- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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For two weeks, the Lakers have heard nothing but drums.
Because for two months they have done nothing to silence them.
Jerry West called them old. Mitch Kupchak said they were stale. Magic Johnson all but grabbed them by the shoulders and shook them to see if they were still awake. Three legends, three public call-outs.
After an uninspired loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day, a downer against the Boston Celtics last Sunday and way too many listless games in between, the criticism seemed well-deserved; casual and complacent are tolerated in December but have no place in a championship locker room after January.
Only what if tough love isn't what the Lakers need right now? What if the Lakers need to be built up, not torn down? What if confidence is the problem, not overconfidence?
It seems crazy to suggest that about a team that has won back-to-back titles. But just listen to the voices from the Lakers' locker room after Thursday night's 89-88 loss to the San Antonio Spurs:
"We should focus on how hard we played," Pau Gasol said, when asked what the Lakers should take away from the loss to the Spurs. "We have to build the confidence up a little bit, because we had a lot of open looks and we didn't convert."
Luke Walton, who has been around long enough to rank the various states of Lakers dysfunction, seemed to speak for the entire second unit when he said, "It's just that this system is so much different than any other system out there. In the middle of the season, you sometimes get lost, as far as basketball being a rhythm game.
"You have a hard time finding that rhythm every night when you're not the main guy. Some nights you're only going to get three shots, and as a player you judge yourself on, 'Shoot, I missed those three shots.' So then you can't sleep that night. Then, you're worried about your next shots.
"The truth of the matter is, everyone misses shots. But shoot, when you take three and miss ..."
Earlier in the week, Kobe Bryant even seemed to suggest that Gasol needed a confidence boost with his "black swan" speech. "He's capable of doing it, so now it's just about it kind of having it become more of a habit for him," Bryant said, of Gasol's need to play more aggressively. "He's just an easy-going, selfless player that just makes passes when they're there and takes shots as they come to him, but sometimes you just got to go get it. I love to see that from him."
Right now, no fewer than seven of the Lakers regular rotation players are in some sort of a down-cycle (only Bryant and Lamar Odom have been anything close to consistent). Gasol has struggled to maintain his effort and focus. Andrew Bynum is still working his way back into shape after knee surgery. Derek Fisher, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown aren't shooting particularly well. Walton can't get into a rhythm. Ron Artest seems increasingly lost on the court.
It's no coincidence, then, that Bryant has combined for 21 assists in his past two games and seems to be making a concerted effort to set his teammates up to make big plays.
Thursday night with the game on the line, Bryant passed to Gasol (who converted two free throws with 22.7 seconds remaining), to Odom (who drained a 3-pointer with a minute left to cut San Antonio's lead to 87-86) and to Artest (who converted a fast-break layup with 5:23 left).
In all three cases, Bryant could have taken a shot. It would have been a difficult shot, but he's certainly taken those before. On this night, he chose to give his teammates the opportunity to seize the moment. He looked to build them up.
Phil Jackson seemed to be of a similar mind. After strapping Artest to the bench during the fourth quarter in the loss to the Celtics, Jackson let him play all 12 minutes on Thursday, then publicly praised him after the game. "I thought he did a great job on [Manu] Ginobili," Jackson said. "I don't know even what Ginobili scored, but I thought [Artest] was the one creating stops."
It was a subtle nod, but a nod nonetheless.
Praise not a prod.
And after two weeks of drum-beating and public scorn from on high, it had to feel pretty good.
This approach isn't going to sit well with everyone. Because these Lakers haven't done much in the last two months to earn a long leash.
But sometimes even champions get the blues.
"I know people say that we're just content, we're going to turn it on," Walton said. "But it's not like we're not playing hard. We're all frustrated. We're all mad. We all want to win.
"We just haven't found it yet."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
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