Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lakers Recap: Apathy is contagious


That's how I felt on Friday, except my suffering was much more silent. My roommate and I watched the game together, and as it ended, we just walked to our rooms. I didn't say anything. He was much more cordial and gave an emotionless "night", as we made no eye contact and went to go suffer alone. He's a much nicer person than me.


That's how I felt on Sunday. I was already psychologically removed from the chaos of everything unfolding on my television screen. The Lakers got dominated in every single way. Every Jason Terry three should have been like another shank in my belly. Every JJ Barea drive should have been like a squeeze of lemon on the wound. And all the minutes the Immortal Brian Cardinal played was like a desecration on the corpse. But all I did was calmly and simply note how that got out of hand. I squelched my emotions and protected my heart from harm. I believe that a psychologist would call that reaction "unhealthy".

I really thought that the Lakers were going to win the title this year. To be honest with you, there was not a doubt in my mind. I didn't see any reason why they'd lose. They had the most talent. They had the best coach, the best front line and one of the most competitive players in the history of the game on their side. Lamar had turned into the player that we all hoped he could be and Andrew turned into the second best center in the league. They had a chance at history - Phil's fourth three-peat, Kobe tying Michael with 6 rings and the Lakers tying the Celtics with 17 championships. Sure they played poorly at times in the season - their first 3+ game losing streak since Pau joined the team, a disgraceful Christmas day no-show against the Miami Heat, an even more disgraceful loss in Cleveland against the worst team in the league and a sputtering string of poor play to end the season. As Charles would say, Jerry West gon' roll over in his grave if he saw that. But the Lakers also won 17 of 18 coming out of the break. They were the champs. They'd be the champs until someone proved that we weren't.

I've heard a lot of things over the past few days. I've heard that Pau played terribly, Steve Blake was a complete waste of money, Derek took too many shots, Andrew didn't assert himself enough in a couple games, Phil made poor substitutions and on and on. These are all completely valid points. Pau had molted the hard shell of a legitimate big man that took a Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins alley way beat down to create. Steve Blake had a game so game so bad that I considered changing my name. Shannon looked like a deer in headlights, Barnes couldn't get it together and Lamar disappeared for minutes at a time.

What I want everyone to understand is that the Lakers didn't lose this series because we weren't the most talented team. They are the most talented team with the best front line in the league. Ron Artest played some of his best basketball of his Lakers career the past 10 games and Kobe once again defied the mileage on his weary legs. Blake, Barnes and Brown are great bench players and according to voters, Lamar IS the best bench player in the league.

I watched every playoff game this year. I watched about 75 games during the regular season. I did the same last year. And the year before. And the year before that. I've probably watched 95% of every game since Pau got traded to the Lakers. This might explain why I know nothing about politics, finance or world news. But it does mean that I know a lot about the Los Angeles Lakers

And I know that the previous 3 seasons, the Lakers had that fire. This fire. An intensity that was palpable and man - did they want it. It felt like that this team needed to win to survive. The players appeared to have the weight of the world on their shoulders. No smiles, no jokes. Just icy cold demeanor and dozen awkward press conferences. They threw out every hyperbolic athlete catch phrase you could think of - "I want this. This keeps me up at night" "winning this game doesn't matter - the job's not done yet" "Series isn't over. I'll smile when the series is over" - but in a league where every press conference seems to reek of hackneyed over-exaggeration, it felt like this group of men really meant it. Winning was the only focus on their minds and nothing else in their world was as important as conquering 4 other teams over the span of two months.

But this year, I did not see that indomitable attitude, or even a fraction of the desire in every player on the past three Finals squads. Quite simply, they just did not want it enough. There wasn't enough jockeying of position inside, taking enough care of the ball or boxing out to prevent tip-ins. But it wasn't just the performance on the court - it was how the players acted off of it. It was in the interview, the press conferences, the reports from practice. Pau seemed distracted and disconnected. Lamar openly talked about how arrogant they were and the irony was as lost on him as he seemed with the ball at times. Kobe smiled and joked. There wasn't the same drive, hunger or singleness of purpose that had been oppressively present the past few years. The Mavericks wanted it much more than the Lakers, and it was apparent on every single front. They played harder, they played more together and they stayed strong in the closing minutes of the games. Yes, the Lakers got definitively beat in games 2 and 4. But games 1 and 3 were the Lakers' to lose. And they allowed that to happen. To quote my buddy Alvy - "this was a total Lakers' implosion. Not a Dallas win".

Dallas played very well, don't get me wrong - but what you saw was how well a team can play when the other team does not communicate and rotate on defense. Every Maverick played out of their minds, but I think it's easy to play so confidently when you see a team in such disarray on the other side of the court. I don't think that anyone keeps this statistic, but the Lakers had to set the NBA record for "most wide-open threes given up" and "most momentum-killing buckets given up". I will give the Mavericks a little more credit than Alvy, but not much. This was a gift Dallas. See if you can cash it in in the next few weeks.

The most frustrating thing here is that they lost not because of any physical malady or shortcoming - it was all mental and emotional. These players have the physical ability to completely dominate anyone they come across. But there seems to be a simple competitive component that is missing from the guys on this team. Perhaps their burning desire was sated by two titles and three runs to the Finals, capped off with a cleansing game 7 victory over their greatest rivals last June. Maybe the emotional high of that moment caused every other experience to feel mundane in comparison. Whatever it is, I don't think that this motor can be replicated or artificially implemented. This might be something that could be lost forever with this particular set of personnel. It's incredibly unfortunate that changes will have to be made to a team whose minds are not attuned to what their bodies can do.

Going into the offseason, I'm not sure what the Lakers have to do. I haven't gotten that far yet. But I do know that they don't need to start over, but they need to bring in enough new guys to inject some life and fire into a team that is largely devoid of it at this point. The team will be broken up to some extent, which is such a shame because while they are able to win with their talent, they just are not willing.

I've heard a lot of talk about trading Gasol, and I'm not sure that's the right move. As I've, he's just wasn't the same guy that he was the past two seasons - he was the guy he was three seasons ago. I've heard a lot of rumors, including those described by my colleague here on THE GREAT MAMBINO, and I'm not even sure what's true. But I know that Pau himself hasn't denied much and has led on that he's had some pretty serious things happen in his personal life. While precluding Kobe from another championship while in the twilight of his prime is a somewhat unforgivable offense from Pau, I understand that if I were in the same (rumored) situation, I would be wrecked as well. I think that at this point, with the situation being taken into account (not to mention his monster deal - 3 years, 60 million), I don't think Pau should be moved. And besides, to put this all on him is ridiculous. Everyone played poorly.

But this is a topic for another day, as is the disgraceful end to the great career of Phil Jackson and another lost year for Kobe to solidify his place even further as one of the all-time greats. There will be a new champion in a month and the next Lakers game probably won't be til January. Maybe I'll learn who this NASDAQ guy is in the meantime.

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