"When it matters" matters, but really it all matters

In the fourth quarter Sunday, the Lakers suffered some high profile breakdowns, the most prominent being Roy Hibbert's dunk as he slipped down the lane off the high screen with 16 seconds left, giving the Pacers a three point lead. But there were others, too. T.J. Ford and Brandon Rush with critical buckets at the basket, and Josh McRoberts' tip off a missed Hibbert jumper, to name a couple.

Those plays looked bad, but in the end L.A. limited Indiana to 18 points and 35 percent shooting over the final 12 minutes. Hard to expect much better. "I'm not too discontent with the last 12 minutes," Pau Gasol said Monday. "I was more unhappy with probably the first 24, and the first minutes of the third quarter, also. That's really when we lost the game. At the end, we were scrambling and hustling so we would have a chance to win, but it didn't have to come to that. That's the way I evaluate it."

Phil Jackson echoed the sentiment. "We got started late in the game. And when you come out of the half and you're really not ready to play, and the referees see it and the crowd sees it and your opponent sees it, and all of a sudden they have a 14 or 15 point lead eventually, it really sets a precedent," he said. "Now to come all the way back and win a ballgame, you really have to burn your jets to do it. Kobe had to pull out all the stops and go individually a lot. So those things happen.Sometimes you're not going to get the breaks at the end of the game because you haven't deserved them."

Which gets to one of my major pet peeves in sports coverage, specifically the notion of "when it matters." This guy makes them when they matter! He comes through when it matters!

I understand the meaning, and that by the fourth quarter there is no margin for error and pressure is the greatest. It's hard to perform under those conditions. True enough, but too often I think the focus on crunch time comes at the expense of everything coming before. It's the Brett Favre thing. He is (was) a great QB, no question, but plenty of those legendary fourth quarter comebacks were made necessary because of bad decisions in the first three. Play better early, and all the stars can spend the end of the game wearing baseball hats on the sidelines, or at the very least, not trying to dig out of a 16 point deficit.

There's no such thing as "when it matters." Context changes, but they keep score just the same in the first quarter as the fourth. People don't always remember when it's over, but the six minute stretch of bad play in the second quarter can have a lot more to do with the final score than what happens in the fourth.

Looking back at Sunday's game, Jackson said the Lakers didn't sustain their effort evenly throughout. "We won the first quarter, but it was a two point win. That's what you try to do- win it quarter by quarter."

To that end, the Lakers have been successful. They've been particularly good in first quarters, when building a big lead can change the entire complexion of a game almost instantly, but have "won" the first three over the course of the season:

FIRST QUARTER: Lakers average 29.5, allow 23.6.

SECOND QUARTER: Lakers average 27.5, allow 25.9.

THIRD QUARTER: Lakers average 27.2, allow 25.7.

The only quarter in which the Lakers have been outscored is the fourth (25.2 vs. 25.5), but the numbers are distorted by the frequency with which they've been able to turn the final period into garbage time. What the Lakers have shown thus far in '10-'11 is how the start is as important as the finish, building leads changing the complexion of games and often eliminating a lot of those "when it matters" situations in which the margin of error is small, or fluky plays might turn the game one way or another.

Operating without a real backup for Gasol, the best way to get him (plus Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant) the sort of rest the team would like is through sustained play early in games. Fourth quarter drama can be exciting, but for the time being the less the Lakers see of it, the better.