So, when last we met, I was waxing poetic about the great civic spirit in town when the Lakers start an NBA Playoff run, but I forgot one little thing: The undercurrent of anxiety that simultaneously wafts in the air.
The sneaking thought: ”What if they don’t three-peat? What if they (gasp!) don’t even reach the finals?”
There are one of two reactions to that. First, a whistling-past-the-graveyard false bravado. “Of course we’ll win. Who can beat us?” (Well, the Hornets apparently.) “The Lakers can flip the switch any time. They are the best in the NBA.”
Or, the other reaction is stomach-churning panic as you watch the opportunity slowly slip away. And games like the ennui-filled effort that the Lakers gave in the opener just add to that. You deserved to be booed by the Staples crowd, Lakers. Chris Paul and his boys showed you what playoff intensity and heart are all about. My hat is off to them. They seized the moment.
Lakers, knock it off with this entitled complacency. (Not you Mamba—you always bring it. It’s one of your greatest qualities—110 percent competitive intensity.) But everyone else, you will rue the day that you do not leave everything on the floor every game.
Championship windows close fast.
You’re one injury or trade away from languishing in some backwater instead of playing in the bright lights of Los Angeles. Look in the mirror and realize how lucky you are to even be here. How many other players are there who would play for free just for the opportunity to wear the purple and gold?
Worst of all, when you half-ass it like that, you are being contemptuous of the very people who justify your existence: the fans. It’s not good enough. Not for the talent assembled. Not for the Laker tradition.
So, back to the reactions—the anxiety seeps in and then you frantically tell yourself: “No, it can’t happen like that. We can’t lose. Phil won’t let it happen. He’s the greatest ever. Kobe won’t let it happen. Kobe will save us. Kobe will save us. Right?”
(Looks around nervously)
Which brings us to the Game 2 score: Lakers 87, Hornets 78. You can only imagine the huge exhale of relief across the city. An urban-generated Santa Ana wind if you will.
And in a weird way, I think Kobe did save us. Hear me out. The old Kobe, after that horrible Game 1 showing, would have gone ballistic on his teammates and probably turned into a huge ball hog in Game 2. But browbeating millionaire athletes who already have two championships in the last two years will only get you so far. After a while, they start to tune you out.
I think he did something smarter. He played the disappointed card.
You have to understand the makeup of this team for that to make sense. Kobe is the undisputed alpha male of the Lakers. But Kobe 2.0 knows that the only way to win is as a team. He cannot do it by himself.
There is an almost unspoken deference to him on the part of many of his teammates. Kobe knows this. But the team is at its best when he reminds the players that they are with the Lakers for a reason: they can ball.
It's a very powerful message. And it accomplishes two things. It lets the other players know that there are expectations to be met, and it gives them permission to shine—to outshine him even. We saw this in the post All-Star run.
We've seen flashes of it so far, especially from Andrew Bynum in Game 2. I think Kobe must have reminded them in his somewhat brusque way: You're here for a reason. It's not the Los Angeles Kobes, it's the Los Angeles Lakers. You're a Laker. Play like it.
Everyone is hammering Pau Gasol for a bad Game 2. It wasn't so bad. Yeah, he didn't have a lot of points, but the hot shooting hand comes and goes—who knows why. Maybe he's just thinking too much.
The antidote to that is take care of the things you absolutely have control over: hustle and defense. It always starts with that. Witness Game 2—the Lakers clamped down hard on defense. Kobe, RonRon and the speckled egg, Steve Blake, took turns on CP3 and the Lakers scored enough to win. Voila: fundamentals.
So now we move to New Orleans, and the same things apply—hustle and defense.
And don't let the town's wiles distract you, Lakers. By the way, I think that while the Lakers are in town, Bourbon Street should come up with a new drink. Call it Laker Hater-ade. Seriously, wouldn't that be great? Just take the recipe for those hurricane-y thingies and add a few drops of food color and presto. There's your new purple drank. C'mon entrepreneurial barkeeps of New Orleans, make this happen.
Don't tell me if you were a Hornets fan watching the game in a bar, you wouldn't order one. You're welcome Louisiana tavern owners.
So for Game 3, Lakers, maintain the focus from Game 2. The shots will fall—they always do if you stick to your foundation of defense and playing as a team.
And for anyone not from Los Angeles? Welcome to the day-by-day panic, euphoria, anxiety and jubilation of watching a Lakers playoff run. Laker fans wouldn't have it any other way.