Like Latka Gravas said after getting dressed down by friends while channeling his obnoxious alter-ego "Vic Ferrari" in my favorite "Taxi" episode, "Hard to get happy after that one."
The breakdown is below.
As mentioned earlier, this was a weird game. In many ways, hard to truly "analyze."
I mean, what do you say about game where the Nuggets shoot 68.2 percent from behind the arc against a Lakers team first in the league at defending said arc? Yes, I realize Arron Afflalo is a better three-point shooter than many people may realize, J.R. Smith specializes from this area of the court, and Chauncey Billups (who contributed nine bombs by his lonesome en route to a career-high 39 points) didn't get the nickname "Mr. Big Shot" because of his propensity for consuming large portions of tequila. These are all fellas more than capable of killing from distance.
Still, this evolved into Pop-A-Shot during a third quarter where Billups not only buried five treys, but four of them in succession. The flurry was punctuated by rookie Ty Lawson banking one while challenged and off-balance, which broke an 87-all tie for Denver and, for all intents and purposes, served as a highlight-reel straw busting the camel's back. The Lakers never got closer than three, which is only appropriate since it was the shot doing them in.
As George Karl said afterward, "It reminded me a little bit of an old ABA game. Momentum swings. Explosiveness. They weren't shooting the three as well as we were, but a lot of the old ABA games were three ball, three ball, three ball."
Except ABA games were also a lot of fun (otherwise, there's no inspiration for Jackie Moon), and that particular vibe was absolutely absent for the Lakers. Even acknowledging a loss generally doesn't breed giddiness, I found this one a little concerning.
It wasn't so much the Lakers losing by a sizable margin to a quality opponent (although I hardly felt "good" about that aspect), but rather the vibe created by the loss. As the game wore on, their collective body language and demeanor began to alternate between odd, negative and hostile.
There was the weird third quarter moment when Ron Artest and Joey Graham got tangled up under the basket, and Ron-Ron reacted to the arm bar by whirling around with his fist cocked before checking himself. While entertaining in a "David Lynch-meets-'Hoosiers'" kinda way and ultimately without incident, seriously, what was that about?
During the same quarter, there was Pau Gasol's icy glare shot in Sasha Vujacic's direction after The Machine hoisted a three-ball with plenty of time left on the clock, a brick just five seconds removed from a previous downtown miss rebounded by Lamar Odom. (Perhaps Pau was just caught up in the growing mood, since fans actually booed Sasha upon his fifth missed three-ball in the same amount of tries.)
And there was Kobe Bryant --already livid about sitting out much of the third quarter with four fouls-- angrily flipping the ball to Shannon Brown after Denver's final score (a baseline layup by Billups), then walking off the court as the final seconds ticked away.
That mood didn't improve after everyone cooled off with a postgame shower. Few players said much of anything to the media and by the time I got into the locker room after hearing Phil Jackson talk, the majority of the team was long gone. And I don't think it was simply because they had to catch a plane to Portland.
Even more telling was PJ's refusal to "berate" the team, as he put it, when it was mentioned he couldn't be happy with the outcome. He noted positives like winning the rebounding battle 48-41 and limiting the turnovers to a reasonable dozen (although even Jackson conceded 19 points scored by Denver off those gaffes made them ultimately "costly"). He even wrote off Billups' hot shooting as an All-Star in a zone, rather than the result of bad defense, which may not be entirely false -- dude was in a flippin' ZONE-- but still didn't have to be sugarcoated.
Over the years covering the Lakers, I've noticed a pattern with their coach. For all of PJ's willingness to tweak players he thinks need prodding (Kwame Brown, Vlad Radmanovic, Andrew Bynum, etc.), when it comes to players both working hard and on the sensitive side (Sasha comes to mind), he often avoids needling them too much. Nothing if not a believer in the psychological side of basketball, Jackson picks and chooses spots for public criticism of players and is often the same for the team as a whole.
When the Lakers succeed, PJ is often inclined to downplay achievement and point out what he didn't like, making sure everyone doesn't get too high. Conversely, while I'm not naive enough to believe everything a coach says to the media is a verbatim Xerox of what he tells the team in private, I couldn't help but think PJ wanted to prevent a squad already down in the mouth from getting any lower. Because by all indications, they took this loss very hard.
It's no real secret the Lakers' followup to their championship season hasn't been particularly dominant. At times, it's been flat out unimpressive. Brian and I have devoted many a PodKast and post towards the generally "meh" play, and I've been a consistent proponent of not making too much out of a regular season games, by and large. I still firmly subscribe to that belief and I'm in no way thinking this team is incapable of repeating.
But tonight was the first time a loss made me a little skittish. The Lakers didn't just take it on the chin. They seemed to take it on the brain as well. I'm not quite sure what's exactly wrong at the moment, and I'm not sure they do, either. Maybe it's the product of not accompanying the Lakers on the recent roadie and witnessing firsthand reactions to that bout with inconsistency, but this reaction felt unique and I'm growing a little concerned.
If for no other reason than it finally appears like the Lakers may be, too.
Phil Jackson, on the loss
Phil Jackson, on the substitutions and defense