Entering last night's loss to Cleveland, the knock on the Lakers was how few tests they'd encountered while forging a 23-4 record. Only nine games on the road. Only ten games (at the time) against teams above .500 and as ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin points out, the Lakers are now barely above .500 themselves in those matches. Sure, the opening 11 games featured no Pau Gasol, and Luke Walton's absence definitely has impacted the second unit, who aren't playing up to snuff. But all in all, those crying a river for the Lakers were a decided minority. It's hard to argue the waters have been particularly choppy.
Perhaps that changes a bit tonight, and I wonder if that's necessarily a bad thing.
It's been a pretty whirlwind 24 hours for the purple and gold. The fall to the Cavs was absolutely embarrassing. Embarrassing because it was on national TV. Embarrassing because the Lakers were clearly outworked, outsmarted and out-executed by Cleveland. Embarrassing because of the histrionic-heavy reactions to the way the game was being called and their own ineptitude, lowlighted by Lamar Odom getting tossed for two technicals. Embarrassing because the Staples patrons behaved in equally unflattering fashion, littering the court with foam fingers and the occasional stray water bottle in response to lackluster play or refereeing (or both). As if that's not enough, Ron Artest reportedly took a tumble down a flight of stairs and definitely suffered a concussion. He's definitely out for tonight's game against Sacto, and day-to-day from there. And lest we forget, there's the actual game itself. The back end of a back-to-back, and the Kings are performing well beyond expectations (especially without Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia) and particularly at home, where they're 10-4.
Am I the only person curious to see how the Lakers come out?
One of the great things about sports is its inherent ability to surprise. Late in the second quarter against Cleveland, for example, I thought LeBron James' bricked dunk signaled the beginning of the end for the Cavaliers. James immediately looked out of sorts, whether a badly missed three, getting stripped in space by Artest or picking up an offensive foul for running without the ball into Derek Fisher. In the meantime, the Lakers began a 12-2 run, cutting a 20 point deficit down to nine and gaining steady energy. James then hit a halfcourt shot that ultimately didn't beat the buzzer, but sucked the air out of Staples as fans waited to learn if it counted. Looking back on things, that basket, while ultimately worth nada, felt symbolic. James and the Cavs never gave up in the face of turning momentum --and probably lucked out that intermission robbed the Lakers of additional time to stay in a productive zone-- instead seeming to treat LBJ's shot as a sign of remaining in control. For their part, the Lakers proceeded to take whatever strides made and flush them down the toilet. They basically traded baskets for half of the third quarter (typically when they've played quite well), before the admittedly inconsistent job by the officials unraveled them to the point of no return. Simply put, the Cavs responded to adversity, and the Lakers didn't.
Tonight allows the Lakers to not only wash that taste from their mouths, but actually do so under circumstances less than ideal. Taking it one step further, Artest's absence could create an "all hands on deck" approach, and what better way for a team to bounce back than through a team effort? How Phil Jackson will adjust the lineup remains to be seen. He could start Lamar Odom. He could slide Kobe Bryant to the three, and play in his spot either Shannon Brown or Sasha Vujacic, the latter my choice between the two if this is call, as it messes with the rotation as little as possible. PJ could even dust off Adam Morrison, which truly leaves the rotation intact and gives the deep reserve a shot at proving himself. But no matter what avenue Phil drives, some/all of the players cited will be asked to fill Artest's void, and that includes the effort to slow down current ROY fave Tyreke Evans.
Opportunity also knocks for the bigs to make a difference, and it's a chance hopefully jumped on by Gasol and Andrew Bynum. El Spaniard endured a rare "non-factor" outing, stymied and bothered by the presences of Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. I expect Gasol to spend more time guarding Spencer Hawes, as he's the better cover for center's perimeter oriented game, but could get checked by the physical Jason Thompson. A nice challenge on both sides of the ball to parlay into redemption. As for Drew, he's on the verge of wrapping up an absolutely brutal December, with issues ranging from an upper-respiratory infection to confusion meshing his game with Pau's to, in his own words, being "passive". The Lakers are waiting for Bynum to wake up, then pass the smelling salts to the bench, also waning in its effectiveness.
They say basketball games are rarely won or lost by one person, but rather a team effort. The Lakers have a chance to not only prove that tonight, but remind their fans of possessing a mettle rarely in need of exhibition during the season's opening third.