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Making Sense of These Lakers

With the exception of Game 4 in Utah in the first round, virtually all of my predictions regarding the Lakers have been wrong.

I thought the playoffs would motivate them to play at a high level in Game 1 against Utah. That lasted about half a game. I thought their disappointing performance in Game 1 would cause them to play harder in Game 2. Didn't happen. I thought their first road game in the playoffs, against a very good home team in a very hostile arena, would keep them on their guard. So much for that idea. Game 4? They came out and took care of business, as I expected. But in Game 5 they were right back to losing big leads.

I was willing to excuse their play against the Jazz. It's hard to take a series seriously when, no matter what you tell yourself, you know that it's virtually impossible that you'll lose it. But the Rockets? I expected them to actually take this team seriously. Maybe it was rust, but they sure didn't seem to have it in Game 1 of this second round.

And now, Game 2. The truth? I am thoroughly confused. We came out on fire, and then cooled off just as quickly. We played excellent defense through most of the game, but weren't able to keep the Rockets from hitting shots. We neutralized Yao Ming, and somehow struggled much more when he was off the court than when he was on it. Pau Gasol, in particular, played better against Yao. And Ron Artest? An efficient offensive scorer for two games in a row? Alright, I give up — what's going on here?!

For days now, I just haven't known what to make of the Lakers. The question of motivation seemed to be less relevant with every poor performance, every lead blown, every unexpected loss. But I think I've figured it out. I think I understand what this Lakers team's problem is.

Middle school and high school were easy for me. I excelled without really trying. While my classmates were working their asses off, I was procrastinating and throwing together homework at the last minute. I didn't take notes, I didn't study (except in biology; that class kicked my ass), and I gave the speech at graduation.

It wasn't that I was some sort of genius. Like anyone else, I was good at some things, not so good at others. It just so happened that I had the specific skills it took to excel in school — namely, writing ability and test taking skills. You'd be surprised how much you can get by without knowing, if you can write well and have excellent test taking skills. (Sidenote: What does it say about our education system, that the skills that allow you to succeed are less about studying and learning, and more about beating the system?)

As a result, I've been a slacker for most of my life. I never needed a daily, scheduled time in the evenings to do homework and study for tests. I never learned time management skills, and I can be a bit short on self-discipline. Why? Because I didn't need them.

Well guess what? Now, in adult life, those skills would be really useful to me. A lot of what I'm trying to do with my career, my personal life, and this blogging thing I've thrown myself into, would be infinitely easier if I had even the meagerest of time management skills, along with perhaps a bit more self-discipline and motivation. And I'm trying, really hard. I know what I'm supposed to do, and I'm working my ass off. But man, oh man, is it hard to change such strongly established ways, and the skills I need aren't acquired overnight.

What does this have to do with the Lakers? Everything!

I have been waiting for the Lakers to "wake up," as though the realization of their or the shock of a loss that shouldn't have been would instantly motivate them, transforming them overnight into the team they are supposed to be. But that's not going to happen. Like me in high school, they have a particular skill set that allowed them to succeed in the regular season. It wasn't necessarily about playing their best basketball, it was about what it took to get the wins, and for the Lakers, it took less. Like me, that natural talent allowed them to slack off, and they weren't forced to work as hard as other teams to establish good habits and patterns. But in the end, these are things that they are going to need, if they want to attain the highest level of success — an NBA championship. Now, the ease with which they sailed through the regular season threatens to bite them in the ass.

The problem is that they have 82 games worth of bad habits to overcome. Just as it has been so hard for me to become a disciplined person, with well-developed time management skills, after such a long time of getting by without, so too will it be a struggle for the Lakers to find the motivation and self-discipline to play at a high level on both ends of the court. It's not going to happen overnight.

And this is why I'm thankful for the Rockets.

For 87 games, the Lakers were rarely challenged. They got by almost entirely on talent, and despite harder work by other teams, they coasted fairly easily to the best record in the West, and then dispatched of their first round opponent without ever really playing that well. If they get to the Finals without ever being forced to learn self-discipline, find motivation, and put in the effort, they will lose. They cannot win a Finals matchup against the Cavaliers or Magic (sorry Celtics, I'm just not buying it) on talent alone.

In their heads, they seem to know this. They say all the right things. But their play says differently. Either they subconsciously don't actually believe that anyone from the West can beat them, or they are having a hard time translating that belief into action, having established a pattern of winning on talent rather than effort. In all likelihood, it is some of both.

After the Lakers' Game 1 loss to the Rockets, Kobe Bryant described them as a challenge that the Lakers need in order to prepare them for what is to come. As he described it, last year they waltzed unchallenged into the Finals, and when they arrived there, they were untested, unprepared to cope with a team that presented a true challenge. The result is something we all wish we could forget.

The good news is that that is not likely to happen again this year. The Rockets are "for real." They are tough, they are strong, they give 110% effort every game, and they are a very, very good team. The Lakers will not simply be able to overwhelm them with talent. To beat them, they will have to try. They will have to try hard. If the Lakers beat them, the Nuggets will be waiting, and they won't be a walk in the park. And if they beat the Nuggets, they will arrive to the NBA Finals battle tested, fully aware of what it takes to win at the highest levels.

The bad news, of course, is that they'll have to get by the Rockets first. Can anyone believe that some of us predicted the Lakers would take the series in five games? I predicted six, but after losing the first game at home, that will require that the Lakers win not one, but two of the three games in Houston. It has been enough of a challenge winning in Los Angeles.

Don't expect the Lakers to suddenly pull a sustained, high-level effort out of their pockets, as though it was there all along. A long season has taught them that they can win games based on talent, and that will be a difficult mindset to erradicate. But if they make it past Houston, we will know that they have taken a large step closer towards being prepared for what they will face in the Finals.

Should we get that far, we will look back with gratitude on the present challenge that is this Houston Rockets team.

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