Lakers Playoff Preview—Round One v. the Hornets


Was Kobe’s homophobic outburst a bad omen for the Lakers? Yes, it was. When your team leader and best player—who is also the best player in the league—calls the ref a “faggot,” the whole team gets spiritually wounded. It’s hard to go to war carrying the flag of bigotry.

Kobe’s first generic apology was awful, playing the “If I offended anyone…” card. Evidently he fired his PR squad and the next day came back with something that at least sounded better. What he should have said was, “I’m as shocked at my own behavior as you all are. I must cop to some kind of prejudice within for me to use such a hurtful term. I will try to look in the mirror and clean up my act.  Please accept my apology.”

Just as revealing as Kobe’s epithet was his punching of the chair (with his non-shooting hand!) seconds earlier. Could’ve broken his hand or a finger, precluding any chance of the Lakers 3-peating. Dude’s got some issues. That’s cool, but that means the Lakers have issues too.

On Tuesday, they beat a Spurs team that held out Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (to mention just three Hall of Famers). But the Lakers played their first-string from 35 to 40 minutes. Why? Because if the Lakers finished third in the West, they would face the Portland Trailblazers.  If they finished second, they would face either the Grizzlies (without Rudy Gay) or the Hornets (without David West and a gimpy Chris Paul), either being relatively easy, especially the Hornets.

That’s why the first-string played a lot the next night, too, in the season finale in Sacramento.  In fact, three of the Lakers’ first-stringers played 45 minutes or more. Derek Fisher played 39 minutes and Kobe played 38. That’s how much the Lakers didn’t want to play the Blazers. But the price they paid for that is the chance that fatigue will catch up with them, especially in the later rounds. Consider that the Spurs, the following night in their last game of the season, gave up the chance to have the best record by resting their stars. The Chicago Bulls wound up with the best record. When and if that showdown arrives, the Bulls will have the home court advantage. The Spurs didn’t care and they were right.

In front of an emotional crowd facing the loss of the Kings to Anaheim, the Lakers led by 18 points after three quarters, then gave it all up, the Kings winning the fourth quarter, 29-11, to force overtime. That the Lakers won in OT (against a team with the second-worst record in the West) hardly inspired their fan base.

Yes, the Lakers can beat the Hornets without Andrew Bynum and Steve Blake. The problem is they will have to work for it, go through the process. Now, just when the Lakers need a rest, everyone’s minutes go up. Most of their rivals have already had their rest.

But despite Laker fatigue, despite the spiritual malaise clouding their aura, and despite the fact that the team ended the season with five straight losses followed by wins in the last two games that were as ugly as the losses, the question remains: Who is going to beat them? Because as immature as Kobe has looked, he is still the best player in the league and those things still count. The Lakers are also the biggest (with twin towers in Bynum & Gasol) and most talented team. In Ron Artest, they have a great lockdown defender/annoyance. In Lamar Odom they have the best sixth man in the NBA, and in Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown, they have two other bench players as good as any in the league. Have I mentioned Derek Fisher, who has probably hit more big buzzer-beaters than Kobe?

On paper, the Lakers will suck it up, shake off the end-of-season cobwebs and soar to their third straight NBA title. But they do seem ripe for an upset. The Blazers could have pulled it off, but destiny has chosen them to upset the Mavericks instead.

The Lakers’ biggest immediate problem is the health of Andrew Bynum’s knee. No one knows how it will respond. If he has to shut down, the Lakers won’t make it out of the West. What with the three trad western powers—Spurs, Lakers and Mavs—all off their game right now, the time is ripe for a team like the Blazers to shock the world and win the West.   Ditto the Oklahoma City Thunder.

By getting paired with the Hornets, the Lakers have lucked upon the easiest road to the second round. And not just because they won all four games in this season’s series. David West is out with an injury, and Chris Paul is favoring a sore knee. The Hornets can’t beat anyone right now. Thus, Andrew Bynum, if he isn’t 100%, can rest a bit more, and come back stronger in the second round.

But like the rich kid who’s always had it easy, can the Lakers, (presumably after the Hornets) handle adversity? Maybe that’s just what the Lakers need right now: adversity, which, as the man said, doesn’t produce character but reveals it.