Time for distracted Lakers to focus
If it looked as if the Lakers were sleepwalking through their 99-90 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday, it's because they were. They won't admit it, but it was clear in every one of Kobe Bryant's behind-the-back passes and in every one of Pau Gasol's 21 quiet points. They were simply getting the job done; nothing more, nothing less.
"It was more like a cursory job getting that out there," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I think the crowd was visiting with one another and having such a good time. It was the mood of a Friday night in L.A."
If the season were a long highway then the Sixers would be like the tollbooth you pass on the way into Manhattan. Nobody wants to pay the toll and there's nothing particularly exciting about waiting in traffic to dole out a few dollars to a guy in a booth, but you have to do it to get to Broadway.
The problem is we're not focused all the time. We're looking ahead to the playoffs.” -- Lakers center Andrew Bynum
Before the Lakers took the court, Ron Artest, who had four points and five rebounds, seemed more worried about the concert and party he was having across the street at the Conga Room -- an event that began while the game was still in progress. Lamar Odom was handling his ticket allotment, which must not have gone well considering Khloe Kardashian was asked to move from her courtside seat because, well, her ticket wasn't courtside. And Andrew Bynum was still coming to grips with his first fine -- a $25,000 hit for criticizing the officials Wednesday.
"The problem is we're not focused all the time," Bynum said. "We're looking ahead to the playoffs."
Nobody was really worried about the lowly 76ers. So far this season they've shown no reason why they should be. This was the type of game the Lakers usually cruise through. It's games such as the one they'll be playing against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday that have caused problems for them this season.
The Lakers are only 7-8 this season against the top eight teams in the NBA and 36-7 against the rest of the league. They beat the teams they're supposed to beat but have yet to prove on a consistent basis they can beat the league's elite and the teams they'll likely be seeing in the playoffs.
So while the Lakers are hovering around .500 against the Cavaliers, Magic, Celtics, Hawks, Nuggets, Mavericks, Suns and Jazz, the Nuggets, who have scored 105 and 126 points in each of their two wins over the Lakers this season, boast a 12-3 record against those teams and are 5-0 against the Lakers, Cavaliers and Magic.
Should this game come down to the final possession, it could go either way. Both teams have done well in close games this year, as the Lakers and Nuggets have two of the league's best records in games decided by 3 points or fewer. In addition, both teams are an NBA-best 4-0 in overtime games this season. Best record in games decided by three points or fewer:
"I think there is a lack of sense of urgency and there is something to be said about that," Jackson said. "They have to bring that back to their game. We're making turnovers that are mindless and as a result we're playing around with teams rather than playing through teams."
Everyone knows the Lakers are a good team, but they have yet to prove this season they are a "big game" team. Their 0-4 record against the Cavaliers and Nuggets this season has cemented those question marks and the only way the Lakers can begin to break them is by beating Denver on Sunday. Wins against the likes of the 76ers, Grizzlies and Warriors aren't going to change anything.
"Teams are looking to kick our butts after we won the championship," Odom said. "You turn from the hunter to the hunted. All the teams are geared up to play us and that's something we have to get used to."
During an 82-game season, individual games don't hold as much weight as fans think. There is no such thing as a "barometer game" or a "measuring-stick game" when the regular season is nearly six months long. But cumulatively there is something to be said about the 15-game sample size the Lakers and Nuggets have given us against the league's elite. You can throw away a game or four, but over 15 games trends start developing that cannot simply be ignored.
As distressing as it may be to Lakers fans to see the Lakers lose to some of the best teams in the league, the good thing is they seem to play the same against the best teams and the worst teams, never getting too high or too low -- which may explain why they don't get up for the big games or play down to the likes of the 76ers.
"We've been to the Finals two years in a row so we anticipate the season being really long, but we have to take care of business now," Odom said. "We can't just press fast forward to April. It's a long season so sometimes even at Game 25 or 27 it's hard but mentally that's something you have to get over."
The regular season to them is 82 tollbooths on the way to the big city and the games that really matter in the playoffs.
"It's just a matter of putting in 82 games in a season," Jackson said. "That's the mood of the night."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.