- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- If the Los Angeles Lakers were going to make this transformation from the familiar to the unrecognizable it might as well play out to the very end, when their final shot in a 98-92 loss to the Mavericks was a running, one-handed 3-pointer by Kobe Bryant, a fitting finale for a team that bears little resemblance to what we've seen in the past.
Even for a player with a vast array of shots in his arsenal and a capacity to spontaneously create them when the situation calls for it, this was something new. The shot sailed wildly past the basket, its only apparent accomplishment being that the momentum Bryant created in launching it carried him in the direction of the Lakers' locker room, allowing him an early start to what's shaping up as an uncharacteristically early exit from the playoffs for the Lakers.
If the ultimate challenge in the playoffs is maintaining your identity, the Lakers now qualify for witness protection. This is a time for sticking to your principles in the face of different tempos, better-prepared opponents and louder crowds, and the Lakers have not been able to hold their form.
All of a sudden everything about the Lakers is unfamiliar. Phil Jackson, normally so cool you wonder if he even needs deodorant, was excessively animated during the game, then looked shaken afterward as he came to grips with the first 3-0 deficit of his coaching career.
Lamar Odom, whose typical demeanor could assure you things were OK even if your house were burning with the cat trapped inside, sounded distraught. That is, when he was capable of generating sound. At times his lips moved and no words were audible, literally at a loss for words to describe this Lakers predicament.
The Lakers were equally out of character in the fourth quarter, when they abandoned their basic offensive principles and isolated on a matchup, in this case Odom against Peja Stojakovic. It worked only one out of two times, not a good enough conversion rate in a close game against a suddenly super-clutch Mavericks team that scored on its last eight trips to the offensive zone.
That was when the Lakers felt the absence of Ron Artest, who was serving a one-game suspension for clobbering Mavericks guard J.J. Barea near the end of Game 2. The Lakers started Odom in his place, giving them a big frontline, if not particularly mobile. And with two minutes left and the Lakers ahead by one, Odom and Andrew Bynum were both caught in the lane, neither willing or able to run down the baseline to deter Jason Terry from knocking down an open 3-pointer.
While some, including Jackson, were willing to pin the blame on a slower unit that hadn't played together, Bryant was less patient.
"It's just effing up at the wrong time," said Bryant, who has moved from providing his own punctuation to his own censorship. "That's all it is."
After two postseasons of watching the Lakers generate congratulatory hugs or simply sighs of relief in the fourth quarter, it's now become their most treacherous time.
The fourth quarter is when Game 3 -- and possibly the series and season -- unraveled. Until then the Lakers had milked Bynum for 21 points and a huge advantage in points in the paint. Bryant played a coolly effective game. Through three quarters he had 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, and six assists that doubled his previous total for the series. The Lakers reached the 7-minute mark of the fourth with an eight-point lead.
"We played too well to lose," is what Jackson told his team.
Yet they found a way.
Bryant finished off with four missed shots and a turnover. Derek Fisher briefly reappeared with a short bank shot, but he also threw away an inbounds pass to Odom after committing an untimely foul that put the Lakers down by four.
"You know how in the playoffs you've got to win games even if you don't deserve to win 'em or win ugly or whatever?" Odom said, adding his trademark, "Right?"
That used to be how the Lakers did it. I immediately flashed back to a recent conversation with Fisher, when he said, "Each year when you look at the banner and see the championships, you can think back to a series or a game where it almost didn't happen. "
The 15-point deficit overcome in the second half against the Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals. A Robert Horry shot in the final minute of Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals to make sure the Lakers didn't fall behind the 76ers 2-1. An even bigger shot by Horry in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals that tied the series at 2-2 rather than let the Kings leave L.A. up 3-1. Trevor Ariza stealing an inbounds pass and securing Game 1 of the 2009 Western Conference finals against Denver. Orlando's Courtney Lee missing a layup at the end of regulation in the second game of the NBA Finals that year. And finally, Fisher himself driving from the halfcourt line all the way to the hoop for the clinching three-point play in Game 3 of the 2010 Finals.
They'll look back on this series and recall the blown 16-point lead at home in Game 1 and this golden opportunity to get the first of the two road victories they'll need to have a chance in this one.
"We're disappointed, we feel like Games 1 and 3 we controlled the pace of the game and just couldn't finish the games off," Jackson said. "But we still believe we're going to win the next game and we'll just go from there."
How are they going to win when they can't win the "winning time" quarter? The Mavericks have outscored them 82-55 in the fourth quarters.
And while Kobe has lost his ability to close out games, Pau Gasol's entire mojo is missing. Gasol has been the most painful part of this Lakers postseason. In him you're not just watching defeat, you're watching demise. It's come down to a crisis of confidence, which he candidly admitted.
"I haven't been able to be effective," he said. "I haven't been able to be comfortable out there."
He said the Dallas defense he's facing is nothing he hasn't seen before. But this version of Gasol is nothing like we've seen before. His career playoff averages are 53 percent shooting, 18.0 points and 9.6 rebounds. This postseason: 42 percent shooting, 13.4 points, 7.8 rebounds.
"Obviously there's some tension inside of me," Gasol said. "You can see it, it's tangible."
There's more doubt than ever among the Lakers. They keep saying they can become the first NBA team to overcome a 3-0 deficit, none more boldly than Bryant ("I might be nuts," he conceded), they also realize they've done a better job of beating themselves than beating the Mavericks thus far.
"Is it possible to sweep ourselves? It is," Shannon Brown said.
Did anyone think the Lakers would be asking such a question, even hypothetically?
The only semblance of the old Lakers came on the final question to Phil Jackson, never one to lavish praise on opposing players and coaches. When asked to assess Rick Carlisle's work so far this series, Jackson said flatly, "He's done a real good job."
Take familiarity where you can find it. Because you sure won't find it in the fourth quarter.
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