About midway through the Christmas Day match-up between the L.A. Lakers and the Miami Heat play-by-play announcer Jeff Van Gundy made any interesting observation with the Heat up by 16.
"This is not a case of the Lakers taking the game lightly and not competing," Van Gundy said. "They are being out-defended and outplayed by a terrific Miami Heat team."
He must have known what the headlines in L.A. and ESPN were going to look like: "Lakers play terrible, fail to play to the best of their abilities and allow the Heat to win."
That's right. The Lakers have lost nine games this season so far and none can be attributed to them because they "didn't play their best." Couldn't nearly any team in the league make that excuse?
And staying in step with this theme, Jon Berry, ESPN's official "Lakers struggles denier" said after the game: "There is no excuse for the Lakers to be out rebounded by the Heat!" Apparently, Berry feels as though only those over 7 feet and wearing a gold jersey should be able to secure rebounds in any given game.
Berry didn't even want to give the Heat any credit for their play in the first half when they lead by nine: "When I look at the Heat right now I'm thinking: They have no points from the point guard and center positions, and that will not get it done in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers." Indeed.
Where will the Lakers finish in the West?
But, while I will acknowledge that the game will not curb the amount of doubt surrounding the Heat, nor will it quiet the perception that the Lakers are "fine they just need to play better." I must admit that I've seen their struggles brewing for a while now, even when they started the season 8-0 with the spirited play of Pau Gasol.
Scoring 112 ppg and shooting over 50 percent as a team, I questioned whether their plan to "outscore opponents" rather than defend them would work when their offense was not clicking and they faced more defensive -minded adversaries.
Nevertheless, Lakers fans simply marveled at the wins piling up and didn't mind the lack of defense in the early going.
"8-0 is still 8-0," was the chorus line.
Then I voiced more concerns about the team when, in consecutive losses to Denver and Phoenix they gave up 119.5 ppg and simply could not guard perimeter shooters like Jason Richardson who went for 35 at Staples.
"The Lakers are simply bored. They are the best team in the league right now though. Once Andrew Bynum returns, the team will be fine."
I did mention the fact that Bynum has missed several games since 2008 and the Lakers never loss 4-straight games, but the denial continued after a 19-point home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
"The Lakers will be ready for Miami. They have played so many weak teams in succession that they need a game like this to recharge their engine. I expect L.A. to look dominant."
But it was not to be: The Lakers lost at home 96-80 and Kobe Bryant was clearly frustrated.
"It's only a Christmas Day game. They lost on Christmas Day last year too, but they still won the title."
Yeah, and they were also the top seed in the West at Christmas and maintained top-seed until the end of the season.
So what can cure the massively contagious "Lakers Struggles Denial Syndrome?"
First acknowledge that the Lakers have issues, not complacency or boredom, but with their roster.
Acknowledge that Ron Artest has been terrible all season. He has not been a great defender and his 7 points a game and 39 percent shooting will not open up the floor for Kobe and Pau to do their damage.
Acknowledge that they are an older team and that the road to a fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals is not a given. For every team like the Bill Russell's 60s Boston Celtics, there are teams like the '91 Detroit Pistons and the '03 L.A. Lakers who tried to make it back to the finals for a fourth year, but age and injury simply caught up with them.
Acknowledge that your bench is not as great as advertised. Steve Blake is putting up a decent 5.2 points and 2.1 assists a game, but only shooting 38 percent and simply not defending well at all.
Acknowledge that the regular season does matter. The Lakers road to the finals was greatly benefited by the fact that they secured the top seed each year and played favorable match-ups on the way to the finals, where they also had home-court advantage. Right now, they are sitting at the #4 seed with the toughest part of their schedule upcoming with games verses the Spurs and Mavericks who they are chasing for the top seed.
Acknowledge that the Mavericks, Spurs and Thunder are threats to the Lakers in the West. True of the Lakers denier is the belief that "once we get to the finals we will do..." without considering the possibility that there are legit and hungry contenders in the West as well.
Acknowledge that Matt Barnes reputation as a "defensive stopper" may have been greatly exaggerated as he has yet to have any major impact on the defensive end of the court for the Lakers.
Acknowledge that the Lakers' point guard defense just has not been there. Blake and Fisher are not defending well at all and if that continues, the Lakers could really struggle in upcoming games against Tony Parker and Jason Kidd.
Acknowledge that the Lakers are without a clear cut sharpshooter on the entire roster.
Acknowledge that the Lakers, outside of Shannon Brown who is mostly a jumpshooter, have no athleticism on the roster right now.
Acknowledge that "size" does have a weakness for athleticism. Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are among the best bigs in the NBA, but they are vulnerable to quick agile forwards and each can be neutralized by denying the paint and driving hard at them offensively.
Acknowledge that, while Kobe is still one of the games' premier shooting guards, he has not had the ability to impose his will on a team, like he showed with the nine game winning shots last season. He's looked solid, but not spectacular and one wonders whether he can retain that psychological edge on his opponents that he had last season in a tougher Western Conference.
Acknowledge that only one team in the last 20 years has repeated as champion from lower than the second seed (the 1995 Houston Rockets). If the Lakers road to the finals must go through the Texas titans Dallas and San Antonio and then Boston without home-court advantage, their prospects of winning another title are not impossible but historically very unfavorable.
There is no doubt that the Lakers are still the team to beat until they are defeated in a series. But one cannot simply assume they will "turn it on" eventually when there are so many problems plaguing the team at present.