Thursday, May 17, 2012

State of Laker Nation Playoff Recap: Implosion in the Clutch

           With a loss like this, I’m not sure it’s the details that really need discussing as much as the emotional and psychological impact. The last two minutes are still burned in my brain. As KOBEsh wrote about Game 1, sometimes it’s a lot easier to swallow a big loss than one like this, which was also an amazing opportunity to steal a game on the road. As a result, I have a world class sports hangover this morning, the kind of pain you can’t believe you’re in over sports. I can’t believe how emotionally draining last night’s loss was as a fan and can only begin to imagine what it was like on the plane flight home. Did Kobe let anyone talk or did he mandate a team sulk on the way home?

As painful as this loss was, it wasn't all bad. I have to give Coach Potato Head credit for making adjustments and having his team ready to play last night. And they were great, for a gritty first 46 minutes, where they had a 7 point lead. They won the rebounding battle and played stifling defense, forcing 14 turnovers. Russell Westbrook came back down to earth and James Harden had 5 TOs. Offensively, the Lakers took care of the ball and got to the line. The bigs even showed up and controlled the paint. Bynum had a huge hook shot to extend the lead to 7 with 2:09 to play. Then it all went off the rails and the Lakers imploded in a terrifying fashion. After holding the Thunder to less than 70 points through those 46 minutes, the Lakers coughed up their 7 point lead and let the Thunder voodoo shamans rip our collective heart out. A couple of quick Harden layups, a turnover, and a clutch Durant jumper. All of a sudden we were down and unable to respond. Game over.

Oh Mamba...
This game provided plenty of fuel for the Kobe Haters. He was 9-25 from the field, only got to the free throw line twice, and went 0-6 from 3 for the game. I’d bet the farm that my Kobe-nemesis Henry Abbott is already planning a huge post to talk about the limits of hero ball using this as Exhibit A, but the fact is that Kobe helped build that 7 point lead by taking, and making, some really really tough jump shots. We don’t have the lead to blow without him. However, there’s no doubt that Kobe was the central figure in the Lakers devastating collapse. Over and over, he had the ball in his hands with a chance to ice the game, an opportunity he relishes. He just didn’t have it last night.

Around Mambino, we constantly discuss how there’s value in having a player on your team who can create shots for themselves under intense duress and make them at an above average clip. There’s a reason that Kobe has 5 rings with the Lakers. But the problem with having these guys is that sometimes the same overconfidence that allows them to drill these shots and take over a game will lead them to shoot their team out of games. I think Abbott is dreaming when they say you don’t need to use hero ball ever, but you can certainly overuse it. Last night, we did. The Lakers offense choked up and Kobe tried to take over. Mamba missed his five final shots and had an inexcusable turnover on an inbounds play that led to an easy Durantula lay-in. I’d be lying if I denied screaming, “COME ON KOBE!” about 10 times in the last two minutes.

As our best player and the guy with the ball in his hands when the ship sank, this game is squarely on Kobe’s shoulders.  His late game execution was terrible, there’s no defending that. But there was a lot more going on and he didn't exactly get the help he needed. Our defense imploded -- it should have been able to hold the Thunder to less than 9 points in the last 2:09. It’s fair to ask if Ramon Sessions is going to show up in this series. Same question for the three point shooting of Ron Artest and Steve Blake that carried us through Game 7 against Denver. Although Brown made some great adjustments, they were unfortunately before the game and not in it. He was unable to calm his team down and uncharacteristically under-used his timeouts in the last two minutes. And what was up with the plays he drew up in the fourth?

What's on tap for Game 3 Coach?
Ultimately, this was the opposite of a moral victory. We are left with the kind of soul-crushing loss that can completely derail a playoff run. Instead of headlines this morning about a gritty road victory and heading back to Los Angeles with all of the momentum, the Lakers are down 2-0 and are faced with the immense challenge of winning both games of a back-to-back against a much younger, better rested team. If this was a young team trying to establish itself in the playoffs like the 76ers, I’d be worried about them folding like a house of cards. But this is the Lakers, a team with championship experience and a leader in Kobe Bean Bryant that won’t let them quit. They showed last night they have the heart and I wouldn’t be surprised if they win back to back games and make this a series again.

Being honest with myself though, a split is more likely and that puts the Lakers in a very tough position, having to play flawless basketball for three straight games to advance to the Western Conference Finals. This going to be Mike Brown’s biggest coaching challenge yet. Can Mr. Potato Head continue to make meaningful adjustments and motivate his team to come back? Will Kobe strike the right balance between taking over the game and finding his teammates? Can our frontcourt continue to win the rebounding battle and score effectively? More importantly, how will the Thunder players handle the bright lights of Staples Center? Will they rise to the occasion or will the Lakers defense find a way to stop them? The Lakers season lies in the balance.

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