Swept! Mavericks End the Lakers’ Bid for a Three-Peat

I have never taken so much pleasure in being so wrong.  For almost a year now, I have been crowing about how the Lakers will defeat the Miami Heat, at Miami in 6 games, capping off a historic career for Phil Jackson.  Prior to the start of the season, you could

“To restore order, Ron Artest checks in for Lamar Odom,” wait, what?

have given me 1 to 100 odds on the Lakers getting swept in the second round, and I would be steadfast in passing on that like Stockton.[1]  If you added that it would be with the Lakers having home-court against the Mavericks (who would be without –arguably- their second best player [See: Butler, Caron]), I’d laugh and question the tick in your brain’s tock.   So how did the Lakers, and their overzealous far from sanctimonious fans get to this point?  How did the back to back champs, coached by the greatest coach in sports, lead by a top ten great, balanced by two seven footers get swept out of the conference semifinals, and where do they go from here?

The “7” No More?[2]

In an effort to understand what just happened, a lot of people seems to be looking at what the Lakers didn’t do rather than what the Mavericks did do.  Prior to the start of the season, I believed the Mavericks –and not the Thunder- were the only team that could challenge LA’s throne in the West (RE: http://25twofour.com/2010/10/30/forecast-nba-2010-2011-october-30-2010/)  I was confident that they were one of the few teams with the size and depth to match the Lakers, while having a true superstar and closer in Dirk to pull out late games.  Before I give myself too much credit, I did not think for a second they would beat, let alone sweep the Lakers in a seven game series.

Dallas was able to shred LA’s defense with high screen and rolls (starting above the three-point line), penetrate into the paint, and kick the ball out to exceptional shooters on the perimeter.  Their offense was unique in that they ran consecutive screen and rolls to ultimately get their number one option the ball and worked through the process to exploit gaps in LA’s defense.  Dirk was able to draw the Lakers’ bigs away from the basket, opening up the boards as well as creating mismatch after mismatch.  Moreover, the Mavs shot the shit out of the basketball.  When their bench was called on, they showed up in a big way, something the “Killer B’s” didn’t do.  The Lakers were running around with their heads chopped off, failing to rotate properly on defense, leaving three point shot after three point shot uncontested.

The Mavs were also formidable defensively, half in part because the Lakers have been running an amended version of the triangle offense (outside-in rather than inside-out) and half because the Mavs played great team defense.  Jason “California Golden Bear” Kidd did an outstanding job on Bryant late in games, the Mavs’ frontcourt limited second chance points and did a good job on the Lakers’ big men (though I think this was more a product of LA’s flagrant neglect of feeding the post, as shown in game three when Bynum came out like ‘gangbusters’ and dominated the first half.)  Lastly, they did a decent job running their zone defense and communicating with one another on ever switch, pick, and board.

Hats off to Dallas!  An incredible/improbable six game stretch (including the last two games in the Portland series.)

“Blow this team up!”[3]

What will over 100 million[4] in payroll get you?  Four games in the second round, petulant players, classless acts of frustration, and a fan base that calls for more spending.  I’ll preface this section with a caveat: I am by no means a salary cap expert, but I do know a little some some about collective bargaining, unions, and the pending labor negotiations.  In light of this, I find it silly to talk about how the Lakers will make a trade here and there to bring Superman II to LA.  While Howard in a Lakers uniform is not impossible, we have few indications at this point on what the salary cap will look like, if it will be a hard cap[5], or if Dr. Buss is willing to continue to add to the leagues already highest payroll.  So let us pump those trade talk breaks and understand that the core of this team is locked up (which, I think is a good thing for the Lakers.)

They can and probably will try to move some older pieces in favor of atha-aletic (said that in Barkley’s voice) players.  They also have nicely structured contracts to move if they decide to make a few trades.  Unlike other teams, LA can move one of their three best players and still come out in good shape.  But, for all the talks about how old, slow, and unathletic[6] this team is (things you didn’t hear just a year ago or even during their 17-1 stretch after the All-Star Game this year)[7], this sweep doesn’t tell the whole story.

For those of us that were glued to the television set for this series, games one and three should have been Laker victories.  Despite all the criticism being handed out to Phil, Pau, and the bench, the Lakers could have and should have won those games, but for Kobe Bryant’s lack of clutch play in the last 3-5 minutes of those games.  Before you label me as a “Kobe hater,” let me be clear, he is one of the ten greatest players to play this game.  Also, we need to be fair; it is not right to shower the leader with praise when the team is on top, but ignore the fact that he had stunk it up just as much as Pau in this series.[8]  I am not even concerned with his missed three at the end of game one as much as I am with his turnovers and bad decisions during the last minutes of these games.  Its almost as though Bryant knows what the right play is, but feels  he needs to make the “hero” play because it’s his destiny.

Rather than searching for answers with “faster” players (which, sure, they could use- and lets be real they need a point, Fish is clutch but that isn’t going to get it done anymore) or a new line-up, what the Lakers need is a reality checkKobe Bryant is no longer the best player in the world.  Their team has two seven footers in a league full of 6-10 power-forwards.  If the plan is to continue to get by on jumpers it’s probably not a good one, ask the Magic.  Team defense isn’t about “oh you didn’t help me on that last play, so I am not going to help you on this one.”  These were the two time champions, and calling for some fresh young talent misses the point.

If the Lakers wanted to continue to play the outside first, inside last game, they should have pulled the trigger on the Bynum for Melo deal.  They didn’t, so I’m assuming they believe in Bynum and all seven plus feet of him.   I have been one of Bynum’s biggest critics over the past years, but he has proven me wrong time and again.  If the Lakers make a conscious effort to feed him in the post, he and Pau will do well against every center in the league save Howard.[9]  In light of this, when Kobe Bryant realizes he is no longer the best player in the world, and when Pau and Bynum realize they need to lead this team offensively and defensively, this team will be right back on track.  Moreover, Kobe needs to average 17 shots a game and Pau and Bynum 20.   If they can manage to do that next season, while learning how to defend the pick and roll (a quicker point will help address this need), this team with this personal, is still the scariest team in the league.

So to Laker Nation, next time you see a Mavs’ fan, Do the Right Thing like Spike Lee and thank them.  If it weren’t for this drubbing, the Lakers could convince themselves that all is well, and that “they will get ’em next year.”   If this reality check works, the Lakers will make the needed changes and have a happy Hollywood ending in the next two years.

[1] What up, BBrezzy.

[4] Figure includes players salaries which is around 91 million and coaches salaries which is around 13 million: http://blogs.forbes.com/sportsmoney/2011/04/15/the-most-and-least-payroll-efficient-nba-teams/

[5] Interesting article on the potential of a hard cap next season: http://www.hoopsworld.com/Story.asp?story_id=17156

[6] Is this even a real word?

[7] Look at all the experts picking LA to win this series … did they not take into account all this convenient talk about the Lakers being old and slow?  http://espn.go.com/nba/playoffs/2011/matchup/_/teams/mavericks-lakers

[8] Kobe: Game 1: 36/5/0; Game 2: 23/0/3; Game 3: 17/4/6; Game 4: 17/3/1. Pau: 15/11/7; Game 2: 13/10/1; Game 3: 12/8/2; Game 4: 10/8/6.  Kobe had 12 rebounds and 10 assists for the series.  Pau had 37 rebounds and 16 assists for the series.  While Pau looked noticeably bad out there, they both played well below their expected levels.

[9] I am investing a lot in Bynum and Pau, but we will never know if they can carry this team if they are never given the chance.

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2 Responses to Swept! Mavericks End the Lakers’ Bid for a Three-Peat

  1. Flying Haque says:

    this must be the crowning achievement in your young sports journalism career

  2. pakastallion says:

    “Otherwise, my biggest concern would be Kobe’s willingness to sacrifice some of his offense for Howard. During his exit interview, I asked Kobe about the feasibility of expanding Andrew Bynum’s offensive role to match recently expressed wishes. Bryant’s response wasn’t terribly ambiguous:

    ‘It’s tough to do on this team. Ultimately, he’ll have to fall in line. I’m gonna shoot the ball. We all know that. Pau’s gonna get his touches, so he’s number two in command. Drew’s gonna have to fall in line with that.'” … well, so much for Bynum getting any touches:


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