Commentary

Lakers not tough enough

The Lakers need to find the same toughness that wins championships.

Updated: January 25, 2010, 12:20 AM ET
By Steve Mason

The Lakers' season-long roadie is off to a rough 1-2 start as Hedo Turkoglu sank a pair of free throws and Kobe missed a ridiculously tough potential game-winner at the buzzer leading to a 106-105 loss to the Raptors at Toronto's Air Canada Centre Sunday.

Suddenly, the Purple & Gold are in a flat-footed tie in the loss column with Cleveland -- the Lakers are 33-11 while the Cavs are 34-11. That could give Mike Brown's hungrier LeBron-led team four home games in a potential championship series against Los Angeles.

Despite a terrific near triple-double performance from Kobe Bryant and outstanding near double-double contributions from Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers have fallen to a completely pedestrian 10-8 record on the road, with five more away games in the next eight days. The Lakers have played the second-fewest road games in the league (only San Antonio has had a cushier first-half schedule with just 17 game away from AT&T Center), but Los Angeles now has only the fourth-best road winning percentage in the NBA.

BEST NBA ROAD WINNING PERCENTAGES
1. Boston 16-6 - .727
2. Cleveland - 17-8 - .680
3. Dallas 16-8 - .666
4. Lakers 10-8 - .555
5. Orlando 13-11 - .541
6. Atlanta 10-9 - .526
7. Oklahoma City 12-11 - .521

After 18 road games last season, the Lakers were a much more tenacious 13-5, and they finished their six-game Grammy trip in their 15th championship season with an 18-5 road mark.

So far, the problem for the Lakers on this trip is two-fold.

First, there is a general lack of defensive intensity. Overall, the Lakers hold their opponents to a.436 shooting percentage, which is the best in the Western Conference. But in the first three games of this trip, Cleveland, New York and Toronto are shooting a combined 47 percent.

Dictating the tone and tempo of the game is the other mistake in the past three contests. For the second time this season, the Lakers allowed Cleveland to be the aggressor as they played reactively at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday. Then they were seduced into track meets on Friday at The Garden and Sunday at Toronto.

The Lakers must establish their identity as a road team. The next three games -- at Washington, at Indiana and at Philadelphia -- become critical in that process. It is one thing to lose at the Eastern Conference-best Cavaliers and at Toronto, another likely playoff team. It would be a significant red flag for L.A. to lose to any at any of the next three stops. The Wizards, Pacers and Sixers are a combined 44-86.

With a back-to-back against the Celtics (28-13) and the rapidly improving Grizzlies (23-19) looming at the end of this seemingly endless road trip, the Lakers need to focus on beating these bad teams. Blowing one of these "softies" will likely result in a .500 trip (or even worse).

It starts with finding that attitude that lifted them to the NBA title last season. The key is for the Lakers to impose their will on opposing teams. The champs need to set the tone, the tempo, the pace. Make the home team react. Get off to a great start. Focus on defense. And most of all develop "road toughness." Think Mad Max, the ultimate Road Warrior.

I am not talking about physical toughness as in the Lakers are not physically tough enough to match up. It is mental toughness. Desire. Urgency. Hunger. Motivation. Passion. Fight. When the Purple & Gold walk into any arena not named Staples, they should not expect their opponents to roll over like puppy dogs expecting to have their bellies scratched.

The Lakers are suffering from a case of being "fat and happy" millionaires with really big rings. Complacency will kill any hopes of a repeat. We can split hairs and invent reasons and talk about Kobe's finger and the problems of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol getting on the same page and Ron Artest whose foot is sore from plantar fasciitis and defending quick point guards and on and on. But let me point you to a quote from former Lakers head coach Pat Riley:

"When a great team loses through complacency, it will constantly search for new and more intricate explanations to explain away defeat."

Steve Mason

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Steve Mason is a co-host of the "Mason & Ireland" show on 710 ESPN Radio in Los Angeles.

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