Nearly three hours before the end of this Lakers era would draw near, one of the last Phil Jackson prodigies sat at his locker in a moment of self-reflection.
Andrew Bynum was reading the kind of book that players not coached by the Zen Master aren't typically seen holding, a 1960 publication by Maxwell Maltz titled Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. It is said to discuss and define "the mind-body connection" as a means to "succeeding in attaining personal goals," and the fact that the player who had recently called so much attention to his team's trust issues was reading it seemed to make perfect sense.
But these Lakers couldn't be saved by self-help books or last-minute crash courses. They were reading from different books once again in a 98-92 loss to Dallas in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night, when the disconnect between their collective mind and body continued and made way for the ending that almost no one saw coming.
They now trail the resilient and relentless Mavericks 3-0, a deficit from which no NBA team has ever recovered in a seven-game series. And whether it ends in Sunday's Game 4 or sometime thereafter, this likely finish to Jackson's legendary career will be defined by the sort of imbalance and disharmony that he so often taught his teams to avoid.
This wasn't a new revelation, though.
Consistency has been elusive for the two-time defending champions, whether it was their three losing streaks of at least three games during the regular season (including a late five-game slide) or the loss to New Orleans in Game 1 of the first round that was yet another sign that they might not be able to muster another run. The lack of cohesion was there for all to see at the end, when every nuance of the Mavericks' execution was nearly perfect while the Lakers were neurotic just as they had been in Game 1.
There was the Kobe Bryant turnover with a three-point Lakers lead and 3:24 remaining, when his attempt to answer Peja Stojakovic's three-pointer instead became a rare late-game blunder in the paint. There was the Jason Terry three with 2:01 left, when the Lakers' horrific rotations and lack of defensive chemistry left the Mavericks guard shooting without a defender within nearly 10 feet. The inexplicable Derek Fisher turnover with 17 seconds left was the antithesis of the Lakers' script from years past, the Lakers still within four when his inbounds pass to Lamar Odom was intercepted and two Terry free throws were gift-wrapped with a purple-and-gold bow.
"It's tough man," said Bynum, who did most of his damage (21 points and 10 rebounds) during a first half in which the Lakers led 51-47. "We played hard and we just gave it away at the end ...[It's] coming down at the end of the game and just not being prepared and not running what we've got to. We lost the ball in Game 1, and we lost the ball down the stretch of this game."
Something was most certainly amiss in Laker Land. And without question, something appears to be wrong with Pau Gasol.
His first-half play was maddening enough to Jackson that the coach took a literal approach to the mind-body connection. As he lectured Bynum and Gasol during a first-quarter timeout, he slapped his forward's chest with the back of his hand. No one could have blamed him if he was checking Gasol's heart for a pulse, as his struggles continued with a 12-point, eight-rebound outing in which he hit just five of 13 shots.
Bryant maintained his cool demeanor even in the face of elimination, the scowl that reflected his once-in-a-generation competitive spirit as absent as Gasol's game.
"The open looks that they got down the stretch were just mental lapses; we gave them wide-open looks," Bryant said in a postgame session that was, once again, far more pleasant than his norm in a post-loss setting. "I might be sick in the head, or crazy ... or something like that, because I still think we're going to win this series. I might be nuts. Win on Sunday, go back home and see if we can win in L.A."
Their issues went far deeper than the loss of Ron Artest, who was suspended for Game 3 for his ill-advised clothesline of J.J. Barea in Game 2. Jackson started Lamar Odom in his place, and his offense was adequate (18 points) while his defense, by all accounts, was weak when it came to the team-wide problem with perimeter defense.
The Mavericks hit 12 three-pointers, with four coming from the man who might have a chance at redeeming the 2006 Finals after all, should the Mavericks keep this up. Dirk Nowitzki, the leader of this franchise that boasts 11 consecutive 50-plus-win seasons but no championships, played the transcendent part typically reserved for Bryant. He scored nine of his 32 points in a fourth quarter in which Dallas outscored the Lakers, 32-20, with Stojakovic as clutch as anyone late as he hit all three of his three-pointers and scored 11 of his 23 points.
"Dirk Nowitzki made it happen," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "Just about everything that happened down the stretch was a direct result of either him scoring the ball or making a play to get somebody a shot, making the pass for the assist.
"We're all trying to do something that we have never done, so the focus, the determination, the discipline, and all those things, [are] crucial. Dirk is one of the all-time greats ... but we're going for the ring and that's the one thing he hasn't done in his career."
Minds and bodies were one, all right. Just not for the Lakers.
"They finished better than we did," Jackson said. "That was the difference in the ball game ....They were better finishing the games out than we were, so that's a big disappointment to us. But we still believe we're going to win the next game, and we'll go from there."