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Brain teasers

LAKERS VS. THUNDER: GAME 6

The Lakers' erratic play can be traced to their minds, experts say

The champs have learned that 'flipping the switch' isn't so easy.

April 30, 2010|Diane Pucin

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, L.A.'s iconic radio talk show host and all-around dispenser of advice on relationship and moral dilemmas, can talk sports. No, she wants to talk sports.

Lakers, specifically. And she is not alone, because the opening-round NBA playoff series between the defending champion Lakers and the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder is like a living case study for sports psychologists. With the Lakers up three games to two, they could clinch with a win Friday night in Game 6.

But Schlessinger, whose radio show is distributed nationally, has seen the team tumble from on-court dominance to listlessness and back again. Unlike most Lakers fans, she knows what this is when she sees it, calling it one of the "deadly" aspects of past success, like winning NBA championships and Olympic gold medals. Think Kobe Bryant.

"You now have the expectation that you're good and that you can do it," she said, "no problem."

It turns out, though, there is a problem.

"The problem is the expectations," she said. "When that expectation is unmet because of a bad pass or a bad shot, that can undermine your self-confidence rather quickly. When the reality doesn't meet the expectation, you move away from the feel of the moment and get into observing yourself and fretting or getting upset."

If this seems too much mumbo-jumbo, what Schlessinger says next is clear.

"The minute that happens," she said, "your game goes kerplunk."

That was the sound Lakers fans heard after Oklahoma City schooled L.A. and won back-to-back games to tie the best-of-seven series. The 110-89 loss in Game 4 in particular brought fear to the hearts of those fans. Not even Bryant could save the day.

Before this series started, the Lakers looked slow, weary, uncaring as they finished the regular season with a series of losses to lesser teams. Yet there was always the defiant sense that this team that owns the L.A. sports scene could just flip a switch and all would be well. Flip a switch on Bryant's shooting form, on playing aggressive defense, on reacquiring a champion's swagger.

UCLA's Dr. Stephen Sideroff agreed.

"Maybe for a veteran team like the Lakers it's more like use the Clapper," he said, referring to the sound-activated on/off switch.

Sideroff, who has a PhD in sports psychology and is a clinical director at Santa Monica's Moonview Treatment Center, is a Lakers fan. But he also studies the sports mind.

"This whole idea of flipping a switch is not uncommon in sports," Sideroff said, "but it is dangerous in a sense. It's as if you are not fully awake. You are sort of coasting on the memory that you've done it before and you have expectations that you'll do it again. Suddenly, and what seems to have happened with Oklahoma City, the Lakers got surprised by a number of things -- [Oklahoma's] level of intensity, their athleticism. By the time the Lakers realized that, it was almost too late.

"It goes to show that you can't just flip the switch. You have to train to be able to flip the switch. It's a process to engage in during practice. You don't just flip a switch."

Heidi VanDerveer, women's basketball coach at Occidental College and sister of Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer, has a master's degree in physical education and sports psychology, and she says it's just natural that championship teams such as the Lakers will "find it hard not to buy into the hype."

"It's just natural, if you're playing the eighth-place team and you're No. 1, to be thinking, 'Wait until we play Carmelo Anthony or wait until we play the Dallas Mavericks.' In their minds, the Lakers know they should win, they know they're better over the course of a season.

"Then all of a sudden they're facing a young team with fresh legs and nothing to lose. Whether you call it flipping a switch or just desperation, the Lakers came out much better in Game 5," she said, referring to their 111-87 victory on Tuesday.

Ken Ravizza, a sports psychology consultant who teaches at Cal State Fullerton, said we shouldn't expect a team like the Lakers to perform at peak level all through the season or even all through the playoffs.

"But there is danger in letting the situation dictate your intensity instead of just playing your game," he said.

There is also danger, Schlessinger said, in having one man, say Bryant, be such a dominant presence.

"When a team has focused around one person," she said, "sometimes it has ceased being a team. The other players have come to see themselves as backup and some may not want to be much of a help to the star because of resentment.

"It is important for each member of the team to see himself as essential and the 'star' position as fluid as long as there is that talent."

If that sounds like psychobabble, perhaps a snapshot of the first half of Game 4, in which Bryant seemed content to stay on the periphery and let teammates try to find shots, is worth a recheck.

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