Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure: Mbenga and Mindy

The Not So Final Word on How the NBA FInals Will Play Out

Part 1: The PreRamble
The boy's name, Didier, means "much-desired." It is of French origin, although he is not. The boy is from Zaire. In Africa. Or, he was from Zaire until Zaire became the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1997 after a Civil War was partially triggered by the ongoing genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Hutu and Tutsi groups within Zaire emulated their Rwandan brethren and various nearby parties -- from the tribal to the corporate -- used this internal strife to seek their personal profit in the natural resource rich country in the heart of the African continent.

A world away that very same month Phil Jackson was coaching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls past the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat were a surprise guest on Jackson's dance card after riding a despicable play by power forward P.J. Brown and a draconian ruling of the NBA, regarding a brief on-court fracas that had resulted from Brown tossing Knicks point guard Charlie Ward into the stands at the end of blowout Knicks victory, to a bid in the Conference Finals.

However, it would be years before Phil Jackson would encounter our young hero. It would be years before young Didier would, in fact, help Jackson battle a team featuring the very same P.J. Brown. After all, young Didier Ilunga Mbenga was only sixteen years old in 1997. His father worked for the government that was losing it's grip on the country that had been Zaire all his life. When the new regime assumed power those connected to the previous party were hunted down. At best they were imprisoned, for life. At worst, they were executed. Young Didier and his father were both imprisoned. It was a crime for this teenager to be his father's son.

Unable to save himself, Didier's father negotiated on behalf of his son, who like him was slated for the executioner. The teenager fled the country, boarding a plane to Belgium where he received asylum. Forced to start from scratch in a strange land, Didier found solace in a new game: basketball. Discovered by Belgian hoops hero Willy Steveniers while playing at the refugee center where he lived, the increasingly large Mbenga worked his way from a refugee camp to the Belgian professional leagues.

After five seasons playing pro ball in Belgium, Mbenga emigrated to the United States during the 2004-2005 season and was signed by the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Association. Although the timeline doesn't exactly sync up there are rumors (or at least there might be after this) on the Internets that his first year in the NBA was actually the source material for Eddie Murphy's 1988 film Coming to America. All in all, Mbenga's first season was less memorable than the film. He appeared in only 15 games for the Mavericks that season, tallying 15 points, 13 personal fouls and 8 rebounds. Still, he was brought back by the team the following season.

And that was when his biggest moment in a Mavericks uniform (even though he was actually in street clothes and deactivated for the game in question) occurred. Oddly it came off the court rather than on it. During Game 4 of the 2006 Western Conference Finals in Phoenix, Mbenga thought he saw Dallas Coach Avery Johnson's wife being disturbed by some fans. He, allegedly, went into the stands with Mavs owner Mark Cuban to help Mrs. Johnson out of the situation and into the Dallas locker room. Regardless of his intentions, the NBA's Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson suspended him for six games without pay. The full duration of those six games lasted longer than the sum total of the minutes (241) that Mbenga had played during the entire 2005-2006 regular season.

When asked about watching the Finals (where the Mavs advanced after dispatching the Suns in seven games) from home, Mbenga remarked, "Sometimes, I can't watch. When I start watching, especially when Diop or Erick have foul trouble, I get mad. I might shoot the TV."

Thanks to such demonstrated acts of loyalty (or perhaps in spite of them) Mbenga signed a three-year contract extension with Dallas during the offseason. Of course, he was then waived by the team midway through the 2006-2007 campaign so that they could sign Juwan Howard. Which was nice.

After a spending the early phases of the 2007-2008 season on the bench of the Golden State Warriors under the direction of his old coach in Dallas, Don Nelson, he was waived by that team too. And, most fortunate for everyone involved -- more fortunate than they yet even know -- D.J. Mbenga was signed to a 10-day contract by the Los Angeles Lakers on January 21, 2008. Later the next month, the Lakers signed Mbenga for the rest of the 2007-2008 season. He appeared in 26 games for Los Angeles, playing a total of 195 minutes in the famed purple and gold. He scored 64 points, blocked 16 shots and developed a small-but-fierce cult following as the team plowed through one of the toughest conference races in years en route to the NBA Finals. And it was there that Fate would have him make his stand.


Part 2: The Finals

Game 1:
The Lakers are the favorites to win the 2008 NBA Finals when the lead official lofts the ball into the air at halfcourt of the TD Bank-Something-Or-Other Center in Boston, Massachusetts. And, when Paul Pierce went down beneath his own basket early in the third quarter it seemed like that favored-status was secure, if not absolutely mandated by the basketball gods. However, Pierce made a (melo)dramatic comeback later in the period and led his team to victory. Obscured by the Pierce's performance was the overall physical and mental domination that the Celtics had throughout the game, even when they were trailing by five at the half. Kevin Garnett tied Kobe for the game-high in points (24) and bested everyone on the floor with his game-high level of intensity (the much-heralded but little-seen 110%). His intensity may be the most obvious thing to note about Garnett but there is a reason for that. The Celtics fed of his early aggressiveness (8 points in the first quarer) and played with a mean streak throughout the game. The Celtics dominated the glass, 46-33, and controlled the interior on both ends of the court. The frontcourt matchups were dominated by the men in green. Radmonovic was a non-factor, Gasol couldn’t match Garnett’s strength and Odom, who grabbed just six rebounds, was either too small against Perkins or Garnett or was too slow against Pierce. D.J. Mbenga didn’t see any time for the Lakers.

The Celtics were breathing fire while Kobe and co. were sputtering exhaust. It was this fire in their green and white bellies that allowed Boston to keep focused when Pierce went down midway through the third session. In fact, the Celtics actually took their first lead of the second half while Pierce was out of action. He left the game with his team trailing by four points. When he returned several minutes (real-time minutes) later he stepped onto the court just before Ray Allen sank the second of two free-throws to put the home team up by 2 points. Now, this shouldn’t take away from Pierce’s performance down the stretch — those back-to-back three pointers were HUGE. But the way that quarter played out practically and not just emotionally should show that the Celtics showed up with a greater physical and mental toughness than their opponents in Game 1.

Game 2
Buoyed by their Game 1 result and the presence of not-so-injured Paul Pierce in the starting lineup the Celtics again tried to come out the aggressors in Game 2. On the other side of the ball, however, the Lakers seemed a bit more fleet of foot and proud in spirit in the first quarter. Gasol looked at least interested in matching Garnett’s energy, scoring six first quarter points. And Kobe looked more assertive and more like an MVP rather than a Jamal Crawford-esque gunner.

Alas as the game wears on into the second and third quarters it becomes patently clear that the Lakers have no physical presence to speak of. Kobe certainly doesn’t bring such a presence to this team the way that Shaq's literally and metaphorically anchored the most recent Laker championship squads. Gasol is too slight and Odom only can use his size to his advantage when he can be matched up against another team’s small forward. And, while it’s true that Derek Fisher could be considered strong for his position it must be remembered that his “strength” stands 6-1 and weighs 185 pounds. Meanwhile, the Celtics have size and muscle to spare, bringing players like Leon Powe and P.J. Brown off the bench. Powe, in particular flexes his way through a scene-stealing cameo. His exuberance and will to get to the rim highlight the emotionless and toothless play of the Lakers jump-shooting attack and vacuous defense in the paint. This is a particular problem because with Kobe and Vujacic the Lakers can at least count on hitting some shots. There is no such hope for their defense to be gleaned from what has transpired so far.

The LA frontcourt almost always seems to be in a mismatch that works in the favor of the other team. Vladimir Radmanovic seems particularly ill-suited for this series thus far. Not only does he prevents Lamar Odom from playing the 3-spot, which, in turn, forces the Odom/Gasol combo to matchup on Perkins/Garnett, but his erratic, one-dimensional 3-point shooting game spoiled the team's best rally and landed them squarely in too-little, too-late territory.

The lack of strong interior play means that the Lakers are dependent on long-range shots. Or, to be more precise, they are dependent on Kobe hitting long-range shots will blanketed in pesky defenders. And, even though they hit enough in the waning moments to reduce a twenty point lead to two points with less than a minute to play they did not depart Boston's Logan International Airport with any sense of confidence. They are bruised and battered. They couldn't tell how they felt. And, they were unrecognizable to their fans.

Game 3
Returning to Los Angeles, the shine has come off of this Lakers team. The city knows that Game 3 is do-or-die. Which is not the way this was supposed to be. This series was supposed to be two-parts nostalgia trip to the 1980s, two-parts dramatic ratings boon for ABC and four-parts coronation of Kobe as the MVP-who-could. However, Kobe has gone from all-powerful MVP to erratic streak-shooter. Gasol has gone from manna-from-Memphis to a swift power-forward masquerading as a center, who taking a beating from Celtics and doesn’t seem to have the bulk to anchor the interior of the defense. Odom has been timid and altogether unable to maximize his unique combination of size and quickness. Not only are the Lakers down 2 games to nil but they’ve been getting bullied.

In the hours before tip-off Lakers coach and guru Phil Jackson wanders the bowels of the Staples Center with a dog-eared copy of his favorite book, Robert M. Pirisg’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tucked into the left front pocket of his corduroy blazer. He is at a loss. And his team has two of them because of it.

The corridor down which he has been walking turns sharply to the left and the ends abruptly. He can't remember having ever been down this way before, even though he has spent the better part of the last X years of his life in this very building. There is a doorway on left side and a doorway on his right side. He pauses, unsure which door to choose. Bright light leaks from the edges of the door to his right and the faint prattle of excited voices can be heard as well. Meanwhile the door to his left offers only silence.

Which Door Should Phil choose?

He reaches for the door to his left, choosing the dark unknown over, what he fears may be, the bright lights and incessant questions of the media. However, the door to his left is locked. He pivots on his right foot, starting to turn back towards the right door to see if it is unlocked.

And, that's when it dawns on him: Knock on the door. Phil is someone not accustomed to knocking. After all, a lot of doors open for you when you've got ten championship rings. He's not someone who often has to ask for help with anything, even if it's the simple act of opening a locked door from the inside. His first thought is to something the way he planned. If that doesn’t pan out then his second thought is to do something entirely different. But one look at the light from flashing flashbulbs pooling beneath the door across the hall gives him pause. Desperate times do call for desperate measures. Phil knocks on the door on the left side.

His knocks reverberates through this corridor somewhere beneath the parquet floor of the Staples Center. It is answered by silence. But soundlessly, without the clickety-clack of locks unlocking or without the knob visibly turning the door swings inward.

Phil walks through the doorway, having no choice now that he has chosen this left-door adventure. Inside the lights are dim but apparently sensor-activated. They brighten with each step he takes into the interior of the chamber. There are two men inside. One is impossibly large while the other is possibly large but decidedly smaller than his companion.

It is Lakers reserve center D.J. Mbenga and Lakers Assistant Coach Kurt Rambis. They're watching two televisions. One replays film from the Game 2 played just hours ago in Boston while the other shows Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.

...To Be Continued