The matchup the Lakers need to win has nothing to do with the San Antonio Spurs. It's the battle of pride versus ego, a subtle difference of interpretation that has become a monumental obstacle to the Lakers. It's a battle they have been losing for some time.
Compared to that task, stopping Tony Parker is as easy as spelling NBA.
Not that the Lakers don't have other issues at hand, as Phil Jackson plainly laid out Saturday. Down two games to none to the Spurs in their Western Conference semifinal series, all that's at stake in Game 3 today is the state of the Lakers as we know them. The future of Jackson and three-fourths of the roster is in doubt, they don't have the necessary leadership, they haven't developed the right team personality to beat the Spurs and a loss today would sound the "death knell" (in Jackson's words) for the Lakers.
If they go down 3-0, you can start writing the obituary. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
Their deciding moment already passed. That would be the fourth quarter of Game 2, when the Spurs took command while the outcome hung in the balance. Had the Lakers won, they would have snatched home-court advantage from the Spurs. By losing, they dropped into a hole from which only seven NBA teams have escaped.
Now the Lakers are down to a defining moment. How will they go out? By the broom or a bayonet?
You'd think the Lakers' sense of pride would, at the very least, keep them from getting swept by the Spurs. But the weight of all their egos could bring the whole structure tumbling down on their heads.
One definition of ego is "an exaggerated sense of self-importance." Pride can be interpreted as "a reasonable or justifiable self-respect."
Words often have different meanings to basketball coaches, and here's Jackson's take: "I think that you think about the pride as a group, and ego is an individual thing. I guess the pride is about what we've accomplished, the amount of work that you put in, the effort that you put down in the course of the year."
The Lakers won 56 games and the Pacific Division championship despite all of the injuries and drama. If there was one positive trait they developed it was that they didn't quit in their pursuit of the division-leading Sacramento Kings no matter how insurmountable that appeared. That resurfaced in the playoffs, when the Lakers fought back from large deficits against the Spurs in the first two games.
Look, you need a huge ego to achieve greatness. You have to be motivated by a desire to say: "I'm the best at what I do."
The problem for the Lakers is that Gary Payton and Karl Malone no longer are the best at their positions. They're not even the best point guard and power forward in this series. And while Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant remain the best center and shooting guard in the NBA, neither merited selection as the most valuable player in the league this season. The scoring and/or shooting percentage of all four dropped this season. O'Neal and Payton wanted more shots. Bryant and then Malone took more shots. It was always about the individual, the ego.
"They are motivated because that's how they got here," Jackson said of his quartet of superstars. "Pride is obviously something they carry with them. What we've had to ask our players is to check their egos at the door a lot, because they do have a reputation that's been sullied somewhat. They're upset about it. So they've had to drop that and just play basketball."
The Lakers could overcome their diminished individual games if they played well together, but that didn't happen. And the Lakers never developed complementary role players who could fill specific needs.
There's a leadership void as well. That falls on O'Neal and Bryant. Jackson said that in the recent practices "Shaq in particular has taken this on. Kobe still has yet to step into that level we expect to step into."
Bryant looked sullen in Game 2 after Shaq's stepfather called him out in that morning's newspaper, apparently his hurt feelings outweighing the team's need for his energy and ability to get to the free-throw line.
Meanwhile, Payton spent 11 minutes Saturday on the topic of Payton, giving excuses for why Tony Parker had outscored him, 50-11, in the series, wondering whether reporters could do any better, then sarcastically saying the Spurs' 2-0 lead was all his fault.
Even Malone's genuine insistence on taking the blame for recent losses, while commendable, goes against the team concept. John Wooden used to forbid players from taking responsibility for a defeat because, by extension, that would imply that a single player could be responsible for victory.
The Lakers' help defense is nonexistent because too many players are worried about looking bad if they get burned by leaving their man. The two logical answers to Parker's dominance, playing zone defense or knocking him on his butt, don't apply because the Lakers aren't comfortable playing either way.
"We've never been known in the past as a team to go outside of our game," Derek Fisher said.
On top of all that, the Lakers are facing their imminent demise. Jackson couldn't sleep Friday night. In addition to the prospect of his girlfriend's father handing him his walking papers, "there's no future for this team beyond what the playoffs give for us."
"It's a team that has to play for the now."
In that case, now would be a good time to play as a team.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.