Never let it be said Kobe Bryant doesn't have any pull around the Lakers' organization. After Saturday's loss to the Heat, The Mamba promised a Monday practice full of butt whuppings. Fire and brimstone. A "wrath of God" kinda vibe. Whatever it would take to shake the Lakers into a sense of urgency.
Well, as I reported earlier today, today's session in El Segundo was a "feisty" affair, according to Phil Jackson (who, by the way, found nothing unusual in Bryant's practice demeanor beyond some aggressiveness and his literal participation). The mood was competitive and a scrimmage was won by the reserves, which Jackson always gets a kick out of.
What PJ seemed less amused by, however, were lingering "distractions," mirroring Bryant's contention some players aren't prioritizing games enough. Jackson declined to specify what these distractions are or who is distracted, but acknowledged this issue has prevented the defending champs from playing their best.
"Yeah, I can't put my finger on it, but there's been some distractions," revealed Jackson. "We have a new group of guys, so there's some things different. I think everybody kinda wants to win, and that's not the same as doing it."
Again, shades of Kobe's "people playing like they have two rings" comments.
It was interesting hearing the reaction to this talk 48 hours removed from the loss. For example, Lamar Odom talked openly Saturday about how cockiness can bite these Lakers, and it's not the first time he's expressed such sentiments. But when I asked LO if he was happy about Bryant's comments, he didn't necessarily call out Kobe, but nonetheless felt the public airing of grievances might have been a little much.
"I think everybody is on the same page," insisted Odom. "We don't need shout outs in the media. We know our jobs. This is a team that's been to the Finals three games in a row. We know what big games are and games everybody looks forward to."
I then noted how Kobe was criticizing the team's willingness to get up for the NBA dregs, not just the Heat.
"They're all big," agreed Odom of the games. "At the end of the day, you want to go 82-0. If you're a tough competitor, if you've got the will to win. We all do."
Odom also dismissed concerns about this malaise, whether caused by cockiness, complacency or boredom, lingering throughout the season.
"I'm not worried. We're a veteran group. We know what to do. We know how to get things back together an we know how to get better as a team. "
Nothing about practice struck Artest as particularly noteworthy, but his attention was grabbed by the inference of being regarded as a distracted Laker. When I initially asked Ron if he'd noticed or felt any distractions, he calmly said he wasn't sure and recommended I ask Phil. But asked later by another writer if Kobe discussed the issue with him, Artest grew defensive, and not in the good way we've come to expect.
"I'm the last one to leave the gym every day. (Editor's note: Ron is typically among the last to leave.) I don't think you ever played basketball, because you ask questions sometimes that's not ... you gotta pay attention to the whole surroundings. This is your first time as a beat writer here, so I guess you gotta pay attention to the surroundings. I work extremely hard on the defensive end and I'm the last one to leave everyday. The game is extremely important, you know?"
Artest's perspective on the matter is noteworthy because it indirectly speaks to the team-wide problem. I can believe Artest when he claims not to feel distracted, in that he's always put a premium on playing hard. Throughout what's been a largely disappointing season, I've never gotten the sense Artest is playing at half speed. He remains the same bull in a china shop, for better, worse and sometimes both.
However, as John Wooden once said (and Sasha Vujacic often proved), never mistake activity for achievement.
Artest may be playing hard, but that's not the same thing as playing effectively or intelligently. Artest, like many of his mates, appears disjointed from a unified, tangible game plan. Is this because Ron's mind has been preoccupied by philanthropy? It's certainly easy to picture. I noted before the game my concerns about circumstances creating an emotional overload for Artest and he's never struck me as the ideal multi-tasker. Then again, Artest often appears flighty at his most focused, so who knows?
And to some degree, it may not even matter, because he's not the only culprit.
As a unit, the Lakers haven't demonstrated much in the way of patience, discipline or a group mind, but there have only been a handful of games where I sensed them half-assing physically. Sometimes the mental execution can be more difficult than the physical; That willingness to make the extra pass, swing the ball to find a better entry or not break from the offense when the counter doesn't readily emerge. I've actually been a proponent of the Lakers exerting 75 percent physically if possible. But doing so requires 100 percent of their brains, and I haven't felt as if this group has offered close to that much on a regular basis this season.
Is this the result of complacency (Kobe's explanation), distractions (Phil's) or November/December boredom (mine)? Who knows for sure and perhaps the difference is just semantics. But no matter what your choice of vocabulary, a change is in order.