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Friday, December 25, 2009
Cavaliers 102, Lakers 87: Christmas Day turns out to be Opposite Day

By Andy Kamenetzky

Seriously, how many ways could this game have evolved into "Bizarro World," beyond just the lopsided result? Let's break it down, shall we?

The Lakers usually make hay down low, using their size, length and passing skills to leave opponents with no answers. Well, Cleveland solved that riddle, outscoring their hosts 45-38 in the paint. From a frontcourt perspective, one (or at least, "I") theoretically considers Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol/Lamar Odom vs. "aging Shaq and Big Z/Anderson "No Range" Varejao/J.J. "Most people don't know who I am" Hickson to be "Advantage Lakers." Not tonight., nor did the Lakers kill it hoisting J's. Overall, they connected on 37 percent of their shots and a mere 28 percent from downtown.

The Lakers have been a force on D, sporting the league's best FG% defense and choking the life out of foes for long stretches. Well, save the third quarter, Cleveland shot at least 50 percent per frame and managed a shocking 64 percent in the fourth. The Lakers closed the half on a nice 12-2 run and forced a few 24-second violations, but also allowed far too many easy scores.

The Lakers are a magnet for Hollywood's elite when they play a team like the Timberwolves. But for a high profile game that should have dragged out A-Listers by the bushel purely for a camera opp, we're left with (no offense) Ellen Pompeo, Snoop Dogg, Craig Kilborn (the supporting cast of "Old School," oddly enough), Danny DeVito and Alex Trebek, whose lack of "mustache" left fans unable to place him when his mug graced the jumbotron. Even the mainstays were of a decided "B-List" variety. All due respect to George Lopez and Andy Garcia, their blood admirably purple and gold, but neither can open a flick. Where was Denzel? Leo? Hell, where was Jack freakin' Nicholson? Those absences threw me for a loop.

Staples Center patrons, often chided for a laid back attitude that offers little home court advantage, tossing their free foam fingers onto the court in protest of calls? Thank goodness the Promotions Dept. didn't run with "Cannonball Day."

An unusual game, every bit weird as it was poorly played by the Lakers.


It's obviously disappointing to lay an egg with enough yolk to feed a family Huevos Rancheros for a month. Kobe Bryant the only Laker to top 13 points, and his 35 were hardly a work of art (11-32 from the field, some bad no-calls offset by good old fashioned misses). Four points from Andrew Bynum, who only took five shots and described himself as "passive" afterward. Pau Gasol allowing the "Extension" Era to kick off with a ho-hum 11/6, snapping a streak of eight consecutive double-doubles. Ron Artest fouling out. Lamar Odom getting ejected with just six points to his name. The bench racking just one bucket through three quarters, and the reserve backcourt duo of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown ineffective enough during the first half to be quickly yanked in favor of a typically-benched Sasha Vujacic and a typically-resting at that time Derek Fisher (who was thoroughly outplayed by Mo Williams and his 28/7/6 output).

But at the same time, I don't think it's that big a deal. Cleveland is a quality team, and one jacked up to go against the defending champeens. Give credit where credit is due. Plus, sometimes good teams just lose. The Lakers lost seventeen times last season, and required seven games to dispatch a short-handed Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semi's. According to my latest research, they still won a title. It's easy to forget as the Lakers own the Larry O'Brien and often steamroll visiting teams, but defending a title is supposed to be difficult. Nobody should be surprised when bumps in the road surface.

Of course, how those bumps are negotiated is part of the story, and a chapter that struck me as the most interesting of this "Opposite Day" tale. The Lakers grew completely unglued in an uncharacteristic manner. Beyond the four technical fouls (the crowd's doesn't count) and LO getting run, it was their demeanor. Complaining about every no-call or call against. Pouting body language. Enough over-the-top demonstrativeness to resemble an acting class taught by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Admittedly, the game was often poorly called. Touch fouls were ignored, then verboten. Heavy contact inside with no reprimand. Phil Jackson correctly noted in his postgame presser that Shaq was given a lot of leeway. If the NBA ever creates a "referee time capsule," the video from this game won't be buried with it.

Still, bad refereeing unfortunately is part of basketball, and something every team has to deal with. The Lakers did so very poorly. It reminded me of the squads from a few seasons ago, able to hold their own when it came to chewing out officials. Kobe flirted with a mandatory suspension in 2008 (not the first time in career) and the supporting cast often took his lead. Frankly, they were capable of being one whiny team. The Lakers gratefully haven't acted that way in a while, but tonight was an ugly reminder of a past not too distant. Fisher is normally the "level-headed" Laker (although as J.A. Adande reminded me, he also sent a very surprising playoff message at the expense of Luis Scola), but shoved around Williams right in front of the refs. LO has now been tossed twice this year, both in games where he enjoyed zero impact. As for Kobe, his "T" was rooted in a legit beef (LBJ had used his off-arm a few times before Bryant ended up getting whistled), but was also born from earlier frustration. The team's collective behavior oozed into the crowd, who expressed displeasure by raining the court with foam fingers and reportedly a plastic cup or two. A bad showing by the hosts, inspired in part by the team they were protesting for.

After the game, most Lakers didn't lend "composure" much credence as to the way things shook out. The company line was usually a variation of "Cleveland played harder than us." Probably true, but not the only issue. Fisher, always a candid sort, admitted cooler heads didn't prevail, but felt there's a ceiling to how large a role that played. "I don't think it was loss of composure and then, boom, the game went downhill."

Technically speaking, Fish's chronology is correct. L.A. didn't pick up their first T until Fisher's at the third quarter's 7:36 point, and they'd already been playing poorly. But any hopes of a comeback also more or less vanished right then, too. They were down by 11 when Fish got reprimanded, and never chipped the deficit any lower. If the vet guard wants to argue that poor play did them in well before the series of outbursts, fair enough. But it's hard to argue that mentality didn't represent the coffin's final nail, either. It was weird seeing them react so poorly to adversity. It's happened so rarely of late that I don't think it's worthy of an automatic red flag. But I will be monitoring whether it's a mere hiccup or the sign of a reversion in the works.


VIDEO (ALL OF WHICH DEALS WITH THE "COMPOSURE" THEME ON SOME LEVEL)


Phil Jackson

Derek Fisher

Lamar Odom, who also talks about not playing hard enough

Ron Artest