After two straight humiliating double digit defeats on their home court, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves at a crossroads. They have a choice between two different paths, and tonight is as good a time as any to choose one. In the words of Red, quite possibly the greatest narrative character in the history of film, the Lakers can either get busy living or get busy dying.
In case you might be thinking today's preview has a double dose of melodrama, let me be clear - life and death are not meant to be taken literally. No matter how the Lakers play the rest of the season, it is nearly unfathomable that they would miss the postseason. No matter which path they choose, they'll end up in the same place, the playoffs. Their choice might make the difference between arriving at the VIP entrance or the service entrance, but either way, their destination is more or less locked in. Hell, the path is actually locked in, too, which means this crossroads is all in their heads.
No, for the Lakers, "Get busy living or get busy dying" has everything to do with the mentality they choose for the rest of the regular season. This isn't about a sense of urgency, or treating their opponents with respect, or any of the other myriad of cliches which have been tossed around over the past 72 hours. I think it's time we all collectively move past those concepts as they pertain to the Lakers. The team has always had some faulty wiring in the "taking opponents seriously" department, and their recent success has corroded that wiring beyond repair. This team could find themselves trapped against the aliens from Space Jam, with both the planet Earth and the skills of some of their closest friends on the line, and still overlook their opponent. It's their biggest flaw, but it has not yet proven fatal, and until it does, it's a lock that the Lakers will do little more than pay lip service to the problem.
But the Lakers do not have to consign themselves (and us) to 50 more games of the boring, butt-ugly, and disappointing play which has been their call sign over the past month. And we have the first month of the season as a perfect example of how the Lakers should be striving to play for the rest of the season. Early on, when we were witnessing the emergence of a dominant team that has almost been forgotten now, I wrote about how the Lakers were finding success not because they were respecting opponents and playing with a sense of urgency, but because they were having a ton of fun and playing with a sense of joy. At the end, I wrote:
There will come a time when basketball will not be fun for the team. Whether on a long road trip, or when they start picking up injuries, or when they play 4 games in 5 nights, there will come a time when the Lakers will be fully conscious of the fact that playing basketball is their job. That is when the Lakers professionalism will be put under the microscope.
We've now been given the chance to observe the Lakers' professionalism, and it is as lacking as it has always been. So my suggestion is for the Lakers to attempt to re-capture the stuff that had them playing so well early in the season. The Lakers need to get back to having fun.
Winning is fun. Losing is not. Zipping the ball around with tons of quick ball movement is fun. Standing around watching other guys play ball is not. The starters cracking jokes with ice on their knees in the 4th quarter is fun. Getting berated by Kobe Bryant at the end of another big loss is not. The first month of the season, the Lakers destroyed almost everyone in their path because they played a style of basketball that was fun for them. Just about everybody on this team is a guy who plays this game because he loves it (only big Drew strikes me as the type who might be playing more because he's good and it makes him rich than because he loves it).
Tonight's opponent is the San Antonio Spurs. I won't talk too much about them because we had a wonderful exchange between Gil Meriken and one of the writers from Pounding the Rock (the Spurs blog) and that post talked a little bit about how the Spurs have found their success. They are playing like a team which possesses both joy and professionalism, and they still have a ton of championship quality talent buried under all those wrinkles. They are healthy in a way previously thought to be impossible, and as long as their health maintains, they are every bit as threatening as their record would indicate. Playing the Spurs is fun. These teams have a rivalry filled with the drama and back and forth that legends are made of, yet devoid of the hatred and disrespect that makes not losing more important than winning.
But, to be honest, the opponent doesn't matter. Not because the Lakers can beat anyone if they put their minds to it, but because, whether they like it or not, the Lakers still have 52 games left in the regular season. So they might as well like it. They need to get busy living, or they will get busy dying a death of boredom and malaise. For me, at least, living sounds so much more enjoyable.