I'm too young to remember a whole lot about the Showtime Lakers. I remember loving that team, I remember enjoying that team, and I remember them winning a lot. I watch them on NBA TV or ESPN Classic whenever I can. But I don't really remember the details: how they went about their business, how they played from night to night, how professional they were.
So my first cognitive introduction to true Laker greatness occurred with the Shaq/Kobe dynasty at the turn of the century. I know that team inside and out. I know how they operated. And that team's hallmark, more than anything else besides just being dominant (and of course, feuding superstars), was that they knew how to "flip the switch". Those teams were famous for playing a mediocre game for 3 quarters, and then "turning it on" to pull out the victory in the 4th. Whether borne out of supreme confidence in their ability, an intimidating aura of invincibility that could permeate the other team's confidence in an instant, or a need for the game to be in it's waning moments before the team could be troubled to give a damn, the Shaq/Kobe years were filled with "flip the switch" victories.
If those years taught me anything, it's that "flipping the switch" is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the ability to simply decide to increase intensity and have it translate to improved performance is a powerful weapon to have. We can't expect anybody, or any team, to be at top gear all the time, and the knowledge and ability to decide "We're going to top gear now" can be a powerful tool. It is the sign of an extremely good team, a team that has great confidence, a team that is capable of performing at a higher level than almost anybody else. On the other hand, a team that can flip the switch, and knows it can flip the switch, will sometimes not play as well as they should, not try as hard as other teams, because they know that in the end, they'll be able to kick it up to a notch that the other team can't reach. Too often, those early 00's Lakers relied on flipping the switch because they knew they could. And every once in a while, you'll find out that when you try to flip the switch, the light bulb has burned out. It can cost a team wins because they don't play with enough effort, expecting their superior talent to manifest itself when called upon. Flipping the switch leaves certain things to chance. Suddenly, a bad shooting night, or an ill-timed turnover, or a lucky three point shot, can lead to an ugly loss.
Well, last night, the Lakers played the ultimate "flip the switch" game. Yet, despite the negative connotations of that statement, there isn't a single Lakers fan who isn't smiling today. The reason is simple. When the Lakers flipped that switch to "On" last night, we saw a power beyond our wildest dreams.
Make no mistake, the Lakers looked like they wanted no part of the game in the 1st half. No, they weren't getting blown out by any stretch of the imagination. As Dex mentioned in the postgame, the entire team seemed uninterested in playing the physical brand of basketball for which the Utah Jazz are known. The Jazz out-rebounded the Lakers by a large margin, including 11 offensive rebounds. The result was a 4 point defecit for the Lake Show, despite shooting a significantly higher percentage than the Jazz. In the 3rd quarter, the Lakers went down by 8 before reeling off a quick 12-2 run to make the game even again. Each team held serve until the 4th quarter, with the Lakers sporting a two point lead entering the final period.
Then, the Lakers flipped the switch, and unleashed the power of a thousand suns.
100% effort and intensity met head on with an extremely lengthy and athletic team, and the result was the best quarter of defense I've ever seen in my life. I can be prone to exaggeration from time to time, but this is honestly not one of those times. The only explanation I can come up with for what I saw is that the Lakers were somehow employing cloaking devices and thus had 7 players on the court. It seemed like every member of the Jazz team was guarded by two men at all times (except for Ronnie Brewer, of course, he remained unguarded by design). The Jazz turned the ball over 8 times in the quarter (against only 5 in the first three quarters). They ended the quarter with MORE SHOT CLOCK VIOLATIONS(3) THAN FIELD GOALS(2)! The numbers speak louder than any argument. 6 points overall, 2-17 shooting, and a points per possession of .25. The Lakers won the quarter by 22.
And here's the kicker. The Jazz are a good offensive team. They entered the night ranked fifth in offense with 110.3 points per 100 possessions. And the offense that they run is not normally predicated on particularly strong outside shooting. They get their points through superb execution of the pick and roll (longtime nemisis of the Lakers) and lots of backdoor cuts. And that offense wasn't bad last night either. The Jazz were holding steady above their average after the 1st half. This wasn't the Charlotte Bobcats or the Chicago Bulls. The Jazz would have put up a bunch of points on most NBA teams last night. Sure, in the 4th quarter they got sloppy, and missed a couple of open jump shots. But more often than not, even the open shots the Jazz got were the ones the Lakers wanted them to have. If the Lakers are capable of shutting down a good offensive team like the Jazz in such ridiculous fashion, then they are as capable defensively as any team in the league.
Some other random thoughts from last night's game
- Interesting game for Jordan Farmar, with a very important positive development. After a couple of careless turnovers in the 1st half, Phil Jackson benched Farmar for the duration of the half. Shannon Brown played the end of the 1st half after Derek Fisher had to come out of the game with foul trouble. Then, in the 2nd half, Phil Jackson put in Shannon Brown AND Sasha Vujacic (who hasn't seen meaningful time in two weeks) before Farmar, in what I thought was a clear statement regarding Farmar's playing time (improve or you won't play). The Farmar that we are accustomed to might have taken this opportunity to sulk, or to display a bad attitude. Instead, when Farmar was re-inserted to the game with 3 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, he proceeded to play his best 15 minutes of the season. 11 points on 4-8 shooting, 3 rebounds, an assist, two steals and a block. He also played the best defense we've seen out of the point guard position in years, and did it against a guy who has previously eaten him alive due to the fact that Deron Williams is the MAC truck of point guards. Major signs of improvement, both in performance and attitude, for Farmar on the night.
- Bynum had a bad game. I love the kid, but 4 rebounds in 32 minutes for the biggest guy on the court just isn't good enough, and his 1st half defense was amongst the worst of anybody. I don't believe in most of the anti-Bynum/defense talk that goes on, but last night is the type of game that affirms those beliefs in others.
- Same goes for Shannon Brown. The oop dunk was nice, but Shannon didn't bring much else to the table last night. And he was clearly out-performed on the defensive end by Farmar, something that is surprising considering Brown's superior athleticism and defensive reputation.
- Kobe was the epitome of a leader, assessing what his team needed most and then providing it. The Lakers sucked on the boards in the 1st half, so Kobe responded by crashing the boards hard in the 2nd, and picked up 5 boards in the half.
- Have to give credit where credit is due. The Machine played meaningful minutes, entering the game with 3 minutes to play in the 3rd and exiting again with 3 minutes gone in the 4th. Those six minutes are six minutes more of relevant playing time than Sasha has had since before Thanksgiving. And he didn't suck. Only one silly foul, he caused a turnover, made his only shot attempt of the night (a 3, of course), and didn't rush things. On one play in particular, Kobe posted up, Sasha's man leaked down to double Kobe and Sasha was visibly and audibly calling for the ball (which was funny by itself). Kobe finally passed the ball to Sasha, and instead of shooting, Sasha pump faked before calmly dumping the ball back down on the block to Kobe. I highly doubt the performance will translate to more PT for Sasha, but give the man credit. PJ surprised everyone by calling on him last night, and he was ready.