Friday night's loss didn't come for want of want.
Recognizing their season on the line, the Lakers poured everything they had into Game 3, on the floor and on the bench, and lost anyway. There was another blown lead fueled by offensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter and blown defensive rotations they'll lament deep into the summer, but blame the flesh, not the spirit. After, the Lakers continued to talk of beating themselves and missed opportunities. Of being right... there... if they could make a couple plays.
All true, except that's how good teams lose to other good teams in the playoffs, littering the path with if-only's and indelible moments swinging games one direction or the other. The Nuggets remember two botched inbounds passes in the '09 Western Conference Finals. The Magic dwell on Courtney Lee missing at the rack in Game 2 of the '09 Finals. Key plays and key minutes always seem to swing towards the better team, and in the NBA, the better team wins a seven game series.
For the first time since losing to the Celtics in '08, the Lakers aren't it.
The evidence has been there for a while. Historically, championship squads don't suffer extended losing streaks, as the Lakers did multiple times this season. They don't lose multiple games by double digits on their home floor. For all their skill, the Lakers have over the course of the season had stretches where scoring became remarkably difficult, putting pressure on a defense not quite up to the task. 17 wins in 18 tries out of the All-Star break seemed to change the narrative, but in reality was only a vibrant, dazzling echo of a championship sound. This year's soundtrack for the Lakers was the other 64 games, one many- too often including themselves- didn't want to hear.
I'm no less guilty. For most of the year, I've sounded alarms about the team's shrinking margin for error, and how winning a third title would require them to exceed, not simply meet, last year's level. I noted failures offensively, the inconsistencies of Pau Gasol, and questioned a bench I thought in October would be superior to last year's edition but never panned out. Yet despite all the data to the contrary, despite watching a group never really passing the championship eye test, like most everyone I figured when push came to shove, these Lakers would be those Lakers. After dropping Game 1, I believed they'd win Game 2. After losing Game 2, I figured they'd win Game 3.
Americans are an optimistic people, and never more so than with their sports teams. In the battle of the empirical vs. the emotional, the latter always wins, for fans in particular but media as well. Did I underestimate the Mavericks? No question, despite believing more than many this would be a long series. But fundamentally, I overestimated the Lakers, matching the Mavs in the scouting report against a team that wouldn't actually take the floor.
The image of greatness is hard to erase, especially when obscured by near-greatness and familiarity.
For this season's Lakers, the alchemy of timing and performance appears to have eluded them, despite the lofty expectations. Gasol's postseason collapse has robbed them of critical production, the outside shooting has gone almost comically cold, even relative to the team's own middling track record on that front. Meanwhile, Dallas has raised their game to a level the Lakers can't match.
All that remains now is the chance for a miracle, the idea the Lakers might do what nearly 100 teams before them couldn't, and recover from a 3-0 hole. I know it won't happen, but even then it's hard to completely kill the memory of how good this group has been. Some team will some day be the first to pull it off, right?