The Los Angeles Lakers opened their title defense against the New Orleans Hornets as if in a mindless stupor, losing the first game at Staples Center and barely squeaking out a win in Game 2 before heading to The Big Easy for the next two.
One week ago, all the talk was about how old and slow the Lakers had suddenly become and 101 reasons why the team would not three-peat and might even exit the playoffs as soon as this first round. Chicken Little was rearing its nasty feathers and could be heard bellowing “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
Well, the sky is not falling—yet. But, it is getting cloudier by the day, and Tuesday night's forecast for Staples Center in L.A. is 50 percent storm and 50 percent clear skies. It's driving the local prognosticators a little batty.
Last Friday was a good day for the Lakers, who were never threatened in a 14-point blowout of the Hornets. L.A. played like a two-time NBA champion, with purpose and passion. Up two games to one and with a golden opportunity to come home needing just one game to close out the series, the drama-prone Lakers lost by five, and in the process, may have lost much more.
Kobe Bryant suffered an ankle sprain in the final minute of the game and literally hobbled on crutches to the team bus after telling reporters he would play on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Team officials wanted Bryant to get an MRI on Monday—he refused, saying that he would be ready to go on Tuesday and did not need any more tests on his sore ankle.
The Lakers, on paper, are a much stronger team than the depleted, vertically-challenged Hornets. They swept four straight regular-season games from New Orleans, and most thought they would waltz in four or five games in this series. They find themselves in a suddenly serious series, a best of three win or go home.
The Lakers have nine players who matter most during this playoff season, and all have specific roles to fill in order for the team to get to the Finals and win yet another title. But first, they must get past the Hornets in the opening round, and that is proving to be much more difficult than most of us thought.
Steve A. Smith of ESPN Radio thinks the Lakers are "in serious trouble." John Ireland, also of ESPN Radio and KCAL-TV, thinks the Lakers still win this series in six games.
At this time of year, it’s all about execution. Their roles are clearly defined—the Lakers have a map and know which road to take. They just need to avoid any more detours like the one they encountered in Games 1 and 4. The road to distraction.
Let's see what the Lakers really need to do in order to succeed and still be playing in June.