This image pretty much summarizes the evening for the Lakers.
Heading into Cleveland for a shot of redemption after spoiling Christmas Day for their fans, the Lakers began last night's 93-87 loss to the Cavaliers in promising enough fashion. A 9-0 run to open the action. An 8-0 run shortly after Cleveland set the scoreboard at 15-14. Ten first quarter assists. Kobe Bryant so en fuego, you'd have figured all these milestone pictures were snapped last night.
Unfortunately, there were three additional quarters scheduled and all used to better effect by the opposition, whether you're talking forcing Kobe into more difficult shots, taking ownership of the paint, or a local hero providing something to witness. And adding insult to injury, as Brian noted last night, the fall was in part due to the presence of Shaquille O'Neal, never a treat for Lakers fans.
For what it's worth, the whole affair left 24 in a foul mood, too.
Much of the talk afterward centered around the concept of "toughness." Some mental. Mostly physical. Matching the intensity offered by the Cavaliers in a game obviously of more importance to them than the guests. In football, games are often said to be won or lost at the line of scrimmage. Taking that adage to the hardwood, the frontcourt battle holds similar sway, and the advantage belonged entirely to the wine and gold bigs. Forum Blue and Gold's Darius summarizes the situation in fairly succinct fashion:
- The difference tonight was that the Cavs size was more effective than ours. Shaq, Varejao, and Z complimented each other perfectly and Hickson took advantage of our over helping on LeBron early in the game. It’s really that plain and simple. We can criticize Pau (for the missed FT’s and for that layup where LeBron had a nice contest from the weakside), but Bynum allowed Shaq to bully him and LO was absent from the paint (on offense) for most of evening. Last year our biggest strength was the advantage that our bigs gave us but tonight the Cavs had that advantage and it was the difference in the game. Yes Lebron was huge, but that is to be expected (he is a tremendous talent). But if Cleveland’s bigs are not only going nullify our bigs, but also play better than them, than we’re not going to be successful against the Cavs.
The notion of L.A. getting out-muscled (and sometimes out-hustled) is a storyline anything but fresh. I've gone on record declaring it a little overblown at times, but I nonetheless can't deny L.A.'s frontcourt adjusted poorly to the physicality offered by Cleveland's. Particularly since, as Elliot Teaford notes in a report special to CBSSports.com, they damn well should have known it was coming:
- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wasn't too worried about dropping two to the Cavs. After all, the Lakers lost to the Orlando Magic twice during the regular season and then handled them in five games to win the 15th championship in franchise history. Bryant was concerned about how the Lakers lost Thursday, however. Toughness has been an issue with the Lakers for several seasons. The Boston Celtics manhandled them while beating them in six games in the 2008 Finals, which left a bad feeling in the pits of the Lakers' stomachs that was cured by their 2009 Finals win.Standing in front of reporters, Bryant revisited the issue of grit.
"We have to make some adjustments," he said, after scoring 31 points and passing the 25,000-point milestone for his career. "We have to make some improvements. The mentality has to change a little bit playing against these teams -- these teams that are more physical, tough-minded, hard-nosed types of teams." When someone asked if the Lakers were surprised by the Cavs' physical play, Bryant cringed. He knew the Lakers should have been ready to push back, based on what they saw from the Cavaliers on Christmas Day at Staples Center.
Much of the big man scorn was directed in Pau Gasol's direction. He missed nine of 14 shots, was out-rebounded by J.J. "most folks have absolutely no clue who I am" Hickson and bricked a few key moments down the stretch. Even more disturbing, in the eyes of the O.C. Register's Kevin Ding, is how this evening felt like a backslide into previously conquered days when El Spaniard was considered a very skilled, very "soft" player:
- Gasol acknowledged he settled time after time for his jumper instead of driving and duplicating the moments when he was having his most success. Then again, he drove to the hoop on last possession of first quarter when he couldn’t hand it off to Bryant – but then timidly left his layup short as he braced himself for contact that never came. During the ensuing break between quarters, after he had sat down and rested, Gasol got up with a towel draped over his shoulders. He wandered out there toward that hoop in front of the Lakers’ bench and repeatedly went through the motions again with his left hand, upset with himself for putting it up so softly.
If only that was as bad as it got for Gasol. He couldn’t convert his chances in the fourth quarter and said his two free throws that could’ve tied the score with 24 seconds left were missed because he was still wobbly from his failures just before. “Hopefully,” Gasol said, “the next time I am in that position and things don’t work out a couple of times, I’m able to shake that off and step up to the plate.”
Gasol knocked that “hopefully” thing off the table last year. Now it’s back. And with it comes a seed of doubt planted anew.
El Spaniard, deemed unworthy of an All-Star bid by Chris Kaman (not because of last night's wipeout, but missed games) will undoubtedly take his lumps, but at least he's got tall company to help shoulder that blame. Fox Sports.com's Charley Rosen called out Ron Artest's defense on LeBron and Andrew Bynum's disappearing act for scorn. As well as they should receive criticism, too. As ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin notes, the Lakers looked like they weren't down for a night of scrapping, despite Kobe's pleas:
- Kobe Bryant asked for it. He was tired of feasting on cream-puff teams in the Western Conference. He wanted something tough and hearty. He wanted his teammates to eat their vegetables. Get their brussels sprouts through box outs. Eat their lima beans through loose balls. You get the idea. "I hope [the Cavaliers game gets physical]," Bryant declared after Thursday's shootaround. "I hope so."
It was. Be careful what you wish for, Kobe.
Kobe made history, but it was Bron Bron's night.
But even if he was the only Laker not wielding a knife at a gun fight, it wasn't the finest hour for the Lakers' biggest star, either. Yes, Kobe hit the 25K mark for points and began the contest white hot at 7-10 from the field, but that's about as good as things got for the Mamba. When the bottom dropped out, it collapsed with a bang, and if you're a fan of the "Who's better, Kobe or LBJ?" game (I'm personally not, but I'm also a decided minority), this was an evening truly in the King's court. Yahoo!'s Kelly Dwyer elaborates:
- It's a team game, but you can't help but follow the Kobe vs. LeBron thing, a battle that some think still rages. Kobe's been a small step behind LeBron for a few years now, he doesn't contribute as much overall, and what he does contribute comes at a far less efficient rate than James, but some still cling to the idea of Kobe as an equal measure due to the fact that Kobe ... well, he's Kobe. They never did really make sense as to why he's supposedly as good. He wasn't as good on Thursday, shooting 4-15 in the second half, and 12-31 overall. That's 23-64 against the Cavaliers on the year, and while playing with four working fingers on his shooting hand hurts these things (to say nothing of his flu, and back spasms), LeBron's just better right now.
And that's OK. You have the best team in the league to follow, Lakers nutters. And the best team doesn't always have to feature the best player.
While noting Kobe's finger (among other injuries) may have played a role in his struggle, Krolik of The Cavs Blog made sure to give Cleveland's defenders and defensive scheme the necessary due:
- I don’t think the Cavs could’ve done a much better job defending Kobe than they did. The finger will be a story, and I obviously can’t say how much it did or didn’t impact Kobe’s shot. But Kobe actually shot tremendously well, given the shots he was forced to take. (Of course, that could be due to the back injury.) Kobe shot 57.1% from 10-15 feet, 42% from 16-23, and 2-6 from three. Those are good percentages for someone with six healthy fingers. The key was that Kobe only got one shot at the rim, which he missed, and only got five points from the line. He wasn’t able to get his teammates involved, either, with four assists against three turnovers.
With Kobe, the best thing you can hope to do is make him a volume shooter from the outside, and the Cavs were able to do that. Sometimes, Kobe will hit everything he looks at and go for 55 even if he’s played perfectly, because he’s Kobe. But the Cavs played the percentages beautifully, and got away with it on Thursday.
So what does this all mean, a series sweep at the hands of a team considered by many the most capable of stealing the Lakers' crown? Well, if you're SI's Chris Mannix or the good folks over at Fear The Sword, this feels like seeds of doubt being planted in the champeen's heads. I'm not in New York with the team to ask everyone individually, so I can't verify or refute these claims (although my guess is confidence hasn't been shattered, nor should it be). But if I allow Lakers' fans to speak for their squad --specifically C.A. Clark from Silver Screen and Roll-- there's definitely a lack of belief being registered:
- I can't discount this result as just another game, because, for the 2nd straight game, I saw Cleveland shut the Lakers offense down, and for the 2nd straight time, I couldn't think of a rational way the Lakers could adjust. If Cleveland isn't required to double on one of the Laker big men, our offense isn't going to work, and we've seen ample evidence that neither Pau nor Drew can efficiently score in one on one situations against that team. If the Cavs can aggressively double Kobe without the Lakers finding open shots, the team will struggle to score, and that's exactly what has happened in the pivotal moments of two different games.Last year, Cleveland was one of the best teams in the league, even winning the most regular season games. Then, they ran into an Orlando Magic team that was just a bad match-up for them. They couldn't beat the Magic, because they didn't have the personnel to deal with Dwight Howard and the duo of tall, athletic forwards Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis.
Why am I bringing this up? Because I can't fight the feeling that this describes the Cavs-Lakers this year. L.A. is a great team, definitely one of the league's best. They could very easily end up with a record superior to Cleveland. They might even still be considered the better overall team, compared to the league in general. But, as these two games have shown, Cleveland has proven to be a bad, bad match-up for L.A. If the two teams meet in the Finals, and my life were on the line, I'm ashamed to admit which way I'd bet.