By Zach Lowe
The Lakers and Hornets are tied 2-2 and just about everyone is shocked. Perhaps we shouldn’t be.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone: When it came time to predict every playoffs series, I called for the Lakers to sweep the Hornets (whoops!) en route to winning their third straight title (still sort of confident). Winning two straight titles can create the false impression that you are a postseason juggernaut, nearly invulnerable, always making the big plays in crunch time.
But anyone who has paid attention to the last three playoffs knows these Lakers have been very, very vulnerable. This group has never had a dominant postseason, something each of Phil Jacksonâ€™s previous three-peaters enjoyed at least once (and arguably twice for each team) in their three-year runs.
These Lakers lost 14 games total in the previous two postseasons, more losses than each of Jacksonâ€™s previous three-peaters suffered combined in three playoff seasons. That comparison is obviously faulty because Jacksonâ€™s other groups had the benefit of a shorter best-of-five series in the first round. Since the league made the first round best-of-seven starting in 2002-03, only one team (the 2006-07 Spurs) has won the title with fewer than seven postseason losses. The Lakers have lost seven games in each of the last two postseasons, and it looks like theyâ€™ll lose more than that if they advance to the Finals.
Even if they have not been uniquely vulnerable in the last three seasons, they have indeed been on the edge of defeat several times. Houston took them to seven games in the conference semifinals two seasons ago, and the Nuggets were a couple of Trevor Ariza steals from at least forcing a seventh game of the conference finals that year. And we all remember the improbable last-second put-backs that saved Los Angeles from Game 7s against both the Thunder and the Suns last season. If you make enough plays like that, the myth of invincibility grows.
But the margin for error with these guys has often been slim, and perhaps it might take less than we imagined to tip the balance against them. Kobe Bryant is banged up and aging. Pau Gasol is on the wrong side of 30, he canâ€™t figure out Carl Landryâ€™s defense (!) and he is rebounding so far like Jeff Green. The teamâ€™s overall defense and defensive rebounding have fallen apart in this (very small) sample size of four games when Andrew Bynum hits the bench, just as the Lakers morphed into one of the leagueâ€™s worst defensive rebounding clubs without the center at the beginning of this season. It would disturb me, if I were Lakers fan, that the Hornetsâ€™ middling offense has scored more points per possession in the playoffs than it did in the regular season, even though scoring (as usual) is down significantly in the first round.
The Lakers are better than New Orleans, and if Bryant is reasonably healthy, they are probably going to win this series. And I still think that with everything on the line and everyone 100 percent, this is the best team in the league.
But I wonder now if the past is informing that judgment a little too much, and if our memories, clouded by title celebrations and clutch plays, have colored the way we look at this Lakers team. We are often too slow to realize when a championship team is slipping and when a young team is making a leap. Those two narratives may very well collide in the Western Conference finals, but the Lakers are going to have to work hard to get there.