Los Angeles Lakers: Take Out the Panic Button But Don't Push It Yet

Andrew Ungvari@DrewUngaSenior Writer IApril 26, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY - APRIL 24: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks looks to get past Ron Artest #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers during Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2010 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I've heard of kicking a dog while it's down but I've also heard that's it's best to let a sleeping dog lie.

So which one is it with the 2009-10 Lakers?

I can't really tell you as of right now but I do know that we're about to find out.

Regardless of how lousy the defending champions looked in their Game 4 loss on Saturday night I feel like it's my duty to put things into perspective.

For starters, the Lakers led for all but the last 11:18 of Game 3 and trailed by two points with 13 seconds left.

So it's not as if they were blown out by the Thunder in both games.

I should also remind those Lakers fans currently surveying the contents of their medicine cabinets that teams that have gone up 2-0 in seven-game series have gone on to win those series 92 percent of the time.

Can you honestly tell me that the Lakers looked worse on Saturday night than they did in their losses to the Rockets in last year's Conference Semi-Finals?

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And we all know how last season ended.

Sure there is an elephant in the room this time around. Kobe Bryant has not looked like the same player for the past month. Some of that can be attributed to wear-and-tear but that's a disservice to the job that the Thunder have done defending him.

Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, and Kevin Durant have all taken turns guarding the reigning Finals MVP and as a whole have been rather successful. Most noticeably was the job that Durant did in the fourth quarter of Game 3.

But let's not confuse great defense with greatly exaggerated reports of his (basketball) death.

Anybody who watched Tayshaun Prince guard Bryant in the 2004 NBA Finals knows that he has always had difficulty scoring from the outside against long-armed defenders—and The 'Durantula' certainly fits that description.

The problem is that those seem to be the only types of shots that Bryant is getting in this series. The Thunder front-court has done an excellent job of clogging the middle and forcing Bryant and his teammates into taking nothing but outside shots.

When they do manage to get the ball inside they end up at the free throw line and that's not necessarily a good thing either.

The problem that the Lakers have had, not just this season but in the last 10 years as well, is that Bryant is their only slashing threat.

Derek Fisher has never been a penetrating point guard.

Jordan Farmar has the ability to drive but he's shown a tendency to commit offensive fouls.

Shannon Brown's driving ability has been stymied by a thumb injury he suffered against the Pacers in March.

But now Bryant is dealing with finger, knee, ankle, and hamstring injuries which have greatly affected his ability to slash, which in turn has affected his ability to get to the free-throw line.

There was a faint hope that Lamar Odom would be able to take on more of a point forward role and get some easy baskets but that has yet to happen as well.

With the extra day between games I fully expect Phil Jackson to come up with a strategy to get the ball into the paint more often as well as figure out ways to slow Russell Westbrook down.

The team can no longer get away with horrible three-point shot attempts. They might as well just throw an outlet pass towards their own goal since the outcome would be the same.

Needless to say the series is far from over.

While it's easy for Lakers fans to freak out between Games 4 and 5 it's the rest of the NBA fan community that should remember not to throw stones if they live in glass houses.

What once looked like one mighty rugged road to a third consecutive NBA Finals appearance for the Lakers is starting to look easier—and not more difficult—by the day.

The second-seeded Mavericks, easily the west's deepest team, are suddenly facing elimination against the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

The third-seeded Suns, the conference's hottest team heading into the playoffs, are now guaranteed of going at least six games with the Portland Trail Blazers.

The fourth-seeded Nuggets, who still believe they should have won last year's Conference Finals series with the Lakers, are facing elimination against the Utah Jazz and will have to win one road game in what's long been believed to be the NBA's most intimidating home arena.

As for the Jazz, they've lost their last 13 games to the Lakers at Staples Center and will have a tough time matching up with the Lakers size now that Mehmet Okur is out for the remainder of the playoffs.

I should be clear. Even if the Lakers manage to avoid becoming just the fourth top-seed to lose to an eighth-seed I still don't think they will repeat as champions.

But a lot can happen between now and the NBA Finals.

For example, the Boston Celtics seem to have regained a little bit of their swagger despite missing out on the sweep against the Miami Heat on Sunday.

The Orlando Magic might be the most impressive team in the playoffs thus far.

So as the road to a potential repeat for the Lakers has become much smoother you could say the opposite for the Cavs and their journey to "win a ring for the king."

That's not to say that the Cavs win over the Bulls on Sunday wasn't impressive because it was. I'm just saying that the Cavs or their fans can't expect to roll over their next two opponents just as easy.

Make no mistake that the Lakers are still in control in their series with Oklahoma City. You'd have to go all the way back to March 12, 2006 to find the last time the Thunder/Seattle Supersonics beat the Lakers in Los Angeles.

Las Vegas still has the Lakers as six-point favorites to win Game 5.

If you're a conspiracy theorist then you can't help but realize that of the top-15 TV markets by size, the only ones with playoff teams are Los Angeles (2), Chicago (3), Dallas (5), Boston (7), Atlanta (8), and Phoenix (12).

The Bulls and Mavs could be eliminated as early as Tuesday.

That means that Los Angeles would be the only top-5 TV market with a team left in the playoffs.

Oklahoma City ranks 45th—lower than Salt Lake City (31), Milwaukee (35), and San Antonio (37).

So if you're one of those people that's convinced that the league tends to lean in favor of major market teams then you can't help but think the Lakers will have a little bit of help in Game 5 as well as a potential Game 7.

I've never defended the crowds at Lakers games so much as explained them. I'm on my 21st season with Lakers season tickets.

What I've been able to surmise in those 21 years is that Lakers fans are spoiled. No surprise there. Nine championships in 30 years will do that to a fanbase.

But Lakers fans do something that no other fanbase does and that's expect the team to motivate them instead of the other way around.

I can't get the Staples Center crowd to join me in chants of "Defense!" when the team is down by three in the fourth quarter. On Saturday night, the Oklahoma City crowd was chanting "Defense!" up by 21 points in the fourth quarter.

The problem is that you can't fake the enthusiasm that a virgin crowd like Oklahoma City has in their first playoff series ever. You can't replicate the desperation of a Portland crowd that has gone 33 years without a championship or a Phoenix crowd that felt like they were on their way to numerous championships before some unforeseen chain of events took them off course.

Instead Lakers fans rely on dire straits to get them motivated: the prospect of losing a series after being up 3-1 as they were against Portland in 2000, the thought of going down 3-1 without home-court advantage as they were against the Sacramento Kings in 2002, or the nightmare of going down 0-2 to the fifth-seeded Houston Rockets in 2009.

If we've learned anything from these Lakers over the past month it's that they aren't yet motivated by the prospect of joining some of the league's greatest by winning back-to-back championships.

It will be interesting to see if this year's version of the Lakers home crowd has what it takes to shake off their own malaise.

It might be time to remind this team that they should want another championship as much or as even more than their fans do.

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