This felt like a bad loss. It left a bad taste in my mouth, felt like the Lakers gave away the game. The Lakers should have won. Don't you agree?
Then I took another look at the box score. It wasn't what I had expected. The numbers said the Lakers and Nuggets played a fairly even game. Nearly identical, in fact. It shouldn't have been that big a surprise, considering how close the final score was. Have a look for yourself:
Uncanny, isn't it? I don't know that I've ever seen two teams play so evenly across the board, in virtually every statistical category.
Still, any sensible person knows that numbers don't tell the whole story. So when I saw this, I began to replay the game in my mind, asking myself if I had simply seen it through the wrong lens. Did I need to change my perspective? My eyes and the numbers were telling two different stories; which one was lying to me?
Typically, I trust my eyes, but in this case, I found myself seriously questioning my perspective. Had I applied an unreasonable standard in my evaluation of this game? I believe I had. Had I seen it through purple- and gold-colored glasses? Again, I believe I had. Reviewing it in my mind, replaying each part of the game, I found my subjective perception of the game moving to come into line with the numbers, rather than the other way around.
Sometimes, you just get beaten.
Is it a form of arrogance on the part of Lakers fans to think that only the Lakers can beat the Lakers, and that any loss must be due to our failures, rather than our opponents' successes? I believe that it is. This thought has been lurking in the back of my mind recently, nagging at my subconscious, poking at my sense of objectivity and sensibility.
It was brought sharply to the forefront the other day, when a reporter asked LeBron James if only LeBron can beat LeBron. He hesitated, and I was immediately put off. The conflict between what he actually thought, and what he knew he should say, was plainly obvious, and though he tried at first to portray humility, the PR move was one he'll need to work on. The lengthy hesitation made his thought process easy enough to read. Finally, he said, "No, I don't want to say that," and paused again. Did anyone actually buy it?
Honestly, I think I was primarliy put off by the attempt to play the PR game and project false humility, moreso than fact that he clearly thinks himself to be unbeatable. It didn't last, however, and after a pause, he changed his mind. "...Yes I will." As in, yes he will say that only LeBron can beat LeBron. I was thoroughly irritated.
Only one problem: I was a hypocrite, and no sooner did I react against LeBron's response than I understood my own similar trespasses. As Lakers fans, we really do act as though only the Lakers can beat the Lakers. Take a moment to let that sink in, to grasp the arrogance of it.
I am not saying that such an attitude is entirely baseless, or even that it is not often right. Such is often the case with teams as good as the Lakers are; when they play up to their potential, they are exceedingly difficult to vanquish. When they lose, it seems more often to be that the Lakers didn't do just that, playing down to their opponents' level instead.
But not always. As Lakers fans, we've made this a rule. Perhaps we took this from Phil Jackson and Shaq, back in the Kobe-Shaq threepeat days – we virtually never give credit to the Lakers' opponents. It seems unfathomable to us, at least when the Lakers are any good, that the other team could be better, even just for a night. If we lost, it was because we sucked – it is the only possible explanation, to the mind that doesn't respect the other team.
That bothers me. Respect is vitally important to me, and only a person willing to give respect is worthy of receiving it in return. Kobe Bryant is the ultimate example of this: the greater his opponent, the greater his respect for them. How different that is from the attitude of a fan! On an individual level, if you have the ability and you put in the work, Kobe isn't threatened, he is impressed. He gives respect. It is an example that we would do well to follow.
Last night, the Nuggets beat the Lakers. Get that straight – the Lakers did not "give it away." The loss was not because the Lakers simply didn't play as well as they should have. They fought hard; they did their best. Were they perfect? No, but I dare you to show me even one perfect game in the history of the NBA. That they made mistakes is not proof that they weren't as good as they should have been; it is proof that basketball is still a game played by human beings.
Things did not go the Lakers' way, but do not confuse the results with the process or the intent. On this night, the Lakers did what they could. The Nuggets were simply the better team, and they beat the Lakers. Is that such a difficult admission?
Yes, mistakes were made. Phil Jackson inexplicably played Andrew Bynum only 18 minutes, and not at all in the final 19:14 of the game – despite the fact that he shot 4-8 from the field, had nine points and only one foul in 18 minutes, and we really could have used some extra rebounding at the end of the gaem. Same deal for Jordan Farmar, who hit his only shot, had three assists and no turnovers, and still played only six minutes. Derek Fisher made only one of nine shots from the field, and took several ill advised forrays into the paint, where he is probably the worst finisher in the league, resulting in near-automatic turnovers. Pau Gasol had four turnovers and missed three crucial free throws. Sasha Vujacic continued to be absolutely worthless – and not only that, but completely selfish, as well. The Lakers missed eight free throws as a team, including five in the fourth quarter that the talking heads will refer to as "the difference in the game." The officiating was terrible.
But folks, these things happen every game. Even in Laker wins, these things happen on a regular basis. So how can they be the cause for this loss? The answer is that they were not. The Lakers lost because the Nuggets beat them. That is all.
Hats off to the Nuggets. This has been rattling around in my brain for several weeks now, and was emphatically confirmed tonight: George Karl deserved greater consideration in the Coach of the Year discussion, and Chauncey Billups deserved greater consideration as an MVP candidate. Do you remember last year's Nuggets? What a joke! Blow on them and they fell apart at the seams! In less than a year, they have gone from the first little pig's straw house, to the third little pig's brick house. The transformation is astounding.
The mettle of this group is something to behold. Their resolve, determination, and confidence is remarkable. They are unflappable, undaunted by the task that most write off as virtually impossible for them. Remembering where they came from, such a short time ago, I am floored.
Chauncey Billups was sublime. Even with Kobe guarding him, Billups had his way. Oh, don't be fooled by his poor shooting night or his low assist totals. In the second half, he got into the paint almost at will, creating countless opportunities for his teammates.
Carmelo Anthony was also fantastic. Again, his 12-29 shooting could have been better, and missing all six three-point attempts didn't help. But when the Nuggets were struggling, Melo put them on his back, and if he didn't win it for them, he kept them in the game until they could get going as a team. Late in the game, with the game hanging in the balance, he did everything that was asked of him, and made the big plays wherever he needed to.
And his defense? His defense! This is Carmelo Anthony we're talking about, right? Now he, too, is playing defense? Shame on Kobe for helping Team USA win the Gold Medal – it seems he may have rubbed off a bit too much on some of the Lakers' more lethal opponents. To see Carmelo Anthony play defense the way he has in this series can only be pure joy, even to the of us who at the same time hope he fails. His ball denial on Kobe in this game was superb; his ability to keep Kobe on the perimeter in the fourth quarter just may have won them the game. The newest Kobe stopper? Hardly. But I'm not afraid to admit that tonight, he won that matchup – and that while no single player can stop Kobe, the Nuggets just might have found the one that can make 48 minutes of his life difficult.
And the rest of the Nuggets? You know, the tattoed rejects, the castaways in need of redemption. The ones we were certain couldn't handle the pressure, but would instead lose their composure? They were cool, calm, composed, and they made all the right plays down the stretch. The discouragement and frustration that would have led to their demise in such a tough game not long ago was nowhere to be seen.
They beat the Lakers, plain and simple. That's the bad news – that they are capable of it, even when L.A. doesn't "give the game away." The good news is that this is no time for wailing, gnashing of teeth, and tearing of garments. It is not time to decry these Lakers as incapable of winning a championship, or even beating the Nuggets. That is not what this game meant; it simply meant that the Lakers have competition. Very good competition.
Hats off to these Nuggets. Lakers fans, show some respect to your opponents, and recognize that they are not simply the beneficiaries of the Lakers' generous failures, but the victors – not given a win, but taking it, wresting it with force from the Lakers firm grip. For a night at least, they were the better team, no ifs, ands, or buts. They came into Staples Center and they beat the Lakers, straight up.
Now the Lakers will have to go to Pepsi Center and beat them back.