It was the start of the 4th quarter when Kobe Bryant hopped up from his seat on the bench like a fan in the stands, spinning a towel in his right hand as he encouraged his teammates on the floor, “Keep it going, Jordie!” he yelled, “Keep it going!”
The starters sat and the Laker reserves upped the lead until the buzzer sounded for a 21-point victory.
The second unit closed out in runaway train-like domination. That bench mob, Phil’s beloved “minutemen” (so called back then by Coach Phil for the speed and immediate impact they brought into the game) were the talk of the NBA.
The opposing team was the San Antonio Spurs. The date was May 2008.
In a film documentary that centered around Lakers leader, Kobe Bryant, what stood out most during a breakfast viewing of ‘Kobe Doin’ Work’ on Christmas morning was not the Mamba’s thought process during the course of a game. It was the disparity between that season’s bench play then and their play now.
“BenchMob 2008″ had a fire in them, an unmistakable enthusiasm each time they hit the hardwood, a mission per minute to make their team greater, a powerhouse that no other in the league could match. They extended leads, made garbage time a great time and they played proudly. BenchMob 2009 has as much talent, if not more, and more experience than their former selves, but where is the nightly enthusiasm? Where is the pride? Where is the fire?
On a team with a disgusting amount of talent and experience, not to mention exemplary coaching, the only two factors that will be cited should the Lakers fail to repeat as Champions are…
1) A complacent and/or arrogant attitude
2) Bench contribution
The goal is the avoidance of the former and the consistency and efficiency of the latter.
Based solely on this season, there is only one player on the squad who deserves to be arrogant, but Kobe Bryant is out there at every game, regardless of the elbow he couldn’t feel, regardless of the shooting hand with only four good fingers, regardless of how often he is expected to save the team. There is no arrogance there, just an impenetrable will to win. If only his teammates had the same passionate desire (Ron Artest is pardoned too. He is 180 degrees from the player years ago, whose awful reputation preceded him. He’s actually playing with as much soul as Kobe).
The Lakers of late appear confounded and listless, the starters and reserves (especially reserves) alike.
When was the last time Pau Gasol had five rebounds in an entire game as he had against Phoenix? FIVE. Derek Fisher seems to be taking a lot of cheap shots lately, first at Caveliers’ Mo Williams and then Suns’ Steve Nash. What happened to his composure?
Lamar Odom, whose production is a question mark from game to game.
Andrew Bynum… where to begin?
And the Lakers bench, given chance upon chance to provide a positive impact on games, when the starters are either tired or just plain failing, can’t seem to get themselves in order and shoulder the load.
So they beat the young Sacramento Kings this past weekend, and Shannon Brown came off the bench with a solid 15-point, 7-rebound effort. It just doesn’t happen often enough. It shouldn’t be a welcome surprise when he has a game like that. It should be the usual.
In the loss to Phoenix, down by 16 points in the fourth quarter, the Lakers got a stop and headlong into a fast break, Adam Morrison decided to attempt a behind the back pass between two defenders, leading to a turnover. D.J. Mbenga, lucky to be getting time on the floor, stood motionless as Phoenix grabbed for rebounds around and above him. After Jordan Farmar hit a 3-pointer in the 4th quarter, he yelled, “Come on!” to encourage his teammates on the floor, which was only followed by a wide open 3-pointer from Phoenix on the other end. The opposing reserves on the floor lately have been quicker, prouder and altogether more focused.
Improved and effective bench contribution appeared in the horizon. After all, it was still early in the season, and there were valid arguments as to why the reserves struggled to attain efficient performances each night. Sadly, we are one-third into the season and those arguments are exactly that – arguments, meant to be analyzed to death by either fans who are fighting to be optimistic or haters who want nothing more than to exploit what used to be a strength and now appears to be a weakness. These string of “Let Kobe Save the Day” type of games will not bring another banner home. These so-called arguments, at this point in the season, are nothing but excuses now.
The inconsistent rotations due to the scatter of injuries earlier this season did cause an irregular distribution of minutes, especially for the second unit, but the Lakers have boasted a deep team for the last few seasons.
Isn’t the mark of a deep team their ability to withstand and play through setbacks like injuries? Why should the uneven minute distribution matter if you have the personnel to compensate? When Gasol returned, the rotations turned airtight – eight out of thirteen players were guaranteed floor time for each game and the remaining players were constantly “on-call.”
Is It so awfully difficult to check into a game, even after having sat for 36 minutes of it, and be expected, at the very least, to play with maximum effort and common sense? Getting the opportunity to play, especially when you receive so little of it, should make every reserve play with the same purpose and intensity as their teammates who played in the game before them, garbage time or not.
A 25-point lead with 6:00 minutes left in the game should fuel the desire for a 30, perhaps 40 point victory, not the need for the starters to check back in to fix what was damaged.
The worst excuse out there is that the Lakers are too talented. Having one of the most talented rosters in the league should be a positive, an opportunity not to just be good, but to be the best; and not because they CAN, but because they ARE.
So the best player on the planet is your captain… so you have a veteran clutch leader to speak inspiring words at the right time… so one of the best big men in the league just signed up for another three years… so you have one of the most versatile (and most difficult to guard) forwards as the heart of your team… so you have one of the best defensive specialists keeping watch… SO WHAT? Shouldn’t having all these weapons in the arsenal make the young (this means you too, Andrew Bynum!), and very able reserves, want to be part of the greatness instead of the spotty and mediocre (if that)?
Maybe what will always be known as the “Christmas Day of Embarrassment” had to happen. Maybe the team, as a whole, needed another vs. Boston, Game 6-like experience to re-fuel their fire and the bench needed to see that without their help, that back-to-back Championship is as good as gone. When the starters are struggling or worse, if they’re hurting, and Phil heeds players off the pine, when will the bench answer the call to change the game and take it upon themselves to carry the team to a victory? How much longer do we have to wait?