Yes, getting crushed by your archrivals in front of a sadistically enthusiastic group of fans is no fun, and it tends to make the flight home seem turbulent even when it’s smooth. The Lakers lost Game 6 Tuesday night to the Celtics, who thus clinched the NBA title in pulverizing fashion.
They looked like weaklings. They looked like chumps. And maybe they are — when compared to the Boston Celtics. Gang Green proved itself to be the best team in the world, and it left no doubt in the process.
The Lakers didn’t seem so timid and overmatched when they eliminated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in five games. They didn’t appear disoriented and weary when they were beating the Utah Jazz in six games. They certainly didn’t look unsure while sweeping the Denver Nuggets.
But the Lakers are among the small handful of teams in the NBA that assesses their season based on championships won, not on near misses. Second place is no place. Back in the spring of 2007, when Kobe Bryant was spewing about wanting to be traded, no one with all their marbles would ever have predicted the Lakers would rebuild so quickly that they would transform from perennial first-round human sacrifices to Finals contenders.
Still, that’s not good enough.
So what now?
Throughout their history, the Lakers have always made moves with an eye toward the Finals. Their modus operandi is not to throw together a bunch of talent and hope it performs. The Lakers play chess. They say, “The Spurs did this. We have to do that.” Or: “The Celtics acquired that player. We have to acquire this player.” In February of 1987, for instance, the Lakers traded to get Mychal Thompson from the Spurs because he was the best forward in the league at guarding Boston’s Kevin McHale. And it worked. L.A. beat Boston for the title that year, with help from Thompson’s defense on McHale.
In this case, they have to react to a Celtics team that played superior defense throughout the six games. The Lakers will never win another championship against this particular group of Celtics — and who knows how long Boston will remain intact in its present form, but it should be at least two or three more seasons — unless they develop a tougher defensive mentality.
It will help when they welcome back Andrew Bynum in the fall after a long recovery from a knee injury. A healthy Bynum probably wouldn’t have prevented Los Angeles from losing to this Boston team, but he would have made it a much more competitive match. Bynum is young, athletic and 7-feet tall. Having him patrolling the middle and swatting and dissuading shots would have altered the dynamic enough to give the Lakers a better shot in Games 1 and 2, and would have helped to prevent the Game 4 collapse.
Bynum’s activity on defense would have helped instill and maintain a defensive mindset. Instead, the Lakers played defense as erratically as they shot the ball.
General manager Mitch Kupchak performed a Herculean task in turning his club around, but now he faces an even larger challenge. He has to go out and somehow bring in a defensive player, preferably a forward, who can not only do his job but also inspire his teammates to do the same.
And he has to do so soon, before Kobe Bryant becomes disgruntled again.
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