Derek Fisher's sharp criticism of Lakers' play against Minnesota sets correct tone for the season
When Derek Fisher speaks, it's usually in paragraphs and rarely in sound bites. When Derek Fisher speaks, it's usually with context and rarely in hyperbole. And when Derek Fisher speaks, it's usually honest and constructive and rarely personal and negative.
That's why it might seem odd to some that Fisher provided the most vocal and ripe analysis for talk radio when he expressed dissatisfaction with the Lakers' play in their 99-94 victory Tuesday over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"The way we played tonight was irresponsible and it was reckless and it was disrespectful," Fisher told a group of reporters after the game, including ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "I can't get any clearer than that. There was an air of complacency, of arrogance, of 'we don't have to play as hard as the other team to win' that I didn't like tonight."
While he said those words, I was standing among a group of other reporters at Pau Gasol's locker essentially breaking down the same topic. I didn't catch much of Fisher's interview until the tail end, and even then he didn't appear happy one bit. At the time I didn't think much of what Fisher said since I didn't hear much it, but I remember how different his demeanor seemed than in the rest of the locker room, including that of Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Matt Barnes. No one voiced much satisfaction over the win and most acknowledged poor effort and complacency, but the sessions mostly consisted of endless cliches pleading with the media not to overreact to one game, to credit Minnesota's effort and to understand the regular season is a marathon.
That's why when I read Fisher's comments in other reports, I was curious how the rest of the team would respond. Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson revealed respect for Fisher's opinion, but aired slightly different interpretations. Bryant said he agreed with Fisher's assessment, but then said, "I don't want to be too harsh." Jackson after the game Tuesday mostly criticized the team's effort, but he found the term "disrespect" too overreaching. Considering Fisher and Bryant are co-captains and Jackson's the head coach, the various posturings very well may show they're playing good cop, bad cop roles so that the team reacts most effectively. But Jackson and Bryant didn't say much about that, and Fisher didn't talk to reporters after Wednesday's practice.
Regardless, Fisher's words not only were 100% accurate, I thought they were 100% necessary. That's not to say Bryant and Jackson are wrong in downplaying the criticism. They actually reflected the best way a veteran team should react, considering they were respectful, not defensive and realistic. This is, after all, one game and the Lakers are doing fairly well with an 8-0 mark entering Thursday's contest against Denver. There's also very little to analyze beyond a postgame report assessing the Lakers' poor rebounding effort, broken offense and carelessness mostly because of lack of hustle. As Bryant said, "We must be a good team if we're really talking about this game yesterday."
But the same reason Jackson found the need to spend Wednesday's practice watching tape to break down mistakes serves is the reason why Fisher expressed such displeasure. He wants to reiterate the tone the team should have moving forward.
Watching the Lakers mail in games are the worst for everyone: for fans who paid good money only to see mediocre basketball or fans in general who took time out of a busy schedule; for the media who have to spend so much time analyzing a game the Lakers didn't put much thought into; and for the team itself for having to even exert more energy than probably was necessary to secure the win. For the first seven games, the Lakers largely strayed from this narrative, thanks to a fluid offense and a hungry bench filled with newcomers. So in fairness to the Lakers, it is a tad reactionary to start wondering if the Lakers are going to revert to old habits where they go through the motions in the regular season and then suddenly find interest in competing come playoff time.
"It would be [an issue] if it happened two or three more games," Gasol said. "One game, not a big deal, you win the game, not a big deal. A few more games, a concern."
But instead of waiting for that to happen, Fisher took preventive measures and sounded the alarm. The reason has very little to do with the outcome itself. As Fisher said, "I don't know what the numbers are, what the stats are, we just didn't play the game the way it was supposed to be played."
The Lakers are going to have some ugly performances this season, as will any team. That happens in an 82-game season. It might happen because it features a high-caliber opponent. It might because the breaks of the game just didn't go the Lakers' way. And it might happen because the Lakers didn't execute properly. But the Lakers shouldn't lose games, or even put themselves in a close game, because of lack of interest. That's why the Lakers' 108-103 victory Friday against Toronto doesn't seem as egregious as the Minnesota game simply because the Lakers' poor defense pointed more to genuine learning curves in rotation than anything involving the team's hunger level.
"You want to come out with every game hard and being the one who leads first," Gasol said. "That will save energy and situations that would be preventable."
It's necessary to consider the Lakers' need to pace themselves for a long season. But that needs to involve strategic thinking in how to be efficient, how to play with enough effort without burning out and how to put teams away early when possible. Fisher has frequently endorsed that level of thinking and reiterated it after losses or close wins in other seasons. With the Lakers' game against Minnesota, however, the team's uninterest and discontinuity reeked of self-infliction. So even if the pattern hasn't held up for most of the season, it's better to take preventive measures than reactive ones. It's the same reason why Jackson found it important enough for the team to rewatch the game even if he also wanted the players to move on from it. Correcting mistakes, no matter how minor, never hurts.
"We're going to have losses. no doubt it's going to be a long season," Jackson said. "In the process, sometimes I tell our team, 'Maybe it's better we lost that game than win it.' You think you're OK with the end score, but as long we go back and cover the spots in the mistakes we made, I think it helps."
So will Fisher's criticisms.
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest, left, battles Minnesota forward Kevin Love for a rebound during the second quarter of the Lakers' 99-94 victory Tuesday at Staples Center. Lakers guard Derek Fisher strongly criticized the Lakers' effort. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times