Fish, Minnesota, and the art of coasting

"The way we played tonight was irresponsible and it was reckless and it was disrespectful," Derek Fisher said after Tuesday's ugly win over the Timberwolves at Staples. "I cant get any clearer than that. There was an air of complacency of arrogance of "we don't have to play as hard as the other team to win" that I didn't like tonight. That goes for all of us. That doesn't mean that we're going to play perfectly every night or that we're going to win all 82 games, I'm not that optimistic. But it didn't have to be that way."

Harsh words, for sure, but I doubt he'd get much argument from anyone who watched (or participated in) the game.

Even a team as good as the Lakers will have nights where things just don't go well. Shots won't fall, everything seems a step slow, the energy isn't what it can be. This can happen even while the team is giving an honest day's effort. 100 percent commitment doesn't always yield 100 percent results. The same principle applies to everyone- none of us are our best every day, even when we want to be.

There's another factor at play, though.

Our collective sensibilities make us demand the Lakers go full throttle at all times, swarming like angry piranha (is there another kind?) on an opponent and quickly stripping them to the bone. In the real world, that's not how it works. The Way of the Piranha is exhausting. For a team working through an 82-game slog towards the postseason with big goals in mind, the object isn't to pillage the NBA during the regular season only to burn out in the spring. If a game can be won reasonably comfortably with 85 percent effort, leaving the other 15 percent in the kitty is smart, not complacent.

That saved energy can be banked for the postseason, or important regular season games against sturdier opposition.

The Spurs, back when self-preservation was merely a luxury, used to be awesome at this. A lesser team (say... the Smush Parker/Kwame Brown Lakers) would play them tight, staying even or within a bucket or two for most of a quarter before the Spurs ripped off a mini-run. A close game was less so, but still within striking distance. Later, another burst pushes the margin into double digits. In the end, San Antonio had their win over a team wondering what really went wrong, given how competitively they played for 40 of the 48 minutes. The Lakers have, for the most part, honed this skill- keeping an opponent at arms length and safeguarding wins while leaving as much in the tank as possible- over the last three years.

The trick, though, demands remaining properly engaged in the process. Fall asleep or lose discipline, and games quickly become unnecessarily competitive, or perhaps given away entirely. Friday against Toronto, the Lakers started hot and figured the Raptors would go away. A good Canadian zone tossed them off their game, L.A. grew sloppy and impatient, and one 38-22 second quarter later the Lakers were down heading into the half. All they really needed to do was trade baskets after the first quarter, winning each frame by a point or two, and the Lakers could have cruised to victory. Instead, it was a dogfight. This sort of thing can happen, even if it shouldn't.

Tuesday was different, and worse. Uncharted territory for this year, Fisher said, and complete with the cardinal no-no. "I think prior to tonight we've done a fairly good job in respecting each opponent and each game for what it presents. Tonight we didn't do that. It's that simple."

You know the old expression about what happens when you assume? It bit L.A. Tuesday night. Even the worst NBA team is still filled with NBA players, and can on any given night surprise. They must always be treated with the respect Fish describes.

The Lakers will, and should, measure their way through certain games and through the season as a whole. Focus will narrow as spring nears, but we're still a ways away from spring. Most nights, Fisher is content to get out with a win, even an ugly one, because while he recognizes treating every game with the intensity of a playoff date may represent some romantic ideal, it's also not practical or constructive over weeks and months.

What they can't have- and what Fisher railed against- was the disorganized, unfocused work of Tuesday night. The art of coasting requires constant vigilance and respect for the task at hand and the team they're facing, full of confidence, free of arrogance. Screw it up, and the Lakers will burn not only the energy they hoped to preserve, but some in the reserves, too.