LOS ANGELES — Commence the panicking Laker fans.
Lakers fans, who for years have freaked out over December losing streaks, finally have actual reason to prepare for nuclear winter. With the way the two-time defending champions are being outplayed and outhearted by the Mavericks in such a definitive manner, it’s Los Angeles crumbling from within. It was always supposed to be the other way around.
These are so many of the concerns crashing together at once — the mental toughness of Pau Gasol, the inability of the Lakers to handle dragster point guards (backup J.J. Barea, in this case) — but mostly there is the wonderment of how a team that knows (better than anyone) what it takes to win a title lacking the necessary intensity. They’re not just halfway to a shocking second-round elimination. Down 2-0 as the best-of-seven series shifts to Dallas on Friday, they’re zeroing in on the historic crash and burn of a roster that couldn’t be bothered to be motivated anymore.
The Mavericks finished the 93-81 victory Wednesday night with such a commanding presence that Video L.A. center Andrew Bynum afterward cited “trust issues” and Lakers VP Magic Johnson announced via Twitter that “The Mavs have the Lakers pointing fingers at one another. It’s going to be a tough climb to come back and I think their chances are slim.” Plus, Ron Artest is facing a possible Game 3 suspension Video for a cheap-shot clothesline on J.J. Barea that added to the sense of unraveling. Other than that, everything’s fine.
Coach Phil Jackson hadn’t even waited until after the game to admit concern. Speaking about an hour before tipoff, he conceded, “Yeah, we’re worried now.” There was no sense he was going for deadpan.
“You are?” one of the reporters asked in clarification, if not surprise.
“This [Dallas] is a good team,” Jackson said. “We know that they have the same record we have. They have a lot of options in scoring. We’ve got to play a lot better to overcome this team in the course of the series. Our strength is we’ve always become better and better against teams in series. We hope to do that.”
Jackson insisted this was not some Philesque motivational ploy, rightly noting that his players weren’t within listening range and might not have the comments relayed to them down the hall in the locker room while mostly unavailable to the media.
“I’m really straight with you on that,” he said of his assessment of worry.
He saw holes in the defensive and intensity issues, and then both jumped up into the Lakers’ faces by the end of the night. Jackson did miss on Pau Gasol. He stuck up for his All-Star power forward, noting the good Gasol had done in Game 1, only to have him get shown up by Dirk Nowitzki and eventually get booed by fans frustrated by a flailing attempt at a playoff game.
By the end of the night he will never live down if L.A. does get eliminated, the only question was whether Gasol would be better off bolting the locker room to avoid Kobe Bryant or staying in the locker room to avoid the rest of Southern California.
“Obviously down 2-0 you’ve got to be worried about staying in this series and making a run, coming down [to Dallas] and getting one game,” Jackson said. “Start with the first game and go from there. That’s what you do.”
That’s all they can do. The Lakers, their bravado nowhere to be seen, have been reduced to just trying to claw their way back into the series. It’s not December and it is time to panic.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.