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There's some fight left in this dog after all

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Watching the Los Angeles Lakers for the past two months has been an unpleasant experience.  Their performance has left much to be desired, but the symptoms have been even more troubling than the results.  For a champion to fall to pieces down the stretch, through injuries, a lack of energy, and due to finally being punished for not correcting flaws and mistakes that have been around all season, the whole situation has smacked of the slow decline of an empire, like the fall of Rome. 

All of these symptoms have been compounded in the playoffs.  Before last night, the series with the OKC Thunder was being played out as a microcosm of the regular season.  It started with the Lakers playing tremendous defense, masking a general inability to score as well as their talents would normally allow.  In game 2, the Lakers won a close game based almost entirely on Kobe's brilliance down the stretch.  In game 3, they went to the well one too many times and Kobe tried to do to much.  In Game 4, the Lakers looked lost, unmotivated, and generally outgunned.  If you remove all references to specific games, that could easily be a quarterly summary of the 2009-2010 regular season.

That's exactly why Laker Nation was so concerned after game 4. I think we can all agree the Lakers did not look the part of a champion in the regular season, but many expected the Lakers to be able to flip that proverbial switch and eliminate many of their issues simply by willing it so. Instead, we've been given every indication that the Lakers in the playoffs are the same team as the Lakers were in the regular season. And we all know that's not good enough. The losses in OKC were troubling, but I was far more troubled by the idea that the Lakers were simply incapable of championship worthy basketball. After all, when was the last time you even saw the Lakers play a complete game? The 40 pt win vs. Dallas? When they held the Jazz to 6 pts in the 4th quarter? When they had an 11 game win streak? Nope. Those games and situations were all fantastic, but all had flaws or were the result of a fluky shooting performance. The last truly complete game this team played happened last June, when the Lakers closed out the Finals in 5 games by overmatching the Orlando Magic in Orlando.

Well, folks, that question has a new answer. Last night's victory was as complete as can be. The defense was typically fantastic, and that side of the ball has been where the Lakers have been winning their bread all season long. Kobe switching onto Russell Westbrook was as genius a move as it was obvious, and poor RW may never be the same in this series. But the offense … THE OFFENSE!!! I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking "Where the fuck did that come from?". I didn't think this team was capable of such a display of offensive execution, and for good reason. Because they haven't given us one. Last night's game was the best offensive performance the Lakers have had all season.

There may have been a couple games when the team shot better from 3 pt range, or better from the field overall. There may have been a couple times where the Lakers points per possession was further north. But, having watched every single Lakers game from preseason to post, I feel confident in labeling last night's ball movement and execution of the Triangle offense as the best the 09-10 team has put together to date. The interior passing deserves its own entire article, and it was coming and going from every direction. Kobe to Pau, Kobe to Drew, Artest to Drew, Pau to Drew, Drew to Pau. Everyone was making the right pass, everyone was making the right read, everyone was in the right place. That's how the Lakers were able to put up 1.21 PPP despite taking less than 20% of their attempts from behind the arc.

Kobe's offensive play was fantastic, from controlled fade aways to penetration with appropriate dime giving, to his straight up holding class and teaching Kevin Durant a lesson. Pau and Drew provided on of the better combined performances we've seen from them, since it's usually only one or the other that brings major league production on a given night. The bench actually provided spark instead of fizzle. But the most heart warming aspect of the Lakers offensive game, for me at least, was seeing Ron Artest look as if he was right at home in the Triangle. 5 assists and 14 pts on 11 shots (as compared to 28 pts on 40 shots for the series prior), including 2-4 from 3 pt range. And his rim rattling throw down made him seem like a completely different player. If Artest can come even close to aproximating this type of performance on a consistent basis, the Lakers hopes of repeating soar.

Of course, I feel better about the Lakers championship hopes already. Not because I think this game signals a consistent turnaround in their play, and not because this one result will cause the Lakers fear factor to increase amongst the other playoff combatants. No, I feel better today because it has been so long since the Lakers have actually looked the part of a defending champion that I couldn't help but wonder if they were still capable of it. Um, yes, yes they are capable. The team that showed up last night, executing on both sides of the ball, can beat anybody in a 7 game series. The Lakers still have a long way to go to prove that said team can show up more than once, but at least we know it exists. They may be old, they may be tired, and they may be hurt. But they still own a woodshed that they can take other teams behind.  There's still some fight in those legs.

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