Sunday, December 25, 2011
Tougher, rougher and more rugged
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- It hasn't felt the same around here for a while now.
Phil Jackson is off shooting Audi commercials and growing a full beard. Lamar Odom is in Dallas, settling in with the team that swept the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs. The triangle offense is a relic, needing to be unlearned by a team that was once defined by it.
"We're not going to be a finesse team," coach Mike Brown said of his new-look Lakers.
It has been strange and weird and uncomfortable for everyone involved. Three months' worth of cultural, directional and existential change crammed into three weeks of training camp.
Nothing looked good or felt good in the Lakers' two exhibition games earlier in the week. By the time they took the court for their season-opener against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday afternoon, you simply hoped they'd pass to the right team and make it through the game unharmed.
But an interesting thing happened while the walls were crumbling around the Lakers: They got tough.
Maybe it's from the shared experience of having their guts ripped out by the failed trade for New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul, new coach Mike Brown's emphasis on defense and discipline, personnel changes, pent up anger at how last season ended, or all of the above. But the Lakers team that lost 88-87 to the Bulls was very different than the one that walked off the court in Dallas back in May.
"It's different,'' Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "It's definitely different."
Finesse has been replaced by fire. Passivity has turned to physicality.
The Lakers may have gotten older, slower and less athletic in the offseason. But they also got tougher, rougher and more rugged.
Sunday afternoon they looked like a team that would be more at home playing in the Eastern Conference than Hollywood. Fans were left to cheer for a good rebound or hustle play. Nobody even thought about scoring 100 points and passing out coupons for free tacos.
It was slow and strange and somewhat boring. It also would've worked if the Lakers would not have turned the ball over 17 times or missed all four of their free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
"Personally, I think this is playoff style basketball," Brown said. "You gotta be able to play rugged.
"That's why I didn't shave today."
I suppose we all should have seen this coming, given Brown's coaching provenance: apprenticing under San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle in Indiana before turning the Cleveland Cavaliers into one of the best defensive teams in the league.
In retrospect, the failed trade of Odom and Gasol -- two of the Lakers' most skillful, but least-rugged players -- was a clue, as well. We really should have known something was up when the team signed free-agent forward Josh McRoberts, a consummate energy guy.
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Still, it was hard to see how Brown could transform this group into something so different, so quickly. He has driven this team hard during training camp. Practices are longer and more intense than they ever were under Jackson. Film sessions are long and detail-oriented, not spliced with clips from a movie or TV, as Jackson liked to do to break things up a bit.
From the outside looking in it felt a bit heavy-handed. A lot to throw at a team that was already dealing with substantial change. A big risk for a new coach, trying to win over a team that had been so devoted to a man who had led them to three NBA Finals appearances in four seasons.
But Brown has made a point of keeping his focus narrow and his attention on the details. The big stuff, such as replacing Jackson, is left for others to judge. All he can do is have a vision for how he'd like things to be, draw up practice plans and hope his team will buy in.
Sunday afternoon it looked like they did.
"We're more of a grind-it-out-kind of a team now," Kobe Bryant said. "It's just coach's philosophy, how he teaches the game and how he expects us to play."
Bryant has a way of saying things that let you know his true feelings. He'll add a look or a wink or just enough sarcasm to clue you in on what's in his head.
On this point he had no hidden agenda.
"I saw a lot of positive things,'' he said "We're going to be very good defensively."
Bryant has been clamoring for the Lakers to play this way on the defensive end for years. When that didn't happen consistently, he grew frustrated and often lashed out publicly. But at some point, he seemed to accept that it just might not be in their DNA to do so.
Now the Lakers have no choice. Teams that get older, slower and less athletic either adapt or go extinct.
But you get the feeling Brown would've gone in this direction anyway. He's a grinder, not a dreamer; a man comforted by planning and preparation, not poetry or philosophy.
Neither style is better than the other. Jackson's record of 11 NBA championships speaks for itself.
This is just how it's going to be now. It's what Brown knows and what he believes in.
"We're not going to be a finesse team," Brown said. "We've got players that are capable of doing that stuff, but we're going to be a physical, defensive team, and we're going to be a presence on that end of the floor without fouling."
He spoke with conviction and passion, even though his message was simple and plain.
"This is Hollywood. You really think fans can get behind this?" I asked.
"They will if we win," Brown said.