Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers will take on the Detroit Pistons, and in so doing, they will test the limits of the term "Must Win" game. To apply that label to a team's 4th (out of 82) contests is beyond extreme. There is simply no such thing as a must win game this early in the season. A loss tonight won't keep the Lakers from winning the Western Conference or (more appropriately based on team performance so far) or keep them out of the playoffs. Those consequences are impossible so early into what will be a very long season.
But the Lakers need to win tonight, as badly as any team has ever needed to win the fourth game of their season. I don't need to tell you that the Lakers are 0-3. Within those losses are obviously reasons to doubt the makeup and management of this team, but there are also reasons why those losses might not be indicative of things to come.
- Opening night: The Dallas Mavericks are a pretty decent team. They will almost certainly make the playoffs. Even though the Lakers caught them without their best player and starting center, it's still a team that has plenty of talent. And besides, opening nights are breeding grounds for strange results. The Mavs played exceedingly well that night. These things happen.
- Game two: The Lakers start the season with one of the toughest back-to-backs in the league. Playing in L.A. one night and Denver the next is a tougher set of back-to-back games than L.A.-Portland. The Lakers did so in the 1st and 2nd games of the season, while Portland was playing their first game of the year. If this unique bit of scheduling happened to L.A. twenty games in, everyone and their mothers would be telling you this was a schedule loss. That it happened in game two doesn't change this fact.
- Game three: The Clippers are a very good team. If the Lakers do fail to materialize, the Clippers will replace them as one of the West's elite. Playing a 3rd game in four nights, with Steve Nash watching from the sidelines, against a faster, deeper team, this is another contest in which the Lakers were in a world of trouble just from the circumstances of the game. Again, considering the disarray the Lakers are in right now, this was not a surprising result.
I'm not making excuses here. The Lakers should not be 0-3 right now. They should have been able to handle Dallas, and they should have been able to fight through the circumstances with at least one of the other two contests as well. But, in addition to their willingness to provide their opponents with extra possessions, and a general incapability to stop them from scoring points, the Lakers have also been on the wrong side of far too many events over which they have no control. Sometimes, you force Lamar Odom into a 30 foot three and he drains it. Sometimes, Eddy Curry shows flashes of the offensive ability that made some folks think he could be a better professional basketball player than professional eater. On any given night, the microscopic events that make up a basketball game can split in such a way that anybody can beat anybody else. For three nights, the Lakers have not been a very good basketball team, but for three nights, they've also been on the wrong side of those splits.
Which brings us to tonight. There's no guarantee that the splits of the game will go the Lakers' way tonight, or even break evenly, though these things do tend to even out over time. Steve Nash is supposed to be out at least another week. But none of that matters. The Lakers are playing the Detroit Pistons. Detroit is destined for the lottery. They are 0-2. And the Lakers should be desperate.
After a winless preseason and a winless season to date, if the Lakers can't beat the Pistons, at home, on shear force of will, it will be an indicator of far greater issues than a team full of new faces adapting to a new system. Not a lot has gone right for the Lakers so far this season, but at some point a team simply has to step up and make their own luck. That needs to happen tonight, or the pitchforks standing outside of Staples Center will multiply to such a large degree that they will be difficult to ignore.
I'm a patient man, and I can understand the allure of trying to turn a team filled with superstar parts into something greater than their sum. But another loss, to an opponent that should be overwhelmed and is far away from home, will speak much more about the heart and competitive mindset of this team than can be written off or ignored. There is no such thing as a "must win" game this early in a season, but tonight's contest is pretty damn close.