It seems the Lakers are fostering a blueprint to beat inferior teams: Keep the game unnecessarily tight, then have Kobe Bryant hit a buzzer-beating game-winner. Easy peasy, or so it would appear this season. First against Miami, then Milwaukee, and now Sacramento, the latest victims of what appears a fallback counter against poor play. Seems kinda risky, but the approach is undeniably exciting. Suspenseful. And it allows fans yet another reason to chant "MVP" at the end of a game. Not that an excuse is needed for the Nation to all hail Mamba, of course. Dude's provided enough fireworks over the years, they'd probably chant it in reaction to Bryant's prowess at a salad bar. But hey, if the context actually fits, bonus.
Then again, some people dig the whole "playing 48 minutes, or at least a big chunk of them, at the top of your game" thing. For those roundball enthusiasts, Jekyll and Hyde halves, while undoubtedly offering their share of twists and turns, don't leave a good taste in the ol' craw. Save perhaps Pau Gasol, no Laker offered much consistency. Lamar Odom didn't come alive until the third quarter. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar were invisible before making their presence felt in the fourth quarter. Derek Fisher struggled horribly all game. Even Kobe, the game's hero, was 3-11 for 12 points over the first half before eventually exploding for another 27. All in all, a very uneven night for the Lakers. Especially on the defensive end, where the first half featured an often a shocking display of poor lockdown.
Sacto shot 61.4 percent from the field and dropped 50 percent of downtown shots launched. They also scored thirty points in L.A.'s paint, unacceptable for a team with Jason Thompson not only the closest thing to a low post threat, but contributing exactly zero points. Instead, it was wee fellas like Omri Casspi and (especially) Beno Udrih running back cuts or just taking defenders off the dribble or around the screen for easy scores at the rack. In the meantime, Spencer Hawes' thirteen points and four assists forced Lakers P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter to repeat Hawes' name so often, he began varying the inflection just to keep things from getting monotonous. With all due respect to the grit and moxie the Sacramento Bee's Sam Amick rightfully thinks this team possesses, the Lakers were handing them scores on a silver platter, then offering to polish the platter. Because, you know, why be rude? It grew pretty ridiculous to watch.
But after halftime wrapped up, we basically stopped watching it.
Instantaneously, the Lakers' energy and attention to defensive detail was night-and-day different. After helping themselves to 64 first half points, Sacto scored just 44 more. The Lakers were scrambling and hustling to cover scorers as the ball swung around. Difficult shots were forced. Turnovers (eight) were created. Three shots were blocked. Yes, breakdowns still occurred and Hawes continued getting his, but on the whole, the Lakers were much more effective slowing Sacramento. Had they played that way the entire game, we wouldn't be having this discussion.
The question naturally asked after witnessing such schizophrenia is, "why?" Why does a team come out flat and disinterested looking, then turn it up on a dime? From the outside looking in, it appears like they're just trying harder, but is it really that simple?
Depending on who you ask, yes and no.
After the game, Phil Jackson credited some halftime adjustments for the rally. He felt being able to watch video allowed everyone to understand better how to disrupt Udrih's action or how far to stray out on a sweet-shooting big like Hawes. For that matter, the tweaks didn't stop once that film ended. "I still thought that we were making adjustments all the way down the stretch."
I understood where Phil was coming from, but at the same time, it's hard to ignore the total lack of vigor initially displayed. How do you account for zero pep at the start? Again, Jackson cited the benefit of adjustment:
- "It's knowing what's going to happen so you can anticipate it, and then the hustle becomes naturally behind it, because you know what your reactions have to be. But in the first half, we were on our heels, and then you're recovering, and you're a step slow recovering when you do that. It's about aggressiveness, for sure, but it is also about adjustment."
It does make sense, actually. All the energy in the world can't replace direction, and without that direction, the energy may become invisible. It's hard to appear dialed into a scheme when everyone's on a different page. In asking a few other guys, however, opinions varied. For example, Kobe typically describes Sacto as unorthodox and thus tough to figure out. Tonight was no exception. "They're tough to play," nodded Bryant. "They execute extremely well. They have big that can shoot the ball and pass the ball extremely well. We had to talk about our execution about how we wanted to stay in front of cutters and guard shooters. It's been a problem for us."
Gasol also noted tweaks made in the way certain players were checked, but also stressed how the team wasn't aggressive enough on D to begin with. When I asked El Spaniard which was ultimately more important, he chose the latter. "Mainly, I think you have to be aggressive and bring the intensity up and focus on what you need to do out there. And then you adjust as the game goes on. But the main thing is definitely intensity."
Then there was Odom, who thinks between the team's basketball I.Q. and the relative simplicity of the concepts to begin with ("if you switch, you know, it's not hard"), the issue was entirely about effort as opposed to brains. "I wouldn't want to say I disagree," said Odom when I asked if he didn't buy Jackson's explanation. "We (just) saw it different. I would just say we lacked intensity. Everybody here knows the game... Step up. You gotta want. Force yourself... When I see us play bad defensively, I just think it's lack of energy and effort."
And, as LO also noted, trusting skills to the point of growing complacent. "We're so good offensively, defensively, we get (like), 'okay, if they score. We'll get it back.' We've just got to get out of that. Break that habit."
I imagine the answer involves one hand washing the other, but either way, tonight provides solid proof that without a helping dose of both, even the best basketball teams are capable of looking like headless chickens. Or chickens with heads and absolutely zero interest in challenging shots, depending on how you view it.