NBA

Welcome to the Conference Finals, Lamar

Lamar OdomKind of you to show up. You were missed. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure if you were going to make an appearance at all. You’ve given new meaning to the concept of being fashionably late. But after that stellar performance in Game Five in which you were instrumental in sending this dance back to Denver with the Lake Show holding a 3-2 lead, all can be forgiven.

For the time being, at least.

Ever since he was named Parade Magazine Player of the Year in 1997 while finishing his senior year of high school with stints at three separate institutions Odom has been known as a mercurial personality; never one to be pinned down, and never one to be counted on – but also never one to be underestimated.

Odom’s career has played out true to form since, from his one semi-dominant season at Rhode Island to his days as a highlight-reel regular with the Clippers, when he was the poster boy for untapped raw potential, to his brief stint on South Beach to his five seasons with the Lakers. Every year, every stop of the way, Lamar has shown the rare combination of athleticism, talent and work ethic to dominate.

You’ve just never known when that’s going to be, or for how long

Mr. Odom couldn’t have picked a better time to flash that otherworldy skill set and have his best performance of these stellar 2009 Conference Finals. Game Fives are always pivotal in the series with the winning team advancing 83 percent of the time. A loss at home would have put LA in an almost impossible hole. Odom ensured that didn’t happen.

In fact, it was his finest performance since the Game Five close-out of the Utah Jazz in the first round in which he dropped 26 points, 15 boards, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 triples. Since that strong showing way back on April 27th Lamar has been notably absent in the Lakers bizarrely compelling struggles. First it was their seven-game semifinals matchup against the Rockets in which he failed to reach double-digits in points in five of the games. Odom bottomed out with a 2-point performance in their crushing Game Four loss to Houston in which he made just 1 of his 4 field-goal attempts and grabbed only 6 boards in over 25 minutes on May 10th. It was, understandably, the last time he started despite Andrew Bynum’s obvious struggles.

Coming into Wednesday’s Game Five clash Odom had been nearly as bad in every game of the Conference Finals. He had never reached double-digit rebounds, only notched 10 points once and totaled just 4 blocks, 4 steals, 8 assists and 2 threes in four games while shooting 10-29 from the field (34%).

The Lakers are a finesse team that’s been out-hustled and out-muscled all week despite the series being tied 2-2. They were sorely missing a versatile and strong big man who could hit the glass, play D, handle the basketball and knock down open jumpers. They were desperately missing somebody like Lamar Odom.

Fortunately for his teammates and Lakers fans he finally decided to answer the call in all respects, dropping a final line of 19 points, 14 boards, 4 blocks, 1 three and 3 assists on 7-15 shooting from the field with just 1 TO. It was all good for a game-high +18 in the +/- column, which sounds about right considering his impact in the second half and the deciding stretch of the final period.

Despite his struggles and inexplicable-yet-predictable disappearing act, in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, there was Odom leading the Lakers to victory. Knocking down jumpers. Playing tough interior defense and chasing men to the perimeter. Coming from the help side to swat shots. Attacking the basket, putting pressure on the Nuggets defense and either finishing strong or earning trips to the line (or both, on one spectacular throw down and one midway through the fourth).

The term “x-factor” has been used ad nauseum, and I hate to apply it. But Odom is one of the few players in the NBA who is exactly that. When he plays his best the Lakers are the best team in the NBA, when he doesn’t they aren’t. There’s very little this man can’t do on a basketball court, and yet on a given night you never know what Lamar is going to bring to the potluck. Since his high school days it’s been obvious that he’s capable of taking over games so many ways, and yet his complete disappearance is never a surprise.

Despite the goodwill earned with the performance, the question has to be asked: Where were you, Lamar? Why can’t you do this every night? And, failing that, why can’t you even bother to show up half the time?

“Got to come ready to play,” perpetual professional Kobe Bryant said after the win. Amen. But will Lamar Odom continue to do so? I have absolutely no idea.

Lamar Odom Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Related Reading:
Three Early Observations from the Conference Finals
Time to Exhale for Lakers and Nuggets Fans

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