Something is amiss in Laker Land
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Oh, to be a fly on the inner wall of Kobe Bryant's cranium...
Does he really believe everything he's saying right now, the stuff about emotion and sheer will not playing a part in this Lakers' crisis and everything coming down to execution?
Oh, to be Lakers executive Jeanie Buss and hear the private musings of her boyfriend, Dr. Phil Jackson, on the home front...
Is the league's most thoughtful coach truly non-reflective and devoid of inspiration at the moment, ignoring his own narrative and how this final return that Bryant and Derek Fisher begged for wasn't supposed to go like this?
Oh to be Dallas, the team with a 2-0 lead and a huge home-court edge in this Western Conference semifinals series that has surely noticed the oddly placid demeanor of the two-time defending champions and has to be wondering what it means.
Memo to the Mavericks: Do what you've been doing, and you should be fine.
There's something amiss in Laker Land, where the edge that has energized this team for so long appears to have gone the way of Pau Gasol's game. As in vanished.
A day after the Mavs crashed the Staples Center house party for a second straight game, the Lakers were waiting with boatloads of blasé for the media throng that came ready to write their obituary. As reporters boxed each other out for space and even asked questions about whether the nail was already in the purple-and-gold coffin, there was a collective sigh from the team that insists they'll be just fine.
Never mind the numbers, how just three teams out of 18 has won a seven-game series after losing the first two games at home. Never mind the miles, as the Lakers have already made three straight Finals appearances and it seems clear there was a toll being taken throughout. Never mind the pressure cooker that keeps getting hotter, with Ron Artest's ill-advised clothesline of J.J. Barea late in Game 2, resulting in his suspension for Game 3. If you buy what the Lakers are selling, they'll be righting this ship any second now.
Of all the compelling things Bryant had to say at the Lakers practice facility Thursday, his reaction to Andrew Bynum's public speech about trust Wednesday night stuck with me the most. The six-year veteran had combined the emotion and the execution in assessing the Game 2 loss, candidly discussing how a lack of faith among himself and his teammates had everything to do with their defensive breakdowns.
When I asked Bryant about Bynum and whether he approved of his trip to the public podium, one of the fieriest competitors the sporting world has ever seen had a rare moment of apathy.
"I'm indifferent to it," he said. "I've probably just been around Phil too long. It's not good. It's not bad. It is what it is."
Jackson read from the same peaceful script, insisting he had given no thought to the fact that his Hall of Fame career could be over by the time his team returns from Dallas.
"I thought about it last year," Jackson said when asked about whether the big picture was in play in his mind. "That was long enough for me to think about it."
Cue Lamar Odom.
"At this point, it's not all deep and philosophical," the Lakers forward said. "Put that [expletive] aside. This is just about going out, doing the right things you need to do and winning a basketball game. One game at a time."
Added Bryant: "Just play the next game. It's not that big of a deal to win two games in a row...Stop acting like we've never won two games in a row before. It's silly."
Oh, if only it were that easy.
The difference between the before and after of the Lakers mojo -- or their swag, as the kids call it -- is nothing short of remarkable. This time a year ago, Bryant's answers to reporter's questions were almost always coming through clenched teeth. Annoying act or not (and plenty thought it was), you got the sense that he exuded determination from sunup to sundown. It was contagious to his team, and integral in setting the right kind of tone that the Lakers carried through the epic Game 7 of the Finals against Boston.
Now he's taking the quiet confidence route, a less-confrontational tactic that just doesn't seem to fit as well and isn't producing the same results. A few observational notes to that point...
Jackson left him on the bench for much longer than seemed appropriate in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and Bryant simply joked that he was "too coachable" to contest. It was a lighthearted reference to Jackson's book, "The Last Season," in which there was a reference to Bryant being "uncoachable" in his younger years, which changed nothing of the fact that Bryant had a reason to gripe about his extended absence.
He seems to have contained his frustration like never before, waiting patiently on offense when the ball doesn't swing his way quickly enough or when his teammates continue to misfire on the sort of jumpers that led to a 2-of-20 showing from three-point range in Game 2. And while his wit and comedy is enjoyed by the media members who so often scoffed at his scorn, it seems to be carrying over to the court at a time when the Bryant of old is nowhere to be found.
He's playing well, to be sure. But the change in spirit, the my-way-or-the-highway approach that has had a counterintuitive effect on his teammates for so long, appears to have given way to a version that doesn't have the same transformative effect.
"It's all about minimizing mistakes and doing the right thing," Bryant said in his enlightening media session that took place just before the Lakers headed for Dallas. "I hate to make it sound so simplistic, but that's what it is. You get caught up in the emotions of things, and that's how you get too high or get too low. You want to do your strategy, and we believe in that."
The Lakers need the emotion, though, the passion that had so much to do with putting them in this position. It will start with Bryant, or it will come to an end.