Another playoff series, another Game 1 loss. For the Los Angeles Lakers, this has become the status quo. This team has no regard for home court advantage, which might be why it is so important that they have it, if only because when they lose on their home court early on in the series, they need only win one on the other guy's floor to regain it. It's the sad state of Laker affairs that last night's 96-94 loss to the Dallas Mavericks could actually be spun as a positive step for the team. After all, in the Lakers' previous postseason duds, it was clear from the onset that the team would not be bringing the requisite effort. This time, they at least built a huge lead before deciding they could afford to shut it down for the night. Progress, people. Progress. That's worse, you say? Oh well, you can't fault a guy for trying.
It was a bad loss, in many ways worse than either of the defeats to an inferior New Orleans Hornets team in the 1st round. When dealing with a failure of this magnitude, there's plenty of blame to go around. Every Laker deserves a share. Kobe Bryant was great, but his end game was flawed, as it has been all season long. Pau Gasol was decent, but decent doesn't cut it from a team's second banana, and his role in the end game was as typical as it was sad. The only guys who don't deserve some time in the spotlight of suckitude are Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom. Both (Fish with 8 points on six shots, 6 assists, Lamar with 15 points on 10 shots, 12 boards) did exactly what one would expect from their respective roles.
After those four, the box scores start looking particularly woeful. If Andrew Bynum is going to be the most important factor to this series, the Lakers might be in serious trouble (yay for one game over-reactions, amirite?). Drew put together his worst effort of the postseason, failing to reach double digit points for the first time in the playoffs, and grabbing only five rebounds (his previous low was 9). Ron Artest used 8 shots to make one basket. And the Killer Bees should change their name to the Suicidal Bees, because the only team they kill is their own. Everywhere you look is a player worthy of your scorn. If the Lakers are a dart board, you need not take time aiming for a player to blame. Anywhere on the board will do. But if you do aim, do so in the proper way. Aim for the center. With so many players failing to live up to expectation, with just about the entire team failing in such a grandiose manner, the one bears the greatest responsibility is the man at the center of it all, Phil Jackson.
In a two point loss, one in which the Lakers had a substantial 16 point lead in the 2nd half, and a seven point lead entering the final frame, there are so many elements that, had any one of them been changed, would have changed the overall result. So many decisions, and one of which could have made the difference. The elements are the domain of the players, and of Lady Luck. The decisions are Phil Jackson's contribution to this journey, and he made some curious ones.
First and foremost is the Phil Jackson special, in which he steadfastly refuses to call a time out just to stop momentum for the other team. Right after building up a 16 point lead, the Lakers allowed Dallas to go on a 20-6 run to cut the lead back down to three. The run occurred completely uninterrupted. Only after Corey Brewer's three completed the Mavs quick comeback did PJ decide he needed to stop the action. 29 other coaches would have pulled the trigger on that timeout sooner. Hell, the other 29 would probably have done it in less than half the time it took PJ. That's because the Lakers failing wasn't a matter of missed shots or tough breaks. It wasn't even poor execution. The team simply shut down. The Lakers didn't need to work out their issues. They needed to be slapped in the face. But Phil doesn't do that. He never has. He believes in letting his teams figure these things out on their own. Last night, nothing ever got figured, and by the time he stepped in, there was no more lead to protect.
Phil's next trick involved leaving his over-matched bench in the game for a long, long time. Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, and Matt Barnes have all been disappointing in the postseason. They've had a few nice stretches in key Laker victories, but the trio is combining to shoot just above 40% this postseason, with Brown and Barnes both shooting below 30% from three point range. As we've documented many times before, their offensive capability as a unit is terrible, with their one saving grace being an aggressive defense that can lead to more easy points in transition than one sees from the starting unit. But, if they can't stop the other team from scoring, you can pretty much pencil in a 5-10 point fluctuation in favor of the opponent while the Killer Bees are on the floor. We saw this in the first half when, after tying the score just after the end of the 1st quarter, the Mavs went on a quick 7-2 run before the starters began returning to the action. After Dallas closed the big 2nd half lead to three, and the starters finally snapped out of it, my greatest fear was that Dallas would once again close the gap against the Lakers moribund 2nd unit. That fear was realized with a quick 5-0 run for the Mavs to start the quarter. From there the bench held firm, but the lack of bench production was one of the key elements of this game. Excluding both team's 6th men, the Mavs got 25 points from 61 bench minutes. The Lakers got 10 points from 46 bench minutes. With nobody on the roster playing more than 36 minutes per game in the postseason, you'd figure PJ could have gotten some stabilizing superstars in there a bit sooner.
Finally, we get to the end game, which the Lakers have struggled with all season. The only area to truly place blame on Jackson for there was the curious inclusion of Pau Gasol as Dirk Nowitzki's defender with the Lakers up one and 20 seconds to play. After all, Dirk torched Pau all game long, to the tune of 5-5 shooting and 13 points on just 6 possessions (courtesy of @RobMahoney), so why did PJ not choose to have Lamar Odom, who defended Dirk with much greater success) guard the big German. It took all of 0 seconds for this plan to backfire. Pau "fouled" Dirk on the entry pass and sent Nowitzki to the line for the game's winning points. After that, whatever Phil drew up for the last two Laker possessions didn't work, but that's not necessarily at his feet. He didn't make Kobe slip, he didn't make Gasol drop the ball, and the last second play actually got Kobe a pretty clean look to end the game.
So a bunch of curious decisions, or at least, decisions that would be curious from anyone but Phil Jackson, can be pointed to as being primary reasons for the Lakers losing game 1. It's not the first time this has happened, and it might not be the last. Still, blame is blame, so I'd like to take this moment to say to Phil Jackson what all of Lakers Nation should be saying.
Kudos. Well done. Keep up the good work.
No, I'm not joking. With just a few small changes, Phil Jackson could absolutely have maintained a victory for his team yesterday. Instead, he did what he's always done and stuck to his guns, and because of it, his team lost. And he should be commended for this. Why? Because when it comes to the Lakers, and to PJ, there are no points awarded for progress. There are some troubling facts and trends regarding this Lakers squad, and the only way the final goal of a championship will be obtained is if some stuff gets sorted out. Here's a bit of breaking news: The Lakers will probably fail to win a championship if their bench continues its terrible production. They will probably fail if the team can't clean things up in the end game. They will probably fail if Pau Gasol can't fix whatever it is that makes Pau Gasol play like this. And, while it's hard to point out why the team might fail to win a championship if they need timeouts to stem opposing momentum, that's been a staple of Phil Jackson's since the beginning of his ridiculously successful coaching career.
These are all problems, and they all need to be solved. Phil Jackson was willing to lose yesterday's game in order to help his guys figure these things out, because in the grand scheme of things, the loss doesn't matter. Not because the Lakers should have supreme confidence in their ability to comeback from a deficit in a playoff series. Not because the Mavericks aren't a worthy opponent deserving of the Lakers fear and respect. No, the loss doesn't matter because, if this playoff run is not going to end in a parade, then who the hell cares whether it ends in the 2nd round or the NBA Finals. Fixing the team's problems are Phil Jackson's concern, not any attempts to hold things together with string. If this were the NBA Finals, I'd say to hell with the life lessons, but it's not. It's the 2nd round of the playoffs, a full six weeks before the NBA season will come to a close. If the Lakers can't figure it out now, they don't have a shot later. So, if a loss is in the cards, if the final run of this world-class combination of talent and experience is to end up in failure, why does the when even matter?