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Friday, May 6, 2011
Lakers-Mavericks, Game 3: What to watch

Ready or not -- I'm referring to both the Lakers and Laker fans -- Game 3 is upon us. Game 2 saw the Lakers at their worst in quite some time in the postseason. There's only one direction to travel from here, right? Right??!!

In any event, here are some items to watch once the ball is jumped.

Ron Artest's absence
I wrote yesterday about the various lineup and rotation implications caused by Ron-Ron on punishment, but there were two additional points worth addressing. First, the commentary I've heard, whether from fans or media, that this situation could be a "good thing." After all, Artest hasn't set the world on fire in this series, doesn't have a specific defensive matchup and can still lose his temper at horrible times. Thus, there is the school of thought Artest's suspension can be addition by subtraction on some level.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
Ron making his exit after getting all WWE on Jose Barea.

Perhaps this means more Lamar Odom -- reportedly starting in Ron's place -- and LO has a quality playoff track record. Maybe increased PT will inspire one or more of the reserves. Derek Fisher got suspended for Game 3 against the Rockets in 2009 and Jordan Farmar responded strongly in his place. Perhaps being down a player will "wake up" the Lakers.

Respectfully, this is either grasping for a bright side or simply over-thinking. Plain and simple, this situation isn't good for the Lakers. I'm not saying they can't win Game 3 without Artest, but any notion his absence somehow creates a silver lining is delusional. The Lakers aren't getting enough consistent production from anybody not named "Kobe" or "Bryant" to remove a key player from the mix. Especially if this means more PT for the reserves, currently engaged in a contest to see who can bring the least to the table. (A metaphorical contest, not an actual one . . . to the best of my knowledge, at least). Relatively speaking, Artest has been among the better Lakers against Dallas, sobering thought or not.

Still, the one area where the power to replace Ron lies entirely in the Lakers' hands is his exceptionally hard play. Not that I don't expect effort. For all the problems haunting the Lakers in this series, complacency isn't among them. But Ron has a unique way of translating energy into game-altering twists, whether through defense, his knack for one-handed offensive rebounds or just a well-timed biceps smooch. Ron plays with extreme urgency, and to whatever degree each Laker can replicate that consumption of the moment, doing so is imperative.

To a point...

Deep breaths and Cooler heads
As Game 2 slipped away, the Lakers steadily unraveled like Pee Wee Herman hosting a town meeting. The second half was an especially off-key symphony of poor body language, hesitation, confusion and even panic. It's one thing when shots don't fall or rotations are slow. It's quite another to melt down. Some players (Pau Gasol and Steve Blake the chief offenders) looked especially on the verge of an anxiety attack, but nobody appeared comfortable. And that's simply unacceptable for a team trying to bounce back in a tough series.

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
We know you got hit, Fish. But you still gotta relax.

I'm not claiming professional athletes should be automatically immune to pressure. Kobe has an extensive resume under the brightest of spotlights, but still risked squeezing a basketball into a diamond during Game 7 against the Celtics. However, as's Ramona Shelburne notes in her latest column, at the end of the day it's still just a game these guys have played their entire lives. As much as the need for sharpened execution and regained "trust" exists, so does the need to loosen up.

I mean, when Kobe Bryant, a man who snacks on his jersey and goes out of his way to express "intensity" through jaw juts, thinks teammates should "relax," it's probably a good idea to exhale.

Yes, the odds stacked against them are pretty daunting, but like Kobe said during his postgame presser, "It's not that big of a deal to win two games in a row." Is the task at hand really so simple? No, but for all intents and purposes, that's how it should be treated.

Getting inside your head analyzing the uphill battle is pointless. Just go out and make a game of things, game being the key word.

The "Nobody believes in us" card
When it comes to the notion "nobody believes in them," athletes turn more oversensitive than the average teenage girl. Even the slightest hint of "disrespect" fuels these guys. And if that hint doesn't actually exist, they'll manufacture a way to feel slighted. Well, for the first time in a long time, nobody is giving the Lakers a shot. This back story can be used to their advantage.
Wanna make fools out of the doubters? The haters? The pencil-neck/out-of-shape/know-nothing pundits (Like BK). Let the lack of belief work for you.

Phil Jackson
Speaking of people with legions of detractors, I've always found those who claim Phil Jackson has 11 rings by virtue of compiling the best players, then taking a nap, to be . . . well . . . idiots. Yes, Phil's enjoyed the amazing good fortune of Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, Kobe, Pau, etc. at his disposal, but so have others who didn't win titles. PJ may not deserve all of the credit, but he damn well isn't getting by purely on luck and pixie dust, either. Dude knows what he's doing.

Having said that, I don't think this postseason has been the strongest coaching job of Jackson's career. I expressed my dissatisfaction over the starters playing deep into a Game 6 against New Orleans well in hand, creating an unnecessary injury risk. Since then, there have been other questionable calls. The amount of leeway afforded to his sputtering reserves. The use of Pau Gasol in a key moment of Game 1. The decision to leave an agitated Artest on the court at the end of game 2. Combined with the team's generally unprepared Game 2 vibe and his inability to keep the Lakers consistently interested and purposeful throughout the regular season, I think it's fair to say Jackson's best work hasn't come in 2011.

Well, if there was ever a chance to prove once and for all an ability to work magic, whether through strategy or psychology, here you go. Have at it, Zen Master.