Throughout his coaching career, Phil Jackson was famous for "never" calling timeouts to stop a run. And while I've always felt this reputation was somewhat exaggerated -- his infamous (and ultimately backfired) gaffe during Game 4 in 2009 against Houston notwithstanding -- there's no question Jackson regularly demonstrated a willingness to let his players "figure it out" when in trouble. Work their way out of the hole they dug themselves into. However, there were limits even to the Zen Master's patience. And I imagine, were he coaching this particular team and watching them fall into an 11-0 hole after just two minutes, he'd have reacted exactly the same as Mike Brown did: Call timeout and attempt to regroup before things really got out of hand.
Unfortunately, that's exactly the direction events went. The Lakers continued to struggle, and remained in an uphill battle until Brown eventually waved the four-headed white flag that is Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Darius Morris and Christian Eyenga.
What went wrong? First and foremost, the Lakers' starting frontcourt picked the wrong time to fail to make their collective presences felt. Offensively, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol struggled to discover any type of comfort zone, unable to connect on the shots both often convert in their sleep. Bynum's night was forecast on the opening possession for the Lakers. Fed with deep position, a layup and a putback attempt were blocked by Timofey Mozgov and Ty Lawson (!) respectively. Drew tracked down the loose ball for a third chance bucket, but missed yet again. Beyond offensive rebounds, Drew had a difficult time converting much of anything, and his frustration was displayed in nakedly outward fashion.
For his part, Gasol waited until the second quarter to even take a shot, but found his touch to be equally miserable. Rainbow jumpers. Hook shots. Even a drive to the cup was stuffed by Kenneth Faried. His errant shot wasn't the only way he was ineffective with the ball. Nine of his ten shots clanged en route to just three points to match three rebounds, and just one assist was collected. Granted, his teammates weren't making many shots, but this low tally reflected just how little presence Gasol exuded with the ball in his hands. It's been a while since we've seen Pau look this out of sorts. Specifically, last season's playoffs, a dark time elicits flashbacks the likes of which war veterans experience while remembering their time in country. Like all stats, +/- must always be taken with a grain of salt. That said, Pau's -29 (the lowest of any Laker) only feels inaccurate because it actually seems too high.
Defensively, both failed to effectively protect the rim. Gasol embodied this tendency with a horrible and-one foul committed on a lazy reach after reacting late to Faried running a backdoor baseline cut to the rim. Bynum was often flat-footed for challenges, and was the last to get back a few times in transition. To Drew's credit, he worked the glass to the tune of 16 rebounds. But control of the boards didn't translate into any tangible control of the game, and that's what the Lakers needed Drew to provide. That and perhaps some leadership. It's one thing to sit by yourself during huddles "getting your zen on" during a regular season game. But during the playoffs, with your team unraveling, the Lone Wolf McQuade shtick is unacceptable. There's an onus on Drew's part to be a professional, especially when the chips are down.
With Kobe Bryant battling severe stomach sickness, this was a game where Gasol and Bynum absolutely needed to put their stamp on matters. Neither succeeded even remotely well enough.
Then again, when players 4-8 down the rotation combine for 25 points after three quarters, Drew's and Pau's shortcomings could be irrelevant anyway. Role players were often hesitant to shoot or drive when left wide open. George Karl is clearly employing a strategy of letting Kobe get hard-earned points, neutralizing Gasol and Bynum by crowding the hell out of them, and daring everyone else to hurt them. And until burned, he'll keep on doing it.
As a unit, the Lakers' defense was duller than a baby-proofed butter knife. In transition, the Lakers were often painfully slow getting back, which often resulted in scrambled coverages allowing for wide open shooter at the arc. Denver may not be a great team from deep, but given that many clean looks, they can knock shots down. Defending in a halfcourt set, everyone looked equally discombobulated, with rotations typically slow... assuming they arrived at all. Everyone seemed much more fond of ineffective reaching. And no matter whether Denver was running or playing at a slow pace, they managed to score at the rim with far too much ease. Defenders were continually beaten off the dribble by the likes of Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, who were then greeted with far too little resistance from a big man protecting the lane.
On every level possible... on both sides of the ball... this was a complete and utter disaster.
More troubling than anything for the Lakers, however, is their steady decline over the course of this series. It's one thing for Denver to get better since their blowout Game 1 loss. Quality teams usually find ways to adjust with the benefit of familiarity, and Denver boasts a deep roster with an excellent coach in Karl. Such a combination should find ways to play to -- or even create -- strengths over six games. And yes, the Lakers played at such a high level to open the series, replicating that effort might be impossible. But the drop off shouldn't be this steep. The Lakers don't even resemble a team that peaked dangerously early, but rather water that's sought its own level. They may remain the better team on paper and pedigree, but that provides precious little good when you're playing like the inferior squad. Or worse, when you start exhibiting body language of a team wondering if they really are the inferior squad.
At the very least, Denver certainly isn't suffering from an inferiority complex.
I predicted a difficult series. By definition, "Lakers in 7" affords the opposition a lot of respect. But I also pictured punches thrown back and forth, with neither squad able to sustain steady momentum in a battle of size vs. speed. Right now, momentum is firmly in the Nuggets' direction, and the Lakers -- along with Brown, who MUST make some form of adjustments -- have about 48 hours to figure out how to save their season.
Bold Play of the Game: Kobe not just playing through a stomach illness that had him puking all day and required intravenous fluids, but outplaying his entire team in the process. Nobody looked readier or more focused than Bryant, clearly feeling miserable while trying to rally the troops. If it makes The Mamba feel any better, I'm sure a lot of fans tossed their cookies in solidarity with him.