In Game 4, the Lakers came out with a full-game effort that was much closer to what most of us wanted to see. They played hard, they took the game seriously, and they were motivated — not just for a quarter or a half, but for the entire game (not counting the final few minutes of garbage time, of course, which are a standard part or any blowout win).
Tonight, with the Los Angeles holding a 3-1 series lead, the Lakers are back in LA. Their sights are set on a fourth and final win to end this series, securing some valuable rest before the next round. The motivating factors are numerous, and can be found in Houston, Cleveland, and even in their own back yard. But before we look at them, let's take a quick look at what we learned in their Game 4 win on Saturday night, both about the team and about Kobe Bryant, the man that drives them.
One game isn't much on which to base any sort of definitive declaration. That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that these Lakers have woken up. That's not to say that they won't have another bad game between now and late June, but overall I expect this team to be a different one going forward than the team that struggled to motivate itself in the first three games of this series.
Saturday's improved performance could simply be a temporary reaction to LA's first loss of the postseason, but I think it is more than that. The sense I got from Game 4 was not that the Lakers came to play that night because they had been embarrassed in the previous game. The sense I got was that they had come to play from here on out, because they had understood the folly of playing the way they did in the first three games.
Will we see the team that beat the Cavaliers and Celtics during the regular season? Perhaps in flashes here and there, and maybe even for a full game, if the need presents itself — but overall, no. Not until they meet an opponent that requires such an effort. And frankly, it's unlikely than any of their Western Conference opponents will.
That said, those same future Western Conference opponents will require more from them than they gave in the first three games of this season. There's a middle ground between playing with a passion and fire that threatens to consume every living thing within a four block radius, and playing with the unmotivated disinterest of a team that considers the first round to be a formality. Despite flashes of greatness, the latter is how the Lakers seemed overall to start this series.
Starting tonight, expect that mindset to be gone. Their Game 3 loss made it clear to them that the first round is not a mere formality, but their poor play in the second halves of games 1 and 2 helped to drive that point home, as well. In the second round, they will face a much stronger opponent (likely Houston, which has been playing very well lately), and their play in that round should reflect a much higher level of respect for their opponent.
Meanwhile, tonight's Game 5 presents an opporunity to close out the series, and the Lakers have more than ample motivation to play hard and leave no doubt as to the outcome.
First, of course, is the fact that with a win tonight, they can gain some very valuable rest time over their opponents. And while this concept is always in play in a potential series-ending game, there are other factors that make this an even more pressing need for the Lakers than usual.
Most immediate is the fact that with a win last night, Houston has taken a 3-1 series lead over Portland. Game 5 is tomorrow night, and though a second Houston win in Portland will be a tall order — especially with the Blazers playing for their playoff lives — it's certainly possible that the Rockets could finish off their series in five games. If the Lakers don't take care of business tonight, the Rockets will be playing tomorrow night for a chance at being the more rested team going into the second round. This should place a sense of urgency on tonight's game.
More removed, but certainly not unnoticed by the Lakers or their fans, is the fact that Cleveland has swept its first round series against the lifeless Pistons, and is now resting up while the Atlanta-Miami series has at least two, and perhaps as many as four, games remaining. The Lakers know quite well that it's important that Cleveland not be significantly more rested than LA when (if) they reach the Finals, so this should further heighten the sense of urgency for tonight's game.
In addition to all of this, it's not just that the Lakers want to avoid a sixth game, it's also that they want to avoid another trip. They don't want to leave Los Angeles before Game 3 of the Conference Semi-Finals, and they definitely don't want to play in Utah again. To be noted: They also don't want anymore über-physical, foul-plagued games with the Jazz, whose physical style of play can sometimes leave their opponents a bit worse for wear.
Finally — and perhaps most importantly — Kobe Bryant is obviously tired of how the Lakers had been playing, and isn't putting up with any more of it. This is a Good Thing™ in more than one way. First, he's realized that his earlier efforts to facilitate first and look for his shot later, though admirably unselfish of him, are not necessarily beneficial to the team. As we saw in Game 4, and as was also the case in New York earlier this season (on a road trip without Andrew Bynum, just before visiting Boston and Cleveland), an unstoppable offensive explosion from Kobe Bryant often inspires the team, getting them going in ways that even Facilitator Kobe couldn't. Much as they did after Bryant's 61-point explosion against the Knicks, virtually all of his teammates, as well as the coaching staff, credited Kobe for inspiring the team and leading them to victory under tough circumstances.
But perhaps even more valuable was the overall mindset and attitude that Bryant displayed against the Jazz on Saturday. The commentating crew pointed this out during the game:
There hasn’t been one smile on his face for one millisecond tonight — killer instinct here tonight.
The Kobe Bryant that showed up in Game 4 wasn't putting up with any more monkey business. He was coming out to destroy the Jazz, and any of his teammates that didn't follow his lead would hear about it. As Sideout11 observed after the game:
Case in point: Kobe grabbed the rebound with about 40 seconds left in the game with Gasol on one side and Odom on the other. They started walking slowly up the court when Kobe barked out an order and waived them away. All of the sudden, in a 15 point game with less than a minute left, Gasol and Odom sprinted (not ran-Sprinted) down the court and into position.
Kobe understands that this team’s mentality about closing games needs to change, and I don’t think that we will see him crack a smile until the second week of June.
This isn't just about Kobe once again becoming the assassin that we all know so well. Certainly, that is a Good Thing™ and the Lakers will be better for it — but this is bigger than that. This is about him pushing his team forward, dragging them with him, and inspiring them to a higher level and a more competitive mentality — not by becoming Steve Nash, and not with flowery motivational speeches before the games and during timeouts, but by example, and by sheer force of will.
The good news for Lakers fans: The Kobe we saw in Game 4 is going to be sticking around.
We could break down the Xs and Os, talk about how things might change in this game. We could discuss the availability of Okur, and wonder if Andrew Bynum will start, and how many minutes he will get. We could talk about how the bench needs to step up, much the way they did in Game 4 (led by Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, and Shannon "UPS" Brown). We could mention that Utah has lost its last 10 games in LA, and was never really as close as the scoreboard may have made it seem in games 1 and 2.
But after the way the Lakers played in Game 4 (in contrast to how they played in the first three), none of that seems to matter. All that seems to matter is that the Lakers are motivated, dialed in, playing with intensity and purpose. And in that department some extra second round motivation and a Kobe Bryant that won't stand for any more nonsense seem to be encouraging indicators for Lakers fans.
For the first time since the second half of Game 1, I feel confident in saying that I expect the Lakers to play well tonight.