Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were trounced by the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter of Sunday's matchup. Bryant had 41 points, but it was not enough to beat Kevin Garnett and company, who are still one of the NBA's best squads.
Think Bryant, Phil Jackson and the rest of the Lakers are worried?
Probably not, and you shouldn't be either.
I politely and calmly suggest that those actions are premature in light of the marathon-like feel of the regular season. The idea that you can write off any supposed contender in today's NBA is ill-fated and neglects that a season is not a sprint. Any team can get hot or round into shape at the right time to make their run, as a few teams have shown in recent seasons.
Jackson's Lakers are poised to do the same thing this year because they understand a few key lessons the public appears to learn, but deviate from every time their training is tested.
As the Lakers stumble into January at 33-15 (still good for second in the West, by the way), here are a few encouraging axioms they have at the front of their mind.
Showing your hand in the regular season is foolish.
The allure of the best record and home-court advantage in the playoffs is strong. The Lakers have had it each of the past three postseasons as the West's top seed, and seemed to have needed it all three times as they rounded into shape.
However, things have followed a different script in the East.
The last two Eastern Conference Champions (Orlando in '09 and Boston in '10) have not enjoyed home-court advantage after the first round. Instead, they've relied on peaking as a team at the right time. Orlando beat Cleveland in 2009 in five games without home court, while Boston beat both top-seeded Cleveland and two-seed Orlando on their home floors.
We see that having a team hitting on all cylinders is a greater advantage than home-court advantage, at least in the Eastern Conference. For that reason, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy seemed content with backing into the playoffs wherever they ended up, knowing their teams still had some tricks up their sleeves and had their best basketball ahead of them.
I think PJ's Lakers resemble the '09 Magic and '10 Celtics a little bit in the way they reach their peak.
Instead of grasping for home court and using the first and second rounds to gear up for the last two rounds, we'll see the Lakers take their foot off the gas after the All-Star break, forget about their record and flip the switch a little quicker than they have the last few years.
The Lakers clearly have not played their best basketball yet, which should be both disturbing and encouraging to Lakers fans, though far more encouraging given the road ahead.
The roster is still developing and meshing.
The Lakers added a few new pieces this offseason that undoubtedly strengthened the lineup. Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff were valuable pickups for the extended rotation, whether they've shown it to this point or not.
Teams in the NBA need time to coalesce. Even Jackson can't throw a roster together and make it all stick right away. The season is just past halfway, and Barnes and Ratliff are out with injuries, while Blake has been very up-and-down.
Just because they haven't contributed a ton yet does not mean they were bad signings. Good players contribute and come to play when it counts the most. Last time I checked, the Lakers haven't played a game that means more than any other one on the schedule, and that won't change until Game 1 of the first round.
Remember how long it took the Miami Heat to mesh? They started 9-8 before ripping off a 21-1 part of their schedule in December. They've lulled and excelled alternately, which shows they are still figuring things out.
It takes time to get a team on the same page and play well. There are too many guys making too much money with too much fame and distraction for everyone to be unified in focus like a college team.
Patience is necessary when players arrive in a new place. I'd advise giving Blake some more time to settle into his role and start making his impact.
Being healthy helps...a lot.
Last year, the media experts who follow the league very closely were all saying how old and slow Bryant looked. He was markedly out of his prime, had changed his game to adjust to getting older and just wasn't the same player he was just a few years earlier.
He struggled mightily from the field against Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs—adding fuel to the fire that he couldn't dominate like he used to, and he was trying too hard to win the game by himself.
After a breezy sweep of the Utah Jazz, Bryant was exhausted and banged up with a knee ailment that caused him to miss a whole week of practice leading up to Game 1 against Phoenix. He got a ton of fluid taken out of his knee in order to alleviate some of the pain and enable him to be more explosive on his drives and jump shots.
The results were startling.
I watched the first few games of that series with my jaw on the floor as a new, revitalized Kobe took the court. It wasn't just that his numbers spiked immediately (33.6 PPG, 51.4 FGP, 6.25 AST, 7.2 REB, 2.5 TO, two-near triple-doubles), he looked like 26-year-old Kobe again. He was mesmerizing as his jump shot returned immediately and his teammates fed off him by cashing in on open looks he created for them.
The Suns pushed the Lakers to six games as it was, but probably would have won the series if Bryant hadn't gotten his knee drained.
This year, Bryant doesn't have any outstanding injuries (knock on wood), but Pau Gasol has been slowed by his balky hamstring, Andrew Bynum is still playing into shape after his annual knee injury and Barnes is recovering from a ligament tear in his knee. While the injuries haven't been as bad as some other teams, it would be inaccurate to call the Lakers 100 percent healthy by any means.
Note: In case you're not convinced, ask last year's Celtics how much it helps when your team is healthy (see also Garnett's renaissance during the playoffs and Kendrick Perkins' ill-timed knee injury during the Finals).
Phil is a master (both at motivation and Zen), and his players know it.
Nobody knows exactly what he says or does to light fires under his players, but Phil Jackson sure has a way with getting the most of his teams at the exact moment he needs it.
He has done it with every key player on his 11 title teams, and there's no reason to think the Jedi mind tricks will run out come April/May/June.
Players know what Phil does and when he does it. They've picked up the patterns by now, and they actually wait for it. It's something intangible that cannot be pointed to on the calendar or schedule, but it happens every year like clockwork at the right time. The players find the zone, refocus, and do what is necessary to come out victorious.
This is part of what makes the Lakers' regular season rollercoaster so frustrating: big win, mind-numbing loss, 7-game win streak, blowout loss to the Heat. The Lakers' have a limited amount of Zen motivation every season, and they know they can't respond to it too early, or else they won't have enough for the playoffs. That's why they look so unimpressive for stretches of the regular year.
Whatever it is Jackson does, I hope he musters up a lot extra this year, because the competition is stiff.
These are all reasons why the Lakers are DEFCON 5 while their impulsive fans are at DEFCON 1.
They've done this a few times, and they are going about it the way they know to be best, regardless of how bad they look in the media and to the fans. To them, a little uncertainty right now is incomparable to the payoff of having enough in the tank to win the title at the end.
And that is all that matters.