We’re 74 games into the season and this Lakers team has not changed at all. I mentioned it in the recap to the Hornets game and several other times before: the Lakers are what they are - consistently inconsistent. That said, while this is frustrating, I’ve learned to live with it. That’s because following the Lakers, for me, is like anything else in my life that gives me both tremendous joy and moments of anguish. And it leads me to respond the way that I always do. Which is enjoying the good moments more than I let the bad ones bother me. Why do I bring this up? Because at this point in the season I think all Lakers fans need to understand that while there isn’t a switch that the Lakers can flip that turns them into a juggernaut (the best example of this would be the 2001 Lakers team), there is also no need to break the glass enclosing that panic button to start pressing away.
This Lakers team is one that has the talent and the will to win. I know this because I’ve watched the games. I’ve seen them respond in tough situations by clamping down on defense and getting the baskets that they need on offense. I’ve seen them rattle off wins when both Kobe and Bynum have missed games. I’ve seen them (well Kobe, really) make improbable shots that won games or forced overtime. I see no need to panic over this team. Not a team that has the players and character that this one does. But, I’ve also seen this team loaf for entire games. I’ve seen them go away from what is obviously working to do something else that is not nearly as successful. I’ve seen questionable offensive possessions transition to suspect defensive possessions and then watched that cycle repeat for chunks of minutes at a time. Watching these types of performances for nearly and entire season also lets me know that there is no switch to flip for this team. There is no level that is much higher than the best that they’ve played this season.
And therein lies the rub with this team. The complete game that we’ve longed for all season has been pretty much absent. There have been few wire to wire wins. Even fewer games where strong opponents have been put away early with the Lakers’ collective foot on their throat. But, this team has won 54 games and that’s not on accident. You don’t stumble into 54 wins. That many W’s just don’t appear in the ledger by accident. Those are earned. It’s just that they haven’t been earned in a way that us fans have wanted. We take issue with that and I don’t think we should be blamed for feeling that way. We want to see wins and we want them our way. Dominating performances that make teams fold. Consistent effort that leads to the Lakers out performing their opponents at everything. We haven’t seen too much of that this season.
But, I also don’t think it matters much. One year ago today, the Lakers were 58-15 and had just lost to the Hawks on the road. If we really remember what that team was like last season, these current Lakers are not too different. They played down to their competition. They lost games fans thought they shouldn’t. Their commitment to executing on offense was spotty. I do understand that this is a difference, though. That difference was the will to beat the best teams. A hunger fueled by losing in the Finals the year before. That is gone this season. But I almost expected it to be (as sad as that sounds). When you win, the drive to win again can be difficult to muster every night. Meanwhile the opposition’s desire is never stronger than when the champion enters the arena. I don’t think many Lakers knew what that would be like and it’s been a trial by fire all season. So be it. Sink or swim. The real question is, now that the regular season is closing, will the Lakers find that drive?
And that brings us to the playoffs. On the day after that afforementioned loss to the Hawks last season, Kurt wrote this in a post:
I am not that worried about going into the playoffs with a ton of momentum. I said this in the comments but I think it bears repeating — the playoffs are another season all together. They have their own ebb and flow, and teams will improve during them. Remember last year (2008) — the Celitics looked like crap in the first round. And much of the second. Nobody thought they looked like a champion, getting taken seven games twice. How did that end? The playoffs are another animal, all together. That is not meant to say I think the Lakers need dramatic improvement, but rather a reminder that what is going on mid-April and in June are just simply different. And not easily predictable.
Now, this season is different in many ways to last years’ as the concerns that face this team – it’s outside shooting and their struggles at PG to name two – are real and exploitable. That said, I believe in Kobe Bryant. I believe in Phil Jackson. I trust them to lead and coach and help get this team to play their best in the playoffs. I trust that just as the other team will be creating game plans to try and expose our weaknesses our coaches will be formulating counters to those plans and creating plans of their own to attack the other team. All while preparing the players to execute. The second season is near and while I do have worries, I also feel excitement. The Lakers are the defending world champs and as the doubters voices get louder I expect the Lakers resolve to strengthen. It will not be an easy road to navigate, but it was never going to be. I still think our guys will be ready for the challenge. So forget about this team flipping a switch and don’t reach for that panic button yet. There is too much season to play and this team, with all it’s flaws, still has a very good chance to finish what was started in October.