It’s in the nature of athletes to cover for one another. From the earliest age, they are taught it’s one of the obligations that comes with being a member of a team.
But after consecutive losses to the Nuggets turned a comfortable series lead in the first round of the NBA playoffs into a loser-go-home Game 7 on Saturday, the Lakers decided playing nice isn’t working. Their two leading spokesmen, coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Exhausted after a day spent fighting both gastroenteritis and the Nuggets, Bryant said the Lakers’ big men would need a new “mind state” for the club to advance.
“Kobe, being dehydrated and all that, and sick as a dog, coming out and trying to will us to a win, it’s disappointing to watch him give that type of effort, trying on both ends of the floor, getting on the floor after loose balls, and we don’t get it from everybody,” Brown said late Thursday night, after the Nuggets blew out the Lakers in Game 6, 113-96.
“Our second- and third-best players are Drew and Pau, and the reality of it is both those guys have got to play better in order for us to win. We’re going to have a tough time winning if we get the same type of production, not just offensively, but on the defensive end of the floor, too. For the first time, we were really, really bad with our pick-and-roll coverage. (The Nuggets) got what they wanted.
“Especially in the third quarter, we maybe did the pick-and-roll coverage correctly eight percent of the time, if that. We’ve got to do a better job. It has to matter for us. We’re going to have to work harder. And we’re going to have to want to get the job done to protect your teammates. If we get the same type of effort, it’s going to be a long night for us on Saturday.”
Asked if he agreed with Brown’s assessment of the Lakers’ big men, Bryant didn’t mince words.
“Of course I agree with that,” he said. “I talked with Pau a little bit after the game. I’ll speak with Andrew as well. It’s one of those things where psychologically you have to put yourself in a predicament, in a position, where you have no other option but to perform. You have to emotionally put yourself with your back against the wall and kind of trick yourself, so to speak, to feel that there’s no other option but to perform and to battle.
“When you put yourself in that mindset, your performance shines through and your talent shines through. It doesn’t matter what the defense does, it doesn’t matter if you get fouled; it doesn’t matter because you’re emotionally at a level that is above that. That’s the mind state that they have to put themselves in.”
This may be the best articulation I’ve heard of Bryant’s competitive mindset, and why he is generally so dismissive of questions about the defensive effort against him, as he was when I asked him about Danilo Gallinari’s length after Game 3.
Bynum’s statistics in Game 6 weren’t awful — eleven points, sixteen rebounds, four blocked shots, three assists, no turnovers. Gasol’s were — three points on one-for-ten shooting, three rebounds, one block, one assist and one steal in twenty-nine minutes. But Brown emphasized he was talking mostly about aspects of the game that are not measured by the stats.
“Their bigs in transition are just beating our bigs down the floor, and our bigs aren’t running hard enough to stay with them,” the Lakers coach said. “In the beginning of the series, they were. They were running with them and you could see there was a sense of urgency to get back.
“They’ve been getting beat down the floor and so our guards are helping out with their bigs at the rim. And then, while our guards are helping out with their bigs at the rim, their guards are trailing and getting open threes and our bigs aren’t helping our guards. So it’s like a snowball effect.
“We showed two clips at halftime where Pau stayed in the paint not guarding anybody and somebody was guarding his man because he was one of the last guys down the floor, and Andre Miller hits a wide-open three. Same with Drew, he’s supposed to be guarding Gallinari because Steve Blake picked up his guy at the rim, and Gallinari hits a wide-open three. That’s just one of the things that we’re not getting from our bigs. So our bigs are going to have to step up. They’re going to have to produce, and not just points-wise; on both ends of the floor.”
Bryant, who said his hotel room “resembled a scene from The Exorcist” after a day of doing battle with his digestive system, agreed Bynum and Gasol let down their teammates, but also pointed out such playoff stumbles aren’t unprecedented.
“We let each other down, for sure,” he said. “We didn’t step up and meet their energy. (Bynum and Gasol) know that and I expect them to come out in Game 7 and play with a sense of urgency and a sense of desperation that wasn’t there the last two games.
“I can speak from experience that I’ve been in series in our first championship run, 2000, where we wind up going to five games, at the time the first round was five games, against a Sacramento team. We got pushed to the brink against Houston in our championship runs. So these sorts of things do happen. In 2008, we met a Boston team in the Finals that got pushed to a Game 7 against an up-and-coming, young Atlanta team. So these sorts of things do happen. And you just have to respond.”
Bryant also said he’s looking forward to getting back teammate Ron Artest — a.k.a. Metta World Peace — in Game 7. Artest’s suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden ended with Game 6.
“I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he’s known for,” Bryant said. “He’s the one guy that I can rely on, night in and night out, to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and play with no fear. So I look forward to having that by my side again.”
Nuggets coach George Karl expects all these fighting words to have a predictable effect in L.A.
“The Lakers, I have no doubt they’re going to come out with the best game they’ve played all series,” he said. “We’ve just got to be better.”