If the Lakers can’t miraculously pull out this series, many will hail their failure as the end of an era–they got too old, too reliant on Kobe, or too thin beyond their top four players.
But the truth is that, all mitigating circumstances aside, they’ve just played bad basketball. It’s systemic only in that they’ve performed this drunken dance all season long, but the flaws are not so inherent as arthritic knees or a dearth of talent off the bench.
The Lakers players may not have had their collective fastball last night, but Phil Jackson stubbornly shook off signs to change things up and Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks are hammering him for it. When lambasting the players’ failings, keep in mind they were operating in a flawed gameplan.
The most glaring beacon of Laker carelessness was the six minute period in the fourth quarter, when the Mavericks repeatedly ran Jose Juan Barea off of high screen and rolls and exposed the Lakers’ lack of defensive preparation and execution. On the other end, the Los Angeles had a series of broken possessions that seemed without clear purpose, and certainly lacked their typical sense of trust and fluidity of motion.
It’s not shocking that Los Angeles would have trouble with Barea, he reminds of all the miniature nightmares like Aaron Brooks and Chris Paul who have given the Lakers fits over recent seasons.
But come on, this is JJ Barea!
There isn’t a book on stopping him, there’s a pamphlet. It’s three paragraphs long and consists mostly of jokes about his arm length and allusions to Lord of the Rings. This is the same Lakers team that frustrated Rajon Rondo with a championship on the line.
Now, to be fair, it was Barea’s frequent screener, Dirk Nowitzki who really tormented the Lakers. Because he delights in demolishing mismatches, the Lakers bigs were hesitant to hedge hard enough to allow Dirk to pin Barea’s defender and drag the poor soul into the dark and deep of the pinch post or mid block like a giant, blond squid.
But that doesn’t excuse repeatedly sending Barea’s defender over the screen while also giving the speedy mite acres of space to attack the half-hedging big man. On a couple occasions, this resulted in Odom essentially setting a double screen for Barea because he wouldn’t slow JJ down by hedging hard enough instead just getting in the way of Barea’s recovering defender. By going under the screen, an adjustment that took the Lakers’ bench eight minutes of game play to make, LA finally forced Barea to shoot a deep three which he missed badly. Of course this came after a Haywood dunk, Jason Kidd three and a gorgeous Barea floater over Andrew Bynum.
It was too late, it was awful, and it was inexcusable.
But as dysfunctional as the Lakers were on defense, the Mavericks weren’t exactly blowing the doors open. Between the 10:00 and 7:00 mark in the 4th quarter, Barea also missed a couple layups and turned the ball over on a bizarre fast-break pass between two missed Nowitzki jumpers.
No worries, the Lakers weren’t in a rush to score. In that stretch, Matt Barnes whiffed on an open 3, Lamar Odom blew a lay up and Steve Blake (who was unspeakably atrocious all night) and Derek Fisher each turned the ball over.
Over the remaining meaningful minutes of the game, the Lakers failed to generate anything easy on offense. The ball stuck, Kobe unexpectedly missed a wide open three that his team desperately needed, and the precision and grace of the triangle devolved into Shannon Brown shooting an isolation three pointer from the right wing, with Derek Fisher posting up. This last bungled mess took place while Kobe, Pau and Bynum watched from the perimeter, in no position to collect a rebound or contribute to the grotesque reflection of the Mavs’ magnificent two man game.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is older, slower, injured and unable or unwilling to take 38 year old Jason Kidd of the dribble. Yes, Pau Gasol has curled up like a potato bug. But this is on Phil Jackson as much as anyone, eleven rings notwithstanding.
The Lakers can no longer coast on pure talent, but their play in Game 2 reveals that their seemingly imminent and sudden downfall will not be the result of a sea change in their capacity to play championship level ball. Their exit may feel abrupt, but it will be the steady and prolonged erosion of their once immaculate execution that spells their doom.