Tonight, the prodigal version of the Los Angeles Lakers returned, as they do every year around this time. You know this team well: Immensely talented, immensely experienced, immensely, well, immense. You also know their other qualities: Immensely lazy, immensely entitled, immensely apathetic. Complacency is a part of the very DNA that makes up this Lakers roster.
It's been this way for nearly as long as I can remember, in one way or another. The dominant teams of the early 2000s would often be underwhelming during the regular season.They were masters of winning games by doing just enough to not get run out of the building through three quarters and then taking over in the fourth. They were also masters of playing down to the competition. But it was a professional, veteran, group that knew how to take care of business when the business truly mattered.
More recent years have brought the same level of success, but with a whole new brand of willingness to treat any game, even a playoff contest, as worthy of slacking off. Its almost Pavlovian; whenever the Lakers find themselves up in a series, against an opponent against whom they feel comfortable exerting their dominance at will, they invariably choose not to do so until they absolutely must.
This is a dance we've seen too many times not to recognize. It happened in 2009, as the Lakers allowed a Yao-less Houston Rockets to win games 4 and 6 by 20+ points in the worst display of open laziness I can ever remember from an NBA champion. They did it in 2010, losing by double digits to the 8 seed OKC Thunder. And they did it last year, allowing a New Orleans Hornets team completely devoid of a 2nd decent player to extend what should have been a clear sweep into a six game series. It was for this very reason that few people were concerned when the defending champs went down a game to the Dallas Mavericks. Even at two games down, with both losses at home, many of us expected the Lakers to simply turn it on and win anyways. Its simply how we have been raised as fans, to ignore the negative results because they usually don't carry as much weight as the positive ones.
The difference, of course, is that the Lakers lost last year. Whether they treated the game prodigally, or simply had their asses handed to them by a better, hotter, team, there is no avoiding the fact that the Lakers were easily swept away from last year's attempt at a 3rd straight trophy. Such events usually leave indelible marks on the affected parties, but one year later, here's (mostly) the same group of guys making the same choices, potentially leading to the same mistakes.
Anybody educated in the recent successes and failures of the Los Angeles Lakers could see this game coming. Check out the SSR predictions, in which nobody predicted a sweep despite the absolute dominance of Game 1. Every single one of us, in one form or another, expected the Lakers to have a let down game. They tried in Game 2, but the Nuggets played too poorly to take advantage. They tried harder in Game 3 and were successful. Even in losing by 15 points, the Lakers showed quite clearly that they can probably win this series whenever they want to. After spotting the Nuggets a 24 point lead, the Lakers made a game of things in the 2nd half, nearly completing the comeback before a combination of poor play and poor rotations ended tonight's contest for good.
The Lakers are no longer champions, no longer even the favorites to succeed in this postseason. But they still have a supreme confidence in their abilities, still have quite the talent for underestimating their opponents, of being unwilling to match the intensity the normal NBA team manages in the playoffs in every single game. That they pull this trick in years in which everybody accepts they are the best team around is deplorable, but strangely understandable. That they continue to show an unwillingness to go 100% all the time now, having been shamed to defeat the prior year, shows this isn't some sort of cause and effect. It is simply who the Lakers are. It is in their DNA.
For all of their recent success, the Lakers are a wasteful bunch. In years past, they have been capable of so much more than they've achieved, even as they have achieved championships. They are no longer such a capable squad, but they remain a squad willing to take for granted their ability to defeat an opponent that they believe is clearly inferior. And they are probably right. The Lakers are still heavily favored to advance pas this 1st round playoff series. Once they are in the next round, they will face a team against whom there will be no misconceptions regarding their need for full focus. But until then, there are no guarantees that the Lakers will show up for any one game in this series. Their efforts are still very much in question, because their prodigal nature will never change.