Of course it is never one thing. Winning is both simple and complicated. But you can always start here: take away their heart. Play with a purpose until the very end. Be relentless in the objective to win.
Against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, November 1, the score was tied 80-80 with two minutes left. Steve Blake missed a three pointer. Pau Gasol missed a 17-foot shot. Jordan Hill traveled. Pau missed a free throw. Steve Blake missed a three point shot. Pau Gasol missed a four foot shot. Wesley Johnson fouled Boris Diaw. Jodie Meeks turned the ball over. Xavier Henry fouled Manu Ginobli. The Lakers scored five points in the last two minutes. The Spurs scored eleven points and won the game by six.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, November 8, the Lakers trailed by three, 84-81, with three minutes left. Steve Blake had the ball stolen. Jodie Meeks fouled Eric Gordon. Pau Gasol had a three footer blocked. Nick Young had the ball stolen. Steve Blake had the ball stolen (again). Pau Gasol had a layup blocked (again). Steve Blake missed a 19-footer. Nick Young missed a 17-footer. He fouled Jrue Holiday. The Lakers scored four points in the last three minutes. The Pelicans scored twelve points and won the game by eleven.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, November 15, the score was tied 81-81 with three minutes left. Jodie Meeks missed a three pointer. Nick Young missed a shot. Jodie Meeks turned the ball over. Nick Young missed a layup. Steve Blake missed a 20-footer. Steve Blake missed a 23-footer. Jordan Hill fouled Zach Randolph. The Lakers scored five points the rest of the game. Memphis scored eight points and won the game by three.
Of course, the easy conclusion to reach is the one about privilege and what it means to have a special player, to have had him for seventeen years. Of course the Lakers miss Kobe. There is a burning nostalgia for someone who used to finish games for them, not just by scoring but by creating double teams so the rest of the team had open shots. But emerge into reality and you see this for what is: excuse making. The coaching staff anticipated Kobe’s absence well into the end of November. It was enough time for them to draw up multiple offensive situations that would work in the last minutes of games. D’Antoni is an offensive genius, right? Then why are almost all of the shots taken in the last three minutes of the game taken by the guards. The forwards have very little opportunity to post up or to get to the free throw line or even to chase down long rebounds from missed perimeter shots.
The offense is flawed in its structure and in its execution and how everything is arranged on the court in the final minutes. The offense is predicated around the lie that perimeter shooting and pick and roll layups will sustain offensive possessions. But the truth is, at the end of games, three point shots are low percentage opportunities. They are contested. You need players who are consistent mid range shot makers. You have to have an offense that originates contact allowing chances at the foul line. You have to post up players who can maneuver close to the basket. Otherwise you are operating on the principle of luck. Blame D’Antoni.
The prevailing thought before the season was that Pau Gasol would return to what he once was in 2009 and 2010. There were visions of him creating around the basket and finishing. Or creating around the basket and getting to the line. But he is a player with no ego, and apparently, no explosion and no will. At the end of games Pau is inside his own head. He is listless and haphazard. He never gets to the post quick enough to set up his game. Instead, whatever offensive ability he has left, is wasted as he is screening for his teammates. By the time he gets to the rim, with his loss of elevation, either his shot is blocked or he misses it entirely. Pau never adapted to the American style of play in which men in the paint use tricks and head fakes to draw fouls. Blame Gasol.
In no one’s world does effort overcome execution. Every ball handler knows what is expected. And yet Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, and Nick Young play the last two minutes of the game the same way they played the first two minutes of the game. It is not that they are afraid. It is the opposite, the play as if there are no consequences. There is a lack of urgency, as if the game is never going to end. This particular style of execution is a carefree, accidental method of motion and ball movement. For this, there is an effect. A turnover. An opportunity for their opponent to score. These Lakers are not good enough on defense to overcome clumsiness and attention deficit disorder. They cannot inhibit Tony Parker, Anthony Davis, or Zach Randolph in the lane or at the rim. They are scored on time after time. Then they lose confidence. Then they play as if they expect to lose. And then the heart goes. They do lose. They have lost five out of the last seven games. Blame the ball handlers.
The mystery of winning games is not so difficult to understand. Stars win games in the waning minutes. Zach Randolph made an 18-footer. He scored over Jordan Hill. He fed Marc Gasol for a six footer. He grabbed an offensive rebound. He scored again. He went to the line and made two free throws. Hmmm. Did it ever occur to D’Antoni to bring a second man and double Randolph, force him into making a play. Blame D’Antoni.
The last time the Lakers had such a terrible start to the season was in 2002. After eleven games they were 3-8. They gave up more points than they scored. Shaq was still recovering from off season surgery. That Laker team lost close games too. In a game against the Celtics at Boston, on November 7, in overtime, with two minutes left, Kobe tied the score at 93-93. Devean George then missed a three. Samaki Walker missed a two. Kobe turned the ball over. Kobe missed a three point shot with one second left to tie the game. The Lakers scored two points in two minutes. The Celtics scored five points and won the game. But Shaq returned after missing fifteen games. The Lakers were 45-22 once he was in the lineup.
It is hard to imagine that sort of outcome when Kobe returns. The 2002-03 Laker team struggled early but they had players on that team who were champions, who knew what it took from a mental perspective to compete at the end of games. Those players hardly compare to this compilation of castaways who have never had NBA success. A few of them may not even play in the NBA next year. So that leaves right now and finishing what you start. Staying committed to the end. Fight until you no longer can. The physical and mental torture is what happens in games. To everyone. The difference is heart. Are you willing to give yours away?