by Vincent Thomas / @vincecathomas
When T-Mac went down, I told my brother Adam that Houston would keep it movin’ like nothing really happened. The Mac they lost wasn’t vintage Mac and Ron Artest could do much of what Mac did. Some things not as great as Mac, other things better and many things just as good. Ron and Yao, Shane on the perimeter D, quick guards and nasty, albeit undersized, big men — Houston was fine. The squad liked to battle, get grimy. Grime Squads are dangerous. The Rockets, I told my bro, can beat any Western conference squad headed to the playoffs — save the Lakers. TOO much talent, there. So, what happens? They meet up in the conference semis. I figured it’d be a tough series and after being in the house for the Game 1 loss in Staples, it looked like a dog-fight was on the horizon. Then Yao went down and, like everyone else, I thought the rest of the series was a cinch. Lakers in 5.
Here’s the irony. The Lakers would have probably done the five-game thing had Yao stayed healthy. For all of Yao’s skill and for all the matchup problems he presents, dude is gentle. And, uh, it’s readily apparent that the Lakers big men are still gentle. With Yao clogging up 40 minutes/game, that leaves less minutes for the exact type of big dudes that give the Lakers problems — Outlaws. Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Ron Artest — that’s a pack of short-stack renegades who like the taste of blood in their mouths. Lakers big men are graceful and skilled, yes; but they’re also some shy dudes. The Renegade Rockets ice-grill the Lakers, who bat their eyes in return.
I thought we had taken care of this mess. L.A. got this reputation after last year’s Finals, when the Celtics came posse-deep with scowling, screw-loose bigs (KG, Perk, Powe) and flexed on L.A. That wasn’t the only flaw that plagued the Lakers, but it was the most conspicuous failing. This season was about changing things. Get more athletic on the wings? Enter a healthy and aggressive Trevor Ariza. Protect the rim? Andrew Bynum’s back. Get tougher. Well… But, we saw glimpses of a more confrontational Lakers squad. They legitimately out-muscled the Cavs in both wins and went jaw to jaw and crazy-eyes to crazy-eyes with the Cs during a season sweep. Lamar Odom — perhaps the league’s most thoughtful and introspective voice, but frequently too, um, gentlemanly — got in KG’s mug at one point and seethed, “I do whatever the f*ck I wanna do!” Yeah, Mar! Get angry, onion!
But then Bynum gets hurt and comes back playing like Adam Sandler on autopilot in Click. And Lamar and Pau just can’t seem to shake the passivity conditioned in them. Kobe basically mushed Pau in the face last night, trying to get the big Spaniard fired up, but why, really, is that even necessary?
Something tells me, though, the mid-season Lakers could show up at any moment, especially once they shed the Rockets in this senseless Game 7 and Denver awaits (then, hopefully, the Eastern champ). I say that because nothing plagues L.A. more than haughtiness.
On Outside The Lines, Monday, I said the Lakers need to “take off their cool” and begin playing with a sense of urgency. They’ve been playing arrogant basketball for about the past 50 games. Kobe mentioned this earlier in the season when he said that, because the squad scores so easily, they think they can slack off on D. You hear that superiority-complex, though? “We score so easily.” I mean, they do and everything, but still. When you allow a squad like the Rockets to jump out to huge, early leads like they did in Games 4 and 6, that indicates a false sense of superiority, because L.A. never counters that initial intensity. This is not Farmar’s fault or Luke’s fault or Odom’s fault or even Fisher’s fault. It’s Phil and Kobe’s fault. They are probably the two most arrogant men in the league. Every coach is beneath Phil and every player is beneath Kobe. That’s actually true, but it doesn’t matter. The product of their haughty nature is an arrogant squad that seems to think it can turn that proverbial faucet on and off.
Denver has served the Lakers sufficient notice that they are dead serious. And they will embarrass L.A. if Kobe and Co. think otherwise. (Not to gloat, but I wrote the “Denver is a super-serious contender” column a few weeks back. So, let’s just say I was one of the very first to jump on the bandwagon.) Thankfully, the Lakers know full well that the Nuggs are about their biz and after repeated humblings at the hand of these outlaw Rockets, you’re gonna see a committed L.A. squad.
Forget about this bozo, waste-of-my-Sunday-afternoon Game 7. I’m not even gonna watch it. Either the Lakers ruin my summer and lose –which I don’t wanna see — or they take of belated business — which is beyond irritating. Just bring on the next series, a joint L.A. is winning in 6. Trust that.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN and writes the weekly “From The Floor” column for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or “follow” him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.