Watching the NBA playoffs provides reminders of what the Lakers don't have
But with the Dallas Mavericks' four-game sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, Lakers fans for the last week have had to stomach the fact that the Lakers have stopped playing basketball. Some on the team, including Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, have simply refused to watch sports channels, not needing another reminder of how they came up short. Lakers forward Pau Gasol said he was reluctant to go to Memphis games to cheer on his brother, Marc, because it would underline his own disappointment in the Lakers' playoff shortcomings. But as for Laker fans, judging by the comments, they're still watching hoops no matter how painful it is.
For those fans, as they watch on Sunday the Grizzlies and Thunder square off in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals and the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat battle it out in the Eastern Conference finals, there are some things they'll see those other teams have that the Lakers didn't. Still, as much as the Lakers underachieved this season, by no means should owner Jerry Buss "blow this team up," as Magic Johnson suggested.
After the jump are listed some noticeable differences between the Lakers and teams that are still in the running.
1. Speedy back court. Lakers fans usually clamor for this trait -- which is exemplified by Chicago's Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Memphis' Mike Conley -- during the Lakers' struggles. They point to Derek Fisher's lack of quickness, the team's deliberate pace in running the triangle and struggle in getting back on transition defense. Usually, the Lakers have been able to absorb this problem during the postseason, thanks to Fisher's clutch shots, the Lakers using their size advantage and being deliberate with their shot selection, but the Lakers didn't execute on any of those ends. New Orleans' Chris Paul blew by the Lakers with ease, except when Kobe Bryant guarded him in Game 2 and when Paul appeared tired in Game 6. After averaging 9.3 points on 52.6% shooting against New Orleans, Fisher averaged only 6.1 points on 31% shooting against Dallas. And Lakers backup point guard Steve Blake offered next to nothing (2.2 points on 30.4% shooting).
In contrast, Rose became the youngest player to win the league regular-season MVP. Westbrook's performance against Memphis has been considered mixed because of his questionable shot selection, but his speed is still unmatched. Miami's Dwyane Wade finished a distant seventh in regular-season MVP voting honors, but he played a large part in dismantling the Boston Celtics. And Conley provided the Grizzlies the proper spacing to run their offense.
2. An effective Gasol. No, the Lakers aren't going to suddenly regret shipping Marc Gasol to Memphis as part of a deal that resulted in Pau Gasol coming to the Lakers. That helped spur three consecutive NBA Finals appearances and two back-to-back championships. But fans may have wished, quietly, for a temporary Marc loan or that they'd just switch places for a bit, and we'd pretend not to see the difference (Paul is 7 feet, 250 pounds; Marc is 7-foot-1, 265). Pau played a big part in the Lakers' unraveling, averaging 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting, expressing constant frustration over mistakes and apparently lacking the confidence to turn his sluggishness around. Meanwhile, Marc has averaged 15.3 points on 51.9% shooting. Even if Marc had a disappearing act in Game 5 with his 15 points coming with only five rebounds and two turnovers, he's played a large part in the Grizzlies' playoff push.
3. Championship inexperience. Usually, this factor plays out in the Lakers' favor. Bryant and Fisher have each won five championships. They appeared in three consecutive NBA Finals. And they're used to the hoopla and pressure surrounding each playoff series. But this seemed to hurt the Lakers, with their heavy basketball mileage and apparent loss of hunger. The Lakers said they did want to win a championship. Lamar Odom remarked, "You know how we were hungry? It hurt when we lost." But the Lakers seemed bored with going through the motions, thinking too big picture and forgetting about the small steps they needed to take to reach a championship level.
The rest of the field has little experience with Lakers-type success. The Mavericks entered the playoffs having lost in the first round in three of their last four postseasons. The Grizzlies' first-round victory over San Antonio marked just the fourth time the No. 8-seeded team had beaten a top-seeded club in the playoffs and the second time it happened in a seven-game series. As much as the Oklahoman's Barry Tramel argues that the Thunder needs to win Game 7 against Memphis to consider this a successful season for them, the Thunder has come a long way since giving the Lakers a competitive six-game series in the first round of the 2010 NBA playoffs. Tom Thibodeau immediately provided an imprint in his first year coaching the Bulls. And the Heat, the so-called Super Team, may very well live up the NBA's marketing wishes to win the title.
4. Defense - The Lakers' resurgence during their 17-1 mark after the All-Star break mostly pointed to their effort on defense. Andrew Bynum took large ownership of that task by shutting off driving lanes and gobbling up rebounds. The Lakers proved more effective in closing out on shooters. And the Lakers' deliberate pace made it easier to get back on transition defense. </p><p>The Lakers no longer could rely on that strength during the playoffs, a factor the team pointed to its learning adjustment with the new scheme that it installed in early January. Still, it worked before earlier in the season, so that excuse shouldn't fly. The Lakers ranked ninth among playoffs teams in points per game allowed (94.5), 14th in opponent field-goal percentage (47.2%) and opponent three-point field goal percentage (40%). These statistics show that the Lakers didn't necessarily allow too many points, but they allowed too many open looks. Meanwhile, the Mavericks and Bulls ranked third and fourth overall in total defense.
5. Team chemistry. Debate all you want about whether Bynum showed leadership by speaking out about the Lakers' "trust issues" or that speaking publicly on the subject showed immaturity and selfishness. But Bynum was right. The team failed to help one another out on defense, shied away from the triangle offense and had a disconnect between the starters' and reserves' play -- there was little sign that team members trusted each other. Players expressed frustration when missing a shot or blowing an assignment. Teammates immediately pointed fingers at one another when the Lakers messed up on a rotation. And players griped, namely Bynum, when they felt teammates weren't passing them the ball.
Meanwhile, other NBA teams have forged that chemistry needed for a playoff push. The Bulls have remained a tight-knit team ever since Rose made an adamant stance that he wouldn't fret whether James, Wade or Bosh would come to Chicago because he was happy with the teammates he had. For all the scrutiny the Heat has gotten, which is deserved, about whether the team could match up with the hype, the pressure formed an us-against-the-world mentality. When the Mavericks blew a 23-point lead to Portland in Game 4 of their first-round series, Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins reported that adversity made the team closer. The Grizzlies have credited their hard work in training camp to their recent playoff success. And the Thunder has forged an even tougher bond after acquiring Perkins, mixing in his veteran experience and toughness to the youthful energy of Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka provide.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wipes his face as he prepares for the final minutes of Game 3 in Dallas on May 6, 2011. Bryant finished with 17 points in the 98-92 loss to the Mavericks. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol looks to swipe the ball from Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki as he drives down the lane in Game 3 on Friday night in Dallas. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 6, 2011