The Lakers choked away their season debut Sunday afternoon against the Chicago Bulls. They had the game won. Los Angeles was leading by six points with just a minute remaining. Yet they found a way to lose.
Due to the nature of the loss the mood after the game was more bitter than sweet. After the Lakers’ resident superstar, Kobe Bryant, blew it for the Lakers late in the fourth, fans were looking for someone to cast the blame off on. While many pegged in on Bryant, others pinned it on four late free throws that were missed by Pau Gasol and Josh McRoberts. Both are correct.
Still, regardless of who shoulders the brunt of the blame, the mood should be more positive than it is in Lakerland. The team hung with one of the Eastern Conference superpowers for 47 minutes, only flopping late in the fourth. For a team that many had already written off as pretenders this is much more encouraging than it is deflating.
One of the main reasons for optimism from this Lakers team is head coach Mike Brown. It’s very rare that you see a coach face as much scrutiny as he has before even coaching a game. Brown’s skeptics claimed he would be in over his head in Los Angeles, and that the players wouldn’t listen to him. Now, 48 minutes into his coaching career with the Lakers, it’s safe to say that those particular concerns might have been a bit overblown.
The Lakers team that played on Sunday was one that we haven’t seen in quite some time. They were rugged. They were rough. They were physical. These qualities are things that have come to define teams that make deep runs into the post-season, which is certainly encouraging.
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What makes this even more surprising is that the team is showing much more grit than a season ago with largely the same roster. While there are a few new additions here and there, the core of this squad is the same that played last season. The same team that rolled over on multiple occasions. The same team that lost games they should have won purely due to a lack of effort. These same players came out on Sunday and were able to hang with a Chicago Bulls team that should have ran away with the game.
He is clearly selling something that the players are interested in buying. His voice is so vastly different from the calm and collected voice the team has been hearing for the last decade, save 2005-06, that the team really seems to respond to it. More importantly, Brown coaches. While Jackson was brilliant in his preparation and ability to manage talent, his in-game coaching was never his greatest contribution. Far too often Jackson, who is famously set in his ways, would force his team to overcome their difficulties on their own. Without coaching. While this can build character and help players overcome adversity, after awhile the players start realizing that the hammer isn’t going to come down.
Brown is different.
Brown’s hammer comes down. Hard.
When Mike Brown sees something he doesn’t like on the court, especially on defense, he calls timeout to discuss it with his players. He points out what mistakes were made and what they need to do to fix them next time. This instant feedback is something the team hasn’t had in the past with Jackson. And, while it’s only been one game, it’s something that they seem to respond to.
Brown has the same group of players, who just seven months ago were humiliated by the Dallas Mavericks in four games, working hard for every loose ball. This team, who had earned a reputation as being lazy, arrogant and bored, was diving on the floor, taking charges, and communicating extensively on the defensive end. Accomplishing this in such a short period of time is no easy feat.
Consider the players that Brown has had to convince. The egos in the Lakers locker room are one of the reasons Phil Jackson was initially brought in. But these egos, these superstar players, all have seemingly bought into Mike Brown’s defensive philosophy.
Now before things get out of hand it’s important to put things into perspective. It was just one game. And this one game is one that the Lakers lost in a painful fashion. But if the team continues to buy into Brown’s philosophy, and believes in what he’s trying to teach them, then people will start believing in this team.