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Is Mike Brown's Job on the Line in Game Seven?

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Something is rotten in Lakerdom. It's not just that the purple and gold dropped two straight to the Nuggets. Contrary to what people are saying about how championship teams take care of business quickly in the first round, they don't always do so. (Anyone remember the Celtics being taken to seven games by the Hawks in 2008?) A drawn-out first round needn't foretell disaster. But this certainly feels like a disaster unfolding, does it not? Even if the Lakers handle their business on Saturday night and advance, what hope do they have against the rested Thunder? A little, maybe, but only if they regain a semblance of discipline, intelligence and desire, none of which have been present in Games Five or Six.

Saturday night will be a turning point in the coaching career of Mike Brown. When the Lakers hired him to replace Phil Jackson, supporters of the move excused his playoff failures in Cleveland on theories involving who he had to work for (Dan Gilbert) and who he had to work with (LeBron James). Now, he might have to make room on his resumé for another postseason catastrophe. And the main reason is that he's apparently incapable of eliciting a pulse from his two superstar big men.

At the outset of this series, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were dominant. Drew was a monster at both ends of the floor and Pau looked like the greatest seven-foot point guard in history. So overwhelming was the Lakers' advantage on the front line that many were predicting a sweep after the first two games. How long ago, not to mention naïve, that seems now. Bynum continues to put up decent numbers, but anyone watching knows how pathetic his effort has been lately. Tonight in Denver there was zero hunger or explosiveness in his game. He's not moving on defense and looks weirdly floor-bound on offense. His comments and body language suggest boredom with, if not outright contempt for, his professional responsibilities. There's clearly something amiss in his relationship with Mike Brown, if the relationship even exists.

As for Pau, tonight we saw him recede into a dark, lonely place. His numbers (three points on 1-for-10 shooting, three rebounds) don't lie. He was beyond awful. When he caught the ball on the blocks, he didn't even attempt to make a move. When he got the ball near the top of the key, where he was such a deadly operator early in the series, he was helpless to find an angle of attack. His once-dependable midrange shooting touch has abandoned him. It's always difficult to get a read on Pau's mental state - we know he's sensitive and introspective to a fault - but between now and Saturday night someone, either Mike Brown or Kobe Bryant, needs to look Pau in the eye and help him relocate his competitive spirit. It's time for the Black Swan to come out for a swim.

Pau's not the only one who needs to snap out of a fugue state. Ramon Sessions is shrinking before our very eyes. Even when left totally open, Rajon Rondo-style, he's terrified of taking an outside shot, which is odd since he had such an effective season from behind the arc. If the open look is there, and it will be since the Nuggets are now using the man nominally assigned to him to help on other guys, Ramon has to knock it down. Otherwise everything will get clogged up. Passing lanes, the space Drew and Pau need to work inside - everything.

Mike Brown's future with the Lakers could well depend on his ability to find solutions by Saturday night. I don't think the front office would make a coaching change even if they lose Game Seven. Brown is owed a lot of money under the deal he signed last summer, and for an organization already in cost-cutting mode, having to pay a second head coach while Brown's still on the payroll is an unattractive option. But I'll assure you of this: if the Lakers do fall in Game Seven, some nasty shit is going to come raining down. Bynum might demand a trade. Kobe might demand to be amnestied. Either guy might point to Brown and say, "It's him or me." If the Lakers don't advance, one of the Brown-Bynum-Kobe threesome will be gone next year. Maybe more than one. There's way too much talent making way too much money for a first-round exit, and how much more of Kobe's amazing career are people willing to see go to waste?

Making Brown's job easier in some respects but harder in others will be the return to action of Metta World Peace. He's done his time for clobbering James Harden. Now he returns to the lineup to replace the out-of-his-depth Devin Ebanks. MWP will finally give the Lakers someone to check Danilo Gallinari, who's been killing them on isolation plays. He'll have the freshest legs on the floor. And along with Kobe, he'll give Mike Brown a second player he can count on to compete with fire. But Metta hasn't seen game action in a couple weeks, and he's such a flaky dude you can easily imagine him looking totally out of sorts in his first game back. I can see him infusing the Lakers with much-needed defensive backbone. I can also see him shooting 1-for-7 with four turnovers.

All season long it's been impossible to get a read on this Lakers squad. At times they're the best team in the league. But just when you start believing in them, they become an unfathomable mess. Which version will show up Saturday? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably Mike Brown's as well.










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