The Lakers are an example of one of people’s blind spots. After the thumping the Lakers delivered to the Thunder yesterday, there was a great exhaling followed by an “OF COURSE” followed by the argument that these were the Lakers finally playing like the Lakers, the champs and blah blah blah. The assumption here is that the best version of the Lakers is the real version of the Lakers; we make this assumption because we’re predisposed to thinking well of the Lakers. There are situations where the opposite applies: Allen Iverson, a complicated character, is blamed more for his worst moments than he is praised for his best because we’re predisposed to thinking well of Allen Iverson. We make excuses for the Lakers and we scrutinize for flaws with Allen Iverson. And, I submit, the problem is general—look at political partisanship, for example, and how partisans (particularly Republicans, these days) will look for facts that burnish their side and deface the other.
The point here is that we assume yesterday was the normal capability of the Lakers when in reality it was something more like their peak. If it were their normal capability, they would have played like it more often. They didn’t; QED. It’s a separate question whether or not this is good enough, which is the question we should really be concerning ourselves with. And it just might be: the Lakers at their best are an awesome force. But because they play just as frequently like the idiotic version of the Lakers trotted out from Games 1-4, they are vulnerable throughout the Western Conference bracket, to say nothing of the NBA Finals.
If the Lakers were mentally capable of doing the right thing and pounding the ball down to the post with Gasol and Bynum, they would have done it more frequently. If they were mentally capable of not shooting terrible jumpshots they would do that more frequently too. People like to assume getting your mind in the right place is a simple act of will, but (at the extreme) something like mental illness isn’t. Concentration is difficult.
The one genuine innovation of the game was putting Kobe on Westbrook. This was an idea I hit upon a day before the game (but didn’t post, sadly) because it presents the Thunder with a strategic dilemma: play Westbrook and be unable to take advantage of Fisher’s inability to play defense; play Harden and be unable to contain Kobe. It’s a dilemma the Thunder might not be able to resolve until later in their team’s development.
That said, this innovation might not be a durable one. Let’s game out their possible opponents: should they face Denver next round (very unlikely, obviously), they’d have to have Fisher guard Afflalo or J.R. Smith, both of whom are more than good enough to exploit Fisher. If it’s Utah, Wesley Matthews is more interesting—it’s my instinct to say he can’t beat Fisher consistently enough for the Jazz to win (and any victory over the Lakers necessarily implies Fisher being incinerated on defense). So I suspect the Lakers will take Round 2 fairly easily. It’s the conference finals that I anticipate a Lakers loss: they’ll either face the Suns or the Spurs. If it’s the Suns, well, a Fisher v. Nash matchup is ideal for the Suns: Nash doesn’t have to exert much on defense and can roast Fisher on D. The Spurs are equally difficult: you can’t crossmatch because that means Fisher is guarding Ginobili. So this particular adjustment is probably only for this series.
Still, you can’t deny that the Lakers can win every series they’re in. That said, their weaknesses are so glaring (point guard, bench) and their commitment to their potential strengths so intermittent that this playoffs will very likely be unsuccessful for the Lakers (i.e. no title). And, you know, thank god. You hate to see a championship waste its potential.