- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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LOS ANGELES -- It's over. Or so we've been told.
Because the Lakers couldn't seem to pass, dribble, shoot, defend or execute basic basketball principles in Games 1 and 2 of this Western Conference semifinals vs. the Mavs -- on their home court, no less -- they headed to Dallas with their proverbial tails between their legs, on the verge of kissing a three-peat goodbye instead of completing another step towards an imminent coronation. Yet, somehow, some way, this actually appears to be a good thing for the reigning two-time defending champions.
Suddenly, Lamar Odom is a bit perturbed, devoid of his usual nonchalance. Coach Phil Jackson is talking about "flogging" his players, without a smirk or a smile. Center Andrew Bynum is verbalizing that the team lacks trust in one another while Kobe Bryant is telling folks to "stop tripping." Meanwhile, Pau Gasol is acknowledging he has spent entirely too much time tripping over himself, apparently aware of his most embarrassing postseason performance in an L.A. uniform. And the best part is, he couldn't pay someone to disagree with him right now.
"All that means is that [the Lakers] will come at us that much harder," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "They know full well what's at stake, and you just know they are not going to go down without a fight."
Essentially, because they're finally convinced they are in a fight.
As a basketball nation becomes more and more transfixed on the ascendance of the Mavs, the humiliation that seems forthcoming and the once-unconscionable thought of Jackson ending his illustrious coaching career (11 titles in 20 years) on the sour note of a second-round dismissal, the Lakers could actually be heard advising folks to press the pause buttons and hold off on writing their epitaph. Jackson, after all, is saying there will be no sweep in this series.
"I'd like to cry but I can't right now," a light-hearted Jackson told reporters following practice in L.A. on Thursday, seemingly unconcerned with the specter of a sweep hovering over the Lakers this weekend. "It's a game and we know it's a game. We play it and we play it hard, and we anticipate winning in Dallas."
What matters most are the reasons.
Listening to the Lakers in the aftermath of their 93-81 Game 2 loss on Wednesday, it appeared that the urgency of the moment had hit them.
The Lakers know they're not moving the ball the way they are supposed to. That they're not utilizing their size advantage. Perimeter shooting has been a problem, as well, along with getting stops when needed.
"We're not playing Lakers basketball," Odom deadpanned. "It's as simple as that."
The truth is, long before Father Time appeared to have caught up with the Lakers, their arrogance had beaten them to the punch. Folks like Odom have been so fond of saying for so long that their only concern is themselves, but the fact that Dallas is doing most of the serving these days can work to the Lakers' advantage.
Perhaps Gasol will remember that, like Dirk Nowitzki, he's also 7-feet tall, blessed with an offensive repertoire of his own and should be more assertive in giving the Mavs problems. Maybe the Lakers will remember that Bynum is a huge cog in the middle, capable of getting Tyson Chandler in foul trouble, too.
Then there's the absence of Ron Artest for Game 3 -- suspended for smacking J.J. Barea in the face with his forearm in the waning moments of Game 2 -- which could very well lead to Odom being inserted in the starting lineup. The likelihood of Matt Barnes getting more playing time because of it, as well, and Shannon Brown's insistence that L.A.'s bench must come together and start making a contribution validates how serious matters have gotten for these Lakers, and that the time to handle their business has arrived.
"We need guys to step up, play their roles and do what they're supposed to do," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said.
We can get into how Kobe vows that's exactly what the Lakers will do, but that's really beside the point. What is at issue now is the fact that the Lakers know they need to do more than just talk. That they've been stripped of their swagger. That their backs are against the wall now that they've lost the first two games of a playoff series at home for the first time in 42 years, and that the Mavs, considering the way they are built, are not about to give this series away.
"We have shooting, rebounding, defense ... we have a bench and we have great coaching," a composed Chandler explained, minutes after catching too many alley-oops to be counted. "We've actually had a lot of those attributes for years. The one thing folks questioned about this team was heart. I know because I just came here, and that was exactly my concern before I signed here.
"But it isn't a concern now. We're not scared of anybody. You do get to a point when you should be tired of getting pushed around, tired of folks calling you soft, and you don't just want to win, you want to make a statement. That's where we are right now. At some point, it's got to be somebody else's turn to go through all of that."
At the moment, it's the Lakers' turn, since the Mavs have spent all the pivotal moments in the first two games doing what they want, how they want, to whomever they please, indifferent to any real consequences.
"We've got to address that," Bryant said. "We'll be there for Game 3. We don't have a choice now."
Here's hoping that's a good thing.
Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.
With their backs against a wall, the Lakers just may find the focus to survive