Just before the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets took the court for last night's NBA contest, we were all reminded of a glorious truth: The Lakers are the NBA Champions. Our reminder was the joy of getting to watch the final piece to that championship puzzle being given the bounty such an endeavor deserves. Trevor Ariza received his championship ring, delivered by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, and a standing ovation from the Staples Center faithful, a fitting end to Ariza's time in LA, which nobody wanted to see end so quickly.
There should have been one more person as part of that presentation, Phil Jackson. Then, the triangle of veteran leadership credited with bringing the championship back to Los Angeles would have been complete. These three people played an extremely influential role on last year's championship. PJ was the brains, Kobe was the will, and Fisher was the voice, the inspiration, and finally, the wedge that broke through the last remaining obstacles. All three have varying degrees of a legacy that will last forever.
I bring this up because a team usually counts on their veterans to do the right thing. These are the guys who have been there before. These are the guys who know exactly what to do, who shouldn't be flummoxed by anything. These three are the reasons why LA raised a banner this season. They are also the reasons why the Lakers lost last night's game against Houston. Our veterans ruined any chance the Lakers had to win.
I've been down this road before. I've criticized PJ in the past for many, many things, only to see him lead the team to success in the end. I've gotten on Kobe for poor shot selection, only to see him make all the right moves when it counts. I've killed Fisher for every aspect of his game, only to see him come through in the clutch time and time again. Only a foolish man continues to give credence to arguments which have been proven false in the past. I'm not a fool, so I won't be traveling that road again. You'll find no criticisms from me. But I can't analyze the game without looking at the decisions made by these legends, by our veterans. I may not be a fool, but I sure am confused.
Before we get into everything else, a very quick recap of what happened in the game. The Lakers jumped out to a very quick start, followed by the inevitable crash back down to earth. The Rockets out worked the Lakers all night, because that's what the Rockets do. The bench still sucks, and for many reasons that I'm about to discuss, the Lakers were failed by the very people the team looks to to guide them through these tough games. Here's how.
Kobe Bryant lost this game. He lost it by taking a staggering number of difficult shots. He shot 25% from the field. He scored less points than he took shots, even with going to the free throw line 10 times. He failed to adjust to the fact that Houston was prepared for him every step of the way. An extremely wise man had this to say in previewing the game:
A word of caution to those expecting Bryant to walk all over Battier again: Battier, more than any other player in the league, is a great defender because of his preparation. He studies what his opponent does, analyzes their tendencies, and figures out precisely what course of action will lead them to the least efficiency. The first Rockets-Lakers tilt was Battier's first experience with "post-Kobe", and there weren't a whole lot of games for Battier to analyze Bryant's new offensive weaponry. Now, Battier has a bit more first-hand experience, so at the very least, he will have a better game plan to try to contain Bryant in the post than he had in the first game.
Nail head, meet hammer. The Rockets had a much better idea of what to expect from Bryant tonight, and it was clear from the opening tip. Kobe struggled to get clean looks all night long, and instead of trying to figure out how the Rockets were keyed into him, and how it could be exploited, Bryant instead continued to be aggressive. But his aggressiveness was not success. Truth be told, I'm not too concerned with the shooting numbers. Sure, Kobe took some bad shots, but he also took some shots that he's been nailing in the past week. He got to the rim more than a few times, missing layups that are normally easier than breathing for him. But I am concerned with the mindset.
No, I'm not talking about the selfish chucker mindset. I'm talking about the invincible, "there are no consequences, only basketball" mindset that led to all those missed shots. When Kobe misses contested jumpers, he could just be having an off night. When Kobe's missing layups, it's clear something is wrong. That something is a strained groin. Kobe played the entire 2nd half looking like he wouldn't be able to use a stair climber. He came in to a game that was all but over in the 4th and limped around like a horse that needed to be put down. Kobe is completely incapable of coming out of a game due to injury, and tonight, it hurt his team. It hurt his team because, the way he was moving, Shannon Brown would have been an upgrade over what Kobe was bringing to the court. But much more importantly, he hurt his team because he was playing through an injury that can and will get worse if you play through it. He's been diagnosed with the same injury that Pau has, except to a different muscle. I love Kobe's will, his determination to play through pain and leave it all on the floor. But if he follows through on his promise not to miss time with this injury, it may well do a lot more harm than good.
Derek Fisher lost this game. Fisher's play last night was simply appalling. He constantly got beat by his man, Aaron Brooks, who had a career high 33 points on 23 shots. Actually, that's not true. In order to consistently get beat by a man, you have to be consistently guarding that man. Fisher instead chose to double down on players who were far less of a threat than Brooks was. In the pivotal 2nd half, Fisher was nowhere near Brooks on a number of occasions, leading to many wide open threes or close outs which were forced to be way too fast, allowing Brooks to go right by Fisher without even the token resistance he normally provides.
But, as I've said before, I can live with Fisher's defense, because it's not going anywhere (get it?). What I can't live with was Fisher's shot selection. Let me clue you in to what his shot selection entailed. Step 1: "Do I have the ball?" Step 2: If yes to step 1, shoot it. Andrew Bynum scored 21 points on 12 shots. Whenever Bynum got the ball, the Rockets had no answer for him, because if you take any two Rockets players, and have one sit on the other's shoulders, Bynum will still be taller and bigger than the two. And yet he only took 12 shots. Fisher took 13. How many points did Fisher score? 7. Fisher's shot selection in this game was inexcusable. Shots early in the shot clock, shots that were not open, shots that did not come within the context of the offense, shots that no one in their right mind thought would go in. People with Fisher's experience should know better than to do what he did tonight.
Phil Jackson lost this game. There are many things that Phil Jackson does differently than any other coach. The merits of these differences are often difficult to see. And those differences were on full display. Not calling a timeout when it would appear to be desperately needed to stem the tide? Check. Rotations that don't seem to have any rhyme or reason to them? Check. Not doing anything to rein in Fisher's poor shot choices, like say, giving his minutes to a more athletic and capable backup? Check. My biggest concern with Phil's decisions was the lineup he sent out for the start of the 4th quarter. The Lakers were down 7. Not an insurmountable lead, but also nothing to laugh at. So PJ decides that it would be a good time to throw out a lineup of Bynum, Artest, Farmar, Vujacic, and ... Adam Morrison. Now, apparently Luke Walton was hurt (and if anybody is unclear about Walton being a decent player that the Lakers need, this lineup should cure you of that), but if Adam Morrison is playing in a game that is on the line, well, that game will no longer be on the line. Stu freaking Lantz knew that lineup was a bad idea. And it wasn't even necessary. They weren't using the lineup to rest Artest. Artest was playing the PF spot. The Lakers could easily have played Josh Powell at the 4 and Artest at the 3. Powell wasn't exactly earning a max contract or anything, but it would be difficult to provide less than Morrison does. Surprising no one, the 7 point lead quickly became 12, and the Lakers never threatened again. But that's not even the strangest part of Phil's decision.
We've seen this before from Phil. He's willing to risk losing a game if it means he can put his players into a certain type of situation and see how they respond. This was just such a scenario. He wanted to test his bench. They failed. Lakers lose. No big deal to Phil. What I want to know is, why, in the name of all that is holy, do you play a rotation like that, clearly risking the outcome of the game, and then put in your injured super star to try and win the game with a bum leg that can be made worse by putting forth the effort necessary to try to win the game? That's what makes no sense to me. If Phil had thrown out the junk rotation, let the Rockets build up a big lead, and then just kept on with it, I would be OK. That's just PJ being PJ. But Phil put the Lakers in a position where winning the game was a very unlikely probability, and then re-entered Kobe into the game to try and win it, possibly making Kobe's injury even worse. By the end of the game, Kobe was going straight to the locker room, with visible pain attached to any movement. PJ threw the game away, and then risked throwing Kobe's season away on an already lost cause.
You may remember the part where I said I'm not criticizing. And really, I'm not, though I understand your confusion. The truth is, these veterans are who they are, and they wouldn't be champions if they weren't. Kobe will try to play through anything, no matter how adversely it affects his performance or his future health. Fisher will get beat on defense, and will also go through periods where he struggles with his shot, and responds by taking more shots. PJ has no regard for regular season games, or bench player's confidences, and will play what ever rotations he thinks will better prepare the team for the 2nd season, even now. These people win championships. They are veterans, and the unquestioned leaders of this team. They lost last night's game, but they don't care about it. And in the end, neither should you.