Going through the motions
Like a high school senior ready to graduate, the Lakers feel no pressure
The Lakers are beginning to look more and more like a group of high school seniors during the final two weeks before graduation. With their college acceptance letters in hand and their grades all but decided, they are simply going through the motions.
Maybe it's time to consider the Lakers' current five-game road trip one big senior ditch day or perhaps an extended spring break.
After all, the Lakers have shown up for only two quarters during this trip, which has actually been good enough for two wins and a 2-2 record, including their 108-100 loss to the New Orleans Hornets on Monday (the final game of the trip is at Atlanta on Wednesday).
Lakers coach Phil Jackson let his team rest on Sunday after a 109-101 victory over the Houston Rockets on Saturday, and apparently the players figured they'd take full advantage of the day off, by the looks of their performance against the Hornets. In many ways, the Lakers' defeat on Monday was just as bad as their humiliating 91-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which was thought to be their worst in two years.
The Thunder are the sixth-best team in the West and one of the up-and-coming teams in the league, led by Kevin Durant, the second-leading scorer in the NBA. While there's no excuse for trailing by 33 points in the fourth quarter -- as L.A. trailed Oklahoma City on Friday -- it's not like the Thunder are, well, the Hornets. New Orleans had lost 14 of 18 games entering Monday and was eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend.
The game plan for the Lakers coming into the game was to work the ball inside-out and attack the paint against the Hornets' smaller lineup. Sure, New Orleans would come at the Lakers with their two-headed point guard monster of Chris Paul and Darren Collison, who combined for 35 points and 16 assists. But if the Lakers were patient and committed to going inside, they would wear down and wear out the undersized Hornets.
Like a classroom of teenagers with the attention span of toddlers, the Lakers did what they were told for the first nine minutes of the game as Pau Gasol and Ron Artest teamed up to give the Lakers a 21-17 lead, with most of their offense coming in the paint. Then, for some reason that escaped Jackson and his coaching staff, the Lakers began jacking up 3-pointers as if they were in an All-Star Saturday night competition with the Hornets.
Jackson all but begged his players to stop shooting 3-pointers after the first quarter -- writing "0 for 6 from three," their accuracy from beyond the arc, on his dry-erase board -- and told them to go inside more. It was like telling a group of kids to catch up on their required reading while vacationing in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.
The Lakers continued to shoot 3 after 3 after 3, even though they continued to miss 3 after 3 after 3. They hit only 7-of-29 shots from beyond the arc and were fairly even with the Hornets when it came to points in the paint, outscoring them 42-to-34, even though the disparity should have been far greater.
"We're playing like we don't want to be here," Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons told ESPN 710's John Ireland at the half.
Truth be told, the Lakers don't want to be anywhere near a basketball court right now. If they had it their way, they would go on vacation for the next two weeks before the playoffs begin, and at times it looks like that's exactly what they've already done.
While Jackson can helplessly point to 60 wins as a goal for the team, it appears none of the players in the locker room care if they finish with 60 wins or 56 wins. The Lakers hadn't won 60 games since the 1999-2000 season until they won 65 last season, and they still won two championships and went to two other NBA Finals during that time. The 1997-98 Lakers -- who got swept by the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals -- went 61-21 during the regular season. Meanwhile, the 2001 Lakers had a 56-26 record during the regular season but went 15-1 in the playoffs. Which team do you think fans remember more fondly? These Lakers know regular-season wins don't matter in the big scheme of things.
The reason the Lakers are currently in cruise control is because they can be. They have a five-game cushion atop the West and are four games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the best overall record (five if you include the fact Cleveland swept the regular-season series). They know they won't blow their lead in the West and they can't catch Cleveland, so if they just play well for a quarter here and there, they'll go into the playoffs in the exact same position they were last year. Sure, the Orlando Magic, who are two games behind the Lakers with eight to play, could give them a run for the second-best record in the league, but the Lakers would likely wake up and win out if they were ever tied. Not that the Lakers are worried about home court in a potential Lakers-Magic Finals rematch at this point.
So forget about 60 wins, forget about finishing out the season strong, and forget about going into the playoffs with some momentum. None of that matters to this Lakers team because, quite frankly, they've learned -- and history has shown them it doesn't really matter. The only thing that matters is how they perform in the playoffs, which can't come soon enough for the Lakers or their fans, who have to watch this team go through the motions eight more times before they finally graduate to the real season.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.