Remember the good old days when the Los Angeles Lakers took their opponents seriously? The team that couldn't score effectively, and so put all their efforts into making sure the other team couldn't either? The team that had to play all 48 minutes because a slip in focus would see their opponents make a run the Lakers couldn't combat?
What do you think this is, last week? Those days are gone now. The Lakers once again find themselves up against a clearly inferior foe, and this foe is even further weakened by a massive injury list. The Lakers once again believe that 2 quarters of complete basketball is probably enough to be victorious, and sadly they are right. The Lakers and Jazz have played each other so many times over the past few seasons that both teams know exactly what the other is capable of, which means the Lakers know they don't need to try the whole game in order to get a victory.
Last night's 104-99 victory was a carbon copy of so many Laker wins from earlier this season. The starters come out executing well on both ends of the ball. They build up a decent lead, and then the conservation of energy starts. Suddenly the offense isn't as crisp, the rotations aren't as sharp, the team doesn't move quite so quick. Instead of going for the knock out early on, this Lakers team is content to ride some early round success into a close decision. They start playing at 80% of what they're capable of. Eventually, the other team will stage a comeback of sorts, usually involving too many of our bench players on the court for too long. The lead dwindles (or in this case, is lost altogether), we all get nervous, and then some combination of strong defense and Kobe Bryant combine to make sure that the Lakers end up with the lead and the victory.
The strategy makes us nervous because every once in a while, it doesn't work. Of late, that every once in a while has turned into every single time, because the strategy relies on the infallibility of Kobe Bryant in crunch time, and for the past couple months, Kobe has been anything but infallible. The question is: Is this development a sign of progression or regression?
On the one hand, it seems clear the Lakers, and Kobe Bryant in particular, have regained that swagger. I don't know if it's because beating the Thunder made them feel good about themselves. I don't know if its because Kobe is getting a bit more rest and looks a lot more like a superhero again. Or perhaps it's because the Lakers are playing the Jazz, and they can't help but feel confident based on prior results. The why doesn't matter, because there's no hope of it going away any time soon. Besides, I don't think I'm alone in saying that if I was given the choice between the current, overly confident bunch, and the anemic group we saw over the regular season's last 15 games, this team is definitely the lesser of two evils.
On the other hand, is it really too much to ask for the Lakers to combine their re-found confidence with the same desparate energy they used to defeat the OKC Thunder? Is the inverse relationship between ability and focus really necessary? The Lakers were given a two month reminder of how fleeting success can be, but the lesson in humility has not accompanied their climb out of mediocrity. I know now that it's foolish to expect the Lakers to ever learn that lesson. If this season didn't teach them, nothing will. I picked this series to be over in 5 games, and that's still a very real possibility. But, after only one game, a game the Lakers won, I see far too much of a Houston Rockets without Yao vibe developing to ignore. I don't think there's a chance in hell Utah actually wins the series, but I could easily see the Lakers taking their sweet time to lock things down.
Everything in Lakerland seems to be getting back to normal. Kobe and Pau once again look like the best 1-2 punch in the league. The bench is back to giving up leads and giving us heart palpitations. The Lakers have re-established themselves as one of the toughest teams to beat in a close game, because of the ability to play great defense and execute (via the Mamba) down the stretch. They've also re-established that the other team is never out of a game, because the Lakers will absolutely relent when they get a decent size lead. We've just witnessed this team, playing in this exact style right up until the Finals, win an NBA championship. We know they are capable of it, and that's not something that could be said a few weeks back. We also know they've once again failed to learn the lesson that we so desparately want them to learn, that intensity works better when you apply it at all times.
The Lakers are back to being the Lakers, for better and for worse. The question is: Are you happy about it?