Correction: In a previous version of this column, it was erroneously reported that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals because of a migraine.
The best leaders in NBA history earn their reputations at this time of year. Injuries, illness, embarrassing defeats — they overcome all obstacles in achieving playoff success. And in this postseason, the king still has his crown.
Once again, LeBron James was out front as the Miami Heat raced to three straight victories after the Chicago Bulls’ surprising opening win in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Although the Heat quickly regained its championship form, some up-and-comers are challenging James’s throne. Surging Memphis has two intriguing candidates: center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley.
For most of his hoops career, Gasol has played in the shadow of his more accomplished older brother, Pau, the Los Angeles Lakers’ all-star big man. The story has changed. The Lakers were eliminated in the opening round, and the Grizzlies are rolling behind Marc.
The NBA’s defensive player of the year also is the Grizzlies’ leading scorer in the postseason. After Memphis dropped the first game during the Western Conference semifinals against Oklahoma City, Gasol strung together three get-on-my-back performances. His 23-point, 11-rebound, six-block outing Monday helped Memphis outlast Oklahoma City in overtime to take a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 5 is Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.
Gasol is an old-school leader, NBA people say. He sets a positive example through hard work. He never asks his teammates to make sacrifices that he wouldn’t make himself. Gasol really seems to be all about what’s best for the group. He’s also a rarity in the league these days: a star center.
Wing players — James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, etc. — have been the game’s biggest superstars for some time. The best teams are built around them. Centers have become an afterthought in most offenses. Not Gasol.
He shoots and passes well, and he’s as smart as they come with the basketball. In the first round, Gasol was so much better than Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers should have been embarrassed. Gasol’s semifinal showdown against Thunder center Kendrick Perkins has been another mismatch. Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor has noticed.
Baylor enjoys watching Gasol work “because there just aren’t a lot of guys left like him,” he said. “This guy can really play. He can score, he rebounds, he plays defense . . . he does it all.
“Memphis, man, they’re gonna have a big advantage over most teams because of that guy. And just having a guy like that makes him [a leader] because of what he does [on the court]. Guys want to follow guys who know what they’re doing.”
Conley is near the front of the line, too. Like Gasol, Conley has been a rising star for a while. It’s just that most basketball fans outside of Memphis haven’t noticed.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul is featured in a national advertising campaign for an insurance company. But with Conley directing them, the Grizzlies also are in good hands. Conley stole the show as Memphis rallied from an 0-2 series deficit to defeat the Clippers in six games. Although Paul is second to none at his position, Conley is trailing him closely.
Of all the game’s great, young point guards, Conley may be the best floor leader. If the Grizzlies struggle on offense (they seldom do), Conley takes it as a personal failure. Conley believes every play should be run as it was designed. He has no tolerance for sloppiness. An NBA general manager once described him to me this way: “Pretty quiet guy off the court, drill sergeant on it.”
The next step for Conley and Gasol is clear: close out the Thunder. By toppling the defending conference champion, Memphis would get its shot at the toughest playoff tests. That’s what Gasol and Conley want most. Signature moments occur during the conference title round and NBA finals. Gasol and Conley don’t have any yet.
Certainly, they’ve never delivered to the level James did in helping the Heat stave off elimination against Boston with a 45-point, 15-rebound, five-assist gem in Game 6 of last season’s Eastern Conference championship series. Who could forget how Michael Jordan — battling flu-like symptoms and exhaustion — scored 38 points against Utah in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals? The Bulls won in six games.
Or my personal favorite example of playoff leadership: a touch of rookie Magic. A sprained ankle sidelined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Game 6 of the 1980 NBA finals. So rookie Magic Johnson played center and totaled 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the decisive victory.
It takes mental toughness, as well as physical talent and smarts, to lead teams to titles. Time and time again, the best have shown they have it all. Someday soon, Gasol and Conley just might do the same.
For more by Jason Reid, go to www.washingtonpost.com/reid.