An Encore to a Rivalry: Los Angeles Emerges Victors of the Last Dance with Austin

  • By Jron Magcale, Day 127, 2020

LOS ANGELES - Both coaches met at midcourt as time was about to expire. Coach O of the LA Fireballs extended his hand to his rival coach Dale Hunter and proceeded to give his nemesis a hug and congratulated him for another great series between the 2 teams. Coach Hunter nodded and smiled a little and said "Best of luck coach. Well deserved" and then went his way. Coach Rudaski Odrzywolski then proceeded on his way and celebrated with his staff before grabbing his young star Chris LaCruz and whispering something to him that saw LaCruz nodded a few times and said repeatedly "Thanks coach."

GM Jron who was at courtside for the game 7 of the series instead of his usual box didn't stand up until the players and coaches approached him. When asked after the game, all he has to say was "It was all worth it." With a season of bold moves, praises, doubts, scrutiny, self-doubt and anxiety all he has to say was "It was all worthy."

The game itself ended the how all of their wins this series ended, veteran leadership and outstanding performance by their late key addition PF Colin Stafford who played all but the 1st game at Center to battle with Rockets future hall of gamer Center Kaiama Nyambi. A series where Staff was the star and not their usual combo of LaCruz-iMac whom was their usual go-to during the season. The team heavily relied on Staff when it matters most on all 4 wins Staff's numbers were massive:

Game 2 - 20 pts, 11 rebs, 3 asts, 3 stls and 4 blocks whilst fouling out

Game 4 - 32 pts, 20 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl and 4 blks

Game 5 - 51 pts (20/28 FG), 18 rebs, 3 asts, 1 stl and 3 blks

Game 7 - 33 pts, 17 rebs, 8 asts, 2 stls, 4 blks and 0 fouls

Staff had Nyambi in foul trouble in most of their wins. Being an excellent off drawing fouls, his presence made it easy for their young star Chris LaCruz to find open shots as evident on LaCruz's 38 pts performance in game 7. Shooters like iMac (although mightily struggled in game 7) and Jamal Wilkinson (who has made crucial contributions with his outside shots when put in a starting role contributed as well. Might as well crown Staff this series MVP as without him they wouldn't last against this Rockets squad. Although the acquisition of Staff via Banks trade was a head scratcher for some, it proved its highest value in this series alone. Staff looked like he wasn't the same Staff who was a force in Phoenix when he was traded to the Fireballs who is looking for short-term success than long term progress with Banks (whom to his credit showed flashes of what the Vults will get long term). But come playoff time his valuable experience and leadership showed.

The win notched Los Angeles a ticket to the conference finals, their 3rd trip and first after the Mitchell Butler-led era in which they even won 1 Championship ring as a 4th seed clawing their way to a classic 7 game series against a very tough Jaguars team. Fireball legend Mitchell Butler who was also the MVP of the Finals (42.8 ppg) and season MVP not to mention Golden Buckets recipient to form a trifecta of being the best there is that season.

That was the only Championship ring the Fireballs has as a franchise. After securing their first Conference Finals appearance in 15 years (They made the conference finals in 2001 and 2004 prior to their berth this season) off to a back to back 34-win season (their 4th 30-win season in franchise history) there's a feeling in Los Angeles that things have turned around after 6 struggling years, they finally resembles a team showing fragments of success from the Showtime Butler-led era. 1 man stood behind the struggles and success of Los Angeles is coach Rudaski Odrzywolski who has been their coach since 1999, his eyes showed real passion as he do bleed for LA. One of the best coaches the league has ever had being a mentor to hall of famers and future coaches alike.

"Rudy deserves this win more than anyone, he has been with the franchise the longest, I just arrived here a few seasons ago. I remember when I arrive his first question was if I was gonna fire him, haha. But joking aside I told him that this is his team and I am just here for the ride. True enough, we are in this stage where we are succeeding, he believed in me when I traded for Chris (LaCruz), same confidence he gave me when I went for iMac, he never blinked an eye when I run for Staff, all I heard was, 'I'll make it work, skip' and now we are here. Beating our division rival finally after a heartbreak defeat last season." GM Jron said after the game.

The road just became tougher and the odds again stacked against them playing the defending champions Las Vegas Scorpions (whom will be in the same division as them next season after league re-alignment along with NS powerhouse Seattle Thunder and expansion newbie Portland Lumberjacks), it is a tall order to beat Las Vegas especially starting the series off in Vegas nonetheless. Scorpions who has the arguably best player in the league in Dontay Sowder with a supporting cast consist of Omar Grant, Orien Young, Hilton Phillips among others. Most analyst are looking at Las Vegas finishing off the Fireballs in 6, the same odds that Los Angeles had when they faced Austin but then again, Las Vegas is a different monster.

Can the trio of LaCruz-Staff-iMac be enough to surpass the Scorpions star-studded lineup. 2 teams on the opposite side of the totem pole, Fireballs known for their fast-paced high scoring offense and Scorpions being a relatively slow-paced and efficient strategic squad. This will be the black curtain for the JBL of old and the new JBL era will be born after this season.

"I'm excited on the new JBL, I'm looking forward to it and has been doing my homework. But what matters right now at this very moment is the Conference Finals, Los Angeles is hyped. You see the Fireball Arena packed, 20 thousand fans out there cheering for your team, it is every GMs dream to be in a position where your fans is there all dressed in Black and Burnt Orange. That is why I decided to sit next to Jack Nicholson, Snoop Dogg and Leo (DiCaprio) whom all season has been there through the early season struggles up to now, to be a fan for a day and not worry about front office stuff. I saw my good friend Denzel sitting a couple of seats away from us, you see Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, all these people wearing #RUNLA and #IFEELLIKELACRUZ shirts, man that is something, whatever happens after this series, I'm ready. No regrets, all the moves I made, all the decisions, man they are all worth it at the end of the day my real fight is when the offseason begins and I have to start over and make those decisions again." GM Jron said in the press conference after the game.

A few hours after the game, I stepped back to the arena to see the aftermath, I saw the court dim-lighted, a few people still out there, however it didn't surprise me to see Coach O in one of the sits in the bleachers staring blankly as if reminiscing the last time he is at this stage, in his hand is a half-burnt cigar. I jokingly yell "hey you can't smoke in here, man!" he shifted his eyes on me and nodded "Just one more light for the road, kind sir" with his signature half-smile. I nodded back and as I was on my way back in the hallway I heard some dribbles and some noise, what did I see? Well LaCuz and TJ Holloway looking like to put some shots in, then followed by Jefferies, on the other side Staff and iMac both having some icepacks on both of their knees looking to hangout for awhile. A sight you don't see everyday. This is after they notched a conference finals ticket, you'd think they'll party in LA after a day's worth of work but they aren't. As I exit the arena, I saw Carst in the parking lot "I'm trying to rest man, I'm spent." He told me, as I walk to my car I answered "So as I man. So as I."

Lesean Wainwright
Los Angeles Times