Given the Don Flamenco-esque reputation of the New York Knicks, L.A.'s 115-105 win over the MSG-ers Friday night in Manhattan won't do much to erase issues raised in the wake of Thursday's loss to Cleveland. Undoubtedly, it was good to see Pau Gasol in the fourth quarter break out of whatever funk- the bad kind, not the Parliament/Funkadelic variety- he'd found, scoring half of his 20 points and helping seal the win. As ESPN LA's Dave McMenamin notes, he was finally able to forget previous mistakes. (As Kobe Bryant put it, he stopped thinking so much, "put his head down, and went to work.") No question it was good to see Andrew Bynum chip in with 19 points of his own.
Meanwhile, Lamar Odom told reporters Kobe didn't quite mean everything he said after the Cleveland game, when 24 questioned the squad's genetics. Or at the very least, he didn't mean it how he said it.
None of it changes the new reality for the purple and gold: The "T" word is back.
Sigh. I was hoping to make it through this season without having to talk much about toughness.
I can't decide with whom I'm angrier. Nominees include the Lakers for playing poorly enough on Thursday to put the issue back on the front burner, or Gasol for picking an absurdly inopportune time to play into the worst stereotypes about his game. Maybe Kobe for saying publicly the Lakers didn't have it in their DNA- shred the gang behind closed doors, if only to save me the grief- or the media for so joyfully dusting off a narrative seemingly put to bed last season after the Lakers swept Cleveland and Boston in the regular season, then, you know, like, won a title and stuff.
I just don't like The Great Toughness Question. It's too amorphous, too vague, too easy an answer to slap on any situation in which the Lakers under-perform.
The Lakers aren't Hell's Angels on hardwood or anything. They're not the bouncer at the bar, they're certainly not the cooler. Instead, the Lakers are a highly skilled team operating best when they play to their strengths. Fans shouldn't want them to turn every game into a street fight. No question the Lakers, Gasol in particular, were outworked and oddly passive, but at the same time have won plenty of games played in the mud over the last season-plus.
Physically, at least, I don't think the Lakers are any less tough than they were last year. Adding Ron Artest generally doesn't do that to a squad. As I wrote yesterday before the game, they've lacked the rhythm and continuity to play up to full potential, making them look ugly, disorganized, and yes, passive in the process. As a group, they're not yet sure of how to consistently get from A to B on the floor (it's all relative, of course- keep in mind we're talking about an elite team where expectations are high and the margin of error small).
There are absolutely times when the Lakers need to play harder, but the same can be said for many teams.
But regardless of my feelings, we'll all be talking toughness for a while. Particularly if the Lakers don't win in Boston next week. I don't believe it's the team's big problem, but perhaps you disagree?
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