The Lakers trailed by six or eight points for much of the second half of Game 2, but it was always likely the defending champions would close that gap. It was just a matter of time ...
Until, of course, Jose Juan Barea's screen-and-roll show took the main stage, and it was curtains for the Lakers.
"There isn’t a book on stopping him," writes HoopSpeak's Beckley Mason of Barea, "there’s a pamphlet. It’s three paragraphs long and consists mostly of jokes about his arm length and allusions to Lord of the Rings."
Watch the video of Barea's run, and you'll see that indeed the main story is not superhuman offense, but momentously lackluster Laker defense. More than the Laker defenders, Barea defeated air. Various Lakers do various things as Barea breezes by: In one sequence, Lamar Odom actually holds his hands out, like the matador grasping an invisible cape through which Barea, the bull, has just charged. In another, Steve Blake flies to meet "the Puerto Rican A.I.," feigning help before scrambling back home to cover his man. Then there's a sequence where Andrew Bynum meets Barea in the paint -- but so late that he is helpless to stop him.
Something was certainly wrong with the Laker defense. (Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson are among those confirming the theory that the team defense was terrible on the pick-and-roll -- with Bryant calling the team's screen-and-roll coverage "atrocious.")
Without knowing everyone's defensive assignments, it's hard to assign blame. Right, Andrew? ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi quotes the Laker center:
"It's deeply rooted at this point," Bynum said of the team's problems. "It's obvious we have trust issues. Unless we come out and discuss it, then nothing is going to really change. We have to come in and have a good session [Thursday], which I believe we will, and correct things. If not, we'll go home."
"I think it's quite obvious for anyone who is watching the games," Bynum said. "There's hesitation on passes, defensively not being there for your teammate because he wasn't there for you before, stuff like that."
"I stopped helping my teammates because my guys kept getting lobs and easy plays, so I succumbed to not helping my teammates, so that's something I can easily fix."
The Lakers have their backs against the wall. It's Phil Jackson's swan song. Bryant is in the hunt for the sixth ring, which would tie him with Michael Jordan. More than a few legacies are on the line.
And here's a Laker player admitting that he gave nothing like his best defensive effort because he can't trust his teammates?
This sounds serious. Is it?
Breaking trust by complaining about broken trust
"You keep it in the locker room," says Noah Gentner Ph.D., who's a sports psychologist and Georgia Southern assistant professor. "Unless you have taken it to your teammates first, it's a huge breach of trust to call people out in the media, like Bynum did there. It goes to egos, and people do not want to be called out. They want you to come and speak to them 'as a man.'
"You can see the irony: he's breaching trust by talking about how they don't trust each other. I don't think that's going to solve the problem. I don't see his teammates following up his comments by saying: Andrew's right, let's do it."
Gentner, however, suggests that the Lakers frequently depart from the normal sports psychology playbook by airing their dirty laundry.
"The Celtics had ubuntu, and did a lot of lifting each other up in public. The Lakers have done very well being a bit different, which starts with Phil calling people out in the media. That's a big 'no no' for most coaches. But he certainly seems to do that regularly while keeping the team working together.
"And Kobe is so interesting. As much as we know Kobe wants to win, he goes into self-preservation mode sometimes. When the team isn't winning, he gets concerned about his legacy, and we see efforts to make the point that 'without me, they're nothing.' That's where we get stuff like him going an entire half without taking a single shot. You have to be very aware of yourself, and your own limitations, and be OK with getting yelled at to play with a leader like that. You have to accept that you're not nearly as good as Kobe.
"Lamar Odom strikes me as a guy who accepts that he's not as good as Bryant. When Kobe yells at him he essentially says 'OK, I'll try harder.'
"But maybe Bynum just isn't like that. Bryant's skills have deteriorated a touch, and maybe Bynum's more the type to just say 'screw you.'
"That kind of thinking can be contagious. 'It wasn't my fault.' They all have egos. They say OK, fine, I'll stop my guy from scoring, but forget the rest of you.
"It all starts with Bynum, though. Without his saying this to the media, we wouldn't be talking about it. And for all his focus on defense, what he's also saying is 'I was playing well and you guys stopped giving me the ball. You've got to trust me. You've got to give me the ball down the stretch.' It was a little bit Andrew reminding people he has been a part of championship teams, and he wants to assert himself again."
2-0 trumps trust issues
So, in Gentner's considered professional opinion, is Bynum's carping a sign of a teamwide sports psychology meltdown? Is this, in his business, a five-alarm fire?
Or is it just a great team dealing with the frustration of a tough loss?
"Probably closer to the latter," says Gentner. He points out that the team demonstrably has plenty of strength and cohesion, even if it's not built in with traditional principles of sports psychology. "They have been through things like this so many times before. Phil Jackson gets teams to move on."
How does a team stick it to each other in the press, but stay unified on the court? That's a real trick of leadership.
But it exists on this team, for instance in the carefully chosen words of Derek Fisher, captured on video on the Land O'Lakers blog. A reporter relayed Bynum's point after last night's game, and Fisher responded brilliantly, simultaneously welcoming Bynum back to the group by saying they all wanted what he wanted, while warning, gently, against making accusations:
That's something we've talked about for the whole season -- that that's the only way we're going to win a championship, is that you know offensively and defensively we trust the system. We trust what we're trying to run. Defensively we're working hard, we're helping each other, we're talking to each other. I didn't hear what [Bynum] said, but I can't assume that he said we have a problem on our team. I just think he's expressing what all of us feel a little bit right now, that we have to stay together and remain strong as a team and not start to point fingers at each other.
That's the playbook. Give the team's track record, Gentner suspects the team can succeed in the face of trust issues. Trailing the Mavericks 2-0, Gentner says, "is the real problem."