Amidst a cavalcade of boos and a plethora of bricks, any hopes the Los Angeles Lakers had of glory and gold were all but dashed as they demonstrated one of the more spectacular implosions you will ever see from a playoff team, never mind one of their caliber. As it was happening, as the Dallas Mavericks were slowly choking the life out the back-to-back defending champions on their own floor, this scribe watched, not in anger, but in awe. There were but two bemused thoughts intertwining their way through my head.
This is justice. Justice sucks.
Last night was for Houston and Phoenix and Denver. It was for Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. It was for all the teams the Lakers played last April, all the teams they faced on this April's five game losing streak. It was for every time the Lakers have ever tempted fate because of the hubris of their overwhelming confidence, every game in which the Lakers assumed they could win just by showing up. Last night, the Lakers finally paid the piper. The chickens came home to roost. They got what was coming to them. They were finally made to sleep in the bed they've been making for three years now. There aren't enough cliches in the world to accurately describe how much of a market correction the basketball gods just provided for the years of neglect which have been the Lakers calling card.
Now, the Lakers know why you don't relax when you build up a big lead in a playoff game. Now, they know why you can't assume the other team will wilt in the face their greatness. They know why playoff games can't just be thrown away dismissively. You don't do any of these things, because you never know when life is going to drop a heaping pile of Murphy's Law on your head.
You'll have to forgive me for failing to give Dallas a whole lot of credit for this one. You have no idea how much I wish I could, but it just isn't so. There are certain elements of Dallas' play that deserve to be highlighted. Dirk Nowitzki has lapped the field as the best player in this series. His unstopability might be the overbearing pressure that has caused the Lakers to collapse. J.J. Barea gave his team with a great spark, providing Dallas with the exact form of Kryptonite that so often causes L.A. trouble, the quick penetrating guard. Jason Kidd's defense on Kobe Bryant has been inspired. And illegal, but we'll focus on the inspired part. He has completely prevented Kobe from getting the kind of penetration that would allow the Lakers to score more easy buckets. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood have been fantastic in anchoring the Dallas defense and preventing the Laker bigs from owning the paint.
As for the rest, the only credit you can give Dallas is what you might give a man who is smart enough to step out of the way of a runaway train about to careen off its tracks, or a race car driver smart enough to slow down and watch his rival tumble over a cliff. After all, Dallas didn't even play well. Quite the opposite, in fact, they played quite badly. Only nine times in the regular season did Dallas shoot below 42% from the field and below 32% from the three point line. They were 2-7 in those contests, with both victories coming at home against some of the worst teams in the league (Cleveland and Detroit). This game was won for Dallas because the Lakers put up just 94 points per 100 possessions. That final number includes a first half in which the Lakers scored 117 per 100, because they rebounded a full 50% of their missed shots. In the second half, that number dropped down to 19%, and the subsequent offensive performance dropped to a ghastly 73 points per 100, because Dallas figured out that there was no need to guard any Laker but Kobe outside of 15 feet.
Before Kobe began the garbage time three point launching in earnest, the Lakers were 0-15 from three point range. There can be no doubt, in anybody's mind, that this (along with horrendous free throw shooting) is the primary reason the Lakers lost the game. Many will continue the point as evidence that the Lakers didn't do a good enough job of getting the ball down low, and settled for the outside shot too often. Bullshit. There may have been a few specific instances in which the Lakers would have been better served to pound the ball back inside, but I rewatched the entire offensive sequences of every single one of the Lakers 15 three pointers. Of the 15, 11 were wide open shots, created within the context of the offense, and shot by players who are supposed to take open threes. Of the other four, two were late shot clock heaves, and one was Kobe being Kobe. Derek Fisher took the only contested and unnecessary three point shot in the entirety of the first 45 minutes of play.
The added wrinkle to the Dallas defense, if you can call it that, was that they started not even trying to close out on shooters in the 2nd half. Instead, all five players gathered around the paint to bring in rebounds and prevent penetration and/or attempts to work the game through the Laker bigs. There were 16 Laker possessions in the 4th quarter prior to Kobe's made three. On those possessions, I counted 14 times in which every single Dallas defender was within one foot of the paint, with the only exceptions being one in which Derek Fisher turned the ball over in transition, and a possession in which Kobe Bryant never made it past the top of the key. By the midpoint of the 4th quarter, Dallas wasn't even bothering to guard perimeter players when they had the ball. At one point, Jason Kidd was playing 8 feet off of Shannon Brown, daring Shannon to shoot.
The only credit you can give Dallas here is for utilizing an effective defensive strategy, but let's face it, the Lakers could have been shut down by a well-constructed hedge. It was a choke job, pure and simple. Except these guys don't choke. There have been too many victories in games just like this one over the last three years, too many strong performances by every member of the team in pressure situations prior to this one, to allow that narrative to live. Well, except for poor Steve Blake. God bless his soul, he choked pretty badly.
The rest were simply subject to a horrendously bad night, a night in which Lady Luck gave them the collective cold shoulder many times over. It's a new experience for the Lakers, not being able to depend on her presence. All this time, they thought they were able to make all these shots, to play at their best, to dominate their opponents, whenever they felt like making it happen, failing to appreciate the thin margin for error that is the very nature of basketball, and of sport. Now they know the truth. You play your best whenever you can, because doing so isn't always at the tip of your fingers.
It's not too late for the Lakers to have learned that lesson, or at least, it may not be. But, in order for them to be able to survive the blow dealt them by fate, they need Lady Luck to return to them swiftly. It is a testament to both their skill and their fortune that such a thing remains entirely plausible, but one can hardly reason it would be deserved.