- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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CLEVELAND -- Kobe Bryant asked for it.
He was tired of feasting on cream-puff teams in the Western Conference. He wanted something tough and hearty. He wanted his teammates to eat their vegetables. Get their brussels sprouts through box outs. Eat their lima beans through loose balls. You get the idea.
"I hope [the Cavaliers game gets physical]," Bryant declared after Thursday's shootaround. "I hope so."
Be careful what you wish for, Kobe.
Cleveland followed the same game plan it used on Christmas Day to outlast the Lakers 93-87 at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers pushed, they shoved, they cleared space and they elbowed (Andrew Bynum has the bloody lip to prove it), they scratched and they clawed. And what did the Lakers do? They caved, they shrunk, they lost their cool, they failed to execute.
They lost to the Cavs for the second time this season in two tries.
The Lakers finally lost the crutch that fans had been leaning on, blaming any early-season inconsistencies on a litany of maladies.
L.A.was healthy on Thursday, all 13 players were shipshape for the third game in a row, but the Lakers just weren't very good. Or at least not very ready.
Cleveland outrebounded Los Angeles by five, and Anderson Varejao's physical play forced the Lakers to foul on a rebound attempt with 20.7 seconds to play after a missed free throw by LeBron James left the Cavs up only three points.
L.A. coach Phil Jackson thought Varejao might have fouled Pau Gasol in the process, and he has a case, but it's emblematic that the game was decided on the kind of simple hustle play the Cavs live by and that the Lakers have to learn how to make such plays become second nature.
"We have to step up and match that," Bryant said. "It's not part of our DNA. We have to step up and match that and still play skillful basketball."
Nobody denies the Lakers' talent and skill level. They have tacticians on the floor in Bryant, Gasol and Lamar Odom. Players whose sheer ability can beat teams through making God-given plays, executing a thinking man's offense, staying above the fray.
The problem is, they don't know what to do with themselves when the ball is rolled out and the other team just wants it more. Energy and effort can consume skill and smarts in a second. NBA players should know this as well as anybody. Look at how many players in the league have been able to lift themselves out of their meager beginnings to become millionaires through the pure and simple approach, "I need to work on my game my hardest every moment I can because when whenever I rest, there's somebody else working."
L.A. tried to dial up the intensity. They tried to go blow for blow. But they aren't used to it. Cleveland knows the tricks. This is their brand of basketball. The Cavs got called for 22 fouls to the Lakers' 21, but nobody on the home team got whistled for more than three. Gasol was called for five, Andrew Bynum got saddled with four and L.A.'s rotation was sent askew.
"We weren't aggressive enough," Gasol said, after relative no-name J.J. Hickson grabbed almost as many rebounds (14) as Gasol and Bynum combined (16). "I take part of the blame. I settled too much. I got some good looks facing up and it's a shot that I usually make with a high percentage, but I shot four or five face-ups that didn't go in. The times I did go to the hole, I did produce, so I should have done that more."
It's encouraging that Gasol is embracing his leadership status, but it's completely confounding that he said he wished he went to the hole more but then blamed his two missed free throws with 24.1 seconds left (that could have tied the game) on failed trips to the tin.
"When I got to the line, I was still thinking of a couple times that I could have finished a play and I let still linger in my head," Gasol explained. "Obviously, it had a total negative effect."
It's a quote that exposes Gasol, one of the most thoughtful and intelligent players in the league, as lacking mental toughness despite all that mental acuity.
"We have to make some adjustments, we have to make some improvements," Bryant said after the game. "Our mentality has to change a little bit playing against these teams. These teams are physical, tough-minded and hard-nosed type of teams, and we need to make some decisions."
Bryant is a competitive machine. He knew about his team's lack of toughness, but wanted to confront and conquer it, rather than avoid and sidestep it.
When you've played more than 1,000 games as a pro already, you start looking for different variations to keep it interesting for yourself. Kind of like the Madden head who throws both teams in embarrassingly awful throwback uniforms once in a while, just because.
Bryant has lusted after physical play before, revealing back during the 2008 Finals against Boston that it got him excited because all the hard fouls reminded him of the 1980s.
Remember how that series turned out for him and the Lakers?
There's a fine line between heroic and masochistic.
Be careful what you wish for.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
6mMichael C. Wright