Wow, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks, and not just for Lakers’ fans. Imagine I say to you on New Years’ Eve…
“You, by February 10th, all of the following will happen…
– Andrew Bynum will suffer another knee injury that could end his season.
– Queen Latifah will be living inside of Jessica Simpson.
– Kobe Bryant will top MJ’s record 55 at MSG.
– Michael Phelps will add a large portion of weed to his nutrition regimen.
– I will shamelessly giggle like Miley Cyrus during “He’s just not that Into You.”
– In 72 hours, the Lakers will beat Boston then Cleveland to close out a perfect trip.”
Chances are, you would have accused me of swapping pills with Liza Minnelli. Yet, here we are, and every one of those things has come to pass. A few weeks ago, I wrote that this road trip would teach us a lot about the mental toughness and resolve of this Lakers’ team. They certainly didn’t disappoint. Twenty-five quarters later, and we’ve learned a lot about our beloved Lakers.
Lesson Learned #1: Lamar Odom is exactly who we thought he would be before he showed us who he was before he became the guy we thought he should be to begin with; I think.
Confused? Let me explain.
Since I’m a guy (despite my episode of giggling during the aforementioned chick-flick), let me use a guy analogy. Staying with Lamar is a lot like staying with the really hot girl you dated in high school – only you’re not in high school anymore, she’s gained twenty pounds and has three kids from her second marriage.
She’s nowhere near the un-attainable girl that you and your friends once observed roaming the halls between classes. You find yourself enduring the drunken phone calls at 3am and the endless conversations that start with, “Remember when I was prom queen?” Why would anyone do this? Well, because every once in a while, when you’re finally ready to throw in the towel, she shows flashes of what she used to be. You tolerate it all for those brief glimpses of what could be – Glimpses like Odom showed us in Boston and Cleveland last week.
There are nights (like in Cleveland on Sunday) where Lamar Odom looks like one of the fifteen best players in the NBA. Of course, there are also nights where he couldn’t score on Harry Potter. There’s just no way to know which Lamar you’re going to get.
Will it be…3 points & 2 rebounds Lamar? Or will it be 28 points & 17 rebounds Lamar?
I vote for the latter. Who’s with me?
Lesson Learned #2: Kobe Bryant > Lebron James.
Or, maybe a better way to say it would be: Kobe’s Psychological Edge > Lebron James’ Numbers. It’s no coincidence that Prince James’ had two of his worst games of the season against the Lakers. With #24 sharing the same hardwood, Lebron shot 14/45 from the floor (31%), 3/13 from downtown (23%) and scored only 19.5 points per contest (9 points under his season average). Oh, and he lost both games by an average of 13.5 points.
Lebron was mentally out battled by Kobe. Watching James’ take on the challenge of Kobe defending him reminds me of a young Bryant going after Jordan back in the late 90’s. Back then, Bryant was trying to prove to M.J., himself and the NBA world that he could play on the same stage as Jordan. In much of the same way, it appears that Lebron has something he’s trying to prove. And by doing so, he did just that; He proved that Kobe Bryant has a mental advantage over him. And when it comes to greatness, your mentality is the difference between scoring titles and championship rings.
Lesson Learned #3: This is not your 2007-2008 Los Angeles Lakers.
Last year, the Lakers would have certainly lost last Thursday’s thriller in Boston. I think our own Chris Manning said it best in a text message he sent to me after that game, “Championship poise.” The best way to illustrate the difference between last years’ Lakers and this team is to look at a few different points during that game.
1st Quarter, 9:33
Boston 9, Lakers 2.
Over the next 5 minutes, the Lakers responded by outscoring the Celtics 15-5 and surviving the early storm to take a 17-14 lead.
3rd Quarter, 10:33
Boston 59, Lakers 51.
Over the next 5 minutes, the Lakers responded to another Boston burst by outscoring the Celtics 15-8 to crawl back within a point.
3rd Quarter, 1:24
Boston 79, Lakers 71.
The Lakers weathered what could have been a huge run by the Celtics to close the 3rd quarter. Sasha and Jordan knocked down big three’s to not only bring the Lakers back to within striking distance, but to silence the rabid fans at the Garden.
Boston 107, Lakers 105.
After Ray Allen scored a bucket to give the Celtics a two-point lead, the Lakers only allowed one basket – a contested jumper by Big Baby Davis – the rest of the way. During the last 3 minutes of overtime, the Celtics went 1/6 from the floor, had a turnover and three fouls. The most impressive stat for the Lakers may have been the shots they forced Boston to take during those last few minutes:
In a sentence, the Lakers showed a new level of defensive toughness they certainly lacked last season. They didn’t give up anything at the rim in the closing minutes.
As Kobe alluded to after the game, last years’ Lakers struggled to break the Celtics momentum during runs. An 8-0 run often times turned into Mount Everest for the Lakers. They became anxious, went away from their game-plan and played right into the experienced Celtics’ hands. As demonstrated above, this year has been very different. The Lakers responded to Boston’s runs with poise and a sense of urgency, and that showed up on the scoreboard.
Lesson Learned #4: The Lakers can beat the Boston Celtics, except this time, they actually believe it.
Anyone who watched last years’ NBA Finals witnessed a Lakers’ team that had doubts about their ability to beat the Boston Celtics. They were dominated both times they played in the regular season, and were blasted in the Garden during the first two games of the Finals. By the time game 3 rolled around in Los Angeles, they were mentally defeated. Despite winning a couple of close games at Staples, nobody on earth, including the Lakers themselves, believed they had any chance in Boston.
That experience has changed the psychological makeup of this Lakers’ team. They have demonstrated this in how they have played the Celtics this year during the regular season, as opposed to last year.
2007-2008 Regular Season Matchup vs. Celtics.
2008-2009 Regular Season Matchup vs. Celtics.
This season we don’t hope we can beat the Celtics; we know we can beat the Celtics. If we see a rematch of last years’ NBA Finals, that mentality may just be enough to bring home that trophy to Los Angeles.
Lesson Learned #5: Anything less than an NBA Title is a severe disappointment.
Do I really even need to make a point here?
I didn’t think so.
Jason Riley is a columnist for the Lakers Nation. In addition to this column, he writes on an array of topics that you can check out by visiting J-Ri.com. You can email him by clicking here, or look him up on Facebook.