Throughout the season and particularly over the last few weeks, it's been questioned whether the Lakers are treating their quest to repeat with the requisite seriousness. Words like "urgency" and "hunger" keep surfacing, a scenario unchanged after Tuesday's win over Toronto required mega-heroics from Kobe Bryant. Phil Jacksonwas asked during his postgame media session if the team was playing with last season's urgency. The coach pulled no punches in his calm but candid assessment:
"I don't think so. I think that's impossible to replicate at this time. There's something that's a driving force last kept us on that goal oriented, I would say. We don't have that. Not that we can't reclaim it at some point and that's what we're trying to do."
Jackson later conceded it's "hard to keep that spark lit" during the "drudgery" of a long season.
"The urgency of playing well has not struck us yet."
Naturally, Kobe was asked about PJ's comments. Bryant didn't disagree with his coach on the current state of affairs, and when asked how last season's urgency can be rediscovered ASAP, he paused for a whopping 13 seconds before finally speaking, indicative of both the thought placed on the query and this mental issue's complicated nature:
"I think what we have to do right now is just focus on execution. A lot of times what happens is you get so wrapped up in the length of the season and wanting to win a championship again that you overlook the small things. And I think that's when the malaise sets in because you look at the length of the season and that takes its toll on you mentally, as opposed to just thinking about the next day and playing as hard as you can for that day. That's the mentality that we have to have."
But when questioned if they need more hunger at this time, Kobe quickly smiled and dismissed the question:
"We're hungry. We're hungry. I think [the issue's] thinking about it a different way. Taking it day to day, as opposed to looking at when June comes around. I think you have to think about it as 'tomorrow.' Nothing more, nothing else."
I'm not even sure why, but hearing Kobe's words, it struck me how the challenges in a title chase vs. its defense (in the regular season, at least) are remarkably similar to the challenges in pursuing a relationship vs. maintaining one.
I've been married now for a little over six months and have been with my wife for about 3 1/2 years. Before her, save one situation on and (largely) off for several years, I'd never maintained a relationship for more than half a year. While the chief reason this current relationship has endured is my wife being the right woman for me, what may have truly made it work was it being the first time I finally accepted maintaining a relationship is, in fact, work.
A lot of work, in fact.
And not just when you're trying to make up after a fight or smooth over the rough patches from a mistake. In a weird way, those are the easiest times, in it's flagrantly obvious something is wrong, which provides a road map toward a solution. Success isn't guaranteed, but at least the blueprint is fairly evident.
The hardest parts often emerge when everything feels fine. When there's absolutely no indication problematic minutia could be piling and you're feeling particularly secure about the state of the union. When you're enjoying what appears to be pure, uncomplicated contentment. There's a vibe of taking the relationship for granted and not treasuring it as much.
It's not really the case, but perception has an uncanny ability to remain reality's nemesis.
Suddenly, it becomes necessary to convince your significant other just how much you value the relationship, even if you personally never doubted it for a second.
In the meantime, the time spent pursuing and securing a relationship is when you're hyper-aware of doing everything possible to make it work. Lavishing attention toward every little detail. Leaving zero to chance. Going the extra mile without being asked. Not because you care about the relationship more at its conception, but from the fear of blowing it. A "whatever it takes" attitude is more present throughout those early stages, because you're never quite confident where you stand.
You're in pursuit, which by definition allows fewer opportunities to relax.
The early period of a relationship is labeled "the honeymoon period," but on a certain level, it's actually the most stressful time. You don't know the person as well, what to do, what not to do, or even what you're really getting into. You just know you want what's in front of you and priority one becomes getting it.
Once you're securely inside the relationship it becomes easier to become careless, even if it's the time where you actually have the most to lose.
Same with a title defense.
Until you truly feel the rush of fending off challengers, it's hard to feel vulnerable, even if you're growing so by letting the details slide to culminate in potentially irreparable damage. The stakes don't feel raised, even if they're in the process of rising.
Yes, the Lakers are aware everyone is coming with their best shot. Yes, the Lakers are aware of the target on their backs. But as PJ and nearly every Laker has acknowledged in some way, shape or form, it's just not the same during the regular season, no matter how hard you try to fake it.
But like Kobe said, it's not the same thing as being less "hungry," in the same way becoming complacent at times during a relationship doesn't mean you're indifferent toward suddenly becoming single. You still love your spouse dearly, there's just no reason to fear anything could be jeopardized. Even during their most laissez-faire stretches, I've never gotten even the slightest sense the Lakers are suffering from "fat and happy," that one ring (or in the case of Kobe and Fish, four) would be enough. These guys want more and eyes remain on the prize.
If anything, that's part of the problem. The prize is in the distance, and looking ahead leaves you vulnerable to tripping over what's right in front of your feet.
Between Kobe expressing displeasure at the need for a game-winner, Fish's "get over yourselves" halftime speech, and LO's "anti-softy" postgame rant, there are signs the Lakers finally recognize their future is their present. Hopefully, there's enough time to reestablish championship form and avoid, if I may mix my metaphors, getting sucker-punched by an unwanted divorce.