In Denver, the conversation around Saturday’s Game 7 at Staples is entirely optimistic.
The question is “What if they win?” They’re the team playing with house money, only now discovering potential that even if it doesn’t get them over the top in this series, is reason to be excited for next year. Game 7 is an opportunity to do something special, energizing a franchise and a fanbase, but to some degree the Nuggets have already done that. Two big wins down 3-1 with a young team coming together on the fly is no small accomplishment.
In Los Angeles, the context is almost entirely pessimistic. “What happens if they lose?”
If the Lakers can’t get out of the first round with this group -- Kobe Bryant having turned back the clock, a four-time All-Star in Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum after a breakout season from both a health and performance standpoint -- how can they be expected to be better next year without massive change? What does an opening series exit after building a 3-1 lead do to the future of coach Mike Brown in L.A.? I’d be shocked if he was fired, but the collapse would absolutely undercut the program Brown hopes to build here. Pau Gasol’s future with L.A. is already in doubt, given the size of his contract, the mileage on his odometer. Invisible performances like Thursday’s only add layers to the conversation. Another clunker Saturday could ensure an offseason trade.
There’s the future of Bryant, and whether he’ll ever again have enough around him in Los Angeles to win another title. If not, what then?
And perhaps most important, there’s Bynum, in theory at least the team's next foundational superstar. The talent is unquestionable, but is the commitment, night in and night out? Is he capable of growing into the leader the Lakers will need should they decide to make a long term, likely very expensive, contract offer? What does he do with the sort of power he'd have as the face of the organization?*
The answer depends largely on whether the controversies of this season were an aberration or a trend, but how many millions ought to be staked on it?
Change with this roster is coming in some form, but if the Lakers lose Saturday, it's basically open season.
Still, the Lakers have an opportunity Saturday to once again change the narrative. They can deliver the sort of aggressive and confident performance reminiscent of Game 1. They’ll get Metta World Peace back on the floor, who will make a major difference in the team’s intensity, as well in the defensive options available to Brown. Bynum and Gasol can find some redemption, not a farfetched notion given we’re talking about two elite players. They can still come together as a team, advance through Game 7, and face off against the Thunder. If they stay alive, the possibility for something genuinely magical, long shot though it may be, still exists. Who knows what might happen if the Lakers enter a series completely unburdened by any expectation that they'll win?
I'd like to find out.
So the Lakers can absolutely win Saturday night. I feel like they will, but given how many bad showings they’ve had in big games over the last few years, can’t say I’d bet the farm.
This is the context of Game 7. The Lakers will take the floor with everyone wondering what happens if the game goes wrong. They have a lot more negativity to set aside and bury than the Nuggets, more to overcome should they fall behind. Game 7's can be hard enough, and compartmentalizing the stakes at hand only makes things harder and will require far more mental strength to defeat than the Lakers displayed in Games 5 and 6.
This is the burden of playing for the Lakers. They may not be champions right now, but the franchise is still king across the league. Heavy are the heads that wear the crown.
*For those of you who believe Bynum has been receiving too much criticism over the last few days -- I think you're mistaken, for what it's worth -- this is the reason. Gasol's horrible disappearing act in Game 6 is totally inexcusable for a player of his caliber, but he's not the future. Even if the Lakers buck the odds and make a Finals run, there's still a strong chance he's moved this offseason just because of the finances. Bynum, however, is supposed to be the future. He's looked at now with a much more critical eye because his performance and personality isn't simply a determining factor in this season or next, but perhaps four or five more down the road.
In an NBA world with limitations and restrictions thanks to the new CBA, teams simply can't make mistakes with their major money contracts. Between his behavior this season and still present injury issues -- one healthy season doesn't erase the history -- there are reasons to wonder if, long term, he'd be a mistake despite his prodigious talent.