This image comes from the Nuggets’ third possession of the game.
After a Kobe Bryant miss, Ty Lawson fields a long rebound and heads up court. As you can see, four Lakers are back, three of them are facing the ball, and the only Laker not back is even with Lawson.
Suddenly Lawson turns on the jets and attacks Pau Gasol without really even changing directions — he just runs right past him.
Watch that clip again with an eye on Andrew Bynum. As Lawson makes his move, none of the Lakers are what you’d call responsive, but Bynum doesn’t even flinch. He maintains the exact same cadence in his trot as he watches Lawson score.
The lack of effort is stunning, because it’s instinctual for a defender to at least move toward the attacking player, if only with a half-hearted lunge. Instead this looks like a willful decision to be apathetic.
Only 90 seconds into the game, Bynum’s huge frame transforms from lethal weapon to 7-foot 1-inch middle finger to the rest of the Lakers team and coaching staff.
This is important: the problem wasn’t limited to Bynum. But this play was just one of many in which the would be superstar center just failed to even approximate genuine effort.
We’ve seen this one before.
Watching the Nuggets utterly dismantle the Lakers with hustle and wide, wide open 3-pointers brought back memories of the Mavericks’ stunning second round sweep last season. Of course Dirk et al were a bad matchup for the Lakers, but one also sensed that last year’s team was a squad adrift, each player clinging greedily to his own life saver.
When a team gets to the point that not even Phil Jackson enjoys the challenge of holding them together, things are bad.
This year, we saw indications that the team, and especially the triangular relationship between Gasol-Bynum-Bryant, could function better without the triangle offense.
There were positive signs. As Bynum reprised Kobe’s 2000 role as the young buck unhappy with his stifled role on the team, Bryant stood up for him. Bryant also called out Laker management in defense of Pau Gasol, though who knows where that relationship is today.
Bryant, it would seem, was willing to be the one holding the team together rather than only dragging it forward.
Last night suggested that, try as he might (and might not be trying to do), Bryant couldn’t corral his team.
And so, as the points piled up for Ty Lawson, I became nervous for his health. Flashbacks to Bynum’s stunning and malicious elbow on J.J. Barea flickered in the back of my mind. Instead of wondering about how the Thunder vs. Lakers series would shake out, I began to wonder if the only fluke in this series was Game 1.
After the disgraceful effort last night, Kobe wasn’t pulling any punches when he said that Metta World Peace is “The one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and no fear.”
Of course, the Lakers don’t have to like each other to win this series and maybe even advance beyond that. But players do have to take responsibility for their effort and focus.
That’s what struck me most about the lethargic Lakers: did someone really need to tell them to try?
It’s possible that no amount of effort would have saved the Lakers with the way Denver was drilling 3′s. Then again, at the start of the second half it was just a nine-point game, still very much in reach.
But the Lakers, other than Bryant, didn’t seem to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the game. It was like they thought it would just happen, that being so big and skilled made victory inevitable.
Bynum, enormous and cerebral, can be the ultimate image of overwhelming. He had come into his own this season and was ready to wreak havoc on the Western Conference as so many Laker centers before him had done.
For Bynum, a big part of the growing up process has included practical skills like his soft jump hook and feathery fall-away. In that way, he is more than ready.
But more than anything, being an grownup is really just about embracing responsibility. If the Lakers don’t pull out Game 7, there will be plenty of that to distribute amongst the forum blue and gold.