After a scintillating third quarter in which he scored thirteen points from just about everywhere, Nick Young was on the court in the fourth quarter which is to say he was literally on the court, on the hardwood floor. He was near his team’s bench. His posture was a little ragged and very resigned, his emotions raw. Nick knew what the whistle meant, that in one way it was a sentence, he had committed a crime. So his knees were raised, his arms extended, a frown graced his lips and it all seemed to say “really refs”. A Marvin Williams flop earned Nick Young his sixth foul and his night was over. Later, he would explain it or blame it, not on that particular play, but on what he believed was prejudice on part of the officials who work Lakers games and who judge these Lakers players differently than they judge their opponents. Trying for neutrality but failing, Nick Young expressed in so many words that he and his teammates do not get respect. It was a rare moment of disenchantment for a player who is usually carefree.
Perhaps Jodie Meeks agreed. Late in the fourth quarter he stole the ball, was met at the rim by two Jazz players contesting his layup, one that did not go in. Nothing was called. And yet in this particular game the Lakers attempted more free throws than the Jazz. But while the Jazz only missed four of their free throws the Lakers missed seven. Clearly the referees had nothing to do with that. The truth is respect in NBA games is dependent on if you are a star or not, if you play with toughness or not and if you are a good team or not. Perhaps it is not fair. But it is the NBA.
Chances are Kobe Bryant would not have been called for the foul on Marvin Williams; it would have been called in reverse. But the thing is Kobe has earned a reputation over the years for his toughness and competitiveness and intelligence at the end of games. It influences what the referees think they see. Whether Nick Young wants to accept it or not, his reputation precedes him. Nick Young has always been thought of as a fearless scorer who depended on his fade away jumper and could create his own shot but a scorer who did not play through contact and was one dimensional. His career average was 42%- he took a lot of bad shots. This too: when things did not go Nick’s way he had the tendency to behave as if all was lost and the world was against him. He would hang his head, play lackluster defense as he tortured himself. He has never been an All Star. He is not as offensively polished as a scorer needs to be, the ones who dominate games all the way to the end. The opposing teams know this, and so do the refs. So in a way he is right. He does not garner the same respect as Kobe or Westbrook or Wade. He has not earned it.
Mike D’Antoni has always taken the path that will get him beaten and in a way he is as doomed as his team. He does not demand his players grind out games in the post, beat their man with physicality, foul them out or make them surrender. His offense is a system of free flowing parts that when they work together is an orchestration of offense. But, often, things fall apart because there is no plan B, no adjustments. Therefore the Lakers attempt more three point shots than they do free throws. They are 14th in the league in free throw attempts. They are second in the league in three point shot attempts. The fans know this, the opposing teams know this, the refs know this. No one is fooled.
The Lakers have left mediocrity and now are just a bad team. They are four games under .500. They have lost four in a row, this last loss was against the worst team in the NBA and it highlighted their deep troubles. Against Utah they shot 50% and lost. They were outrebounded by six and lost. They had nine less assists than Utah and lost. They missed free throws and lost. They went to the line three times in the second half, all Jordan Hill free throws, and lost. Their leading scorer fouled out and lost. Within a span of forty five seconds they had two turnovers, one by Jordan Farmar, one by Jordan Hill, and they lost. On the last play of the game, they did not block out Favors. And yes. They lost.
Of the 18 shots the Lakers took in the fourth quarter, ten of them were over 15 feet long. Of the 14 shots Utah took in the fourth quarter, six of them were over fifteen feet long. You do the math.
How do you change a perception? By behavior, by altering what you do. In back to back games the Lakers proudly lost to the defending champions in an inspiring but losing performance. In their next game they sadly lost to the worst team in the league in a mediocre performance. This is what is permanent about them, their season in a nutshell. They are 23rd in offensive rebounding. Translation: not physical enough. They are 21st in field goal %. Translation: not talented enough. They are 20th in steals. Translation: not quick enough.
Never has a story been written of a flawed coach and a flawed group of players rising above their own history to surpass expectations in a city that eats underachievers. It would be surreal if it ever happened here and it would be a first. It is just not real life to get what you have not earned over time and that is the conundrum facing the Lakers who want to be treated as kings but who have not dug enough trenches in the dirt. Often when the Lakers talk they sound almost wounded by the disparity between the NBA rich and the NBA poor. This woe-is-me comes directly from their coach who thinks it is a crime that his team is subject to critique because as he likes to put it “they are good guys.” But at the end of the day this is a talent game. It separates the cherished from the tolerated. And yet it is human nature to desire that thing that is out of reach. The riches of the world is not based on merit, not entirely. But there is a reason Kobe and Lebron and Durant and Westbrook always get the benefit of the doubt from the referees. It is not a fortuitous accident. They create an impression they are better- which of course they are. The referees buy into their argument and everything they do on the court is forgiven.