Lack of toughness remains a problem


Mortals, we knew.

Mushy, we had no idea.

The Lakers finally lost a game Friday, not a completely unexpected development in a league where there never has been a team lose fewer than 10.

But they lost it at home, to an aging team playing the second of back-to-back games, with a starting center named Kwame Brown.

Yeah, that one.

Lakers fans will no doubt eventually adjust to the 106-95 final score of this Detroit Pistons victory, fully understanding that nobody is perfect, and knowing that 7-1 is still a pretty good opening sprint.


But the numbers 10 and 10?

Those will be a little harder to digest, seeing as they came from Brown, the former Laker single-digit debacle finishing with an unfathomable double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds. This is not a misprint.

“He outplayed Andrew [Bynum] in a game that was essentially a matchup,” said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson afterward with a sigh that spoke for an evening.

Brown was sturdy, his teammates were strong, and the Lakers were neither.

This smart defensive team that was holding opponents to 40% shooting, second in the league?

The Pistons, fueled by new guard Allen Iverson, used dizzying passing to create a dazzling collection of open shots, leading to 51% shooting.

“We knew if we were patient, we could get any shot we wanted,” said the Pistons’ Tayshaun Prince.

This great offensive team that fueled the Lakers to four double-digit wins in their first seven games?

Well, um, er, actually, they are not a great offensive team yet.

Jackson fretted about it before the game, and they showed it during the game, Detroit’s team defense shutting them down until the final desperate moments.

Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, working against Brown and Rasheed Wallace, combined for just 23 points and were sometimes tossed around like a couple of rag dolls.

“They took Pau and Andrew off easy baskets by muscling them off their spots,” said Jackson.

Derek Fisher, working against Iverson, missed a dozen of his 16 shots.

Vladimir Radmanovic was even more amazing, a 6-foot-10 man who somehow managed to completely disappear in 15 minutes, one basket, two rebounds, zero impact.

Don’t forget Kobe Bryant, the Pistons didn’t. At one point in the second half he missed 11 out of 14 shots, with some of that time spent being guarded by former UCLA star Arron Afflalo.

“We could play their ‘bigs’ straight up, which allowed us to focus everyone else on the perimeter guys,” said Prince. “We knew if we could control their ‘bigs,’ we would win the game, and we did.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same tired song we heard last June in Boston? The Celtics controlled the Lakers’ inside presence and easily won the game?

Actually, Friday’s loss was the same kind of knock-kneed performance that cost them the NBA championship a few months ago against the Celtics.

Beating up on the likes of New Orleans and Utah will be fun, but the Lakers will eventually have to figure out how to match the East, beast for beast.

On a night when Bryant passed Larry Bird and Gary Payton in career scoring, moving into 22nd place with 21,817 points, the Lakers showed they might not yet be quite ready to pass Bird’s old team.

They have known this was a problem since last summer, which is why Jackson has worked so hard in training camp stressing toughness.

Now they know it a lot better.

The game was essentially clinched on Prince’s three-pointer with 6:40 left, giving the Pistons an 87-71 lead.

Prince pumped his fist and stared at the Lakers’ bench. Iverson shook his head and stared at the Lakers’ bench.

The Lakers need to remember those stares. They need to remember all those pushes and shoves.

“It was one of those nights when we just couldn’t do the right things,” said Jackson.

The Lakers knew it would be tough when Detroit scored on five consecutive possessions at the start of the game.

They had more energy. They have more fight. A perfect example occurred at the end of the first quarter, when Iverson stole a Bryant pass, ran downcourt, and tossed up a runner that floated into the basket at the buzzer.

Another example was Detroit’s last basket of the first half. It came on a Prince tip after three Pistons misses. How does any team get three tips on one possession against the Bynum-Gasol Lakers?

Midway through the third quarter, another example of poor defense occurred when Brown barreled past Bynum for a dunk, then Prince drove past Radmanovic and Bynum for another dunk.

Before the game, Jackson refused to acknowledge that his then-unbeaten team was experiencing a good start, or that it mattered.

“Lots of teams have gotten off to good starts and not even made the playoffs,” he said.

This won’t be one of those teams.

But as Friday showed, a good start doesn’t mean you have yet learned how to finish.