How much can you take away from a single regular-season loss?
For fans of the Lakers and Magic, that debate had every bit as much resonance over the weekend as the discussion about what, specifically, went wrong in their teams' respective losses against Cleveland and Boston on Christmas Day.
I have trouble embracing the idea that a December loss forebodes anything meaningful about what might happen in May or June. If you follow one of the elite teams, you sometimes fall victim to the belief that only your team is capable of churning out a loss as profoundly ugly and inexplicable as the one you just witnessed. There must be something fatally flawed about the Lakers if they get blown out at home in decisive fashion to Cleveland.
But if the Lakers' effort raises the panic level to Defcon 4 in Los Angeles, then shouldn't the Nuggets, the presumptive No. 2 team in the West, be super-concerned that they lost on their home floor to the team primed to leap-frog them in the conference hierarchy? Shouldn't an Orlando team be chewing on its limbs after watching Dwight Howard and company put up a paltry 77 points in 96 possessions against Boston? And how about Boston's inability to close out a Clippers team that was coming off three consecutive blowout losses?
Yes and no.
No, because pre-New Years basketball is about discovery. If I'm Stan Van Gundy (and can you imagine being Stan Van Gundy for a day? If that were a silent auction item, I'd be hovering over that sign-in sheet until last call, boxing out all comers, money no object), I want to understand and diagnose why Boston's big men give Dwight Howard the yips. Better to acquire that information now rather than later. I get four months to employ my coaching prowess to make an adjustment to the offensive scheme. How do we get Dwight deeper position and buy a little more space and a little more time to go to work on the block?
If I'm the Lakers, I want to use this loss to the Cavs to better understand why my team entered Sunday night tied for 15th in the NBA with the Houston Rockets in offensive efficiency rating. How can a team as long and skilled in the post as the Lakers have this much trouble finishing at the rim? Is there something amiss with the spacing, even though the unit operates in a system that thrives on space? Are the Lakers becoming needlessly impatient trying to pound the ball inside instead of drawing defenders to the perimeter, which would get them cleaner looks underneath? Addressing these questions over the next 50 games seems like a very doable exercise.
Denver can't wring its hands over its first home loss since Thanksgiving weekend, but it should take note of the fact that each of the "Big 4" teams -- along with Dallas -- have five of the top 6 defensive efficiency ratings, while the Nuggets rank 17th. They're giving up a ton of second shots. Is that because they're too eager to leak out in transition? Is Denver's lightning-quick pace hurting them on the defensive end? Considering the number of superior post players on the roster, is it possible that whatever the Nuggets might leave on the table offensively by slowing things down, they'd more than compensate by giving up far fewer buckets in transition?
So far as the Celtics go, chalk up last night's loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles as an outlier. Make a mental note that the vicious strong-side pressure defense that works brilliantly on 95 percent of possessions might need to be tabled in tight late-game situations -- something the Celtics don't encounter all that often. Offensively, understand your strengths and exploit them. Your offense works most efficiently with rotating pick-and-rolls that confound defenses and run big men ragged. Yes, there will be mismatches at times that invite exploitation, but understand that whatever you gain by working against inferior post defenders in isolation might be offset by upsetting your offensive rhythm. The truth, though, is that the no team in the NBA can touch the Celtics' offensive-defensive differential. The Celtics are simply killing opponents on a nightly basis. To make wholesale adjustments after fluke losses would be the equivalent of sending Rajon Rondo to the line for technical free throws because he's drained his last three from the stripe. Play the odds, C's, they're in your favor.
It's unlikely that many of these questions have definitive answers right now. Coaching staffs need to do some trial-and-error and employ the good ol' scientific method this early in the season. Don't worry so much about "rotations being set" -- a common complaint among observers -- in December. Better to arrive at these truths headed into the postseason. Flexibility is a beautiful principle -- one Orlando rode to the Finals last season over a much more orthodox Cleveland team.
Give it some time, Lakers fans. I know, on paper, your team should be infallible. But your center needs a little nurturing. Your star needs to heal. And your coach is on the case.