I apologize for the lengthy delay since my last diatribe, but I’ve been too busy trying to figure this enigmatic team out. One night, they look like world beaters and the second coming of the 2001 playoff Lakers. On other nights they actually look like they are running in mud while completely disinterested and downright unwatchable.
(Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, my first sentence is an absolute lie. I haven’t been writing because thinking about this team and ultimately communicating my thoughts about them makes me nauseous).
While this bipolarness has been manifesting itself all season if not much of the last decade, it was really typified–and ultimately reached a breaking point–this weekend. On Friday, the Lakers put on a video game-esque performance in a dominant victory over the Denver Nuggets–a sure-fire Western Conference playoff team. Life was good. Everyone was singing Kumbaya. Everyone was getting their names in the paper. The Antawn Jamisons and Jodie Meeks of the world finally seemed to be feeling themselves. It finally seemed like the ship was being righted. However, on Sunday they backed up the feel-good/potentially transforming performance by being handed an embarrassing loss to a rebuilding project, make-shift squad that is widely agreed upon to be a bottom tier NBA team…Did I mention this happened at home? Did I mention the Lakers were also staring a stretch of 7 of 8 games being on the road, many against upper echelon team, after this game? Did I mention that this Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde act had already grown old and frustrating weeks prior to this latest stunt? Ahh!!! I can’t take it any more.
The Dr. Jekyll Denver Nugget game performance is what we all expected to be close to the norm. The latter, however, is what needs to be addressed.
In a season already littered by embarrassing defeats, this one buries all of the others. In fact, this Orlando loss is probably the worst regular season loss in recent memory…and for so many reasons. I am not exaggerating one bit. This was an epically bad loss and an absolute indictment on the core character of this team. The “everything is going to be okay” facade has been completely blown up. This was such an incriminating display that these guys should be afraid to stand in front of cameras and continue to feed us the same old bullsh-t. James Worthy–who not only shares a brain with me about this stuff but also nails it just about every time on the postgame show–summed it up perfectly when he said: “This team has no killer instinct and they are not as good as they think they are. They are not even being professional athletes in their own building.” Reread that last part: “They are not even being professional athletes even in their own building.” Yikes. If that isn’t a shot at your character then I don’t know what is.
So let’s roll down the list as to why this loss goes well beyond “unacceptable.” First, just compare the rosters. In one corner with home court advantage, your Big 4 boasts Kobe, Dwight, Pau and a resurgent Metta World Peace. In the other corner, you have Jameer Nelson, Aaron Afflalo, Big Baby Davis and J. J. Redick leading the troops. Quality NBA players? Absolutely. Worthy of starring in a central role of any team worth a damn in NBA history? I think not. Now if the Lakers were 14-2, maybe a Popovich-esque tanking or a law of averages letdown would be forgiveable. But at 8-8 and violently underachieving, there should be no such thing as a trap game or home game mail-in. So, how did the Lakers respond to this opportunity to seize some momentum in their season? You guess it: No energy. No urgency. And as Mike D’Antoni put it: “No intensity and no purpose.” Consequently, the malaise Lakers let the undermanned Orlando Magic D League Plus squad stick around just long enough for the Nikola Vucevic dunk show to take center stage and send the Lakers to a humiliating, seismic loss. (Seriously though…that Vucevic 4th quarter was nothing short of incredible. He was an absolute man-child and somehow made me more frustrated with Pau during the process even though Pau was stapled to the bench at that point). Watching Vucevic play like a young, in-shape Shawn Kemp while the $100 million Laker roster falls to under .500 on the season is the kind of stuff that questions why I even like this team or take the time to stay up and watch them.
Moving onto the whole Dwight Howard angle of this incriminating, character revealing defeat. Despite some signs of brilliance recently, I have to be honest and let the world know that I f-cking hate this guy right now. He may have played in Orlando, have the Superman nickname, miss free throws religiously and even be considered the best center in the NBA, but he is not Shaq…not even close! When you sift through the bad jokes, annual injuries and non-basketball interests, Shaq was all about winning when he stepped on the court. This guy Howard seems to be more interested in smiling, laughing and entertaining movie stars than buckling down and winning games. If he did really care about winning, he wouldn’t laugh after committing horrible goaltending violations at key momentum-swinging moments in a game and then follow it up with a “The Crowd Will Think I’m Cool If I Make This Uncharacteristic 20-foot Jumper” shot immediately after. Until this happy-go-lucky demeanor changes, this dude is NEVER winning a title. This Orlando game was layup, a slam dunk, a homerun pitch for him! It was his first must-win game as a Laker. The first Dwight is definitely more important than Kobe moment. And, lucky for him, the opponent was a glorified sparring partner. If he is really special, he should have woken up that gameday morning thinking: “There is no way in hell I am losing this game to this franchise.” Similar to Lebron going against the Cavs for the first time, Dwight should have taken the Magic’s heart right from the get-go and crushed their hopes and their dreams before the first media timeout. Instead, in the easiest of all “dare to be great” moments, this guy came out half asleep, disinterested and looking like the West Canaan Coyotes in their one uninspired, strip-club induced loss in Varsity Blues. And some people still say this guy is a top 5 NBA player? No way. His intangibles are scarily flimsy.
Now to the practical side of this loss. Does this team realize that they are 8-9? Does this team realize that every team worth a damn is running away from them in the standings and therefore games against Orlando have to be taken care of? Does this team realize that they will be playing against a tough team and NOT have homecourt advantage in the FIRST round at this rate? Does this team realize they may be WATCHING the FIRST round at this rate? Does this team realize that they are under .500 and its almost 25% through the season? Does this team realize you can only say “it’s not time to hit the panic button” so many times before it’s too late? Does this team realize they already played 12 home games vs. 5 road games and surrendering losses to Orlando before a massive road swing–where you are only 1-4–is probably not the way to go? Does this team realize they are wasting MVP type numbers and effort by Kobe Bryant (the oldest 34 year-old in the world) by not matching his urgency? Does this team realize Kobe is going to run himself ragged trying to keep them afloat well before they should really need him? Does this team realize how much I want to jump through the TV and beat all of them up?
Anyone that has followed the Lakers closely the last 10 years knows that this inconsistent energy and lack of urgency is nothing new. After all, it almost cost them in 2009 when Aaron “Isiah Thomas” Brooks and a depleted Rockets squad took the Lakers to 7 games in the second round (By the way, I was so upset during that series that I said if the Lakers lost game 7 I would stop being a fan…that’s close to the physiological feeling that I am feeling right now). It almost cost them last year when they couldn’t close out Denver at home in game 5, got embarrassed at Denver in game 6 and nearly got picked off at home in game 7. Heck it almost cost them in 2000 when they let Portland back into the series and eventually into the drivers seat of the Western Conference finals. I know it’s part of their too cool/celebrity culture and this was merely a regular season game, but it is starting to get old and potentially disastrous and fatal.
This upcoming road swing–which will be played largely if not entirely without Steve Nash–is an absolute gut-check. And judging by the body language and harsh messages in the postgame interviews after the Orlando debacle, I think the players may finally realize it. I hope a coaching change, trade rumors, an embarrassing start and epic loss may finally be enough to wake them up.Will it translate into a run of consistency? I hope so. But honestly, I think not. Why do I think that? Well…that’s a post for a different time.
“Portland can put the champagne away and get out the bottled water….because that’s all they’re going to be drinking on the way home!” ~Chick Hearn (in the closing moments of Game 7 2000 WCF)