In Sunday night's 99-92 win over Washington at Staples, the Lakers led by 26 at halftime and so dominated play against a travesty of a mockery of a sham of an NBA team I was left wondering if the final 24 minutes were really necessary. Yes, apparently, they were, because the Lakers played with only passing interest in the third quarter, and none in the fourth as the Wizards outscored them 32-17 and cut the lead to eight with two minutes to play.
The Lakers were never really going to lose, but as a disgusted Phil Jackson noted after the game, they cost themselves a chance to get starters much needed rest and bench players much needed burn.
Though enormously frustrating to fans and deadline conscious sportswriters alike, this sort of thing has gone on most of the year. While the Lakers haven't actually dropped many games to the sub.500 set they've consistently played down to the level of their competition. The players talk about the need to find consistency, play with urgency, put together four quarters of good basketball, and round into form before the playoffs.
We do the same. Did they use their five game tuneup against some of the league's worst teams effectively? Will they be able to build momentum on the upcoming five game roadie?
In the end, though, how much do games in mid-March matter in April, May, and June? I asked Derek Fisher after last night's win, and he said it can be very tough to quantify. "That's a great question. I don't know if it does impact you long term. If you look at last year, we felt like we were playing better at this time of year. We had the best road record in the NBA and a lot of things were looking great going into the postseason. Then you look up and in the second round you're on the brink of elimination. There's really no formula or recipe or guarantee that anything's going to happen in a particular way once the postseason starts no matter how great you're playing or how poorly you're playing."
1) I understand where Fisher is coming from, but don't agree. Individual games may not matter as much, but trends do. Over time, the habits a team develops become part of its fabric. The muscle memory of disciplined play is something able to be called upon in stressful times. (This isn't just my opinion, but something I've heard from coaches, too.) He's right in saying great play now doesn't guarantee success in June, but I have to think it makes it easier. Besides, given all the grief I've laid on the team regarding this issue, whether on the radio or posts like this, for me to say otherwise would be a little hypocritical.
2) Last week, we talked to Fish about potentially entering coaching after he's done as a player, and his answer reflects why so many people think he'd be good at it. He emphasizes the lack of guarantees come the postseason and expresses an underlying confidence in his team. Later he'd talk about making sure they looked at each game, quarter, and possession as a singular moment deserving of attention and not getting hung up in bigger questions.
One of the most fascinating things about the psychology of sports is how players and coaches consistently adjust their opinions and beliefs to fit current realities. Had the Lakers spent the first seventy games playing to their potential, I have no doubt Fish would have talked about the value of focused, productive regular season play. That's not an option, so he goes to the next available answer. And as it is with many athletes, in the moment I think he believes both, because he has to. It's all about finding the frame of mind most conducive to the outcome they want.
The Lakers can't change the outcome of games already played. What good comes from dwelling on them?
We can, they can't.
3) While I don't agree with Fish, in the end he's right. There isn't a formula. In 2000, the Lakers steamrolled to 67 wins, then were pushed to elimination games by both the Sacramento Kings in the first round and Portland in the Western Conference Finals. In '01, they lost seven of 14 to start March, then ripped off eight straight and went 16-1 in the playoffs. The next year, the Lakers had a somewhat lackluster 5-3 finish to the regular season, and we know how that movie ended.
We're talking about intangibles, those things existing on the periphery of a title run. Is quality play through the regular season worth a two-percent difference in their chances to win? Three? Five? Ten? Would two be enough to swing a series against a good team? Honestly, I don't know.
Win or lose, though, I have a sneaking suspicion we'll all be having this conversation again next year.