Do Lakers need to be tough to win?
It's that time of the year again.
The time when the laissez-faire Lakers get pinned against the cocksure Celtics and their toughness is tested as if they were George Costanza competing in the feats of strength against his father Frank during Festivus.
The question is: Do the Lakers need to be tough to win?
They're 36-11 based on a finesse triangle offense that's predicated on the precision of their passing and spacing on the court and they trot out a thinking-man's defense that's suffocating through reads and rotations rather than brute force.
The Lakers are fourth in the league in points per game (103.87) and ninth in the league in points given up (96.76), but that number put up by opponents is a little inflated by the pace at which the Lakers play. L.A. ranks third in points per possession allowed (1.01), which is a more accurate gauge for how stingy a defense is.
So, why worry about what brand of basketball the opponent is playing?
"They have to meet the style of play that's going to be played against them, it's as simple as that," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Notice, Jackson says "meet" and not "match" or "replicate."
The Lakers can still be themselves and beat a team such as Boston or Cleveland, they just have to be a modified version.
"We are a Hollywood, West Coast team, but we can do that [and be] tough," Lamar Odom said. "If you want to play hard, we can do that. If you want to play dirty, we can meet that. We might meet your dirt with finesse."
For the Lakers to win a second consecutive championship, they'll have to win enough games against the 29 slightly different styles their opponents play during the regular season and then be adaptable enough to deal with and eliminate four more styles of play over the course of seven-game series in the postseason.
So far, the one style that has consistently rattled them, dating to the 2008 Finals, is what Kobe Bryant describes as the "bully ball" that Boston employs.
Bryant issued a directive last week after his team started its crucial eight-game trip with a loss in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers wanted it more than the Lakers, he said. The Lakers needed to start being the ones administering the blows instead of being the ones narrowly avoiding knockouts. Los Angeles has been pushed around by Cleveland twice now and controlled by Denver too.
According to Bryant, the next big measuring stick was Boston in Game No. 7 on the trip.
L.A. responded, winning four of the next five games, with the Lakers forcing their will on New York, Washington, Indiana and Philadelphia (and letting one slip away in Toronto).
Last season, the Lakers felt a need to play bully ball themselves to wash away the stigma that followed them all summer after a 39-point loss to Boston in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals. They won both regular-season meetings against the Celtics, including a particularly rousing 110-109 overtime victory in Boston in which Odom went forehead to forehead with Kevin Garnett.
"I'm fronting him and I'm getting [a forearm] in the back of my head," Odom remembered. "I was like, 'Well, I'm going to tell you how much I don't like that, ask you to play fair and keep it moving.'"
But this time around, the Lakers are the defending champions. The rest of the league should be adapting to them. Like any Oscar-winning actor, this "Hollywood team" will show versatility in its game, but Pacino playing a football coach and Pacino playing a blind, retired colonel is still Pacino.
"It's not us being something that we're not," Bryant said. "But, it's just us matching up with their energy and intensity and things like that."
It's a challenge, but it's also a chance for the Lakers to reassure themselves that they're on the right track toward title No. 16.
"Teams like Cleveland and Boston test you at a different level than other teams do," Pau Gasol said. "They understand what it takes to win in this league, to win at the playoff level, and not many teams do."
If it's Bryant's responsibility to set the tone for his team before Sunday's game, then he already has failed.
"The hardest thing is the cold weather," Bryant said about arriving in Boston. "We've become pansies living in L.A."
But it's always better for someone to be self-aware enough to point out his flaws rather than have them be exposed by someone else looking to embarrass him.
While Bryant chided his team a bit, Odom identified another weakness.
"Cockiness gets in our way," Odom said. "It does. Sometimes if you're a little too cocky then you wake up, look up and then you decide to turn it on, well, the other team already has it turned on. All their guys are hitting shots, getting to loose balls and the basketball gods are taking care of them the whole game. It happens to the cocky."
A two-week trip away from their mansions, cars, beautiful families and perfect weather replaced by bus rides, late-night flights, hotel food and living out of a suitcase is a good way to bring back some humility.
And with humility, the prospect of focusing on simply winning basketball games becomes a lot easier.
"We got to respect the physical game and if we don't meet their intensity, they'll beat us," Odom said. "Time to put the caviar and champagne down and play tough."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.