Midway through the season, the Lakers got rid of trustworthy veteran Derek Fisher because he could no longer be trusted to defend against younger, quicker point guards. They replaced him with a younger, quicker guard in Ramon Sessions and kept backup Steve Blake.
In Game 6 Thursday night, it didn't make much of a difference to Ty Lawson. It hasn't for most of the series.
Lawson has been exploiting the Lakers the way small, quick "waterbug" point guards have been exploiting LA for the last 10 years. Literally, the Lakers have had the same problem for 10 years now.
It was Mike Bibby in the 2002 Conference Finals. It was Tony Parker in the 2003 semifinals. It was Chauncey Billups in the 2004 Finals. It was Steve Nash in the first round of 2006 and 2007. It was Rajon Rondo in the 2008 finals, and Chris Paul and JJ Barea in the first two rounds last year.
And now it's Lawson. He scored at will in Game 6, getting wide open shots off of simple center-point guard pick and rolls. Almost every time Lawson got a mismatch with Bynum on the perimeter, he burned him. Lawson finished with 31 points, and the Nuggets ran the Lakers out of the building.
But it's not just a case of X's and O's that are the cause of the Lakers' troubles. It's now become a question of character.
Who, if anyone, is steering the ship at this point? Who is in charge? It doesn't seem as if anyone is leading the team right now. After all, a championship team doesn't blow a close-out opportunity at home, and then proceed to get blown out the next game.
Now it's an emergency situation for LA because the Nuggets are dangerous. Not only are they brimming with confidence after two straight wins, but they also have nothing to lose. Who in the world besides Charles Barkley had them pegged to beat LA in this series?
Denver's loose, free-flowing, up-and-down offense is perfectly suited for a team with nothing to lose. It has forced a Game 7, and there's no reason it can't get them to the next round.
As for the Lakers, they look more vulnerable than ever right now. They look like a team without a leader. In fact, they don't even look like a team, but rather just a random ensemble. There's no voice to bring them together, to calm them down, and to steer them in the right direction. No Phil Jackson. No Derek Fisher.
Mike Brown doesn't have that voice. Brown may be smart as a whip, and he may have instilled the right approach for the Lakers from a basketball standpoint. But he doesn't appear to have any kind of command over the group emotionally. He doesn't have that presence that everyone can rally around. If the Lakers lose Saturday night, he's probably gone.
It's up to Kobe now, and as driven as Kobe is on a personal level, the ability to channel that personal motivation to his fellow teammates has never been his strong suit. It's for that very reason Kobe has always pined for edgy, naturally-driven teammates such as Matt Barnes and Ron Artest. He doesn't want to have to keep his guys motivated. He has enough work to do putting the ball in the hoop.
Kobe has expressed how the team simply can't rely on him to bail them out all the time and expect to win, and somehow it hasn't completely gotten across.
In Game 6 he was dealing with the stomach flu, so much so that he needed an IV at halftime, and was noticeably fatigued on the bench in the final minutes of the blowout.
Amidst those circumstances, Bryant played a fantastic game. He shot 13 for 23 for 31 points, doing all he could -- on the court. Still, Kobe, as a player, will never be enough himself to get the Lakers back to the Finals, let alone past Denver on Saturday night.
But Kobe, as a leader?
That remains to be seen.
By Max Rucker
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald