Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Lakers?
Gregg Popovich, the brutally honest and sometimes abrasive coach of the San Antonio Spurs, summed up what every team in the Western Conference was thinking when he told us all that no one wanted to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. In doing so, he broke one of the unwritten rules of sports: Never let your opponent know you're afraid of them. You can be afraid and they can know you're afraid, but you can't actually say it. Once you do, they have an advantage over you. They don't only know that they're better than you, they know that you know they're better than you. And at that point, they're free to impose their will upon you and send you home in four or five games.
Despite Popovich's disobedience of this tenet, he didn't say anything that everyone else didn't already know. Since the season began, everyone has known that the West was the Lakers' to lose. Kobe Bryant is one of the best players on the planet. Pau Gasol is the most skilled big man in the game right now. Andrew Bynum is a capable post scorer and rebounder. Ron Artest's defense and tenacity are unmatched. Lamar Odom is perhaps the most talented sixth man in the league. And overseeing this huge amount of talent is Phil Jackson, arguably the NBA's best coach ever and inarguably its most successful. The 82-game schedule was just a formality. The Lakers would make it look easy in the regular season, run roughshod through the Playoffs and wait to see which of the East's premier teams it would face in the Finals.
Somehow, there arose a difference in what everyone thought would happen and what actually did happen. With a handful of games remaining until the postseason, the Lakers are looking quite vulnerable. They sit only five games ahead of the second tier of the conference and eight games ahead of the team currently in eighth place. Bynum is injured with no timetable set for his return. The bench has turned out to be weaker than the edition that was so critical in the team's Championship run last year. Kobe has played through nagging injuries all season and hasn't seemed to be on the same page as his teammates of late, even taking some public criticism from Gasol last month. Artest doesn't think he's as good as Trevor Ariza, the man he replaced from last year's squad. All of these things have evidently affected the on-court product, with the Lakers posting a 14-9 record since the All-Star break.
With those facts laid out on the table, I'd have to ask Popvich and the other coaches why they wouldn't want to play the Lakers. Yes, there are negatives. It's possible that the Lakers will flip the switch and start playing better once the games matter more. The long layoffs between games might allow the team to get healthier than they've been in the regular season. The team facing LA will have to do it on the road, as the Lakers will presumably have homecourt advantage against any Western Conference team they see. And dealing with a motivated Mamba is even harder than you think it is. Even with all of those things said, the Lakers look more beatable than they have in years.
And what are the alternatives? Would you rather face a Nuggets team that might be getting healthy at the right time at altitude, where they're very tough to beat? Do you want to take on a Mavericks team that got two starters without giving up much in the process, instantly increasing their talent, depth and toughness? Or a Jazz squad that has won 14 of 19 and hasn't lost at home since February? How about a Suns team coming off a ten-game winning streak that has won and 24 of its last 30? There are no cupcakes in the top half of the standings. Those teams could just as easily defeat the Lakers, themselves, and certainly San Antonio, OKC and Portland. So no matter who you are, you will have your work cut out for you.
So why not play the Lakers? Any team with championship aspirations will likely have to play them at some point anyway. The team that plays them in the first round might catch them before they figure out how to turn the things around and before they get everyone off the injured list. There is always the chance that the big, bad Lakers will huff, puff and blow some poor team out of the water. But what if your team has a brick house? What if they're strong on the boards, have some defenders that can keep Kobe from turning in a superhuman performance, have a respectable bench and a coach who can match wits with Jackson?
Who's afraid of the big, bad Lakers? Every team in the West. Perhaps one of them will grow some hair on their chinny chin chins and send the reigning champs home early.