All Ball Sports: A future to look forward to 

Even LeBron's superhuman effort of 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists in game four Monday night was not enough to prevent the Lakers from being swept 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals.

by Paul Teetor

The Lakers magic carpet ride to the Western Conference Finals was great fun, it was totally unexpected, and even inspiring in many ways. You know, the old bromide about keep rooting for the underdog and sometimes it will actually come true.

And it did – for a while.

But now, after the 113-111 loss in game 4 of the Western Conference Finals Monday night, it’s over.

Now it’s time to process what just happened over these last five crazy, wonderful and ultimately frustrating weeks, and figure out where LeBron and the Lakers – and their rabid fans – go from here. 

Rather than dwell on the negatives that dragged them down one round short of the NBA Finals, let’s first celebrate all that went right over the last part of the season and on into the postseason joy-ride.

First came the late-season push that got them into the play-in round. After starting the season with a shockingly inept 2-10 record, the Lakers were still just 37-41 with little more than a week to go and mired in 13th place in the Western Division. 

Vegas and the “gaming industry” has taken over the sporting world so completely that they now issue new betting odds every day on virtually everything that you could possibly place a bet on. With a week left in the season and four games still to play, the Lakers were given a .003 percent chance of making the playoffs. For the math challenged, that’s less than a one percent chance.

But somehow, they defied the tremendous odds against them. LeBron came back from his latest leg injury and put off surgery on his injured foot to at least give them a puncher’s chance.

Anthony Davis woke up from a season-long slump, some of the role players – notably Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura – got hot, and presto, like magic, they clawed their way into the play-in tournament. Once there, they had to go to overtime to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, and that secured them the seventh seed in the real playoffs.

When they actually made it to the playoffs and were slotted against the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, and their young squad, bristling with talent and athleticism, most experts picked the Grizz to win in five or six games. But they were ignoring the reality that the Grizz would be without two of their three best big men – center Steven Adams and power forward Brandon Clarke were both out with injuries. That left only power forward Jarren Jackson Jr. – the newly named NBA Defensive Player of the Year – and little-used sub Xavier Tillman to battle Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the boards.

The Lakers had another hidden advantage: Ja Morant, the Grizz’s leader, the most exciting and explosive point guard in the entire league, had recently been suspended for eight games for waving a gun around in a nightclub at four in the morning. He was rusty and still dealing with the psychological fallout from his suspension. 

And Morant came in with an injured right hand – his shooting hand – that he aggravated in the first game when he took a terrifying fall while trying to dunk over AD, and braced himself with that hand as he crashed to the floor. So right away the Lakers had a couple of advantages that became more and more important as the series wore on.

Then there was the Dillon Brooks factor. Even before the first game, Brooks, a great defender but a poor shooter, called out the 38-year-old LeBron as an old man who was well past his prime. 

His teammates were pissed at him for doing something so stupid, and it was clear LeBron used it as motivation all series long. So it was no real shock when the Lakers closed out the series in game six with a 40-point demolition at home in front of an adoring crowd that included, for the first time in three years, 86-year-old Jack Nicholson, the most high-profile Lakers fan over the last 40 years.

When the Lakers were done with Memphis and advanced to the semifinals against the Golden State Warriors, there was a lot of chatter in the mainstream media about the great job General Manager Rob Pelinka had done in basically rebuilding the supporting roster around LeBron and AD with five new players while Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverly and Thomas Bryant were all shipped out of town.

But when all the smoke had cleared and the playoffs got started in mid-April, the truth was that of all the new players, only power forward Rui Hachimura and point guard D’Angelo Russell played significant roles in the Lakers postseason journey.

Newly arrived Center Mo Bamba and shooting guard Shaq Harrison didn’t play at all, and forward Jarred Vanderbilt played a bit for his good defense. But he proved to have no offensive game at all, quickly became a guy that the other team didn’t need to guard, and eventually he was phased out of the rotation.

And so the truth about the Lakers much touted “roster reconstruction” was revealed yet again: it wasn’t about new players being added to the roster as much as it was about getting rid of the two locker room cancers – point guards Russell Westbrook and Pat Beverly – who had been making the Lakers into a mess on the floor and a team divided into warring factions off the floor.

In other words, the Pelinka magic act was really a case of addition by subtraction. Without those two dysfunctional players around to drag them down, the Lakers were finally able to maximize their potential.

And when you have one player in LeBron who is the second greatest in basketball history – behind only the immortal Michael Jordan – and another who is a multi-time All Star in Anthony Davis, well, you’re off to a pretty good start.

Add in the reality that Austin Reaves – better known now as Hillbilly Kobe – kept improving as the season went along and then hit another higher gear in the playoffs, and you have a core trio as good as any in the league.             

The amazing thing about the playoffs is that they’re much like being subjected to an x-ray machine: flaws that you didn’t see or didn’t notice during the regular season are magnified to the point that they can be exploited by the other team, and even used to make you unplayable in games where every shot, every possession and every turnover has such an impact and can make the difference between winning and losing.

Two pertinent examples: a lot of people hadn’t noticed just how bad a defender D’Angelo Russell is during the two months after he arrived from Minnesota. He never gets down in a defensive stance, his positioning between his man and the ball is almost always off, and he is a master of the “wave your arm at the guy as he blows by you” move.

By the middle of the Memphis series, All Ball was sick and tired of watching D-Lo standing by idly while his man scored on him, and then just calling for the ball like he had no responsibility for what had just happened. And we weren’t the only one: after a while it was clear from LeBron’s body language that he was also disgusted with D-Lo’s what-the-hell approach to playing defense.

In games two and three of the Denver series, Nuggets guard Jamal Murrey, just now rounding into form after missing 18 months with a very serious knee injury, went off for 38 and 37 points, respectively.

In both of those games, the Lakers started with D-Lo guarding Murray, who got off to a smoking hot start and never cooled off. In both of those games Lakers Coach Darvin Ham was forced to bring in Dennis Schroder to try and get Murray under control. At 6-foot-1 Schroder is five inches shorter than D-Lo, but he plays with a lot more heart and effort.

That in-game adjustment, and a couple of others, like putting Hachimura on Denver’s star center Nikola Jokic, proved that Ham, in his first head coaching job, is indeed a legit NBA head coach.  

Even though the Lakers were swept 4-0 by Denver, the truth is that they should have won the first two games and did lead by a point in the fourth quarter of the third game and by 15 points in the first half of game four. Considering that Denver had the best record in the league over the regular season, that means the Lakers are capable of contending for a championship for next season, depending on how they structure the roster around LeBron and AD.

The first order of business is to make sure they retain Austin Reaves, who is a restricted free agent. The Lakers have the right to match any offer sheet he signs, and they will have to do that even if it costs them $100 million over four years.

Second is to make sure they retain Rui Hachimura, who found his niche as a power forward who can hit shots and help AD on the boards. This guy is a keeper.

Third, and equally important, is to make sure they do not re-sign D’Angelo Russell. We’ve all seen enough of his weak-ass game to know that he is not a winning player. The Lakers made a mistake in drafting him second overall in 2015. After two years they dumped him on Brooklyn, which then moved him on to Golden State, which then shipped him off to Minnesota, who sent him back to the Lakers when they realized what every other team had also realized: he is a slick passer and a streaky shooter who can get hot but is not reliable in crunch-time situations. And, as mentioned above, he is one of the worst defenders we’ve ever seen and seems uninterested in getting better on that end of the floor.

One other thing the Lakers need to do: convince LeBron to stop taking so many three-pointers, especially in the fourth quarter. He was one for 20 in fourth quarter three-point attempts in the playoffs, and every time he took a late three Lakers fans hid their eyes because they knew what was coming.

A season that was on the brink of total failure somehow turned into a season of triumph and a renewal of hope, thanks mainly to the continued brilliance of LeBron, the ascension of Austin Reaves into Hillbilly Kobe, and dumping the toxic Westbrook and Beverly.

Now Lakers fans finally have something to look forward to when training camp opens in a mere three months.

Contact: Follow: @paulteetor. ER            


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