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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Whittling away the Lakers' comfort margin

L.A., coming off a playoff-opening loss to New Orleans, doesn't scare easily. However, it's not as good as the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant teams that achieved an NBA title three-peat.

April 18, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Lakers forward Lamar Odom (7) questions an official's call alongside power forward Pau Gasol during Sunday's 109-100 loss to New Orleans in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series on Sunday at Staples Center.
Lakers forward Lamar Odom (7) questions an official's call alongside… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

This is the end

Beautiful friend...

Of our elaborate plans,

The End

Of everything that

Stands,

The End.

— "The End," the Doors

Actually, if this isn't the end for the Lakers yet ... I don't think ... it's never too early to prepare.

When that day comes — years sooner than we thought it would, judging from recent events — it may start just as this series did, with a surprising loss to some team they expected to beat.

Lakers look for ways to improve spotty play against Hornets

More surprises will follow, each bigger than the last, until they're on the brink of The Unthinkable.

The Hornets won Game 1, playing with a desperation born of actual desperation.

The Lakers, who don't do anything until they're scared, played with a mild sense of urgency ... if not enough to inspire their big men to run the floor with New Orleans' big men or hold the Hornets under 52% shooting ... born of overconfidence.

Hornets' Carl Landry has big-game presence

Unfortunately for the Lakers, they don't scare easily.

The Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant teams didn't scare, either. On the other hand, they were a lot better.

The Shaq-Kobe teams had only to align their stars to dominate.

Now it's Kobe and Shaq-by-committee and the members — Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom —have to perform.

Lakers database: All things Lakers

It didn't happen in Game 1 against the Hornets when Gasol was outscored, 17-8, by sawed-off power forward Carl Landry, who's listed as 6-9 but was 6-7 3/4 in bare feet at the 2007 pre-draft camp.

In the modern answer to the Salem witch trials, Pau has since been reminded of his importance with the usual debate over his manhood.

In Lakerdom, they talk about reviving the missing "sense of urgency."

The Hornets didn't talk about urgency. They didn't even talk about the Lakers because Coach Monty Williams didn't want to scare his players.

Starting three guards with his miniature power forward and center, giving up three inches per man along the front line, Williams talked to them only about playing their own game.

Oh, and showing up.

"We said we had to be strong and courageous, playing against the defending champions," said Williams.

"We have so much respect for what they've done and the way they play the game over the years, we can't match that with anything else but fight."

Fight meant a lot, as did a 39-21 advantage in bench points.

When the Lakers started this title run in 2009, their comfort margin was so great, they could win twice without ever having Bynum at full strength.

Now on the march (?) toward No. 3, their margin has been whittled down, assuming they still have one.

Teams that win three in a row can't merely be better than everyone else. They have to be way better, because it gets harder each season.

Then-Phoenix Coach Danny Ainge called Shaq and Kobe the answer to the question "What would happen if Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan played together?"

One thing that happened is they broke up their entry-level dynasty years early.

Until then, everyone was in trouble.

Double-teaming Shaq meant guarding the other four Lakers, and one was Kobe, with 3 1/2 defenders.

Few dared to single-cover Shaq, but Philadelphia's Larry Brown did in the 2001 Finals with defensive player of the year Dikembe Mutombo, who scoffed, "He is not a monster or a tank where he will kill you or destroy you, he's a human being."

Unfortunately, Shaq took it as a challenge, tucking in his giant left arm and laying Deke out time after time when he turned into the lane.

By the Game 5 finale, with stars and birds twirling around his head, Mutombo conceded, "He's a monster, man."

Nevertheless, it got harder every year for Shaq and Kobe in their three-title run from 2000-2002 too:

No. 1 — Shaq wins his only most valuable player award, getting every vote but one.... Lakers post top record at 67-15, survive elimination games versus Sacramento and Portland but never trail in a playoff series.

No. 2 — Kobe decides he wants to be this season's MVP and feuds with Shaq.... They drop 11 games in the standings but with Kobe back with the program, they finish 8-0, then go 15-1 in the postseason.

No. 3 — Kobe and Shaq, now cool, roll their eyes at struggling role players like Samaki Walker, whom Bryant scuffles with on a bus.... They finish No. 2 to the Kings in the Pacific Division but beat them, 4-3, in the West finals — after Robert Horry's game-winning three in Game 4 keeps Sacramento from going up, 3-1.

Now, the Kobe-Pau Lakers are a good team, capable of winning two titles, with no shortage of adventures like the Houston debacle, er, second-round series in 2009.

That was after supposedly Learning Their Lesson after Boston routed them in the 2008 Finals.

In Lakerdom, people no longer ask, "Will they ever learn?," just "When do you think they'll wake up this time?"

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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