By Ben Golliver
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The educated take, in these situations, is to stress the big picture and a patient approach, to allow complicated interpersonal and team dynamics to manifest organically. It's to not shout for the coach's head simply because what many expect will become a championship season has started with two straight losses.
In this case, Lakers coach Mike Brown deserves the heat that he's receiving two days, and two losses (10 if you count the preseason), into the 2012-13 season. Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins broke down the handcuffing of point guard Steve Nash during L.A.'s opening night loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday; the problems during a 116-106 loss to the Trail Blazers on Wednesday were more basic, and seemed to point back to Brown. The biggest issues this time: the lack of chemistry, a lack of focus and, often, a lack of effort, especially on the defensive end.
"I think guys are trying," Nash said. "I think that maybe we just didn't live up to what our expectations were. Maybe we're thinking too much or maybe we weren't switched on enough."
There's a base level of disorganization that isn't usually seen among teams with this much talent. Certainly, Brown's starters didn't play much together during the preseason, and it has impacted their timing and collective feel. The Lakers haven't just been a half-step off here or there, as they claimed Wednesday, they have been downright sloppy. L.A. committed a total of 25 turnovers against the Blazers, sacrificing 28 points in the process. Passes slipped through hands and sailed out of bounds; others were easily intercepted. Sloppiness is one thing, but basic attention is another. The Lakers sacrificed a free basket by not blocking out Sasha Pavlovic after he missed a foul shot. They gave up three free throws when Chris Duhon needlessly fouled Damian Lillard beyond the arc. World Peace committed two charges in a minute; Devin Ebanks topped that by committing three fouls in eight seconds. It was comically bad at times, at least for outsiders. Kobe Bryant didn't look particularly pleased, getting a frustration technical foul late as L.A.'s comeback bids proved unsuccessful. Neither did Brown, who stood with his hands on his hips after Bryant chucked up and missed one long attempt.
Focus and effort tend to reveal themselves on defense first, and that was the case Wednesday. Despite a game-high 33 points from Dwight Howard and a +15 rebounding advantage for the Lakers, the Blazers managed to score 44 points in the paint, equaling the Lakers. This, with the undersized J.J. Hickson playing converted center and raw rookie Meyers Leonard filling out Portland's big-man rotation.
"We're not the quickest team in the world," Bryant admitted. "A lot of teams now have very, very quick point guards and quick wings, and we just have to work on supporting each other and being there for each other, keeping the ball out of the paint and keeping guys away from the rim."
The Blazers, starting rookie Damian Lillard at point guard, took control of the game early and moved the ball well. As a team, they shot 9-for-20 from deep and 50.6 percent overall from the field. Under new coach Terry Stotts, the Blazers compensate for a lack of size and low-post threats with ball movement and up-tempo play. Portland topped 116 points just four times all of last season.
"You just can't allow a team to score three quarters over 30 points," Pau Gasol lamented. "It can happen one quarter, maybe. If that. But not three quarters in a row. When a team puts up those kinds of points on the scoreboard, [you can't] expect to win."
Brown added: "Defensively, at times, we're doing the right thing. But we haven't put it together for 48 minutes and I talked to the guys about that."
He better keep talking, and he better hope for a quick, meaningful response and sharpening of play. With expectations through the roof thanks to a $99 million payroll and four potential All-Stars in the starting lineup, the pressure is officially on Brown. He will be tested over the next month.
During his last stop in Portland, Brown was gregarious and joking, going so far as to mock jog in slow motion to demonstrate how former Lakers center Andrew Bynum lumbered up and down the court. This time, he was far more serious, and he spent a good chunk of his pregame availability defending his Princeton-style offense from critics (such as TNT commentator Charles Barkley) who feel that the scheme doesn't put Nash in enough pick-and-rolls, his bread and butter.
"Steve Nash has said it himself," Brown asserted. "They can call him if they want, he's said it himself. He doesn't feel like he's as burdened because he doesn't have to make every play for everybody all the time with what we are trying to do. He can give it up and get it back. He says he's felt as fresh as he's ever felt in his career because he doesn't feel the pressure of making every single play."
Brown's concern is lightening the load on Nash's 38-year-old body while also ensuring that the Lakers don't become so over-reliant on pick-and-rolls that they become too predictable in the postseason.
"When we're in a seven game playoff series ... they'll be able to take us out of our offense because we'll be so one-dimensional," Brown explained. "We're trying to eliminate that, and become hard to guard, because it's a read-based offense. Within the read-based offense, we have dribble hand-offs for Steve, pick-and-rolls for Steve, we have him coming off of screens, we try to move him around a little bit and let other guys have touches."
His theory is sound; no one will listen until it produces results. The only Laker who can lay claim to a truly productive night on Wednesday was Howard, who followed up a mixed debut with 33 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block in 41 minutes. He dominated inside and drew forced foul after forced foul. He then shot 15-for-19 from the free-throw line, a performance he was so proud of that he asked a Lakers staffer after the double-digit loss whether his foul shooting had earned him candy.
"Once we get this offense down, once everything starts to flow, we're going to be tough," he said. "Right now, we're hitting a couple of obstacles, but that's fine."
If you think that it's too early to hit the panic button, you're correct. Howard has showed enough promising flashes to sustain even skeptical observers for the next month or so. That didn't stop one reporter from asking Howard whether chemistry issues could prevent the Lakers from reaching the playoffs.
"Do we have the chemistry to make it to the playoffs?" Howard asked rhetorically. "We actually met with one of the best chemists in the world the other day, he mixed up a couple potions for us."
Phil Jackson? Only kidding. Still, the red flags on both sides of the court are now on tape for Brown and his staff to review. He will need to reconsider, or at least refine, Nash's role -- assuming he is medically cleared in short order after suffering a lower leg contusion against the Blazers. He also must find a way to muster a little urgency. In the meantime, he's lucky to have Howard stressing the bigger picture.
"We'll get better with time," Howard said. "L.A. wasn't built in a day. ... We need to stay patient. We need all of our fans to stay patient with us. This is a process. Dynasties weren't built in a day."
There's a point where patience morphs into ambivalence, though, and there's still a clock running on this grand experiment.
"We didn't just expect for us to come together and be awesome, just like that," Howard said. "It doesn't work like that. I don't remember any team that did that. Even the titles that Jordan won, it took him years to get there." The Lakers aren't 25-year-old Jordan, biting at the heels of the Celtics and Pistons, fighting for conference supremacy. They can't be. Howard excepted, the team's core -- and Brown -- don't have the luxury of thinking in "years." This plan starts heading in the right direction quickly and it comes together by June, or the situation only gets dicier.