The Lakers fought like mad just to make the playoffs. Their 28-12 run to close the season implies a certain amount of fluidity and good fortune, but that wasn’t the case at all. Nearly every game was a grind with injuries and in game lapses providing a teeter-totter feeling to each contest. Wether the Lakers would hold on to a lead, be able to come from behind, or simply survive to the next contest was an every game adventure for players and fans alike.
Now that they’ve actually made the post-season, finding themselves down two games to none versus the Spurs, it seems that 40 game grind has caught up to them.
Forget Kobe’s ruptured achilles tendon for a moment and simply look at what’s developed in the last two games against the Spurs. Steve Nash has returned from his hip/back/hamstring issues, but resembles someone trying to play with a weighted vest on. His stride is short and choppy and he lacks most (if not all) of the burst he had before he went down 11 games ago. Jodie Meeks rolled his ankle in game 1 and missed game 2 after trying to test the sore joint in pre-game warmups. And now Steve Blake is also injured with a strained hamstring, saying that he “felt a sharp pain” when he tried to drive baseline towards the end of game 2. He’ll undergo tests today, but I’m not that optimistic this will end up being something that doesn’t limit him moving forward.
Even if all three players are able to play this Friday (which, as of now, doesn’t seem likely), they’ll all be compromised in some way. Having your best three guards hobbled (with the fourth, and best of them all, already injured) is no way to compete in a regular season game, much less the playoffs. Plus, with Ron still being more than a step slow after his knee surgery and Jamison still playing with a torn ligament in his wrist, the team doesn’t have many healthy bodies from their original 10 man rotation (and none not named Pau or Dwight unless you count Jordan Hill who looked active in his first game back from a hip surgery that took place three months ago).
And that’s just the physical side of the story.
The Lakers are also clearly suffering from the mental wear and tear of a grueling season. I mentioned the strong run they had to close the season, but that came on the heels of a 17-25 start to the campaign. That hole they dug themselves put them in a position where whatever room for error they had to start the season vanished. They needed every single one of those wins to close their season just to qualify for the playoffs and had to gear up mentally to make the run they did.
Said another way, the Lakers’ playoffs didn’t start on Sunday, they started months ago. They started with an air-it-out meeting in Memphis and have been rolling along ever since, grinding away at the players and coaches who understood that every game mattered towards a goal of simply making the post-season. There was no cushion to fall back on, no net to catch them if they fell just one more time. They battled through injury and exhaustion just to get to this point and now that they’re here they’re even more injured and more exhausted. You can see it on their faces as they walk to timeouts and in their slumped shoulders when a broken play leads to another big basket by their opponent. They’re still fighting — something that I admire them a great deal for — but in this battle of attrition they’re showing the wear of the warfare they’ve endured.
So, even though there are tactical adjustments that can be made, there isn’t really a magic elixir to help the Lakers at this point. We can talk about the coaching (which has actually been fine, all things considered), what the players need to do better (hit some shots), or how a few breaks within the game could help the Lakers win a game or two. But, in the end, the Lakers are showing the weathering, both physical and mental, of a journey that’s been much too long with the stakes way too high. What they need is rest. And, sad to say, that may be coming sooner rather than later.