As the 2011 NBA playoffs began anew, any preview or outlook of the journey the Los Angeles Lakers would have to undertake in order to re-repeat as champions of the league ended up with one prevailing theme: The Lakers got lucky. Thanks to the Grizzlies' blatant (and now sadly justified) tanking to avoid L.A., the purple and gold ended up with the best of all available options for their playoff run. A first round series against an over-matched and injury decimated New Orleans Hornets squad. Home court advantage against any second round opponent. A side of the playoff bracket lacking all the teams with which the Lakers don't match up so well. In a Western Conference that is consistently tough from 1 to 8 (Consider: If Memphis can close out the San Antonio Spurs, it will be the 2nd time in five years that an 8 seed will have defeated a 1 seed in the WC, after it only happening once in 20 years previously, despite a best 3 of 5 format that is more conducive to upsets), the way the bracket broke for Los Angeles was ... easy.
It didn't take long for the Hornets to make mincemeat of that script, did it? New Orleans waltzed in, took Game 1 from the champs, making the Lakers appear old and slow to the untrained eye. The Lakers came back with the requisite bounce back victories in Games 2 and 3, but the Hornets won Game 4 behind another sterling Chris Paul performance and, combined with what may or may not have been an injury to Kobe Bryant's ankle, the "Lakers are in a dogfight" headlines started rolling in. Two straight double digit victories put the series, and any notion that the Lakers were in any real danger, to bed. The narrative which remains is that the Hornets never really had a chance, but they fought hard, exceeded expectations, and made things difficult for the Lakers.
It's a good thing two out of three ain't bad. The Hornets did fight hard, and they did exceed expectations, but easy is exactly the label this series deserves from the perspective of the defending champs. In fact, I would venture that the Lakers had no more difficulty in dispatching the Hornets than was found in any of the quick hit series found in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers simply chose to take their playoff dose of easy a little bit differently.
None of this is meant as any disrespect to the Hornets. It's not removing any positives they might choose to take away from this experience, doesn't decrease the value of the two games to which they laid claim. If the NBA playoffs were a poker table, they came in short stacked (a general lack of talent) with cold cards (the injury to David West). They hung around as best they could, and even bluffed their way into a couple pots, but eventually, the Lakers (the Phil Ivey of the NBA) just muscled them out. And by doing everything they could to stick around, they earned themselves a bigger chunk of the prize money (the average playoff game is worth about $3M in revenue, so Game 6 was a huge boon for the team). In the end, they are disappointed to go bust, but should be proud that they hung in there with the champs without blinking. Good God, that metaphor went way too long.
All that said, make no mistake. The Lakers could have ended this series much sooner if it was something they deemed to be a priority. If they ratcheted up the intensity in Game 1, instead of waiting until Game 5, this series would have been a sweep. That they chose to lope their way through the first round much like they spent a good chunk of the regular season is hardly groundbreaking, but its partner in analytical crime is that the Lakers made this harder on themselves than they needed to. After all, they had to play six games, and cross the country four times, while Chicago and Miami took care of things in five, and the Celtics only needed four. At the end of what will be their fourth consecutive very long season, the fatigue from playing those extra, "unnecessary" games might catch up with the Lakers.
There's just one problem with that analytical track ... it's incorrect. Obviously, the number of games, minutes played and fouls received are accurate. But effort isn't an arithmetic equation. You can crunch the numbers to find out that Pau Gasol played 215 minutes in the first round and Kevin Garnett played just 136, but that doesn't mean Gasol expended 58% more effort than KG did. It doesn't mean he'll be 58% more tired. You can't even make silly assumptions or include "effort" ratios to come up with Pau Gasol's True Minutes. On the simplest level, it would make perfect sense that the Lakers' six game series was more difficult, more taxing, than a sweep or five gamer would have been. But in the real world, coasting through six games can be much easier on the body (and more importantly, the mind) than taking care of business in four.
To illustrate this, allow me to indulge in a personal example. At this point in my life, I'm rather unfortunately overweight. We don't need to get into specifics here, but let's just say that no amount of cute colors and cuddly computer voices can soften the blow of the word that pops up on my TV screen when I play my Wii Fit. I'm in horrible shape. I probably can't run more than 1/2 mile without slowing down to catch my breath. I could go on, but this paragraph isn't exactly doing my self esteem any good, so I'm sure you get the point. But, put me on a basketball court, and I can play for hours. Yes, you read that word right, hours. No tricks, no smoke and mirrors, we're talking full court, five-on-five run. How is this possible? Well, a part of it is my unique combination of uber-competitive nature, love of the game, and body type (I'm what you might call athletically obese). But the other part, the major part, the important to this argument part, is that I know how to pace myself. I don't sprint up and down the court, I jog (or even walk when I can get away with it). I don't run off screens or back cut or attempt to create space on offense, I run down to the block and plant my considerable girth. All of these things, the sprinting, the running, they are great. I very much wish I could make use of these "tactics" when I play, just like I used to do when my physical condition was a little less embarrassing. But, if I were to try to go full throttle, I'd be done in 10 minutes.
That's my point. You can go 50% for a lot longer than twice the amount of time you can go 100% in any athletic pursuit, and that's exactly what the Lakers just did. The exact percentages are unknown (my guess is the Lakers were at about 80% the first four games, and maybe 90% after that), but the exact numbers don't matter. What matters is that the playoffs are hard, because the intensity is supposed to increase. Everyone is supposed to play at 100%, and that's pretty damn hard to do. It taxes the body, but even more importantly, it taxes the mind. Sustaining peak performance is the most difficult thing a person can do, no matter their trade. Doing it for a week is likely to make a person start to feel the mental effects. The playoffs last two months.
So the Lakers took stock of the situation, saw that their first round opponent was extremely overmatched, and decided they could afford a late start to the proceedings. In doing so, they allowed the Hornets to extend the series, but not in a way that caused the Lakers any great strife. Essentially, L.A. continued their regular season strategy into the first round of the playoffs. They traded two weeks of "regular season" effort for one week of "playoff" effort. I'm not excusing, or justifying, the behavior. If you want to criticize them for it, go ahead. Lord knows I've done so many times before. The risks to such a strategy are numerous, as Kobe Bryant's ankle can attest to.
But the rewards to the strategy also exist, and for whatever reason, this Lakers team has consistently decided they like the rewards of coasting just that much longer than everyone else more than the punishment of playing a few extra games here and there. The Lakers didn't come up to a path they thought would be easy, only to find it covered with obstacles and difficulties. Instead, they spotted the difficult path up ahead, and decided to take an easier, longer trail which avoided much of the trouble.
In short, the Los Angeles Lakers took their sweet time in beating the New Orleans Hornets in the first round of their playoff journey, but don't mistake the extra time for increased difficulty. The Hornets were (sadly) every bit the easy opponent we, and the Lakers, expected. So, with knowledge of more difficult journeys in the near future, the Lakers decided to forego a quick, hard run in favor of a long, leisurely stroll.