When I was younger I was a big fan of those “Choose Your Adventure” books. If you’re not familiar, these were books in which the reader would choose the path of the lead character in order to advance the plot. As a kid, I just loved the fact that I was deciding for the character. It just made the stories more fun for me, skipping ahead to some page further in the book with the outcome completely in doubt. I mean, the concept of of there being multiple paths for a character always intrigued me and the fact that I had a part in deciding it all was great.
Today, when looking at sports, this concept is alive and well. Except us fans aren’t making the choices, it’s the players and coaches that are doing so. How often have you heard an analyst talk about a team being at a cross-roads? Or how many times have you read an article about a team reaching a turning point and turning it around? These talking points represent those parts in games and seasons that mirror those children stories. The parts where the participants in these events have a choice to make; a choice that will influence how the plot of their game or season develops.
When looking at this Lakers’ season, there seem to be plenty of moments that qualify.
After losing three in a row going into the all-star break, the Lakers seemed to have a serious choice to make about how they’d respond to their lowest point in the season. I think it’s safe to say that we all had our doubts about this team’s prospects (even for those of us that had an underlying confidence if them). Then, when I covered all-star weekend and heard Kobe talk in all the interviews he gave, I got the sense that he had supreme confidence in the Lakers and that he and the team would respond well. He consistently spoke of knowing what the Lakers’ problems were and how they could (and would) be fixed. That Sunday night he earned MVP – an action that simultaneously reminded people of how good he could be and offered up some momentum for him coming out of the break - and since that point the Lakers have reeled off 10 wins in 11 games by playing some of their best basketball of the year.
A key to this recent run of success, though, has been Andrew Bynum. He’s gotten plenty of praise around these parts, serving as a prominent figure in our recaps of the games and in our analysis of what’s made this streak of strong play possible. But it’s not just that he’s playing so well, it’s that his impact on the game has gone from a side dish to a main ingredient and it’s happened in a way that seemingly came from nowhere. And in sticking with our theme, it’s pretty clear that the light bulb has come on for him. Some are pointing to the all-star break as the key moment for ‘Drew as well but as noted by Eric Pincus in quote from Phil Jackson, Bynum’s turning point may have actually been a bit sooner. As in the Boston the game on February 10th. As Pincus points out, since that game Bynum has put up 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game while serving as the defensive anchor for a team that’s suffocating opponents on that side of the ball.
But Bynum isn’t the only Laker big man that’s had come to a cross-road this season and taken the path that’s led to stronger play. After a rough two month period in December and January where he saw his average points dip nearly 4 (20.3 to 16.6) and his rebounds by nearly 3 (12.3 to 9.5) from his November numbers, there were many doubts surrounding Pau Gasol. He was playing heavy minutes in Bynum’s absence and his performances were extremely inconsistent, culminating with his dreadful performance against the Celtics on January 30th where he scored only 12 points on 13 shots and added only 7 rebounds. After that game it was reported that Kobe had a discussion with Pau about being more like the Black Swan and ever since Gasol has been putting up numbers that mirror his early season prodcution.
It remains to be seen if any of these moments will be looked at as fondly as when Derek Fisher returned from foot surgery in 2001 and helped boost that team to a 15-1 playoff run and win that year’s championship. Or, more recently, when Fisher crashed through a Luis Scola screen in the 2009 playoffs, sparking that group and helping to propel them to a title. After all, those moments served as turning points for teams that reached the ultimate goal at the end of year. But regardless of the outcome of this season, these moments will stick with me beyond the end of this campaign. They’ve helped shape this season for what it’s been – an up and down ride but one that has shown once again that this team does have some resolve, coming out of those dark moments to advance their narrative positively. And if they happen to lead to another banner being hung in the rafters at Staples, all the better. After all, if I really could choose my adventure that’d surely be how it ends.