San Antonio Spurs 89, Los Angeles Lakers 88: A truly meaningless loss gives all others definition

The "meaningless loss" card is a staple in the arsenal of any fan of the Los Angeles Lakers.  Its usage is as inevitable as passing Go in Monopoly.  It will happen, and it's only a matter of time before it happens again.  Big loss to Miami on Christmas Day?  Doesn't mean anything because the team didn't show up.  Losing at home to the Sacramento Kings?  Doesn't mean anything, the Lakers didn't try.  I'm sure the same sort of scenario takes place amongst other fanbases, but we do have a tendency to discredit any and all defeats that sully the record of our beloved Lakers.  To be fair, our assessments of these contests usually have some ring of truth to them, because the team we adore does have a penchant for taking plays, quarters, contests, even entire weeks, off.  And, on the other side of the coin, the Lakers are so supremely talented that a game in which they give a strong effort usually results in a win.  So, while it may not necessarily be admirable, we do have some small justification for rarely giving credit to our opposition.

None of these factors came into play last night.  The Lakers tried very hard to come up with a victory, and still fell short.  The Lakers took their opponent very seriously and still ended up the loser.  The Lakers played with focus and intelligence, and still it is the loss column that has increased by one today.  There is nothing we can discredit our opponent with; the Spurs simply out-executed the Lakers by the slimmest of margins.  How can such a defeat be meaningless?  How can we not be concerned that the Lakers tried their best and couldn't pull it out?  Because there was one element the Lakers sorely lacked in last night's contest, and it's not something that you can blame them for, or credit their opponents with.

Luck.

The Spurs were lucky to win last night's game.  This statement, while entirely true, does NOTHING to discredit the team for pulling out the victory.  The Spurs are a very good team.  Hell, at 41-8, they are properly labeled as a great team.  They do not need luck to defeat the Lakers.  But they did need it to defeat the Lakers last night.  Consider all of the plays that contributed to their victory.  Consider Antonio McDyess' tip in which occurred with .2 seconds left.  What if Tim Duncan had taken the shot just a fraction of a second later?  What if the ball had bounced off the rim in just slightly a different way?  What if a foul had been called on Tony Parker's drive to the basket previously, in which he and Kobe Bryant collided, causing Kobe to fall backwards into Pau Gasol, so that Gasol could not gather the rebound?  It doesn't even matter which way a potential foul would be called in that situation, the fact that it was not called ended up being in the Spurs favor.

Or consider Gary Neal's 1st quarter buzzer beater, in which the ball was tipped off to the side of the basket, and Neal, at full speed, grabbed the ball and flung it at the basket in less than a second.  That's one of the luckier plays you will ever see.  Again, this does not take away credit from Neal.  He still had the presence of mind to try, the skill to attempt to compensate for the wildly divergent velocities that his body and the ball required, and the bravery to do all this while running full speed into the crowd.  It was an amazing play by Neal, and it was amazingly lucky, and those labels can most certainly be applied at the same time.

The Spurs are second to last in the league in allowing 3 point shooting.  They do a great job of limiting an opponent's attempts (they rank 2nd in that category), but when an opponent actually does get a 3 point shot up against them, it falls nearly 40% of the time.  Only the Cavs are worse. The Lakers got many open outside 3 point shots last night, and could only manage to hit 2-14 from downtown.  It was (tied for) the worst shooting performance the Spurs have seen against them all season.  The two most consistent Lakers over the past two months of the season have been Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom.  Kobe shot very poorly last night, needing 18 shots to score 16 points.  Lamar's line of 5-11 for 16 points looks (and is) much better, but he missed all five of his shots from 16-23 feet, a distance he has hit at nearly a 40% clip on the season.

These were hardly the only outlier box scores.  Manu Ginobli struggled against Ron Artest's tough defense, but he also missed quite a few shots he would normally hit.  Tim Duncan couldn't buy anything from the top of the key to save his life.  Pau Gasol was extremely efficient in hitting 8 of his 10 shots (and sadly, that is also an outlier these days).  I'm not trying to point to a couple of unusually bad performances from a couple of key Lakers and using the incredibly myopic "If only Kobe had played his normal game, the Lakers would have won by X points" statements here. 

Every single basketball game is a combination of hundreds and thousands of interactions and events, and a vast majority of those events involve an element of luck.  Every single shot, every single foul, every single screen, every single pass, even every single dribble, can be considered, at its core, as an event that can have either a lucky or an unlucky outcome. 

Consider the rebound.  Many of the factors of rebounding can be controlled.  Are you intelligent in your positioning in attempting to obtain a rebound?  Are you physical in the way you prevent your opponent from getting the ball?  Do you exert more energy?  Are you more active? Do you have certain intrinsic advantages, like more height, or longer arms, or better athleticism at your disposal?   If the answer to all these questions is yes, you have a far better chance of getting the rebound than if any or all of these answers are no.  But it is still not a guarantee, because the element of which direction the ball bounces off the rim, and how much speed it takes, can not be controlled.  The best offensive rebounding team in the league picks up 30.6% of all available offensive rebounds.  The worst team picks up 21.6%.  That says to me that luck plays a greater role in picking up an offensive rebound than skill does.  You can get yourself in great position, you can work hard, you can have all the controllable factors in your favor, and still, getting an offensive board 30% of the time is spectacular.  And 20% of the time is horrible.  Because 20% of the time, the ball falls into your lap.

Usually, over the course of a game, the lucky and unlucky outcomes come pretty close to net-zero so as to not have a huge influence on the game's final result, but not always.  Last night, luck's scales tipped San Antonio's way just enough to decide the contest.  In a game decided by one point, and settled by a two point basket which, from start to finish, took about as much time as the blink of an eye, and needed to take about as much time as a blink of an eye, it didn't take a whole lot of luck for those scales to be tipped.  For all we know, this entire game was decided by a butterfly flapping its wings in Alaska.  That's why this contest means nothing, except that both of these teams are very evenly matched, and by comparison to the rest of the league, very, very good.

Games like this are what makes San Antonio's 41-8 record so impressive, and L.A.'s 34-16 record so disappointing.  Because the Spurs have been so good, so consistent, so talented, that they have done the best job in the league of removing luck's influence from their games.  They win the games in which they play well.  They win the games in which they don't play well.  They win when the breaks of the game go their way, and they win when those breaks go elsewhere. 

The Lakers have done the exact opposite.  The Lakers have not given themselves the chance to win games in which luck does not favor them.  They haven't given themselves a chance to win games in which luck does favor them.  Too many games have been thrown away that could easily have been captured if the team would bother to give a damn, or run the offense, or protect the paint.  We discount these games by saying "If the Lakers tried, they would win."  But the truth is that  every single one of those games was more important than this one, because this kind of game will happen to you no matter what.  No matter how good a team is, no matter how much more talent, athleticism, size a team has, they will still lose games every once in a while.  The best teams in this league still lose 1 out of 5 games.  The best team in the history of this league still lost 1 out of 8.

The Lakers are losing 1 out of every 3.  And in that equation, it's not games like last night that need fixing. 

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