terry has come to realize that his form is never more pure than when the game is on the line. "I have pictures of three game-winners and they're all in the same spot on the court with two different teams -- one with Atlanta and two of the same shots with Dallas. Same form, same follow-through. It's truly amazing. I couldn't believe it when I saw it.
"I've got one picture in my basement in Atlanta, and I have two in Dallas. They're blown up big, and they actually say 'Game Winner' on the bottom of them. Pretty cool, pretty cool."
He can't say he was relaxed before making those shots. "More than anything, you're really locked in," he said. "It's almost like being in the zone, and especially if you know the play is coming to you. You already went through it time and time again in your head during that timeout, that 'Hey, I'm going to do whatever I've got to do to get this ball in the hole.' "
• Preparation. "Coach Keith Smart taught me to go through a little routine anytime I'm getting ready to take a big shot or coming out of a timeout and it's a last-second shot," said Clippers guard Baron Davis, who famously led the No. 8 Warriors to their first-round upset of the top-seeded Mavericks three years ago. "And so I use it and it works."
Smart, of course, made the 16-foot jumper with five seconds remaining to win the 1987 NCAA championship for Bob Knight at Indiana. He would meet Davis as his assistant coach at Golden State, but Davis is too cutthroat to share the wisdom.
"I can't tell you, man," he said. "It just helps me relax. It's just a little mental thing that I do as I'm coming out on the floor. I do it especially if I know I'm about to get the last shot. It totally relaxes me and puts me in the mode."
But then, Davis is always preparing himself for the biggest moments. "All the time," he said. "You're always shooting against the clock when you're working out or playing on your own. Even as a kid you practice those last-second shots and you try to put yourself in that moment. That's the fun part of the game: You make it, you're the hero; you miss it, oh well."
A lot of drudgery and hard work goes into making those shots.
"That's the way that I train myself," Allen said. "I was on the treadmill this morning running -- you do everything you can do to condition your heart to beat in times where the atmosphere takes a jump to another level, where the energy juices up everything, and now you're sitting there thinking" -- he exhales -- "I'm rising with this energy. But then you're able to calm yourself, and you're not allowing your emotions to take you out. So you still can think."
While Celtics fans may be agonizing over the pressure, Allen is focusing on what he has done so many times before. This opportunity to win the game with one shot is something he has earned -- or so he reminds himself.
"The last-second shots, they're one of those things, when you go to do it, you don't think about it," he said. "Because this is what you've done forever. It just so happens this is the last three or four minutes when everybody else is thinking, Boy, we've got to do this for the game. But I'm just thinking, Get the ball right here, and I'll get to my spot and let it fly.
"Have you ever seen those panoramic views of a stadium, where you look down and everything's channeled on the court and you see all these people surrounding the court? Everybody's focused right in and that one guy is shooting a free throw, and everybody is thinking, Man, how do you make that shot while everybody is watching you? Because all these eyes are around you watching, and then there's everybody watching on TV. But for us, it's just one man, one basket, one ball, and you're just there looking at the rim. You never think about the gravity of the situation."
Or if you do, you'll probably never make the shot.
• A lifelong skill. Hard work isn't everything. "You definitely have to be born with it," Terry saod of the ability to stay calm and focused under pressure. "It's a certain skill set, a gift."
Roy knew he had that gift by his senior year at Washington.
"We were playing Arizona and we drew up a play, and the play wasn't for me," he said. "We were down three and the play was for our three-point shooter. But I'm bringing the ball up and I was the senior -- there's no way I'm going to give this ball up to a sophomore to shoot the three. If we were going to lose, I didn't want that pressure on him. So I came up and good thing he was somewhat denied, and so, OK, now I'm going to take the shot. And it hit all net. And I could tell it was kind of a relief for him. But for me it was like, I've always felt like I'll handle that pressure, I can deal with not making that shot. I don't want that on any of my teammates, so I take pride in having the ball late in games."
Could he do the same things in the NBA? Roy found out during his second season in the closing seconds of regulation at Sacramento on a play designed for Zach Randolph.
"Zach popped and they denied him, so I popped and I think Juan Dixon or Jarrett Jack hit me -- and Zach couldn't get open so I went," Roy said. It was a 15-foot fallaway over John Salmons at the buzzer to force overtime in an eventual Portland win. "Ever since then, coach was like, 'I've got two guys -- I can go to Zach, I can go to Brandon.' I thought it made our team better. Even Zach started to have confidence in me. I felt like, 'Hey, I want this responsibility.' "
Those other plays appear mundane compared to the 30-footer Roy made at the buzzer early last season for a 101-99 win over the visiting Rockets. At 1.9 seconds, he'd hit a 21-foot turnaround for 98-96 lead, but then Roy fouled Yao Ming for a three-point play to give Houston the 99-98 advantage with 0.8 seconds to go. Yao's defense of the inbounds pass forced Roy out farther from the basket than he'd planned, and as a pair of defenders ran out at him, he hoisted up a high-arcing rainbow.
"That's how I wanted to shoot it -- when I'm in a gym by myself, that's how I shoot it, I feel like it has a better chance," he said. "When I caught that ball and I faded and I let go, I got off a clean look. When I saw just net, it didn't hit the rim. That's when I was shocked. I was like, 'Man, that didn't even rattle, that hit bottom.' That was crazy. That was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
"I can't say I knew I was go to make that shot, but I just wanted a chance to make up for what I did. All I was thinking about was, Man, I can't have these people go home and I blew the game."
• Right place at the right time. It's not as though they aren't trying their best earlier in the game. "Throughout the game you take shots, but I don't take them with that much confidence that I'm going to make it every time," Roy said. "But in the end, I'm only thinking make it. It doesn't even cross my mind that I'm going to miss it."
Playing for the Lakers has raised the standards for Derek Fisher, who has responded by becoming one of the most spectacular clutch shooters of his generation. He has rescued several playoff wins, including a crucial victory in Game 4 of the NBA Finals last June. "When you play for the Lakers, you know what the job is," he said. "With Jerry West and Magic [Johnson] and JamesWorthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you start to understand your place in what all of this represents."
That's why Fisher looks up to Bryant for living up to that standard month after month for 14 years. He and Bryant approach winner-take-all shots in the same way, said Fisher, "in terms of the willingness or the desire or the confidence to make the shot. But I think the context is different. Because I know that his place in the game of basketball -- and his legacy and what he represents -- is different than mine. So each time he makes one of those plays, it's on a different scale when Kobe Bryant does it versus Derek Fisher or Sasha [Vujacic, their teammate] or even a Pau Gasol. It's just different. I don't know how many guys like Kobe that you can count in the history of our game, but they're just different guys. When Kobe does something, he has expectation that he can do it. He's supposed to do it. He has to do it. There's just a lot of stuff going on, and he, amazingly, can do it at a high rate, even with all of that stuff."
The shot in Boston was Bryant's fourth game-winner in two months. One of them was admittedly luck, an off-balance three-pointer in December that banked off the glass to turn a loss against Miami into a win. But the other three shots were the result of nothing more magical than practice, as he told a group of reporters last month after beating Sacramento with a corner three the night before. "The one last night, I've worked on that thousands of times, that's three-point catch-and-shoot," he said. "It's just a practice shot."
There was a little more to it than that. Bryant had been squeezed tight against the sideline, and Kings coach Paul Westphal, standing behind him, was looking down at Bryant's heels to make sure he stayed inbounds. "I'm sure he was because I could feel it, I was real close," Bryant said. "I had to make sure I kept those heels up. When I didn't hear the whistle, I just had to focus on knocking down the shot."
Bryant had never forgotten watching Sean Elliott tip-toe along the sideline before his last-second three in the playoffs 11 years ago.
"Then you're like, 'OK, that is a good way to get around that,' " he said. "That's what came into mind, being in the league 14 years. Better to be safe than sorry, so shoot it on my tippy-toes."
Such are the lessons that come with age.
On to the rest of the Countdown ...
• I concede to you that Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player and one of the Lakers' greats, but I have tired of how many points a player scores in a game or a season. Many of Kobe's points came at the expense of his teammates standing and waiting for him to do something or because he doesn't want them to do something. While that has changed, the vibe I have gotten from watching the NBA in the past two decades is about scoring as many points as possible, no matter if the team wins or loses. So why should the public care?-- Jeremy, Las Vegas
If Bryant were scoring for a losing team, then I would agree with you, Jeremy. But his scoring has positioned L.A. to win four titles with No. 5 possibly on the way. His seizure of the Lakers' scoring record is worth noting because he ranks ahead of a lot of great players who won a lot of games -- and championships -- for that franchise.
• While Kobe Bryant's an exceptional scorer and a player with great heart, I wouldn't put him as the greatest Laker. Kareem and Magic should come first, and Shaq was there for such a brief time he doesn't really count. With all the accolades though, you have to remember that Kobe's team struggled before getting Pau Gasol gift-wrapped to him. Michael Jordan took a 47-35 team with the Bulls after his comeback and won 72 games, Magic would always elevate his teammates' games -- I don't see that happening with Kobe. You give him average role players, his team wins 40 games tops. He's proven that in his career, he is a winner if the conditions are right. If they are not, he's just another superstar. I always wonder why nobody points that out. Is it the fact that the NBA is losing interest around the world and in the ratings so there is a need to over-hype today's players?-- Sam M., Helsinki, Finland
To make it clear, I didn't say he was the greatest Laker, Sam; I only raised the question.
Nobody in the NBA goes far with middling teammates. When LeBron James led Cleveland to the NBA Finals three years ago, that was as strong an example as you'll see of a star doing a lot with a little.
I'll also point out that the Bulls won 102 regular-season games during the two years of Jordan's initial "retirement," including 55 victories during his first full year away from the team; so it's not like he didn't have talent around him.
• The Bulls are playing good ball, but realistically, they are not going to be a playoff contender or challenger this year. Would it not make sense to trade Kirk Hinrich for some expiring contracts, such as to the Lakers for Jordan Farmar, Adam Morrison and Josh Powell, who all can fill Chicago's holes while the Lakers get a big guard who can play the point?-- Robert R., Santa Barbara, Calif.
That would make sense for the Lakers, definitely. While that potential trade wouldn't help Chicago much on the court, it would provide the Bulls with more cap space to apply to free agents this summer as they seek a lineup that exploits the strengths of Derrick Rose.
The two teams that appear to be in the market for Hinrich as an expensive third guard are the Lakers and Celtics, both of whom need a backup point guard. There doesn't appear to be a large market for Hinrich as he's a luxury item at $17 million over the two full seasons ahead. And I'm not buying rumors of Ray Allen going to Chicago for a Hinrich package. When they discussed a potential deal in December, the Celtics were planning to give up Glen Davis and expiring money.
• Do you think there is any chance that the NBA will adopt Jerry West's idea of contracting? I believe the NBA is a star league, and if you don't have a star, then your team is really at a disadvantage. By contracting the league to about 20-24 teams, the league could have better overall teams. How great were the days of the Lakers vs. Celtics before expansion? Bird, Magic, Kareem, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and guys like Byron Scott and Michael Cooper coming off the bench -- now you have LeBron James and bunch of role players (and an old Shaq) as the best team in the league.-- Chris, Cherry Hill, N.J.
If the league contracts as you suggest, Chris, that means six to 10 owners spent hundreds of millions to buy teams and ultimately realize nothing on their investment. That is not a precedent the league is likely to pursue. The alternative would be to have their fellow owners buy them out, but that isn't realistic either. The owners are having enough trouble preventing themselves from overpaying their own players and operating their own teams at a profit, so I don't see them spending billions to buy each other out as well.
• A hard cap may not be the answer. While four executives predicted last week that the NBA will install a hard cap on salaries in 2011-12, the truth is that no one can be sure what the negotiations between owners and players will bring. As much as many owners may wish for a hard cap with no allowance for a luxury tax or other vehicles that provide extra money to players, a hard cap will include aspects they won't like.
For one thing, it will be harder than ever to make a trade if every team's payroll is bumping up against the impenetrable ceiling of a hard cap. In many cases, players would be dealt for each other only if their salaries matched up exactly. "You don't see many player-for-player trades in the NFL," one GM said.
The executive went on to advise his peers to be careful about wishing for a hard-cap system similar to the NFL's; Football's system is almost impossible to follow because the ceiling is circumvented by bonuses and all kinds of hidden money.
There is truth in that point of view. I think I have a decent understanding of sports economics after following the NBA for so many years, but even I can't figure out the metrics of the NFL's system.
I spoke Thursday with a GM who predicts the owners will compel the players to accept 50 percent or less of overall revenues. (The players are supposed to receive 57 percent under the current deal, but they're actually taking in more than 60 percent thanks to all the salaries paid by clubs above the luxury-tax threshold.) From there, he said, the league needs to slash the mid-level exception down to $3 million or less annually, limit annual raises to cost-of-living increases, trim back rookie contracts and make a few other small changes. "Once those things are done,'' he said, "everything will be fine.''
• Outside-the-box ideas. But then other executives are convinced that the current system needs an overhaul, which is an example of why the negotiations among the owners will be just as interesting as the talks with the players.
One idea I've heard is utterly simple: Give the players all of the ticket revenues (not including suites), which I'm told accounts for almost 50 percent of league revenues. Those revenues will be split equally among the 30 team payrolls, and then (you may remember me mentioning this part last week) the players will sign contracts entitling them to a negotiated percentage of that revenue. When the ticket revenues go up, the players' salaries go up; when the revenues go down, so too will salaries.
I promise you that players will grow more conscious of helping to sell tickets, which would be a good thing for the league. But the players will be loathe to give up their current salary structure, which is guaranteed regardless of revenues. I can also see how they would question whether franchises were working hard enough to sell tickets, and whether the ticket prices were being kept low artificially now that owners weren't taking home those profits.
• Follow the Lakers. As for those teams that are worried about having exorbitant payrolls when the new CBA takes hold after next season, here is the best advice I can offer: Study the Lakers. If the Lakers aren't scaling back for the next era, then why should anyone else be worried about adapting to the new system? It's not like David Stern is going to force the Lakers to deconstruct the league's most popular team. The next CBA is supposed to rescue the NBA, not destroy it.
These contenders are approaching the Feb. 18 deadline from a relative position of strength.
• Cleveland Cavaliers. No team is more likely to take on a big salary at the deadline, thanks in no small part to LeBron holding a gun to their head. They must do everything they can to retain him this summer, which means they -- and maybe they alone -- will be sifting through potential offers from Philadelphia (for Andre Iguodala), Sacramento (for Kevin Martin), Indiana (for Troy Murphy), Phoenix (for Amar'e Stoudemire) and Washington (for AntawnJamison).
The one trade that many rivals don't want to see the Cavs making is for Jamison, who would improve their frontcourt balance while further stabilizing their locker room.
• Dallas Mavericks. Owner Mark Cuban may be waiting for this summer, when he can make a sign-and-trade run at one or more free agents -- ChrisBosh, Joe Johnson, you name it. But he is expected to be more than willing to take on salary in order to mount a challenge against the Lakers. Center ErickDampier (currently making $12.1 million) is unlikely to play enough minutes this year to pick up his option for next season, making him a highly valuable piece to provide Philadelphia or Sacramento with cap relief. Josh Howard ($10.9 million this season) is on a team option for next season, which means a new employer could trade for him, try him out for the final two months and then decide whether to cash out this summer or in 2011.
The Rockets are also offering Tracy McGrady's expiring deal, but it remains to be seen whether they'll be as willing to take on a large salary commitment.
• Social networking will influence the free-agent market this summer. So promises a league insider with an extended background in college basketball.
"In the old days, teams used to control players," he said. "Now the teams have lost that control, to the point that the NBA had to put in rules that players are not allowed to use Twitter at halftime. The thing with these players, their lifestyles revolve around technology. They want instant information.
"You're now dealing with kids who think that anything you do or say is public. To them it is public, because they all communicate with each other."
This week, the Celtics dealt with a half-day of speculation that Pierce was out for the year after teammate Shelden Williams posted a Twitter message that suggested bad news was on the way. As a result, the Celtics rushed out a news release late at night diagnosing Pierce as day-to-day with a sprained foot. "They don't think about the rules or privacy when they use Twitter," the league insider said. "The Celtics don't want the opposition to know if Pierce is injured, but Williams didn't think about what he was doing to the Celtics; he just did it.
"Twitter has become a broadcasting network for athletes. Around July 1, there is going to be so much tweeting among the free agents, and all of these guys will be communicating with each other, and if you don't think they're going to be telling each other about the offers they're getting, then you're crazy. It's going to be the summer of instant information, and it's going to change the whole market, because everybody will know what kind of money is out there and what each team is trying to do.
"If I were a GM, I'd hire two or three kids from college and have them scour the Internet every day to find out what's being said by who. If you want to know what's going on, that's how you can find out."