It's hard to complain about a team that will be the No. 1 seed in a very competitive Western Conference for the third season in a row. Especially one favored to make its third straight NBA Finals appearance.
However, the purple and gold streamers and fresh veneer of a championship trophy mask an uneasy feeling in Lakers Nation. Although this squad is proven, one question still lingers:
Can the Lakers beat the Cleveland Cavaliers?
This whole season has been a timesink because this Lakers team can prove nothing in the regular season. Every win is expected, and every loss is a disappointment. It's been a mundane six months that the fans and the team are both tired of.
Last season, the Lakers and their fans had a chip on their shoulders the size of Santa Monica Pier.
The humiliating loss to the Celtics the season prior left the Lakers bruised and toughened, punctuating their season of redemption with multiple key victories like breaking the Cavs home winning streak, and finally winning in Boston on the second of a back-to-back.
They peaked in the Finals, where the Magic learned that if you give a focused team the faintest of opportunities (Courtney Lee's missed layup in Game 2, and neglecting to guard Derek Fisher's threes in Game 4), a hungry team will strangle you with the slack they're given.
The story is the same in Cleveland, where it's literally championship or bust (and if LeBron James leaves without delivering a championship, bust is not a strong enough word to describe the death blow that city will absorb).
However, the team is different. While still very LeBron-centric, if you took him away they'd no longer be the Clippers-East. For the first time in his career, LeBron has a legitimate surrounding cast. The Antawn Jamison trade reeks of Gasol-trade like potential (and was an even more blatant heist), and their frontline is as deep as Dan Gilbert's pockets.
And unlike last season, the Cavs have beaten every elite team they've shared the court with.
The Cavs are last seasons Lakers.
Hungry, focused, scrappy, and ready to grab redemption for failing in the playoffs despite being favored.
Like a television romance where the couple always gets back together, the Lakers and Cavs are on a collision course to meet in June.
Last season, the Magic shocked the world, and they will still put up a tough fight. In the West, only a fool would discount the Jazz, Nuggets, and Mavericks. But make no mistake, this summer Los Angeles and Cleveland will engage in fascinating warfare.
In order of intrigue:
Kobe vs. LeBron: LeBron needs this to be the undisputed greatest player alive, and to get his foot in the conversation of NBA history. Kobe needs this to continue his ascent up the list of ten greatest players ever.
Kobe Fifth Ring vs. Shaq's Fifth Ring: When history looks back, who will be the greater legend?
LeBron's Free Agency: This has nothing to do with the Lakers, but the consequences are history changing. Does a championship motivate LeBron to leave because he delivered the goods to his hometown? Does in encourage him to stay and repeat? Would losing in the Finals piss him off enough to call Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and strong arm them into signing in New York with him? The answers to these questions hang over the city of Cleveland like the Sword of Damocles.
Phil and Kobe vs. Shaq: There's a lot of history here, and no place better for these guys to duke it out than the NBA's biggest stage. Plus, Shaq will reach into the tank and play like he's six years younger. He's been saving it just for this.
Josh Powell vs. J.J. Hickson: Just kidding!
The Cavs league-best regular season record will treat Clevelandonians to the majority of Finals games being played within the Quicken Loans Arena. The stage is set, and the view is epic.
The Lakers are short on quality wins this season. Whereas last year they won every game that mattered (as far as the regular season goes), this season, no game matters until April 17th. So until that time, the Lakers go through the motions.
The truth is that one question does linger. It's the question that Ohioans should be concerning themselves with: Can the Cavs beat the Lakers?
I was in Cleveland on January 21 to see the Lakers play the Cavs. The Cavs did win, and I've never heard an arena get so loud.... in January.
Teams that are used to winning championships know that when snow is on the ground the games don't mean much. Yet the jubilation that reverberated throughout the Quicken Loans Arena that night had a championship-like vibe.
Without the parade or the trophy.
While the Cavs frontline is deeper, the Lakers frontline is more talented, versatile, and is the biggest in NBA history. Kobe's closing abilities are more honed than ever. The team is proven, and we've only seen 80 percent of their potential this season. They are waiting to play like it matters, because it doesn't matter now.
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