Commentary

Lakers' woes now front and center

Team's issues no longer under the radar after another Dec. 25 no-show

Updated: December 26, 2010, 11:14 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kobe BryantLisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesPhil Jackson surely won't want to play on Christmas Day again after the latest Lakers performance.

LOS ANGELES -- Phil Jackson's ill-conceived complaints about having to play on Christmas set the tone. A second successive Christmas Day no-show swiftly followed.

Then Kobe Bryant capped a less-than-festive holiday afternoon for the hosts with one of his more memorable press-conference eruptions, ranting about the consistent lack of urgency and focus we've been seeing from the two-time champs.

So …

Congratulations, Lakers.

You're not under the radar anymore.

ESPN's venerable Michael Wilbon understandably asked Kobe during their recent sitdown for "SportsCenter" how strange it feels for a group chasing a three-peat to be attracting so little national curiosity, but there would be no need for that question now if they did the interview again. Not after this 96-80 humbling at the Staples Center inflicted by the Miami Heat, who so forcefully (and ironically) shifted the media microscope onto the Lakers that it was Bryant -- more than any of the knee-jerk reporters in the room -- who pressed down hardest on the panic button.

"I think these games mean more to our opponents than they do to us," Bryant said. "And I think we need to get that straight. We need to play with more focus and put more importance on these games. I don't like it.

"… This is serious stuff. You don't just have two rings and say, 'OK, we're satisfied with what we got.' I'm not rolling with that.

"We're playing like we have two rings."

Which is to say they're playing like they won two championships in a row and figure they can play flip-the-switch basketball in the postseason -- like some of the Shaq-and-Kobe teams of yesteryear dared to do -- to win a third because no one else is on their level.

When there is mounting evidence to suggest that isn't so.

Let's be clear: L.A.'s latest Christmas unraveling, after the debacle last Dec. 25 against LeBron James' former team in Cleveland, wasn't purely an effort thing. It's a virtual lock that the Heat won't get the credit they deserve for the smothering team D and offensive variety that combined to sap the Lakers' spirit, highlighted by Chris Bosh's most rugged game all season and a triple-double (27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) from James featuring a hailstorm of five 3s that opened up driving lanes everywhere.

The Heat achieved it all without the injured Udonis Haslem and with Mike Miller getting just 94 seconds of court time in his third game back from a thumb injury, prompting Jackson to insist: "They helped manufacture this."

However …

The real worry for the Lakers is that they're now 30 games into a schedule that's been exceedingly favorable, but they continue to fold and backslide. The concern is that the Lakers started with such zip -- going 8-0 without Andrew Bynum -- and then began to struggle, even though their opponents had the lowest composite winning percentage in the league (.410) going into the Heat's visit.

That means the games are only going to get tougher in a conference where the competition is already exceeding expectations in a big way. Kobe and Co. still rank as the consensus favorites in the West -- deservedly so when San Antonio is the only other team in the conference with a core that has proven it can go all the way -- but both the Spurs and Dallas Mavericks look increasingly capable of forcing the Lakers to play a round or two without home-court advantage just to get back to the Finals. Fading fast, then, is the '80s-style notion that Lakers are a near-lock to end up repping the West in the championship round.

Factor in the various concerns about Ron Artest's declining reliability after those Game 7 Finals heroics, Pau Gasol's mysterious health issues -- Jackson attributed Gasol's 1-for-7 start inside against Miami to his "shooting with no base" at the moment -- and Bynum's rust and conditioning obstacles just six games into his comeback, and it's pretty obvious that the champs can't dare to skimp on the effort and focus.

"Part of our problem is we're cocky," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "We feel like we shouldn't lose, [like] we can't lose. That's been our problem, I think, this season. Especially early on this season. A little overconfident.

"It started in training camp after winning two championships in a row. Success can do that to people. Not just in basketball but in life."

Said Bryant: "We know what we're capable of doing. That's the problem."

Jackson has to take the hit for some of the Christmas flatness, because complaining about the assignment so loudly was foolish on at least two counts. No. 1: Jackson's suggestion that the league ignores Christian holidays, when it operates on major holidays in so many religions without shutting down, was poorly reasoned in itself. No. 2: Of greater consequence for the Lakers, Jackson's protest -- presumably stemming from the fact that this was the 28th Christmas he's worked as a player or coach -- gave his team an out before it even showed up Saturday morning.

As you heard Bryant say afterward: "We always suck on Christmas. I don't think we're mean enough to be able to show up on Christmas Day and play. They should just take us off this day."

See, Phil?

The true shame on this Christmas is that Staples Center goers, so often maligned for showing up late and leaving early, couldn't have been louder and more energized at the start to greet LeBron and the Heat with venom. The building was legitimately rocking early … until Bryant and Gasol combined to shot 0-for-11 in the opening quarter.

"It's no fun to go out there and have a game like today," Jackson said, admitting that the Lakers' funk is wearing on him. "You have to sit through three and a half, four hours, [it's a] televised game. You get hemorrhoids sitting there long enough."

Now, though, Jackson gets an opportunity to manage a crisis like Spoelstra did when the Heat were 9-8. And I, for one, can't wait to see what he does with it.

The Zen Master obviously has zilch to prove to anyone with those 11 rings. Jackson also makes total sense when he says he's not going to back off his original stance going into the season that getting to mid-April healthy, more than playoff seeding or anything else that happens in the first 82 games, has to be L.A.'s overwhelming No. 1 priority

Still …

Spoelstra has set a pretty high bar for resurrections given the way Miami is suddenly blending a faster pace offensively with some high activity and real cohesion at the defensive end. Now it's Jackson's turn, especially with a trip to San Antonio looming Tuesday, to supply some real guidance and strength.

"No one is overlooking the Lakers," LeBron insisted about an hour before tipoff, "even if you guys don't talk about them as much."

You said it, LeBron.

Not anymore.

Not when the 21-9 Lakers have just two wins (in six games) against teams with .500-or-better records and only the league's fifth-best record overall.

"We have to live with what we have," Jackson said. "We have a record that's adequate for this point in the year. We're not pleased obviously to have nine losses, or whatever it is we have, but we are what we are right now.

"Just be patient with us. We'll get it back in order, and we'll be fine. We'll measure this season and come out where we'll want to be, I think, at the end."


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics