Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers face the Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals with the hopes of keeping their season on life support. The team is certainly not dead, but their chances to advance to the next round are slim, to say nothing of any progression towards a championship that would be the only measure of true success. The Lakers are in this troublesome position because of a combination of strong play from a tough opponent, and the Lakers picking a bad time to put together some of their worst basketball of the season. It is not their poor play, however, that is most troubling in observing what has, so far at least, been a stunning collapse of the defending champs. Of far greater concern has been the team's apparent mental make up.
The Lakers played the 2nd half of Game 2 as if resigned to their fate. There was little urgency, no sense that the Lakers understood the seriousness of the predicament they were in. What little desperation existed ended up doing more harm than good, in the form of missed three pointers, and forced Lamar Odom drives. By the time J.J. Barea finally put the Lakers in the grave, the defensive execution smacked of laziness. It's possible the Lakers collectively decided it just wasn't their night, and their energy would be best saved for the Everest of a mountain they will now have to climb. But the more likely interpretation is that, in that moment, the Lakers did not have any answers for the questions Dallas was forcing upon them. We've seen the Lakers execute poorly, take games off, and go through long stretches of poor play, but I don't know that I've ever seen this current incarnation of the purple and gold look so lost.
I have but one request of the Lakers tonight, and for the remainder of this series. It is not "Please win", though I very much hope for it to be the case. The Lakers may not be dead just yet, but the Mavericks are a formidable enough opponent that demanding or expecting L.A. to win four games in five chances is a tough ask, even if the Lakers do begin to solve the myriad of problems that have left them in this position. They've given Dallas to much of a head start for that. Instead, the one request I have, the one thing I will be looking for, is this:
Please, if tonight is going to be the beginning of the end of this illustrious, if short-lived, reign over the NBA, please go out with a bang, and not a whimper.
It's actually rather stunning, if you think about it, how this series can be broken down to those three simple words:
Bang or whimper.
It certainly works when describing the Laker big men, specifically Pau Gasol. Pau has borne the brunt of our wrath, and only a portion of that wrath is deserved. He's tied for the team lead in rebounding, and second only to Derek Fisher in assists. We all know 14 points per game isn't enough for him, but his level of engagement and performance is much improved over round one. There is but one unforgiveable sin Pau Gasol is committing in this series, the failure to punish Dirk Nowitzki on the low block. Dirk is a tremendous player. Nearly unstoppable on offense, the only way you can marginalize the Big German in any way is to take him to school defensively. But Pau has not attacked Dirk with anywhere near the proper level of aggression. I'm glad Pau "makes the right play" all the time, glad that he passes the ball out when the double team comes. Of all the big men in the league, he is by far the best fit for this team and this offense because of his willingness and ability to do those things. But Pau also needs to know that Nowitzki must be made to be Dallas' weak link on defense. He needs to catch the ball and attack instantly, before the double team comes, instead of his go-to move of surveying the defense for as many as five seconds before deciding his next move. He needs to take the ball to the hoop as strong as he possibly can and, even if he's not successful, he needs to stop looking to the refs to bail him out. He, along with Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, need to bang the Mavericks into the ground, and not whimper when they receive a little contact.
BANG! or whimper
The Lakers have to, have to, HAVE TO make some outside shots. They need to punish Dallas for daring them to shoot. They need the space to operate in the low post so that the Maverick double teams aren't there quite so instantaneously, and so that the Lakers can use their natural size to dominate the offensive glass. And they also need to make some outside shots because, as it turns out, those shots are kinda valuable. Threes are the 3rd most productive shot in this game, behind free throws and dunks/open lay ups. That whole being able to get a whole extra point from a possession than would normally be possible thing is kind of a big deal. The Lakers are not a strong three point shooting team. They haven't been for most of the season. But they also are not a terrible three point shooting team, and are due for some regression to the mean after one bad outing and another apocalyptic one. I have no idea if Mike Breen is calling this game or not, but if the Lakers can't get some BANG! in their game tonight, they don't stand much of a chance
Bang or whimper.
Some of you may think my request to be foolish. Surely, the Los Angeles Lakers know that their season teeters on the brink tonight. Surely, they know that anything less than desperation will see them make a quick and inauspicious exit from these playoff proceedings. Surely, a team led by Kobe Bryant, one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the game, will make sure that, if the Lakers are to make their end, they will make that end attempting to be the legends they have built themselves up to be.
As strange as it is to conceive, history says it isn't so. No team which has included Kobe Bryant as a member has ever gone out with a bang, unless it is in victory. It's stunning how badly Bryant's teams have performed in the final moments of seasons in which a banner was not earned. Check out the list:
- 1997: Defeated in the second round in 5 games by the Utah Jazz, including Kobe's infamous last shot airballs
- 1998: Same team, even worse result. The Jazz swept the Lakers in the second round
- 1999: Swept in the second round this time by the San Antonio Spurs
- 2000-2002: Rings
- 2003: Defeated in the second round in 6 games by the Spurs. Game 6 was a 28 point beatdown
- 2004: Defeated in the NBA Finals in 5 games by the Detroit Pistons. Heavily favored coming in, the Lakers lost 3 of the four games by double digits, and the one game they won required a four point play by Bryant to send the game into overtime. This was basically the first five game sweep in history (UPDATE: Apparently I created this out of the figment of my imagination. It was simply a deep three pointer.)
- 2005: Missed playoffs. For what it's worth, the Lakers also ended the season 2-19 down the stretch
- 2006: Defeated in the first round in 7 games by the Phoenix Suns. Although their overall performance in the series was quite admirable, the Lakers lost a 3-1 series lead, and Game 7 was the infamous "Kobe gave up" game. Whether you believe in that narrative or not, that game, in which the Lakers lost by 29, was most certainly a whimper
- 2007: The Suns dispatched the Lakers with ease in the first round, winning in 5 games
- 2008: Defeated by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals in 6 games, with the final game a 39 point annnihilation
- 2009-2010: More rings
And that's the list. It really is absolutely incredible. No Laker team that has included Kobe Bryant has ended the season with a strong, fight to the last man effort, unless that season has ended with a championship. In all the other seasons, his teams have bowed out with tails between their legs. To be fair, Kobe's part in these failures has not always been a central role. Prior to 1999, Kobe wasn't even the 2nd option on his team, so blaming him for those quick exits is unfair. In 2006, 2007, and even 2008 if we're honest, his teams were overmatched, and the result, if not necessarily the method by which it occurred, shouldn't be considered all that surprising.
Still, for a man who's competitiveness may not have been matched in the history of this game, it is shocking how often his teams have gone out with a whimper. There are a few ways you can read into this. The first is to consider that perhaps, when faced with situations in which his team is overmatched, Kobe tries to do way too much and ends up killing his team. The second, which may well go hand in hand with and help to explain the first, is that his teammates wilt under the pressure of his burning desire to win in pressure situations. These are both potentially valid interpretations. However, it is the final interpretation I am interested in, both because I am, after all, a Lakers fan, and because that final interpretation is the one I hope will have the most relevance to this particular series. It is this: Any time Kobe Bryant is part of a team that is not woefully overmatched, and does not play well below their potential, that team never loses.
My only request is that the Lakers give everything they have, and go out with a bang, instead of a whimper. Because history has shown that if they do go out with a bang, they need not go out at all.