Posted by Matt Moore
Few saw this coming. Sure, you could have said the Celtics didn't look like themselves after the Perkins trade, or that L.A.'s penchant for blasé, uninspired play would eventually bite them on the back end. But to think both conference champions from a year ago would face not just must-wins, but "No, for real, lose this game and you might as well forfeit Game 4 and start enjoying your lockout" games in the semifinals? That's just preposterous. How could that happen? The Celtics took three straight from the Heat this season. The Lakers are two-time defending champions.
And yet, here we are. So the question we ask now, in advance, is whether we're witnessing a changing of the guard, a one-year slip for two teams formed in the iron of the industry, or the setting of the stage for the two most successful and blessed franchises in professional basketball to once again take the shovel from those would bury them and brain them with it.
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Most concerning for L.A.? The fact that both losses were not the same. Their deviation from success and development of bad habits in the pattern of failure are indicative of a team that not only is struggling, but is failing to recognize that.
Game 1: The "we let it slip through our fingers" game. This obviously was the less damaging of the two. A few plays here or there and the Lakers win. Make more than a couple and it's a comfortable win. Surrendering the game in the manner they did, however, was about as "un-Laker-like" as you're going to get. They didn't close out the game. They didn't finish with poise. They did collapse, and the Mavericks did take it from them. This game actually looks worse in the aftermath of Game 2. They not only gave the Mavericks confidence, but it was the kind of loss that allowed the Lakers to pass it off as nothing to worry about. That laziness was fine in previous years. The Lakers were younger, the competition not as fierce, and the matchups were avoided. They needed to respond after Game 1 with a ferocity befitting of a team of their talent, their payroll, their legacy. Instead they simply came into the game with the same lack of urgency they went into so many regular season games and even playoff games in previous years (the Rockets, the Nuggets, the Suns). Only this time, it turns out the other team not only wanted it more... they were just better.
Game 2: The "well, they just kicked our face in" game. That's a 12 point loss, kids. At home. And in reality, it could have been worlds worse. The Mavericks only shot 42 percent from the field. You can argue that the Lakers defense was what kept that number low, except that same defense allowed a 106.9 defensive efficiency. That's not great. But it's not terrible, and had a few more shots fallen, you had a much more significant loss. The Mavericks played with urgency, with fire, with a killer instinct. You know, everything you associate with championship play. The Lakers on the other hand felt that they had no reason to execute with purpose. A few passes, a few dunks, and the Mavericks would fold. In many ways, it was a reflection of the crowd, which was first discontent, then frustrated, then downright glum. There's no shock, just petulance at the fact the Mavericks not only didn't roll over, but took it to the Laker's front door, then kicked in the frame.
The post-game comments from Game 2 give us an insight into where the Lakers' heads are at. Andrew Bynum says there are trust issues. Phil Jackson is concerned. But Kobe Bryant? Kobe Bryant is calm as Hindu cows. It's an interesting reaction from the one player who most often calls out his teammates. Either this is the confidence that breeds his indomitable will, or it's an arrogance that is keeping him out of the reality. And the reality is that the Lakers face a challenge only three teams in history have ever overcome.
So which is it? Are the Lakers done? Clearly not. Pau Gasol didn't age overnight to the point he's no longer useful. Kobe Bryant's largely the same guy he's been this season. Older, less explosive, occasionally brilliant, occasionally way too confident in his abilities. Derek Fisher's not any worse than he ever has been. Lamar Odom's reverting back to his space cadet persona, but you had to expect that at some point. The bench, though? The bench certainly seems to have wandered by a mirror and remembered, "Oh, yeah, I'm Steve Blake/Matt Barnes/Shannon Brown and not Robert Horry/Brian Shaw/Rick Fox." And those aren't great names to start with. But you can't look at this team the way we saw the Spurs fall because the Spurs tried to tell us all season they were not the defensive stalwarts they've been in the past. The Lakers have been the same team that won the title, just lazier than usual.
So is Bryant right, and this is just a blip, nothing to worry about? No. The Lakers didn't lose these games because of fluke shots. L.A. faced their own mortality and their response was to throw up 3-pointer after 3-pointer when they couldn't hit water from the sunken remains of the Titanic, instead of giving it to Andrew Bynum, who was actually playing well. The Lakers were lazy, that's certainly true. But the big key here is so much simpler, and so much more frightening.
The Mavericks outplayed them. Just as we learned Memphis was simply a better team than San Antonio this year, the Mavericks have showed the same pattern in the first two games. That can just as easily be reversed with a flourish from the Lakers. But we can't simply walk past these two games, confident Los Angeles will right the ship.
The good ship Mamba is not sunk. But it's taking on water, while the Lakers are arguing over silverware and Kobe Bryant is playing the violin.
If the Lakers' big problem is that their opponent is playing better, the Celtics are facing an uncomfortable reality: the Heat really are better. Don't misunderstand, this isn't to say that the Heat will win. But the facts that we thought would be present in preseason that escaped us the whole year through have returned in stunning clarity. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh play for one team. And that's just a ridiculous amount of talent. If the Celtics are going to win, they have to win with strategy, effort, and guile. Because the first two games have exposed a significant gap between the maximum gears both teams can operate on. Lakers fans can cling to a lack of effort and a series of bad games. But the Celtics don't seem to be playing badly or with poor effort. They're just getting beaten to the spot, beaten to the ball, and dunked over. Role players are wilting while James Jones hits from the outside, and Ray Allen's not getting the ball.
There's age here. The Celtics knew this coming in. When the Big 3 were constructed, they knew the window was tight. The formation of the Heat, the formation of the Lakers' modern core, the rise of the Bulls all narrowed the window further, but the reality was always in the back of their minds. You can't compete into your late 30's in the face of the greatest rise of talent in the league, constantly teaming up with one another. You can, as long as you don't disrupt your chemistry. Which of course they did.
The is not on the Perkins trade. But the advantages the Perkins team held in terms of chemistry, efficiency, comfort and continuity were questioned. And somewhere in the back of their minds, the players are aware: the front office decided to make a move in regards to a time when they were no longer in green. That has to shake your confidence, even if slightly. The Celtics still seem physically capable of making adjustments, playing at the level they need to, winning the games. But the overpowering swagger is gone, and the ferocity of play hasn't been there. They have given the vibe of exhaustion, of frustration, and of a restrained fear, which we've never seen before.
The Celtics can respond. They haven't surrendered home floor. And the common theme in the NBA throughout the decade, throughout its history, has been that you can't count out the established teams until they're dead and buried. We could be looking at this column as one of premature exasperation or naivety in a week. But the signs are there.
The Lakers and Celtics have been confident, and elite for the past three seasons. But now they both face a blood-draining possibility. The talent may be there. The experience may be strong. The execution may be possible. But the hunger?
More and more it looks like the hunger lies in the ones across the floor.