With the Lakers latest big loss at the hands of the Phoenix Suns last night, there's a general sentiment of panic spreading throughout LakerLand right now. I can't help but feel partially responsible for giving it a voice (on SS&R at least) by writing this piece. While I still stand behind my work, the truth is that the Lakers are just fine. And if you are pointing at last night's Suns game as further proof that the Lakers are in serious trouble, you really need to take a look around the NBA and see how unimportant losses like this one are in the grand scheme of things.
Before I explain to you why you shouldn't care about last night's loss, let me clarify my points in the previous "panic" post. That post basically broke down like so:
- The 2008-2009 Lakers were often lazy and unmotivated, but when they brought their "A" game, they were unrivaled, as evidenced by sweeping both Cleveland and Boston.
- That team was also very resilient, often responding to tough situations and bad losses with a strong performance
- Those characteristics were present throughout the season for the Lakers, and ended up playing out exactly the same way in the playoffs. The Lakers resilience allowed them to win Games 3 and 6 of the WCF in Denver, and their unmatched "A" game allowed them to plow through Orlando (who swept L.A in the regular season) in the Finals.
- The 2009-2010 Lakers have more consistent effort, especially on the defensive end, but have failed to perform in games against the other elite teams of the league so far (in a very small sample size).
- I also said I wanted to see the Lakers display some of that championship resiliency. In reviewing this, I was actually dead wrong. The Lakers have been every bit as resilient this season as last. After getting beat down by Dallas, the Lakers beat a very good Hawks team by double digits without Pau Gasol, and won the next 5 games as well. After losing two bad games to Denver and Houston, the Lakers responded with an 11 game win streak. The loss in Utah was followed by the Lakers sweeping the rest of their 5 game road trip. And the victory against Sacramento was won on resiliency alone.
Which brings us to last night's game. The Lakers came out flat on the offensive end, again. The defense sort of showed up for the 1st half of last night's game, but that seemed more of a mirage to me than anything else. The Suns had a lot of open shots, and missed them. In the 2nd half, they didn't miss. 9-17 from 3 pt range for the Suns, after going 3-16 in the 1st half. Put simply, the Suns got hot and put away a game that, if we're honest, should have been done with by halftime.
Now, some of you may be thinking that last night's game proves my points about the Lakers not being at their best against elite competition. That doesn't really work for a number of reasons. First of all, Phoenix really isn't elite. I don't mean that in a way to take anything away from the Suns. They just aren't meant to be mentioned in the same sentence with the other championship contenders. They can't play D and they are undersized. Phoenix is a very solid team, right at the front of the 2nd tier. But, despite their hot start to the season, nobody outside their locker room thinks they have a chance to win it all this year.
Second, even if you do consider Phoenix to be an elite team, it actually bolsters the Lakers' performance against elite teams. The Lakers have already beaten this team twice, in grand fashion, at Staples Center. So, if losing to them last night is another example of the Lakers getting blown out by elite competition, then the two wins at Staples are examples of how the Lakers are doing just fine against the elite competition.
Third, the Suns previous performances at Staples Center both had one thing in common. The Suns, normally a very good shooting team, shot horribly in both games against L.A. Players play better at home, shooters shoot better at home, and the Suns had a whole lot of regression to the mean coming their way. After last night's game, the mean has been regressed.
No, the truth is that last night's game was just another road game against a good team who played well and got the victory. The Lakers didn't bring their best effort, and there isn't any excuse for that. But you certainly can't make the claim that the Lakers are incapable of playing Phoenix better than they did, because we've already been provided with two examples of how well the Lakers are capable of playing against the Suns. In short, last night's game is exactly the type of game the Lakers would have lost last year, the type of loss that is unavoidable over a full 82 game NBA schedule.
So I'm taking a step back from my fear-mongering. The Lakers still have the best record in the league, compliments of Boston pulling the unthinkable and losing back to back games against the Clippers and the Warriors. The Lakers are exactly on pace to match last year's W-L totals. And the fact is that this team has shown a much better level of consistency in effort this season as compared to last, which (despite how negative I made it sound earlier) is undoubtedly a good thing. Is the offense struggling mightily right now? Of course. Is the bench proving itself to be well below par? A hundred times, yes. They certainly haven't played at their best for a bit now. But, on a macro scale, the Lakers are right where they want to be.
Check out the NBA standings, and you'll see that everything is as expected. The Lakers are on top, with Boston, Cleveland and Orlando nipping at their heals. Boston is struggling just as badly as L.A. is right now. Orlando isn't doing so hot either. Cleveland looks great, but they've already had a "down" period in their season, so their current good play is just regression to the mean. Whether these teams (and the others that are fringe contenders) are peaking right now is irrelevant, only April through June matter.
You can and should look for trends, both comforting and troubling. But trends can change just as quickly as the wind, so don't get blown away by what you find just yet.
Some other notes regarding last night's game
- I don't want to take anything away from the Suns for last night's victory, but it was a classic case of Phil Jackson only sort of trying to win the game. Phil does this from time to time over the course of a season. Sometimes it's experimenting with a lineup in a high priority situation, and sometimes he doesn't think a victory is worth killing his team over. Last night's game fell under the latter. The 3rd game in a stretch of 4 games in 5 nights, following a double OT thriller in which his main components all played 50 minutes, PJ went to the bench early and often last night. He played a lineup including Farmar, Brown, and Vujacic at the same time, for about 4 minutes at the end of the 1st and into the 2nd. That lineup was -10, and the Lakers never recovered. PJ knew this would be a tough game to win under any circumstances. Add in the fact that the Lakers have no serviceable small forward, causing the team to either play a good player out of position, or a bad player who shouldn't be playing in the first place, and you could see PJ just decide that he would give the bench big minutes, even if it meant a loss. Double digit minutes for everyone on the bench except Josh Powell. Further evidence was that Kobe sat the last 8 minutes of the game, even while the game was still relatively within reach.
- Kelly Dwyer made mention recently that when a player goes down, it's not the player's backup that causes problems. It is the backup's backup. Which is why it might seem to you that Ron Artest is vitally important to the team, until you realize that the Lakers' choices at the small forward are the backup's backup, or whoever can fill in. There's a good reason PJ has never actually played Lamar Odom at the 3 before now, and he is only doing it now out of the desperation of trying to keep Adam Morrison or Sasha Vujacic from logging 20+ minutes and causing the apocalypse. Lamar is a good player, but he needs to be closer to the paint than the wing can afford him.
- Andrew Bynum bounced back a little bit to the tune of 14 pts and 9 rebounds, with 2 blocks. Then, he was promptly taken out of the game by fouls. Honestly, I don't remember whether the fouls were deserved or not at this point. But, for everyone who is down on Bynum and doubts the benefits of his presence on the court, take a look at the game flow over at Popcorn Machine for the 3rd quarter. When Bynum picked up his 4th foul, the Lakers were down by 7. 4 minutes later, they were down by 16, and PJ actually returned Bynum to the floor to try to stem the tide. He did, and the Lakers cut it to 12 by the end of the quarter.