Uncomfortable questions begin for L.A.
DALLAS -- Blue-and-white ThunderStix in the hands of the fans decorated the occasion, rather than green-and-white confetti falling from the ceiling. The hardwood floor was simple bleached maple instead of parquet. But this Los Angeles Lakers era died in Dallas on Sunday the same way it was born in Boston three years ago:
With a blowout so embarrassing it made you question everything about the Lakers -- their heart, their talent, the makeup of their roster, their, well, everything.
The final margin in Game 4 was 36 points instead of 39, as it was in 2008, but it was every bit as demoralizing, considering this series was a sweep instead of lasting six games.
Back-to-back titles quieted the skeptics after the Boston blunder, but Pandora's box was ripped open again with the disaster in Dallas.
A team with these features -- the league's highest payroll, a top-10 player of all-time in Kobe Bryant, the winningest championship coach in NBA history in Phil Jackson, a perennial All-Star in Pau Gasol, a budding big man in Andrew Bynum, a defensive dynamo in Ron Artest and a Sixth Man of the Year in Lamar Odom -- was supposed to be primed for a three-peat and an elite future.
But this meltdown, which included sub-40 percent shooting while the Dallas Mavericks shot north of 60 percent, makes you wonder.
"This year it didn't work out," Derek Fisher said. "We just weren't able to really build the things as a group that we needed to build to be able to play at our best. It's a collective thing. You can't point to any one individual and say, 'That's the reason why this team didn't win.' It was all of us."
You can't blame one, but you have to start with someone if the whole roster is to feel the wrath, and that someone is Gasol.
His final effort of the postseason was yet another whimper -- 10 points and eight rebounds -- in a playoffs full of them. In the 10 games the Lakers played against the New Orleans Hornets and Mavericks, Gasol hit his regular-season scoring average (18.8 points per game) zero times while meeting his regular-season rebounding rate (10.2) just once.
"I felt there was a couple players that felt daunted by the energy in the game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. He didn't name names, but he might as well have been speaking Spanish to give away the clue. "The game was depressed. I don't know if they weren't personally, but I really felt like there were a couple players that didn't step in with the performance that I'd like to see them step in."
Just as Kevin Garnett and the rest of the Celtics' front line exposed Gasol three years ago, he has the interrogation spotlight on him again and the questions are uncomfortable.
Did he quit on the team? Did he allow off-court issues to sabotage his focus on it? Is he a true No. 2? If Orlando is willing to part with Dwight Howard, do you ship him out of town?
"Individually, I want to learn from it," Gasol said. "Just look back and see everything that's been going on. Try to handle it better and just, whatever goes on -- on or off the floor -- just try to keep it that way."
While the Lakers' Option 1A wasn't on his game, Option 1 wasn't exactly on his either.
Bryant had 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the first quarter when L.A. trailed by just four, but by the final buzzer he had just 17 points, missing eight of his next nine shots while racking up five turnovers, including a careless behind-the-back pass intended for Artest that sailed out of bounds.
While his minutes per game went up by a couple from the regular season to the postseason, his points, rebounds, assists and free-throw attempts went down.
At 32, with more than 40,000 minutes played on those legs of his, is he still a top-five player in the league? Will his salary, which includes more than $83.5 million owed to him over the next three seasons, become a hindrance if the team needs to find a new leading man as he transitions into a supporting role? Does he still have the explosiveness that made him so lethal for so long after just 19 of his 83 shot attempts against the Mavericks came from inside of 10 feet from the rim?
Should owner Dr. Jerry Buss heed Lakers vice president Magic Johnson's advice and "blow up" the roster?
Fisher took exception to the notion, saying, "All I can say is, it's only been a pleasure to be a part of the Los Angeles Lakers organization and I'll keep it at that. I hope my future is still with the Lakers."
But if the way Chris Paul carved up the Lakers in the first round from the point guard position was a sign of the times, can they win another ring with Fisher out there?
Even his intangibles fell flat on Sunday. He took a timeout with the Lakers down by 18 in the second quarter to deliver one of his patented motivational speeches, but the Mavs' lead grew by another 18 points by the final buzzer.
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Artest's suspension for Game 3 because of an irresponsible late hit in Game 2 makes you question how much the Lakers can rely on him. His miss of an open, breakaway layup off the bottom of the rim in the second half Sunday makes you question if any other team would find him reliable, either.
The questions don't stop there, but the team will have plenty of time to try to find answers during a long summer that could bleed into an extended lockout.
Is this team deep enough to go deep in the playoffs? The Mavericks' bench scored 86 points in Game 4, tying the Lakers' entire team. The Lakers got a little bit from Shannon Brown, a lot from Odom and a whole lot of nothing from the rest of their substitutes in the playoffs.
And what about this team's chemistry? Did the Lakers just tire from fighting for too much too often in the past three years?
"I don't know where we lost it, that certain drive, that bond that we've had in the past, the cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity," Odom said. "There was something missing for us."
Artest was the last Laker left answering questions after the game.
"You know what would be easier? If you asked Dallas the questions because they can give you the answers," he said.
Winners have all the answers. Losers get all the questions.Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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