Anyone who's been following the Lakers' 2009 playoff run - also known as the Spring of Our Extreme Angst and Discontent and Holy Crap This Team Is Driving Me Nuts I Need a New Hobby - has, at one time or another, read or heard something like the following: The Lakers are struggling because they're painfully young. They don't have enough role players with the fortitude that comes only with playoff experience. What they really need are guys like Robert Horry, Brian Shaw and Rick Fox, who had been through the playoff wars and were the backbone of the 2000-02 championship teams. Veteran Savvy(tm) needed! And get these kids offa my lawn and what do you mean my left turn signal's been on for the past two miles!
Best I can tell this - uh, "theorem" let's call it - began burbling to the surface a couple weeks ago following a quote, along the lines of the foregoing, by Derek Fisher. I don't think Fish meant to propose a Grand Unifying Theory of Lakerdom at the time. I suspect he was just thinking aloud after a loss at a moment when he was feeling nostalgic for the past. No problem. But the central idea - that the Lakers would be rolling to the title unopposed but for a lack of age and veteran seasoning - gained traction in a few articles about the team, and attained the status of Official Media Storyline in a column written by Mark Heisler and published in Wednesday's edition of the Los Angeles Times.
It's a bizarre column, to be honest, structured as it is around a convoluted metaphor involving Jello-O and refrigerators (don't ask). Fish is quoted in full paragraphs, however, and Heisler basically takes Fish's words and presents them, unchallenged, as a comprehensive explanation for the Lakers' struggles in the playoffs. The Laker young bucks, the argument goes - Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and their ilk - just don't have the veteran moxy needed for the team to weather the postseason storms.
Hear now my plea, reporters of the Times: ENOUGH. The narrative you're trying to peddle is lazily constructed and ill-informed. Not everything a player says into your microphone needs to be reprinted as fact. You can scrutinize their assumptions and test their statements against available evidence. That's allowed in this country.
After the jump, I remind everyone that Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw aren't walking through that door, and I explain why that's not necessarily a bad thing. And of course, the usual review of the Game Five numbers. Ready, steady, click.
I enjoyed the early-aught title years as much as the next Laker fan. The breakthrough against Portland in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the 2001 April-to-June rampage, torturing Sacramento just for kicks in 2002.... good times all around. But here's why nostlagia for those Lakers of yore shouldn't be a basis for nitpicking this year's squad:
1. The threepeat Lakers had playoff struggles of their own. I don't buy the idea that the current Lakers are suffering through playoff difficulties materially different from what we saw in the most recent Golden Age. Events, once they've happened, often seem predetermined in retrospect. Because the Lakers won three straight championships, we look back and craft a story of how they were always destined to do so. But they weren't. That's just sepia-toned revisionism at work.
On at least three occasions during that three-year stretch, the Lakers were nearly dead. On at least three occasions, they had the blindfold on and were smoking their last cigarette. There was the fourth quarter of Game Seven against Portland in 2000, when the Lakers trailed by 13 before an improbable comeback. There was Game Four against Sacramento in 2002, when the Lakers trailed the series 2-to-1, and at one point trailed in the game by 24 points. And there was the overtime Game Seven against the Kings that year, when Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie both missed open looks that could have won or extended the game for Sacramento. Any one or more of these three moments could have swung to a different outcome. A bad bounce here, an unfortunate whistle there, and those Laker teams are remembered very differently.
My point being, there was nothing about those teams that ensured a smooth path to the title. Only the 2001 squad was a wire-to-wire playoff monster. In the other two years, there was plenty of anxiety and frustration and periodic failure of confidence, just as we've been chronicling here at SS&R over the past few weeks. All the veteran moxy in the world won't keep trouble from finding you in the playoffs.
2. If age and experience are the magical ingredients, what of 2003 and 2004? The phrase "threepeat Lakers" is a bit of a cheat, in that it conveniently cuts off the era after the last title. But that same team made another run, but fell short, in 2003. Remember 2003? Same roster, essentially, but this time Robert Horry's shot - the one in Game Five at San Antonio that could have sent the Lakers back to Staples with a 3-2 series lead - missed. In fact, it's easy to forget now, but both Horry and Shaw were truly awful throughout those playoffs.
Which isn't meant to be hugely dissful toward those guys. Honestly, it's not. Sometimes shots go in, sometimes they don't. Sometimes players have cold stretches that can't be helped. But the notion that Horry, Shaw, et al. had cracked the Playoff Code through their veteran wiles is plainly incorrect. The sport of basketball is just too hard, and won't bend to so simplistic a thesis.
And 2004. Oh dear, 2004. Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone, Gary Payton... has ever an NBA team had more playoff experience on its resume? Of the starters - including the legendary fifth Beatle, Devean George - only Payton hadn't participated in multiple NBA finals, and he had appeared in one. And yet, these guys cratered spectacularly against the Detroit Pistons, of whose regulars only Rasheed Wallace (not quite the first name in cool-headed leadership) and Elden Campbell had experience in the advanced playoff rounds.
3. Of the 2009 Lakers, it's not the young guys who've been the problem. It's more than a little incongruous to hear Fish pine for the days when his teammates were longer in the tooth, inasmuch as he both is the oldest Laker and has been by far the worst of the playoff regulars. The third-oldest player on the team, Lamar Odom, has had a pretty shaky postseason as well. Lamar is a little dinged up, of course, and was brilliant in Game Five, but still - if the overall performance of Fish and Lamar is what we get from extensive playoff experience, I'd like a little less, please.
Meanwhile, Trevor Ariza, who doesn't even have the benefit of having played extensively in last year's run, has been awesome, and what little production we've seen out of the PG position has come from young bucks Farmar and Brown. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between playoff experience and performance among this year's Lakers, and to the extent that there is, I wouldn't say it's at all complimentary to the team elders.
4. If age and experience were predictors of playoff success, the Lakers should be cruising to the title. OK, let's assume for a moment that some playoff experience is useful to have under one's belt this time of year. Maybe the Lakers don't have as much as you'd ideally like to see, but take a look at their opponents. The Houston Rockets, famously enough, hadn't been out of the first round in 12 years. The only Rockets with substantial postseason experience either were injured and didn't play against the Lakers (T-Mac, Deke and, for four of the seven games, Yao) or did play but were horrible (Artest).
The Nuggets are in largely the same situation, with only two starters (Billups and Martin) with extended playoff runs to their names, and all other key contributors (Carmelo, J.R. Smith, Nene, the Birdman and Dahntay Jones) never having been past the first round, let alone to the conference finals, before this season. So if having seen and lived through all the dark nights the playoffs can throw your way is so crucial to winning a title, not only should that not be a problem for the Lakers, they should have already finished destroying their greenhorn opponents and be waiting for the Orlando Magic to arrive at Staples.
(Dwight Howard, by the way, is all of 23.)
I've been picking on Mark Heisler in this piece, which isn't really my goal. I like Heisler, I think he's one of the better NBA writers in print or elsewhere, and I know he just had an off-day this time. But I am trying to take the air out of a misbegotten narrative before it continues to fester and becomes a dominant, Network-Approved Talking Point that none of us can escape.
* * * * *
Oh, look - there was a game last night! Don't worry, I was gonna get to it eventually. Game Five had 93 possessions per team and can be summed up like this:
|TO Rate||FTA/FGA||FT%||EFG%||TS%||Off Reb%||Def Reb%||PPP|
The Nuggies chucked this one because they turned the ball over way too much and absolutely could not make a basket in the second half. They're still doing some good work, though, on the offensive boards. Pau and Lamar, with fine help from Kobe and Luke, kept Denver from totally running wild on the glass, but there's still room for Laker improvement there.
The Lakers shot about as well last night as they have at any point this year against the Nuggets, which is mostly an indirect way of saying they typically shoot horribly against this team. When one of your best shooting nights includes a 3-for-16 mark from the three-point line, you've got some work to do. Sasha (1 for 2) is tired of being the only decent shooter in a Laker uniform, damn it!
You know what makes me happy in life? When the Lakers rack up 25 assists on 37 made figgies. A little of that is home-cooking courtesy of the official scorer, but only a little. The Triangle was clicking last night, with those sharp interior passes that make me smile. See, Lakers? I don't ask for much.
And now, your human stat-bombs from Game Five:
- J.R. Smith: 13 shooting possessions (SPs) to generate only seven points. As I wrote after Game Four, "I'm very OK with Denver trying to win two more games by routing 20% of its offense through him." I'm still very OK with it. He's cracked 0.80 points per SP only once in this series.
- For all the crap we've piled onto the Laker reserves in recent weeks, they deserve a round of applause for some very solid toil last night. Check the plus/minus numbers: Odom at +18, Brown at +13, and Walton at +8. Meanwhile: Kleiza at -8, my man J.R. at -13 and Andersen at -17. You weren't able to see it, but I flapped my wings in a mocking, ironic gesture after typing that last sentence.
- Pau almost never has a bad game. Only twice in the last 12 has he failed to hit at least a point per SP, and he's averaging 1.33 points per SP in this series. And he had 10 boards, five blocks and four assists as well last night. I'm honestly not sure that we appreciate him enough. Maybe we invite him over for pizza and Rock Band when the season's done?
Series numbers through five games are below. I'll see y'all Friday night! This isn't the Official SS&R Prediction or anything, but I personally have little doubt that I'll also be seeing you on Sunday.
|Poss./G||TO%||FTA/FGA||FT%||EFG%||TS%||Off Reb%||Def Reb%||PPP|