All postseason long, the Los Angeles Lakers have been echoing a phrase from Kobe Bryant as their unofficial playoff mantra. Whenever they’re asked about celebrating, or closing out a series, or any of their achievements, they tend to respond the same way Bryant did almost 11 years ago when asked why he wasn’t smiling after a win in the 2009 NBA Finals: By saying the job’s not finished.
In Game 5 of the 2020 Finals, though, they didn’t put their money where their mouth is. It’s one thing to say the job is not finished because it’s the right thing to say, but it’s quite another to actually embody the spirit it was said in, to truly approach every single game as just another step in bringing home the title, and not get ahead of oneself. The Lakers fell very short of that in Game 5, on and off the court.
Some of the stuff that motivated the Miami Heat in their upset victory was unavoidable. The The NBA having the trophy in the building, or having confetti cannons courtside is just something the league has to do to be ready for a possible title celebration. There is nothing the Lakers can do about that.
Similarly, if the Heat were motivated — as Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports suggested they were — by the Lakers making plans for a celebration “at Three Bridges Bar & Grill, a popular dining establishment located on an island in the heart of a lake at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort,” there is also probably not much the Lakers can do. The non-playing members of the organization had to be ready for any scenario, and can’t do anything about the Heat looking for slights.
What the Lakers can do, however, is avoid acting like they’ve already won. Ever since they dominated Game 1 of this series, there has been an air about this team of “we got this, we can flip the switch any time we want.” They have said all the right things publicly, but you can see it in their play, their stretches of lollygagging followed by attempts to flip the switch.
The Heat undoubtedly deserve credit for their adjustments, their talent and for continuing to fight against the odds, but in Game 2 the Lakers clearly sleepwalked to a win, the same mentality cost them in Game 3, and then after a hard-fought win in Game 4 they suffered from some of the same type of premature preening in Game 5.
It happened on the court, where the Lakers made defensive mistake after defensive mistake, and honestly were bailed out by LeBron James spewing flames from 3-point range to keep them in a game they didn’t really deserve to win. The public’s focus may be on Danny Green’s missed three or Markieff Morris’ awful turnover, but the stuff Frank Vogel and the coaching staff really need to hammer the team for in the film room is stuff like this:
Rajon Rondo is focused on telling Kuz to run back in transition, and in doing so he doesn't pick up Robinson. These step-in 3's are high percentage looks, and especially harmful because of the size discrepancy. Rondo's closeout won't bother Robinson at all if it's late. pic.twitter.com/wGO0Cl0hXU— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) October 10, 2020
You have to put a body on Miami's shooters in transition, especially when there's a size discrepancy. Alex Caruso drops too far back into the paint, so Herro uses Jimmy's cross screen to get space at the top of the key. AC eats up most of the distance, but it's not enough. pic.twitter.com/ipOMShYLLj— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) October 10, 2020
Rondo needs to fight to put a body on Nunn as soon as this shot goes up. Can't just stand there and hope the ball caroms in the right direction. pic.twitter.com/l8ghBRmPgK— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) October 10, 2020
This is another "not on the same page" play, although credit to Spo for putting LAL players in unfamiliar positions— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) October 10, 2020
Nunn & Herro switch spots here, & Rondo follows Nunn while KCP stays in his spot. The result is both KCP & Rondo on Nunn, leaving LeBron on Jimmy & no one on Herro pic.twitter.com/AfLT9lRySx
Duncan Robinson relocates and makes KCP pay for ball-watching pic.twitter.com/3aPKkYzqnO— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) October 10, 2020
There are plenty more mistakes in that thread, but defense also isn’t the only area where the Lakers didn’t properly respect the Basketball Gods. That started before the game even began.
The Lakers switched to their Black Mamba jerseys for Game 5, uniforms they were previously undefeated while wearing in the postseason. The message was clear: We’re going for the kill.
But as anyone who has ever seen a movie about humans hunting other humans can tell you, the moment when the hunter assumes they’ve got their target and begins their premature celebration is the moment when they often go from predator to prey.
The Lakers got out their Mamba jerseys, and Anthony Davis donned a pair of Kobe V Protros the same color as the championship trophy he was planning to raise. Quinn Cook had a photo of Kobe Bryant celebrating his second title on his shirt as he walked in, and — in possibly the most fitting bad omen of all — Davis wore a shirt commemorating the 2011 Lakers playoff team that got swept in the second round, captioned, “RELAX, WE AIN’T TRIPP’N: 3-PEAT BABY.”
Between all that, the confetti cannons, the trophy being ready and the Lakers donning their Mamba jerseys for a photo op instead of a basketball game, the team couldn’t have acted more like the job was already finished if they’d tried. The Heat noticed, as captured by Haynes:
“You’re hearing how they’re putting the black jerseys on and sh— and how they haven’t lost a game in those and people start talking about that. That is motivation, and it’s always going to get under your skin a little bit,” Heat forward Jae Crowder told Yahoo Sports after Miami spoiled L.A.’s celebration plans with a 111-108 victory. “You obviously funnel that in the right direction and use it as motivation and it definitely helped tonight.”
Crowder may have only scored 11 point on 2-9 shooting from three to go with five fouls, but the Heat’s good players were motivated too. Jimmy Butler had a performance for the ages, joining LeBron James as just the second player ever to record multiple 30-point triple-doubles in an NBA Finals series. Duncan Robinson went nuclear, hitting seven threes and scoring 26 points in his best game of the series so far. The rest of the Heat defended like their lives depended on it, while the Lakers spent much of the game acting like what they were: a team that had dinner plans and thought the job was done.
Both on the court and off, the Lakers need to come with a different energy for Game 6. No more symbolic jerseys, no more picture-perfect shoes, and no more assumptions of victory. Instead of arriving for a coronation, they need to treat that game like a funeral.
They can celebrate when the job is done. Until it is, there is nothing to be excited about.