The Los Angeles Lakers’ 102-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was an embarrassing defeat that revealed all of LA’s major flaws; many of them were the same flaws that doomed their quest to win a championship in 2007-2008.
-The Lakers' interior rotations were soft or non-existent. It appeared as if Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were scared of Shaquille O’Neal’s and LeBron James’ boulder-crushing strength.
-That Bynum was lost and confused on defense—offering no resistance on off-ball screens, late in his help assignments, gambling and missing entry passes—is simply par for the course for the mistake-prone youngster. However, Gasol played defense like a timid rookie, a characteristic not seen since the Lakers’ humbling Finals defeat to the Celtics two postseasons ago.
-Bynum (2-5 FG, 4 points and Gasol 4-11 FG, 11 points) were visibly bothered by the Cavs’ size and length upfront. Without the overall length advantage the Lakers normally have, Bynum and Gasol were pushed around under the hoop, and Gasol couldn’t find the range on his jumper.
-Kobe Bryant forced a number of shots and passes and couldn’t find easy baskets against Cleveland’s collapsing defense. Worse, Kobe let his frustrations get the best of him by complaining to the referees on every call that didn’t go his way.
-The Lakers spent more time complaining to the refs than rotating on defense.
-Derek Fisher—3-8FG, 1-4 3FG, 0 assists, 3 TO, 7 points—looked ready for the glue factory.
-The Lakers got nothing from their bench: Lamar Odom was invisible for too many stretches; Shannon Brown was lit up on defense; Jordan Farmar forced two shots and couldn’t keep up with Mo Williams and Delonte West; and both of Sasha Vujacic’s field goals came deep into garbage time.
-If Odom isn’t playing well, the Lakers simply don’t have enough firepower from their second unit to beat elite teams. Farmar hasn’t taken the next step in his development, and Vujacic wets the bed. The Lakers needs production from their second unit that nobody is giving.
-The Lakers spent too much time playing one-on-one basketball, and didn’t trust the offense to generate open looks.
-The Lakers’ scrambling defense was picked apart by Cleveland’s snappy pass work, well-timed cuts attacking the middle of the paint, and skip passes across the paint. The Cavs never stopped passing, but the Lakers often stopped playing defense.
-The Lakers were also beaten backdoor far too frequently with little backside help.
-Ron Artest did an effective job against James on the ball, but couldn’t keep up with James off of weak-side curls. To make matters worse, the Lakers’ bigs made only cursory efforts to show on James after the cuts.
-Fisher was posted and toasted by Williams on three occasions.
-The Lakers, used to bullying opponents with their extreme size and length, looked scared to face an opponent that could stand toe-to-toe with them up front. Cleveland’s massive frontline of Shaq, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, and LeBron played extremely well, particularly on the defensive end.
-The only Laker who played with any sort of zest was Artest who wrestled for every loose ball (on one occasion going toe-to-toe for an offensive rebound with James and leaving His Highness on the floor), operated the triangle as if he’d been playing in the system for years, attacked mismatches by posting in transition, and playing commendable defense. Too bad he missed three free throws and was guilty of loafing down the court in transition at least once.
-The Lakers collectively lost their cool way too easily.
-What was the best thing to take away for the Lakers? They couldn’t possibly play any worse.
In many regards, the game was the first real challenge the Lakers have faced all season. With an extremely generous home schedule, the Lakers have coasted to the top spot of the NBA standings.
Before the Cavs game, they hadn’t faced the Cavs, Celtics, Magic, or Spurs this year, and lost to the Nuggets and Mavs by double digits. Needless to say, their first test against one of the Eastern Conference behemoths was a resounding failure.
On the other side, being tested so few times early means that the Lakers will have plenty of opportunities to right the ship as the season continues. However, don’t simply count the Lakers as the best team in basketball because of their record.
If they prove over the next few months that Pau Gasol will play more like the 2009 version than the 2008 version, Andrew Bynum will show up against the better offenses, Kobe won’t jack up bad shots when the going gets tough, Lamar Odom will play consistently well, the Lakers' bench will provide something (anything), and Derek Fisher can reverse the aging process, then the Lakers are the favorite to win a second straight title.
But if not, and the Lakers play more like their 2008 selves than their 2009 versions, then any talented, physical, mentally strong team will be prime to dethrone the Lakers and proclaim a new king.