They're back and they're getting louder.
The renewed questions about the Lakers being "soft." Their apparent lack of toughness or willingness to get physical. This "soft" tag doesn't come from a lack of physical strength, but what seems like the lack of mental strength that may throw them off their game due to an opponents physical play.
In order to respond to physicality, one has to have mental tenacity, or stick-to-it-ive-ness, to play their game regardless. Or at least have the wherewithal to match an opponents' intensity or willingness. The Lakers are not soft. At least not deep down. You don't become Champions being soft. They proved that during last year's regular season and in the Playoffs. We've seen them step up and respond to physical play. The thing is, they typically aren't the aggressors.
This gets confused for being soft. They're reactive rather than proactive. It has to be brought out of them. Physicality in itself does not make a team or person any better a basketball player. Still, there's always going to be this unofficial rule of thumb that physical teams have an edge because they choose to be. Good teams or players who can get physical typically win more often than not because of the mental edge gained on an opponent. The choice to initiate contact and dictate the energy of the game. Why do they wait for the issue to reach the tipping point before we see it?
Sometimes, this is where the Lakers are lacking, and nothing shows this more than their inability to commit the good ole fashioned hard foul.
When I say hard foul, I don't mean dirty or cheap. Not the Derek Fisher on Luis Scola type of foul, but the kind of hard foul that stops anything easy. The kind of foul that kills momentum and plants a seed of doubt in the other team. Too often the Lakers, read Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and especially Pau Gasol, are jumping sideways or just a tad back in attempt to defend against lay-ups or dunks. They try to alter a shot with length alone and there have been many times it works, but there are plenty of times that it doesn't. At the wrong times. Too many times it leads to easy buckets and/or "and 1's" that create momentum and lead or extend runs by the other team. Sometimes I wish they would give a guy a nice hard foul. Put them on the line to take two.
The very reason the soft issue is being raised again is pretty much because of Pau Gasol. It's the complete lack of resistance in stopping Andrea Bargnani taking Gasol off the dribble from the 3 pt. line for a reverse(!) lay-up and a foul (with 1:14 left and clinging to a 4 pt. lead on the road). It's the fact that Pau probably has no thought what-so-ever in making sure a good shot is impossible. It's the Cavs game on Thursday and Pau's pathetic lay-up attempt to take lead back, his deer in headlights look as he missed both free-throws that could have tied the game again, and his failure to effectively box out a known physical player when a Lakers possession and 3-pointer could have tied the game. How does that relate to being soft? Because many feel it was physical play that mentally took Pau off his game like it did in the 2008 Finals. Watch those plays down the stretch in Cleveland. Pau should have tried to dunk both shot attempts - or at least go harder. Why didn't he? Cleveland's good shot contesting was in Pau's mind. It worked.
There's also Lamar. There had to be at least 3-4 times LeBron took it straight to the basket right at LO, who just jumps straight up, giving Lebron the hoop and the foul. It's tough enough to stop LeBron, given his size, strength, athleticism, and skill. It's even harder when you just let James create the contact with you. A few of those buckets helped to cut the lead, then take it and extend it. Like the one that put the Cavs up 89-87. LeBron blocks Pau's shot, gets the rebound off of Pau's second attempt, then races down court for an easy lay-up as Lamar jumps sideways. Doesn't even try to use his body. Like LeBron will miss that? I can't help but wonder if the game would have ended differently if the front court was willing to put a few guys on their butts. Maybe LeBron doesn't get the baskets and the foul. Maybe it's just a foul. Maybe LeBron makes both FT's. Maybe he misses one or both. Or, just maybe, the refs eat the whistle because it's two guys going hard. Either way, it's better than a possible game changing 3-pt. play that gets the Cavs and their fans in a frenzy. It's better than letting LeBron or any other player get a good look while still drawing a foul.
For instance, when is the last time you saw Shaquille O'Neal get dunked on? Or gave up an easy lay up? Especially in crunch time? I bet you're having a hard time remembering because it doesn't happen. Sure, Shaq may get a foul, and the shooter might hit both free throws. He may not. I would rather take my chances on free throws than a poorly contested lay-up or dunk, because there's a seed planted in a shooter's mind when they know a defender isn't having it. There's a thought of "maybe not?" There's also dam put on the flood of momentum that comes with a big basket or the hoop and foul. You can stop the crowd from empowering a home team. You'll hear "ahhhhh" instead of "YEAHHHH!" It's not always just about giving up the two points. There's a psychological edge to being the aggressor. Suppose the shooter has a seemingly open lay-up but the other player effectively stops him from an easy one with a hard foul. Knowing he was already defended pretty tough in previous attempts, the shooter is hesitant taking it to the hole in crunch time. Do you think a 3-pt shooting center on the "softest" team in the NBA even attempts that shot if he knows there's no way it's getting up? That hesitation could be the result of doubt of whether or not he'll convert the bucket. Or even get the foul called. On Thursday, LeBron did miss a free throw late that could have give us a chance to tie the game, had Pau not gone for the un-clutch triple play (missed lay-up, missed free throws, poor box out - in succession). There has never been a 100% free throw shooter, and as Pau proved, even the good players miss crucial ones. Putting LeBron on the line for two just a couple of those times could have changed the game. Making Bargnani shoot two could have meant overtime, instead of Toronto having the opportunity to finish the game on two free throws.
Still, the Lakers have the best defense in the NBA. They're 2nd in the NBA in opponents FG% (by .01), 1st in 3 Pt FG%, and 1st in point differential. It's because they are big and skilled. This team is very talented. Even in the Cavs game, they held the Cavs to 92 pts. Why doesn't feel like enough yet? Because the fear isn't there. It needs to be. There's a chance for them to become a great defensive team if they decide to put the slightest hesitation in the minds of opponents. Then maybe scrubs like Nicolas Batum don't attempt to dunk on Pau a third time then feel the need to tell him. Maybe Toronto's big men don't think they can walk in the paint and steal a win. Maybe Lamar saves 2-3 points by putting LeBron on the line for two, or LeBron doesn't know he can go coast to coast to take the lead, and just maybe, Andrew remembers that Phil wants his defensive presence and 6 fouls more than his 15 ppg. Intimidation factor. Hopefully teams will decide to stay on the perimeter more and get forced into uncomfortable mid range shots, rather than meet a 7 footer able to block their shot, force a bad one and get the rebound, or put them on their asses. I know the Lakers aren't soft. Sometimes I just want them to be hard. I want them to hit first. Especially in their quest to repeat. It's reaching that tipping point. Even if it's not in their DNA.