If there is one myth regarding the Los Angeles Lakers that is very much in need of busting, it is the myth regarding the Lakers' lack of killer instinct. Every Reggie Miller, every two-bit pundit, will tell you that the Lakers hardly ever step on an opponent's throat, and because of how rarely it happens, we can deduce they lack the mental capacity to do so. This is seen in how the Lakers lose a double digit lead in almost every game they play in. It's seen in how their playoff series nearly always go longer than "expected". It's the very reason why a Game 6 preview is required, because if the Lakers had killer instinct, this series would have been over by now.
Wrong. There are many, many instincts the Lakers lack. They lack a maiming instinct, the instinct that lets you extend a 15 point lead to 25. They lack a "playing with intensity for 48 minutes" instinct. They lack a "caring about the regular season and even some playoff games" instinct. They lack a "proper respect for their opponent" instinct. But above all, the instinct that is most lacking, and most contributing to the concept that the Lakers lack a Killer instinct, is the "ability to convince yourself that this game is a true death blow when it's not" instinct.
But, when the Lakers finally do have a team on its real, actual last breath, when the Lakers have a chance to end another team's season with one more victory, they are stunningly consistent. Since 2008, the Lakers are 11-1 in games in which they have a chance to close out a playoff series. That is downright insane. The details of this little factoid are spread across so many variations that it becomes impossible to think an explanation lies in some mitigating evidence. To close out a series, the Lakers have won 2 Game Fours, 3 Game Fives, 4 Game Sixes and 2 Game Sevens. Seven of these victories have come on the road. A Game Six loss to the Houston Rockets in 2009 is their only blemish in the Pau Gasol era. Whether the Lakers have already crushed a team's soul (in a sweep or five game series) or allowed a team to have hopes that probably shouldn't have been fostered, the Purple and Gold can go into any situation, in any location, and send their opponents on that proverbial fishing trip.
The Lakers don't care much for winning battles. They are happy to let a team back in to a game, or a playoff series, in which the circumstances are bleak, though not exactly pressing. But ending wars, well, that might be their greatest specialty.
That's not to say you should enter tonight's contest as a viewer expecting an easy victory for our collective team of choice. There's plenty of evidence pointing to the likelihood that the Lakers might end up victorious, but these close out games happen in a wide variety of fashions. Sometimes, Kobe Bryant leads the charge by playing spectacularly, or closing out the game by himself, like in Game Six of last year's Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns. Sometimes, the entire team comes out with poise and focus and demolishes their opponent, like in the 2009 WCF against the Denver Nuggets. And sometimes, it takes some luck, in the form of a game winning tip in off an errant Kobe Bryant jumper at the buzzer, like in last year's first round matchup against the OKC Thunder. Sometimes, these close out games are pretty, and sometimes they are ugly. Just about the only semi-consistent part about the process is the victory at the end.
But that part is in doubt too, for two reasons that are symbiotic in nature. One, the Hornets have Chris Paul, and he's kind of incredible. CP3 has been the best player in this series, and he's lapped the field in doing so. The version of Chris Paul that plays like this (and it is tragic that some combination of injuries and motivation deprives us of having him 100% of the time) might be the best player in the league. He plays the game with all 13 other entities on the court (9 players, 3 refs, 1 ball) at his beck and call. It's truly a sight to see him control a game so thoroughly. The other reason the Lakers might lose tonight is that Paul is surrounded by teammates so lacking (relatively) in talent and star power that the Lakers "lack of respect for opponent" instinct might be capable of rivaling the killer instinct.
After all, the one time the Lakers have been unsuccessful in closing out a series also happens to be the one opponent over the past few years that most closely resembles the Hornets, the 2009 Houston Rockets. Like the Rockets, the Hornets have one of their key cogs, in David West, injured. They have a general lack of size that makes domination for the Lakers front line easy (with the proper effort), and that ease makes the proper effort less likely to occur. They have Carl Landry who, for whatever reason, remains a foil for the Lakers All-Star front line despite never even being able to lock down a consistent starting gig league-wide. And most importantly, they work their asses off all the time, and are not prone to bouts of self-pity regarding the situation of their team, and the skill of their opponent. Despite the knowledge that they don't have much chance at winning, they keep fighting no matter what. They look poor enough on paper for the Lakers to be willing to believe they can win at 80%, and they work hard enough to ensure that 80% won't be enough. And they have one player who is capable of closing a game out no matter how hard the Lakers try to prevent him.
This series is going to end at some point and, barring something truly miraculous, its going to end with a Lakers victory. In Game 5, the Hornets received above average shooting from across their team. Trevor Ariza was 8-17, including 5-8 from downtown. Marco Bellinelli went 8-14 and scored 21 points. Overall, the team had their 2nd best shooting night of the series, and their best when considering eFG (56.7%). They lost by 16 points. Yes, Chris Paul was merely great (which is two ranks down from the demi-god level he's been in Hornets victories) and yes, the Hornets turned the ball over quite a bit, but the game was won because the Lakers played with the proper poise and utilized their tremendous size advantage to dominate the rebounds, once the Hornets actually provided some missed shots to rebound. The Lakers can do this just about whenever they want, and that is why they were never really in danger of losing. The only question is whether they will do it tonight. Will the Lakers display that often forgotten killer instinct?