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Expect the Lakers To Be Better Still

Throughout the postseason, there has been a lot of frustration and angst amongst fans over our Los Angeles Lakers. At the same time, there has been considerable doubt and criticism coming from the rest of the NBA. The Lakers, quite simply, haven't been as been as good as they should have been.

Of course, all that changed with their Game 6 blowout of the Nuggets in Denver. But rest assured, the critics and doomsday fans will return with a flip and a flop at the first signs of struggle in the 2009 NBA Finals. In an attempt to preempt this flip-flopping, pendulum-swinging, reactionary mentality, let's review the upward progression the Lakers have followed to get here, so that the next time you're tempted to mourn the Lakers' season before it is actually over, you'll have some perspective on the matter that will hopefully enable you to take a more even-keeled approach to evaluating this team

Click on through for some Lakers review...



The Lakers' postseason started with the Utah Jazz visiting L.A. I mused, at the time, that this is a flip the switch team that is only motivated to play up to its full potential when the circumstances and the opponent warrant it. I still believe there is some truth to that. However, I also expected the long-awaited arrival of the postseason to provide the motivation necessary to bring out the best in the Lakers, compelling them to play with effort and intensity, and to push the limits of their vast potential.

Boy was I wrong.

For a brief moment, it seemed that the Lakers might do exactly what I had hoped and expected they would. The started Game 1 in impressive fashion, very quickly building a double digit lead and giving us every reason to expect four quick blowouts and a series sweep. But that did not last. In the second half, they came out flat and put forth zero effort, as though they thought the game was over by halftime. The Jazz mounted a comeback, getting very close before the Lakers stepped up and closed out the game in the final minutes. So much for motivation.

This became a first round trend, with the Lakers establishing and then giving away early leads in Games 1, 2, and 5. Meanwhile, in Game 3 the Lakers didn't even bother to show up. They played the entire game as though a mediocre effort would eventually be enough, and it was not. Game 4 was the only one in which the Lakers gave a fairly consistent effort from wire to wire, motivated for the first time by the shock of their Game 3 loss.

Aside from the mediocre effort, the first round was characterized by a total absence of any Lakers defense. This was an offensive series, which was okay because the Lakers were more than capable of out-gunning the Jazz when they tried. Nonetheless, Lakers fans looking forward to future playoff rounds were extremely nervous, knowing that the Lakers would need to play some very good defense in order to win a championship. Their first round effort would not get it done.

The second round of the playoffs did little to calm the fears of nervous Lakers fans. To anyone paying attention, the Houston Rockets were a much better team than the Jazz had been, and they were not to be taken lightly. The Lakers seemed not to have gotten that message, and they dropped the first game of the series at home. Fans bemoaned the Lakers' unpreparedness, and critics vocally doubted their ability to win a championship this year. More than a few even questioned their ability to overcome Houston and move on to the Conference Finals.

The six games would be an up-and-down experience for Lakers fans. L.A. responded with force in winning Game 2 in Los Angeles and Game 3 in Houston, each by 14 points, taking back homecourt advantage. But they never showed up in Game 4, which Houston dominated by 29 points before the Lakers used "garbage time" to cut the deficit to 12 by the end of the game. L.A. responded with a truly dominant 40-point blowout in Game 5, but they once again failed to deliver in Game 6, losing by 15. In a Game 7 that most felt should never have been necessary in the first place, a Lakers team with its back against the wall finally played with a sense of urgency, never trailing and leading by as much as 31 points in what ended as a 19-point victory.

Throughout the series, the Lakers had been brilliant at times, underwhelming at others. They had showed the ability to play at a championship level, but not the mentality to go along with it. Nonetheless, while many focused on the Lakers' failures in the second round, the fact was that they had played better against Houston than they had against Utah. In fact, I maintain that had they played against Houston the way they did against Utah – even in the wins – the result would have been a Rockets series victory in six games or less.

While their defense was completely unpredictable in the second round, there were entire stretches where the Lakers played dominant, suffocating defense. Even when they were defensively lax, they still weren't as bad on that end of the floor as they had been against Utah. While the defensive effort still left something to be desired in terms of consistency, it was significantly better than the defensive no-show of the first round. Meanwhile, the Lakers also played impressively in the close, scrappy games. Whenever things got "chippy" and emotions ran high, whenever the game was close in the fourth quarter, the Lakers played with a resilient determination, making the necessary plays with poise and composure. They had very far yet to go, but despite any unimpressive appearances, they had made a solid step in the right direction.

The Denver Nuggets were the best team the Lakers had faced yet. They were playing at maximum potential, were incredibly skilled, and had just dispatched of their first two playoff opponents with relative ease. In the eyes of many, Denver was the better team, was playing better, and was giving the necessary effort. For those reasons, more than a few expected the Nuggets to beat the Lakers.

The first three games were extremely close, each one going down to the wire. The Lakers pulled out the first win, infusing their fans with renewed confidence, but they were unable to do the same in Game 2. This game, however, was the first in which Lakers' fans didn't bemoan the result. It had been a hard-fought game, the Lakers had come to play, and the Nuggets had simply beaten them. Nonetheless, Lakers fans were nervous, because the series was headed to Denver, where the Nuggets were very good and would have a chance to take the upper hand. The Lakers quieted these fears, however, winning Game 3 and taking back homecourt advantage.

Then came the first truly worrisome moment of the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets won Game 4 handily, and the Lakers seemed gassed. It was the first blowout of the series, and it raised serious questions about the fatigue level for the Lakers. Nonetheless, they went back to Los Angeles and won Game 4, a close game throughout in which the Nuggets fell apart at the end, while the Lakers once again maintained their composure and made all the right plays at the end of the game.

Game 6, of course, was the turning point. Against Houston, the Lakers had also been blown out in Game 4 and then won Game 5 at home. But they had failed to close out the series in Game 6, and many Lakers fans and pundits expected the same in this series, as well. The fact that the Lakers had played the last 12 straight games on an every-other-day schedule and were clearly tired didn't help.

This is where the Lakers' improvement was most obvious. Every imaginable factor seemed to indicate a Denver win. The Lakers were obviously tired; they were playing in Denver, where the Nuggets had been excellent in the post-season; they had the advantage, and had rarely played with a sense of urgency when their backs were not against the wall; they had already failed to close out a team in the sixth game once; and Denver was in a do-or-die situation, and was sure to be playing with a sense of desperation that the Lakers could not match. A loss in Game 6 seemed both inevitable and, to a certain extent, excusable — which is what made it that much more impressive when the Lakers not only won Game 6, but did so easily, winning all four quarters in a 27-point blowout.

Here again, they had improved to the point of being able to do things they had not managed in previous series. Throughout the series, the defense was quite good, with large stretches here and there where it was absolutely impenetrable. Their energy level and intensity was very good, with the sole exception being Game 4 – a game which some suggeted Phil Jackson lost on purpose, in a strategic effort to get his team some much needed rest. And of course, in Game 6, the Lakers showed that killer instinct that had been lacking in previous rounds, doing what they hadn't been able to do before by closing out a tough opponent on the road, in a context in which they had the upper hand and the pressure was off.

That the Lakers were better in the Western Conference Finals than they had been in previous rounds of the playoffs was obvious to most — but I submit to you that this was merely the continuation of an upward trend of constant improvement for the Lakers that began in the first round and, though not always obvious, has continued throughout.

After the Lakers' dominating performance in Game 6 of the WCF, many seem to be of the opinion that if the Lakers play in the NBA Finals the way they did in that final game of the Conference Finals, they will be very difficult to beat. I'd like to take it a step further than that. The Lakers have been consistently improving throughout these playoffs, and they handled the Nuggets in convincing, if not dominant, fashion, despite having virtually no time to prepare for them after beating Houston in seven games. Why shouldn't we expect them to continue to improve, to shore up their defenses, improve their weaknesses, and hone that killer instinct? And considering that they are enjoying five days off, in which they can both address the fatigue they felt in the previous round and also prepare adequately for the Magic, I have every reason to think they will be.

This team performs extremely well when the pressure is on. They live for moments like these. They are now in the Finals, playing against a team that swept them in the regular season (though the games were close), and that just beat both of their anticipated Finals opponents. Motivation should no longer be a question for them. Expect to see the team that swept Boston and Cleveland in the regular season, regardless of the context or the location — the same team that just got finished dominating a formidable Western Conference contender.

And if they play not only as well as they did in Game 6 against Denver, but potentially even better still, then I'll be very confident in their ability to bring home the trophy and give us our fourth parade of the decade.

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