Lakers are running on empty

LOS ANGELES -- It happens inch by inch. Slowly, over time. Detectable only in moments, then obvious in an instant and forevermore a reality.

Age has a way of tracking everybody down.

Even the best.

Even champions.

The Lakers may yet summon a finishing kick to this season. But after two games that have left them in the deepest hole they've been in since they trailed the Celtics 3-2 in last year's NBA Finals, L.A. looks neither fresh nor frantic enough to do so.

"They just look old and tired," said one prominent former Laker who was walking dejectedly through the halls at Staples Center on Wednesday night after the Lakers fell 93-81 to the Mavericks in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal.

"Like they're on [empty]. This is their fourth run at it, you know? That's what happens sometimes."

Looking back, the signs have been visible for months. The fatigue, the inconsistency, the little injuries that would not heal.

They were saving themselves, we told ourselves. Pacing their bodies and spirits for when they'd really need to be at their best.

That time has always been now. But instead of rising to the moment, they seem gassed.

And now, stunningly, before even the Ides of May, they could be done. The run, the season, coach Phil Jackson's "Last Stand," over before they had even begun to fight.

"We have an opportunity to see how badly we want to be champions again," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said.


But that presumes the Lakers' failure so far in this series against the Mavericks has been because of their effort or focus.

In L.A.'s 96-94 loss in Game 1 Monday night, that might have been so. As they have so many times before, the Lakers grew complacent in their dominance in Game 1. They lost the edge that helped them build a 16-point third-quarter lead and never responded when the Mavs fought back.

But this loss was something entirely different.

This loss felt lasting.

"It was just a rugged third quarter for our team; we had a hard time getting going," a somber Jackson said afterward. "In the fourth quarter, we got really dispirited."

Those are not the words of a confident man, speaking about a confident team.

"This is not what we wanted, it's not what we expected, but it's where we're at," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "It's time for us to stay stronger and as close as we've ever been if we want to get through this struggle.

"We just have to be confident. Support each other. Have a positive mindset out there."

Afterward, young Lakers center Andrew Bynum said aloud that the root of his team's problems are "trust issues" and that "unless we come out and discuss them, nothing's going to change."

He did not name names, but really, he didn't have to.

This team does have trust issues. But they are a symptom of something deeper. Something that has been growing, inch by inch, beneath the surface all year.

After the distance they've all travelled the last three and a half years, the mileage and the monuments they've scaled, it was going to be hard enough to do it all again.

Hard on their spirits as well as their legs.

They got older in the offseason, but maybe not wiser.

By nature and nurture, the Lakers have always had a way of creating unnecessary obstacles for themselves. But this particular team has had a hard time keeping all of its parts focused in the same direction both on the court and off.

Players have chafed at their roles publicly and privately. Agents have stirred controversy through the media. Half the team seems to have appeared on cable television or hired a publicist.

Taken separately, none of those issues would've been fatal. Taken collectively, and placed on top of a set of already weary legs, the weight seems to have become a burden.

"It's hard," Kobe Bryant said, when asked about the challenge of winning three straight NBA titles. "It's hard. But you couldn't possibly expect this to be easy.

"If you want to make history, you have to do historic things."

These Lakers still can.

Their opportunity is still there. So is their spirit.

It's their legs that might finally do them in.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and a reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com