As playoffs near, Lakers don’t have that feel of defending champs

Los Angeles Times

Pulled on last year’s Laker jacket for the first time Friday, San Antonio skidding through town, bumping nose-to-tail for homecourt, playoffs in March. Pulled on last year’s Laker jacket still filled with the smoke of Shaq’s cigar, the steam of the fourth quarter against Portland, the sounds of the fifth game against Sacramento. Pulled it on and snuggled inside and after three hours was struck with one thought. This wasn’t my jacket. The sleeves felt big. The collar felt tight. The buttons didn’t quite fit. It wasn’t the same jacket. “We aren’t the same team,” said Rick Fox. With the fourth and most important quarter of the regular season remaining, the Lakers simply don’t feel right. They don’t feel like last year in Indiana. They feel more like three years ago in Utah. They don’t sound like a chest bump between Shaquille O’Neal and Derek Fisher. They sound like a ball bouncing off the foot of Kobe Bryant. They don’t look like fearless defending champions. They look like tentative champions who have been put on the defensive. Whatever it is, it’s nothing that should prevent them from winning a playoff round against the likes of Portland or Sacramento. But it could be enough to knock them cold in Utah or San Antonio. In the first quarter of the Lakers’ 93-89 overtime loss to the Spurs Friday, courtside fans could hear somebody chanting a question wondered by many. “Are … You … Ready … To … De … Fend?” By the time the first playoff-type game of the season had ended, the answer was clear. And it was no. And it apparently wasn’t only my jacket that feels funny.

“From day one this season, we all thought we would have even a greater understanding of what it is we do,” Fox said. “We thought that would give us an air of confidence, which would translate into fear from other teams.” Fox shook his head. “It has been the reverse of that.” Fox, you’ll remember, hit an important three-point shot in the fourth quarter of the championship-clinching Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers last season. Fox missed all seven jump shots against the Spurs. Brian Shaw, you’ll remember, nailed a trio of three-point shots during the Lakers’ Game 7 comeback against Portland. He missed all three jump shots against the Spurs. Robert Horry, you’ll remember, had an important offensive rebound that was possibly the subtle turning point of that Laker comeback against Portland. He didn’t have one offensive rebound against the Spurs. While these same role players did well in the Lakers’ upset of San Antonio without Bryant last month, that was then. “We walked through that game,” said the Spurs’ Sean Elliott. “We thought, because they didn’t have Kobe, it wouldn’t be a problem. We made an error in judgment.” The Spurs’ judgment was sound on Friday. This was the first game of the rest of the season. This was the first true indication of how these teams will react in the playoffs. This was a bit scary. No Laker but O’Neal or Bryant went to the foul line? They missed all 11 three-point attempts? Ignore the one-game statistics and look at the bigger picture. The Lakers are only 6-6 against their four top Western Conference rivals. Despite all the talk of this recent post All-Star break surge, in the 14 games since the break they have lost at Philadelphia, at Indiana, at Denver, and at home to San Antonio. That’s not exactly cutting a championship swath. “Whether we do well each night often depends on what we focus on,” Fox said. In other words, they are distracted, and you know why. The role players sometimes stand there watching what the rest of us watch. It’s all about Kobe and Shaq. Who will pass to whom? Who will glare at whom? If Kobe decides he is not going to pass the ball, as he did late Friday, the offense stops. If Shaq gets frustrated and unfocused, the defense stops. Those who say Shaq and Kobe are only hurting themselves have been proven wrong. Their inability to play consistently together — and that blame is increasingly falling on Bryant — actually hurts everyone else. “Their two big guys have to have help,” the Spurs’ David Robinson said. “When all their role players are involved, they are a really tough team.” At times in big games, the role players have been about as involved as Dyan Cannon. And at times, they struggle so much, you don’t want them involved. At one point Friday, their lineup consisted of Devean George, Tyronn Lue, Mike Penberthy, Horry and Shaq. It was as unkempt as it sounded. Say this much for Glen Rice. While the Lakers are better off with Horace Grant’s muscle, at least Rice wasn’t afraid to step between the superstars and take a few shots. Phil Jackson thought that Isaiah “J.R.” Rider would fill Rice’s role. He was wrong. Error, Jackson. Jackson also assumed that the Kobe and Shaq feud would fix itself before affecting the rest of the team. Error, Jackson. But the Laker are veterans. They know when to turn it on, right? When the games become important, they will turn on that switch and behave like champions again, right? That’s what we keep telling ourselves. With 21 games remaining and homecourt advantage at stake, it would be nice if the Lakers start agreeing.